Monday, October 18, 2010

The self-publishing stigma: Is it shrinking?

I ran into an old friend today. During our catch-up conversation,  I told her about a children's book dummy that I had written & illustrated a couple of years ago, and how it is now languishing on my shelf and gathering dust. This book had been pitched around to several NYC publishers by my former agent, but in the end, it did not get picked up anywhere. Seems like every time I tell someone about it, I feel sheepish for no reason, and a little wistful about the entire saga. In fact, the whole experience of the creation, development and ultimate "time out" of the dummy itself strikes me as a truly unfairly unfinished story. 

So, I was telling her about it, half-rolling my eyes over it, half-forlorn. Then, out of the blue, she said "Why not self-publish it?" Being schooled in  "How To Be a Respected Children's Illustrator 101", my first knee-jerk reaction: "Well, I can't! I wouldn't! No children's author/illustrator would self-publish their own book, and expect to be taken seriously in this industry." 

Self-published books have been (no secret here) a Dirty Word in respected publishing circles, children's or otherwise, right? But then, I stopped and really thought about it, and I question this old code. It's outdated. These days, businesses and industries and their ideas, and opinions move at the speed of light. Self-publishing is coming into it's own, in a big way. (Children's and otherwise.)

I have a lot of evidence that points to just that: My father and his wife, a very successful illustrator/graphic designer team, have recently self-published their own book. The e-book market is on fire. After some hesitation, I've even purchased a couple of e-books. Guess what? I'm extremely happy with them, and I'm lining up for more. Children's illustrator Dani Jones is currently publishing graphic novels in both hard copy and e-book formats. I have to then wonder, why have I been surrendering the destiny of my own story to the shoulders of a major publisher? I have all of the tools at my disposal with which to publish it, and market it, myself. Sure, my book probably won't see a shelf in Border's or a B&N (though these days, who knows? That could be just around the corner). But plenty of people (most?) shop on-line these days. Self-published books can get ISBN numbers. You can certainly sell your own self-published book through Amazon, as well as other channels.

Probably the biggest 'unknown' is whether self-publishing can hurt our reputations as Children's illustrators. To some in publishing that hold on to older ideas and ideologies, hey, it might. But if so, it's time for them to embrace the present and rethink strategies. In the past few years, I see the sea change in the publishing industry on parallel with what the music industry started going through ten or twelve years ago. Given all this, at the end of the day, I think it's a risk worth taking.Why not?

For artists and writers, I feel the self-publishing stigma is definitely fading away. People are using e-books as marketing tools to help them sell other services, as well as being a potentially lucrative product for them. A successful "how-to" e-book in a niche industry can help put you on the map as a go-to resource or even as an expert in that field. The tables have seemingly turned, and people are using it to their advantage. I think it's a completely realistic idea to use your experience as a self-published children's author/ illustrator to help you gain leverage in children's and other industries. People have been self-publishing children's picture books for years now. I never thought twice about doing it myself. Until now. Things are different now and the road is wide open.

The bottom line is three-fold: the WORK, the MARKETING, and YOU.  If the work is of a very high quality (on par with the quality of books from a publishing house), AND you have a solid base of people who enjoy your work and art and support it by purchasing your work, AND you are using all the marketing tools at your disposal and using them in smart and consistent ways,  I believe our self-published works CAN find their audience, Children's or otherwise.


Picture kitchen studio said...

Well said Kathy! I have been illustrating in both traditional and self-publishing, and honestly, earning a living in the latter. Things are getting better every year -it is wonderful if you as an author, want a creative voice in the over all books look and quality. You no longer have to leave your "baby" with the publisher, hoping they will pick the most appropriate style and not the most trendy one.
It is definitely not for everyone, but it certainly does now have a place at the table.

Deb said...

Nice post Kath.....go for it! I'm working on a self-publish book with my neighbor and find it very freeing and fun.

Kathy Weller said...

Thanks for commenting, guys. You know, you really put yourself out there with a post like this. I have also had some good conversations over on FB about it. All in all, it is a viable option. Picture Kitchen, good for you. It sounds like self-pub is a sizable chunk of your illo income. You created a business for yourself from it, and I see many other illustrators doing same. It's good that you can keep a foot in each pond!

Deb, I didn't know! That's really neat! I'd love to hear more about it.

Jon Davis said...

Thanks for this post, very even handed and provides much food for thought..
I too had always discounted self-publishing, but it's a very good point about the music industry, and Amazon.
I'm going to have a good old think about it, and may do a bit of planning :)

Alicia Padrón said...

I know Kathy, bringing up this subject is not easy. There is basically a taboo almost in using the "self-publishing" word.

I honestly think illustrating a book is wonderful as long as it's a "quality manuscript" that speaks to you. That goes either way for titles picked up by publishers or by self-published tittles.

Having said that, I have 2 concerns from the artist's standpoint: Pay and most importantly the experience of working directly with the author.

If the author understands the importance of pictures in picturebooks he/she should be willing to pay what this deserves. Sadly most people looking to self/publish don't get this and honestly ends up being a waste of time for them and the artist.

The experience while working is even more important. To be able to find an author that realizes that the illustrations should left ENTIRELY to the artists, it's hard. They tend to think of the book as their baby and I truly get why. Makes sense for them to feel this way.. But they have to realize that in the same way they are experts with words they should let the experts in images, the illustrator, do their work.

This is no easy task and ends up being a hassle for the illustrator.

Now if the artist wants to self-publish their own title that is another thing entirely. Why not, right? But.. their is a catch. How will the artist get that book in bookstores? This is not easy and requires money. Advertising, channeling, and distributing all require money and we all know most of us artists are poor, LOL, so it's no easy task. But not impossible of course. there is always a way if you really want something to happen.

I guess is important to realize all these things before jumping in and be well prepared for facing many obstacles.

Ultimately the most important thing here is having the book be in the hands of kids being read every night. That is what we should all strive for. Money and fame are secondary really.

If an artist truly believes their book is worth it, they should definitely try by all means to make this happen, publishing or self-publishing.

A good story is always worth it. :o)

Majeak Ann said...

You know Kathy?
This was FANTASTIC to read.
Thanks so much for sharing.
I should do both...
Saludos del Caribe!
-Marjorie Ann

BonnieA said...

Thank you for this post, Kathy. I think the tide must be turning--I've been having the same conversation with myself lately.

For an author/illustrator--especially someone who knows something about graphic design, layout, typography and preparing files for print . . . why not? I don't see how producing a quality piece can in any way hurt you in this industry.

Everything Alicia says is true, too, though--you have to go into it knowing how very difficult it will be to market it on your own. Don't expect miracles--but if you truly believe in your work, it doesn't have to languish on a shelf somewhere.

I'm hugely excited about the ebook frontier. I think that's where I might try to get my toes in the water.

Thanks again for the positive nudge!

Mark Harmon said...

Thank you SOOOOO much for saying this! I'm a children's book illustrator myself. I've self-published 2 of my own books. It's hard, make no mistake about that.
I noticed that self-publishing was a "bad word" and it was very frowned upon. But, I did it anyway. Self-publishing had that "it's not good enough for a REAL company, so I'm doing it myself" kinda vibe to it. But, I never submitted my books to anyone. I wrote them, I illustrated them, and they're exactly the way I want them to be. I don't want a panel of people of a committee to mess with them. That was my main reason for doing it. Just because I'm not a giant entity, doesn't mean I don't have good ideas.

I've also started getting into making comics and graphic novels. The great thing about that market is that it's almost completely opposite of the children's book market. Writing and publishing your own comic is almost like a "Right of Passage" kind of thing. You're actually MORE respected for doing it.

There's absolutely NO reason that the children's book market can't be the same.

I'm glad to hear that self-publishing is coming into it's own and that the walls are breaking down. This can be nothing but good for EVERYBODY.

Thanks again for posting this Kathy.

Kathy Weller said...


I agree with you very much. I am coming to this as author / illustrator. I'm not sure how the process would work if I was working directly with an author, no editor. I've been approached several times to work with an author to illustrate their book they plan to self-pub (and you probably have, too!). After doing custom pet portraits for so many years, I know how intense it can be to work with another person, one-on-one, on "their baby" whether it be their manuscript, or their pet! So there are some parallels. It would be dishonest of me if I did not admit that the intense push-pull that often accompanies that type of a interpersonal dynamic does not come into my mind when I think about working directly one-on-one with an author, with no editor to buffer us both.

I had a good convo over on FB between me and a couple of other people last night. One of them (a children's illustrator whom I respect and admire) brings up some good rebuttals against self-publishing, just as you do. I encourage you to go check out the post. She got me thinking more about it. I have not changed my tune, I just realize that in this post, I basically only scratched the surface. Also, Children's pub is ultimately pretty unique from other industries, and for very good reason, and I understand that.

Mark, you are welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. You have enlightened me with the statement about comic books and how it is almost a rite of passage to create your own. (See how much I know about the comic book process? ;))

I have to disagree with one of your points, I think there ARE reasons that the children's market is more tightly vetted, and I understand why. Books teach children, children absorb books—and publishers who manufacture children's books have to be able to completely stand behind the pedagogic and moral aspects of what they are putting out there, plus everything in between (not to mention grammar and typographic errors, LOL). So it is a bit of a trickier line to walk with children's.

That said, I'm interested to see how things pan out in self-publishing in the children's market, or if not exactly "pan-out", how it develops. Will freelance children's book editors become a hot property for self-publishers?? Hey it could happen! :)

Thanks for chiming in!!! (And congrats on the Scholastic gig, I saw on your blog! )

Kathy Weller said...

Bonnie, thanks for your comment! I agree, how can it really hurt? The worst that can happen is our book does not sell. I also hear you on using all the skills in your tool box (design/typography, etc.) It's pretty gratifying to be able to exercise those muscles in a "world" where you usually do not get to fan those feathers.

Majeak, Thanks!! Yes! You should!! :)

Picture kitchen studio said...

Kathy regarding the sometimes challenging process of working with an author directly, I think that building in a simple order of procedure works well for me, (most of the time.) When I receive a manuscript, sometimes it's just not a good fit and I decline it. I might receive a manuscript that's great, but needs a little format help, etc., & I will direct the author to a freelance children's book editor who I know has a great reputation & will be honest with them,helping them get their manuscript ready to roll. though I have a graphic's background (AIPH) I've learned that it's important to get that second pair of eyes in the process, so I have decided to build design services into my contracts and have a freelance children's book designer check things out at sketch stage.Developing a good team is important - even for illustrators in self-publishing and this can help insure greater book quality - which has been an valid concern and complaint in the past.

Missy said...

Great post, you totally inspired me!

Kathy Weller said...

Picture Kitchen, you are inspiring. You've shared a lot about your process and I thank you for it. I know others will be as intrigued/interested in your process outline as I am. Thanks again.

Casey G. said...

So many good things have been said here!

My two cents. One thing I have encountered is authors or illustrators misunderstanding why they are self-publishing. A self-published book is for you as the creator to sell, have, and put into children's hands. A finished book does not suddenly make a publisher more interested in your story. I think it currently hinders your chances of seeing a publisher pick you up. Now as this blog post puts it perhaps tides will change on this. However, if your real goal is to get your book picked up by a publisher, don't trouble yourself with self-publishing, keep plugging away at your manuscript or dummy book and submitting.

If you have made your book the next big obstacle is convincing people of your product. We have all heard of the slush piles. There are a fair number of people out there who still believe writing is a get rich quick scenario and they think the children's book is the easiest answer in. They pump something out read it to their kids, the kids love it, clearly they have made the next best seller. However, most of the time that isn't the case. I think it is these people that keep self-published children's books from being respected.

But there is always an exception to any rule. If you really love your book and want to self publish you should! Things are changing; there are a lot of venues to sell you work. Just don't short change yourself, get help, as Picture Kitchen said, edit your book, a second set of eyes never hurts. It will most likely greatly increase your chances of being successful.

thank you for this thought and discussion provoking post Kathy!

Laura Zarrin said...

think you're right about the industry changing, tho my gut reaction to self-publishing is still one of distaste. Your art is amazing and commercially viable! Self-publishing is usually the domain of those who don't know the industry or the market. They don't get that their writing isn't where it needs to be. You've had yours shopped by an agent who believed in it, so again, I'm sure it's commercially viable and of good quality. I think if an author takes the time to get professional critiques, and rewrites it over and over if need be, then the work should be good. The big name publishers can't publish everything they want too. Rejection isn't always about the work, it may just not be in the right publishers hand at the right time.

We're always told as illustrators to create our own jobs, so go for it. Good luck to you and I can't wait to here what you're going to do!

I wanted to add to my comment which was originally posted on Kathy's blog:

I really like have that team behind me on a book. I've worked with art directors who have pushed me beyond what I thought I could do. I'd miss that. Also, I'm more supportive of the idea if we're talking about an author/illustrator. I think self publishing authors have a hard time letting go enough for the illustrator to add their own 'something' to the work. I really like a buffer between us! That's just my two cents. Great convo!

Angela Matteson said...

Great post Kathy! I agree with Laura's comments. I've been approached by authors who want to self-publish, but I'm leery about attaching myself to a project that might not be the best quality. As I'm just starting out, I don't yet trust my instincts on what makes a great story. I would rather work with a publisher who is more knowledgeable about the form and the market. The great thing about working with a publisher is all the improvements that happen to the work through the editing process. When collaboration goes on a book can be taken to another level.

But, this post is also starting to get me to think about all this in a new light. Laura also said, "The big name publishers can't publish everything they want too." This opens the door to the idea that there are many more great books that could enter the marketplace through other means.

I believe an author/illustrator would still want to find a good critique group and people who you trust to give honest opinions on improvements, but I think it is possible for a self-published book to receive praise and awards.

The fine arts market allows an artist to create a work completely out of their own vision. Those who appreciate the artist's point of view buy it, those who don't, don't. Does the creation of a book always have to be so different? I understand the point of these books being for children, and shaping their young minds, but we also have parents who should be able to select the best books for their children.