This is my most Frequently Asked Question by far.
So you’ve written and/or illustrated your amazing children’s book. Now you want to get it published. You have two options available: traditional publishing and self-publishing … plus a third option that you should avoid.
Before we get into these options further, ask yourself what you’re aiming to do with your book:
- Do you just want one copy that you can read to your kids?
- Or a couple of copies that you can share with family and friends?
- Or do you think your story really has legs, and could sell competitively in bookstores?
If you just want one or a couple of copies for personal use, then definitely self-publish – but go with a website like Blurb. You upload your content, they print copies and post them back to you, and you keep copyright. Easy, done, sorted.
If you truly believe that your work is of a publishable standard, then I recommend going for traditional mainstream publishing through a publishing company, or if you have the stamina for it, go for self-publishing.
I’ll explain these two options below, plus a third option that you need to avoid.
Option 1: traditional, mainstream publishing
This is where a publishing company helps you to edit their work, organises printing, marketing and distribution, and pays you an advance and royalties.
There are two main pathways to mainstream publication.
Please note that these two pathways are not mutually exclusive, and can be happening at the same time.
Pathway A: The Slush Pile
You send your work to several publishers. Your manuscript is added to the ‘slush pile’, a collection of every unread manuscript sent by you and everyone else hoping to be published by that company. Don’t be discouraged though; publishers do go through their slush piles bit by bit, and people do actually get their manuscripts discovered this way. Because of the slush pile though it can take many months for a publisher to respond to your submission query (and these days a number of publishers are saying, ‘if you don’t hear back from us in x number of months, assume that your submission was not accepted’).
SO You wait for responses. You get rejected many times. You keep writing/illustrating in the meantime, still practicing your craft. Then hopefully, eventually, your work is good enough to be published, and a publisher notices your work and offers to publish it.
Pathway B: Professional organisations
2: You join an organisation like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and/or the Australian Society of Authors (ASA). You go to events where you get to meet editors and publishers and you book some critique sessions. You get face-to-face feedback, and advice for how to improve your work. You go away and practice some more. Then hopefully, eventually, your work is good enough to be published, and a publisher notices your work and offers to publish it.
The place of illustrators in mainstream publishing
- usually, the publisher picks the illustrator.
- most of the time the writer and the illustrator DO NOT collaborate before submitting to a publisher.
I explain the reasons for this in another post called ‘How do I find an illustrator for my book?’
If you want to be a children’s book writer, you absolutely must know how the illustrator’s role intertwines with yours. So please do read this post plus the points about illustrators in the next section.
Sending submissions to publishers
Before you send anything to any publisher, visit your local bookshop and have a look at the children’s book section. Make a stack of books that seem like the ones you would like to make. See who publishes them, then check out the publishers’ websites and see if they accept submissions. Note what you would need to submit, and stick to the submission guidelines. Some want hard copies, some only accept digital copies. Some only accept submissions on certain days of the week, and some at certain times of the year. Do your homework and follow the guidelines on each publisher’s website.
If you’re a writer only, then generally you’ll be asked to send a copy of your manuscript in a certain format, maybe with a cover letter.
If you’re an illustrator only, then generally you’ll be asked to send a sample or samples of your best work, again with a cover letter.
If you’re a writer AND an illustrator, then generally you’ll be asked to submit a copy of the manuscript, plus a black and white storyboard and/or a dummy book, plus two or three samples of what the finished artwork might look like.
If you’re a writer and you’ve already collaborated with an illustrator:
this is not generally how mainstream publishing works. Sometimes you’re in a situation where you’ve written a manuscript and you asked your partner/sibling/aunty/friend/neighbour/random acquaintance to do some illustrations – now you’re going to submit all your work together. That’s great. However. This puts you in an unusual position. You may find that a publisher loves the words of the story but not the illustrations. OR they love the illustrations but not the words. OR they may see potential in both the words and the illustrations, but they think the words need to be edited and the plot needs to be changed a bit, in which case the illustrations might also need to change. So if you’ve collaborated with an illustrator before submitting to a publisher, be prepared for these possibilities.
Whatever you do, don’t complete final illustrations for an entire book before submitting to a publisher. That’s a lot of work to put in, and the publisher might want you to change everything.
Copyright, Advances and Royalties
in traditional publishing arrangements, illustrators retain copyright over their illustrations, and writers retain copyright over their text. They share royalties from the books: 5% of RRP each (the rest goes to booksellers, distributors, printers and publishers). Royalty statements are sent every 6 months; payments are sent at this time as well, providing you’ve made some sales.
The writer and illustrator also receive an advance payment when they sign the publishing contract – this is an advance of expected royalties. So if the advance is $1000, then you have to sell enough books to earn that advance back before you can get any more royalties. If you don’t sell enough books to earn the advance back, you still get to keep the full advance. The publishers assume all financial risk and responsibility in this model; they take care of printing, marketing and distribution.
For advice on publishing contracts, buy the book ‘Australian Book Contracts‘ from the Australian Society of Authors. Also, check out their model publishing agreement template; it’s free for ASA members or $11 for non-members. The ASA also offers a contract assessment service for ASA members or state writers’ centre members.
For advice on the legal and business issues related to writing, buy the book ‘Between The Lines‘ from the Australian Society of Authors.
For more information on traditional publishing:
Check out this post I wrote called 6 books to help you make better picture books.
Option 2: self-publishing
Self-publishing is a whole other ball game. You literally take on the role of the traditional publisher, which means you get complete control over the project but also the entire financial risk. You need to organise your own design and printing, plus your own marketing and distribution to bookstores (online and/or bricks-and-mortar).
I know of only a few successful children’s book writers and illustrators who self-publish; they all do it full time and approach it like a business, so it’s possible for them to make a decent living from it. They are exceptions to the rule.
The main services out there for self-publishing are Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), which allows you to create ebooks for Amazon Kindle readers; Amazon Createspace, which is a print-on-demand service; or Ingram Spark, which allows you to make both e-books and print-on-demand books. I’ve never used these myself, but my self-publishing colleagues do; it’s up to you to excerise due diligence and do your research before entering into any commercial agreements with these websites.
The role of illustrators in self-publishing
You and the illustrator need to work out whether you want to share the financial risk or whether the illustrator wants to be paid up front.
I cover this in more detail in another post called ‘How do I find an illustrator for my book?’
If you’re considering self-publishing your writing and enlisting an illustrator, please do read that post before you get started down that road.
For more info on self-publishing:
The ASA also has a paper available called Introduction to Digital Self-Publishing; it’s free for ASA members or $11 for non-members.
Join the facebook group For Love or Money, a support group for independent authors. You can ask questions and find advice. It was set up by author S.K. Quinn, and her book The Indie Author’s Survival Guide is a must-read for anyone heading down the self-publishing road.
Option 3 (which is not an option): vanity publishing
Option 3 is where a company tries to look like a mainstream traditional publisher but is really a glorified and very expensive self-publishing service. In our industry it’s called ‘vanity publishing’.
Vanity publishers are the ones that offer to help you publish your book for a fee – usually a VERY LARGE and UPFRONT fee. They may want to retain copyright. They may not show you a contract until after you’ve paid. Vanity publishers make their money off the exorbitant fees they charge you and not off the book sales; thus they have little to no interest in marketing and distributing your book.
I know a young dad who worked hard to pull his book idea together, then approached a ‘publisher’, and had to pay a huge sum to have the book designed and printed. He got 5 free copies, then he had to pay the ‘publisher’ again to release the rest of the stock. He actually had to pay per copy to get his hands on his own book. It was extortion. The company didn’t take care of any marketing or distribution, that was all left up to the dad. Unfortunately, he didn’t realise how publishing was supposed to work – he just assumed that this was the usual process, and he lost almost ten thousand dollars in the process. I’ve heard of another naïve author who paid over twice that to have her book ‘published’. Essentially the company just printed it, and again left all the marketing and distribution to the author. So please, be wary of any company that says you need to pay them huge amounts to get your book published and printed.
Before paying any company to publish your book, I urge you to read a paper by the Australian Society of Authors called Paying for Publication: Points to Consider. It’s free for ASA members or $11 for non-members. This is a very small and worthwhile investment that could save you huge expenses in the long run.
Also check out the Australian Society of Authors’ free advice on self-publishing. They also have a paper called Introduction to Digital Self-Publishing, which is free for ASA members or $11 for non-members.
Immerse yourself in the industry and learn as much as you can:
- Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Australian Society of Authors.
- Visit The Literature Centre in Fremantle and/or your local writers’ centre. Attend workshops and conferences.
- Sign up to author newsletters such as mine to learn about craft and hear about workshops coming up.
- Work at your craft every day. You will improve over time.
- When your work is getting close to publishable standard, start submitting your work to publishers or get self-publishing.