Oh Susanna – When Is It Time To Give Up And Self-Publish?

Happy Columbus Day!

In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
and thank goodness he did or we’d have work and school today 🙂

I hope everyone is lounging around in their pajamas after a lovely sleep-in 🙂

(I’m not.  I get up at 5:30 regardless of Columbus and I’m going to muck out that spotted pony’s stall… but hanging out in a barn is actually my idea of a good time :))

In any case, get comfy because it’s Oh Susanna day, and today’s question, which comes to us from Saba, is one I think a lot of people may be interested in.  She asks, “When is it time to throw in the traditional publishing towel and self-publish?

This question saddens me a little.  The fact that, for many, self-publishing is still seen as the road to take when you’ve given up all hope of “real” publishing is depressing.

I may be in the minority, but I’d like to change that attitude.

It’s true that many self-published books are sub-standard.  They are poorly written on every level from sentence structure to basic story.  They contain formatting and editing errors which make them less pleasurable to read.  The covers are often less attractive.  Their authors have sometimes been more concerned with being published then with taking the time to make sure their work is actually publishable.


I have read plenty of traditionally published books that weren’t very good – even from highly regarded best-selling authors.  And I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found tons of typos and editing errors while reading traditionally published books.  Traditional books aren’t perfect.  Although they are generally held to some sort of standard of quality because they are produced by a publishing house, that still doesn’t guarantee you’re going to like them or that they’re going to be what you consider good.

I’m sure when you talk about throwing in the towel and going with self-publishing you don’t intend to produce an inferior piece of work.  I’m sure you would do everything in your power to make it the very best it could be.  It’s a different route to publishing – not necessarily better of worse, and not necessarily a question of giving up.

The face of self-publishing is changing.  Many authors are aware of the need to up the quality of self-published books so that they can compete with traditional books on a more level footing.  And many authors are starting to choose self-publishing.  There is much more creative control.  There is no one with whom you have to share any profit you might make.  There is a wider range of what’s acceptable to publish because you don’t have to fit neatly into where you can be shelved and you’re not as focused on a bottom line.

So instead of thinking of self-publishing as a last resort, I’d say think about the kind of publishing experience you want to have.

If you want to hand your story over to an editor, let her help you rework it the way she feels it will work best/be most salable, let someone else choose an illustrator, jacket copy, cover art because you trust their judgment and prefer to focus on writing new stories while they handle publication, then by all means submit to traditional publishers.  There is also, still, a prestige, or validation, that comes with being accepted by a publishing house, and perhaps that appeals to you.  Certainly, traditional publishing will take care of printing, sending out review copies, and distribution, all of which may be things you don’t feel qualified or able to do.  They also foot the up-front bill.  There are lots of upsides to traditional publishing 🙂

On the other hand, if you like the idea of maintaining complete creative control, if you want to bring your vision to life exactly as you’ve imagined it, if you’re excited about searching for the perfect illustrator, if you look forward to the challenge of finding a printer etc. and feel like you have the time, energy and know-how (or the motivation to learn), if what you write is a little outside the box of what flies in traditional publishing, and if you don’t want to share profits with anyone, then maybe self-publishing is a good choice for you.

If you’re working with a manuscript that has never been sent out, you have only your judgment (or if you’re lucky, a critique partner’s or group’s opinion) to evaluate the strength of your story.

If you’re working with a manuscript that has made the publishing house rounds, though, you might really want to evaluate your ms with a critical eye before deciding on self-publishing.  Why has it been turned down?

If there are serious problems with basic elements like spelling, grammar, punctuation, or story structure, your manuscript is probably not going to fly well as a self-published book either.  Likewise, if you write in rhyme and the story was turned down because of serious problems with rhyme and meter, you will not be putting your best foot forward.  You will put a lot of time, effort, and money into producing something that was turned down for good reason.  Your efforts might be better spent in learning to improve your craft and writing some new stories.  Remember, your name is going on the cover.

If your story hasn’t sold because the topic is very tired (there are an awful lot of bedtime books out there, for example, so to make one shine you really have to have a new twist) your self-published story may have a hard time garnering attention and standing out from the extensive list of the tried and true.

But if you’ve written a story you love, if it’s written well, if it really works on many levels and has been passed on by publishing houses for no concrete reason other than it “doesn’t suit their needs at this time” or competes with other titles on their current lists, or if you’ve written a book of children’s poetry or something else which is valuable but a very hard sell to traditional publishers, or if your picture book works fantastically at 40 pages, then self-publishing might be a great choice for you.

I hope this will help lots of writers out there to see self-publishing as a positive choice rather than as a last resort.  And I would recommend a look at the mini self-publishing series from June for some real-life stories from authors who chose this path and produced really wonderful, quality books.  (It will also give you an idea of how much is involved with self-publishing – it’s not really a throwing in the towel kind of job! :))  Please see SNOW GAMES (which kind of falls between traditional and self-publishing because it had to pass editorial review, but it also had to be presented ready to go in finished format with art), GATOR’S GANG, SHOW ME HOWLUCY SNIGGLEFRITZ and MEG THE EGG.

And I would very much love other writers – traditionally, self- and not-yet-published, to chime in with their thoughts on this question.  Is there a time when you should self-publish because you’ve given up hope of traditional publication?  Does self-publishing mean you’ve thrown in the towel?  What do you see as pros and cons of self-publishing?

Thanks for a very thought-provoking question, Saba.  I hope my answer and whatever gets added in the comment section are helpful to you!

Happy Columbus Day, everyone 🙂

42 thoughts on “Oh Susanna – When Is It Time To Give Up And Self-Publish?

  1. Tina Cho says:

    Great reasons, Susanna, to self-publish. As you said, even traditionally published books are filled with typo errors. Why is that, when they have a whole team who publishes the book? I just read a Roald Dahl, with 1-2 typing errors in it!

  2. Angela Brown says:

    I like your approach to this answer, Susanna. As someone who is self-publishing, “throwing in the towel” was the farthest from mind, especially given that self-publishing was high on my list for the particular story that I'm putting out. The closest thing to seeking publication was participating in a pitch contest. I was disappointed with myself because I knew I was only half-heartedly into it. I'm fairly sure my novel is far from perfect. I've looked at it one million times too many to see the imperfections because everything is blurred together lol! But as you mentioned, there are traditionally published stories that bear their share of imperfections as well. I highly encourage writers to stay true to the path that they feel is best for them, but if they love their story and feel they can give the self-publishing road an honest try, I encourage them to do that as well.

  3. Heather Newman says:

    People who want to self-publish also have the option of hiring a freelance editor to help them polish their work before publication. This can be an expensive option, but if you find an editor that's a good fit for your story I imagine it would be money well invested. Great post, Susanna!

  4. Renee LaTulippe says:

    Hear, hear! I admit that my hackles went up when I read the title of this post, but you immediately (and luckily for you, Missy!) put my mind at ease with your excellent response.

    Self-publishing has absolutely nothing to do with “giving up” — quite the contrary, actually. I have edited dozens of self-pubbed books by authors who want to get their messages and stories out there regardless of whether the publishing world deems them worthy of the effort. Some do it to sell a service or product, some to entertain. I edited a gorgeous historical novel translated from Greek called DUST OF A DAY, a book I would happily spend money on. The novel was beautifully written and translated, clearly the work of a talented author.

    I've also edited a lot of non-fiction books that needed complete rewrites to make them coherent — but at least the authors KNEW they needed help before self-pubbing. And now they have shiny, professional products ready to sell.

    As you say Susanna, as long as you have done everything you can to ensure you are putting your best work in front of the public, then there's no reason NOT to self-publish, unless you really need the (fleeting) prestige of having been published traditionally.

    There are SO MANY pros to self-pubbing, including complete creative and financial control, opportunities for unusual/creative ways to market and/or extend the life of your book to merchandise and other formats (just look at TREASURE KAI), and the fact that you can sell the book forever because it will never go out of print.

    I think authors would do well to try it both ways. I am currently working on a self-pub project AND something to submit to traditional publishers, just to say I did. But for those who are like me, who don't like putting my fate in the hands of others, self-pubbing is a viable and valid option that lies on the other end of the spectrum from “giving up.”

  5. Iza Trapani says:

    Self publishing doesn't have as much of the stigma that it used to have, in that it is not always seen as a last resort. Good writers, both unpublished and previously (traditionally) published and successful writers sometimes choose it over traditional- for reasons of control, keeping all the profits etc.. But, while it is true that there are some really bad traditionally published books out there (don't get me started on celebrity books…) and that traditionally published books may have some typos, for the most part they are well edited. That, I think, is the biggest distinction. Most self-published authors, from what I've read and learned, do not hire an editor to review their work. I started reading a self-published book put out by an acquaintance and I can not finish it. The book is in desperate need of editing- and I'm not talking about punctuation. While it has a few lovely lyrical sections, for the most part, the sentences are awkward and told in the passive voice. I highly recommend hiring a good editor/writing teacher whose expertise and objective view can really improve a work.

  6. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Yeah, you'd think Roald Dahl books would have been around long enough for errors to be caught and fixed 🙂 But I think it's easy for little things to slip past anyone. I just think it would be nice for the path to publication to be more of a personal choice, and it's hard right now because of the stigma against self-publishing.

  7. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Angela, today is your big day, isn't it? The release of NEVERLOVE? Congratulations! 🙂 And thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this, as a writer who has actively chosen self-publishing. I really appreciate your thoughts!

  8. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Yes, Heather, you are certainly right about that, and I think it would be money well and wisely invested. I do think people who self-publish have a responsibility to do the best job they can – it would help improve the image self-publishing – but I also understand budget constraints. Thanks for mentioning this!

  9. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Thank you so much for contributing all your knowledge and experience to this discussion, Renee. I know readers will find it invaluable. As you know from the post, I agree that self-publishing is a terrific option for many authors and their projects. Best of luck with yours! 🙂

  10. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    It's true. And you are right about the freedom of marketing etc. too – I forgot to say that to your first comment!

    Renee LaTulippe wrote, in response to Renee LaTulippe:

    Oh, and from what I've seen, self-pubbing doesn't preclude you from doing school visits and such, either. Nothing to lose, here!

    User's website
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  11. Lauri Meyers says:

    That's a great well-rounded answer. Maybe a manuscript which has made the rounds with publishers deserves the chance to try being self published rather than being shoved in a box under the bed. But is it better to commit your time to supporting that story or to move on to your next work?

  12. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I think a lot depends on why the ms was turned down. Sometimes there are good reasons, even if they're hard to hear. But other times you might have a worthy story that a publisher just doesn't want to get behind for one reason or another. And, as we discussed, there are plenty of reasons why you might prefer the self-publishing route form the get-go.

  13. Beth Stilborn says:

    Excellent answer, Susanna! I would echo the comment of a couple of people here that if one is going the self-publishing route it would be essential to hire a freelance editor to help polish the manuscript to a full shine. This is an investment, not a frivolous expense, and can make a world of difference to the finished product.

    Going off to share this post with the Children's Book Hub Facebook Group now…

  14. pennyklostermann says:

    Very nice post with information that will be helpful to many of us. You gave me a lot to think about. I agree with several of the comments that editing is essential. I admire those who self publish and take on everything including marketing. I am spending so much time with just the writing, that the marketing sounds overwhelming to me. I realize that traditionally published authors play a big part in marketing, too, but they have guidance. That is one of my main reasons for attempting the traditional route for now. But, I may consider self publishing at some point. I know it has changed so much in recent times.

  15. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I agree with those sentiments as well, Beth. I think it's very important to put out only your very best work, no matter what format. Thanks for sharing the link – I'm really interested in what people think about this!

  16. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Thank you so much for contributing your thoughts, Penny, and I'm glad if you found the discussion helpful. There are certainly pros and cons for both routes, and I think it really is becoming more of a personal choice.

  17. Patricia Nozell says:

    Very insightful post, Susanna. I definitely will be keeping your thoughts in mind as I consider next steps for an MS that may be a tough sell to a national publisher but potentially could sell well in a regional market.

  18. Janet Johnson says:

    You make so many great points Susanna. The two paths are very different, so every writer needs to decide what they want out of it, and what they're willing to put in. Anymore, it's not a throw in the towel kind of gig. I have friends who are doing so well with self-publishing. I couldn't be more proud, and believe me, no towel was thrown in the doing of it, except after wiping all the sweat from their brow for all the hard work they put in. 🙂

  19. Patricia Tilton says:

    Susanna, excellent response. And, I agree with the earlier discussions. Self-publishing doesn't mean “giving up.” Darshana, you should check out Michelle Isenhoff at Bookworm Blather, who decided she wanted more control over her material and began publishing excellent historical fiction for MG. She ran a series on self-publishing on her blog last summer that was excellent. She has self-published five books and is on her sixth. They are high quality and I've reviewed some. She also sells at Indie, Amazon, Barnes & Noble. She loves the freedom. She's experienced it all and is well worth a visit. (http://michelleisenhoff.wordpress.com/)

  20. Stacy S. Jensen says:

    Great answer. I've mentioned several times around the blogosphere and in a recent workshop on ebooks, how I've asked for a refund of 99 cents for a children's picture book. I felt ripped off. I've been studying some children's self-published books, because I have a manuscript – I'm just not sure about submitting a traditional route. I promised myself I would submit (it) this year. So, we'll see. In my research, I've found a variety of stories self-published – amusing, would (and do) read them again and some that leave me feeling a bit cheated in story and/or illustration. A key point I heard about ebooks and storybook apps – you can't replace being first. So, as the numbers grow, it gets more difficult to get noticed in a crowded market. Of course, self-publish or traditional publish, it seems the good stories do bubble up to the top.

  21. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Ultimately, traditionally or self-published, there's no guarantee that everyone will like a book. There are some traditionally published picture books that have garnered much media applause that leave me cold, while others, quite obscure, are among my favorites. It's one of the reasons I like Perfect Picture Book Fridays – they give people a chance to find out about great books they might easily have missed because they weren't NY TImes Bestsellers or the like. Different books appeal to different people – it's why there's so much room for writers of all kinds. You are right, though, about the being first thing. It's true across the board. There are so many titles out there, it can be hard to get anyone to notice yours. Same is true of the music business.
    Susanna Leonard HillChildren's AuthorWebsiteBlogFace Book PageTwitter

    Subject: [susannaleonardhillblog] Re: Susanna Leonard Hill: Oh Susanna – When Is It Time To Give Up And Self-Publish?

  22. Genevieve says:

    I am trying SO HARD to stop thinking of self-publishing as throwing in the towel. It's difficult. After seeing all the work my publisher did, while I was sitting home in my pajamas, I know for sure that I am not equipped to self-publish, as much as I want that elusive Book #2. I love your post's fair and balanced view.

  23. Jennifer Rumberger says:

    Very interesting post, Susanna. I appreciate your take on both sides. Definitely makes a person stop and think a bit more before judging which is “bad” and which is “good” when actuality they both fall in both categories. It all depends on the situation.

  24. Vivian Kirkfield says:

    You did a magnificent job in presenting all sides of this issue, Susanna. I especially love that you make a point of saying that self-publishing is NOT throwing in the towel…many multi-traditionally published authors are opting for self-publishing because of the reasons you listed. But unfortunately, the stigma in our minds still remains, even though the stigma is somewhat lessening in the publishing arena.
    I'm of two minds myself…with the picture books I'd love to put out there…follow the model of 'Show Me How' and self-publish…check out options like UTales…or submit to traditional houses, with or without an agent. I think Stacy has a good idea…submit one and self-publish another. 🙂

  25. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Thanks, Genevieve, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I think one of the reasons people tend to think of self-publishing as giving up is because of the stigma it still carries as being of lesser value, but I do believe that is changing. It's still harder with picture books than anything else though because of the art. If you're not an illustrator, self-publishing a picture book can be a very expensive proposition.

  26. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    It really does depend. And I think some poorly produced books gave self-pubbing a bad name, so now it's more important than ever to make sure that anything that is self-pubbed is of very high quality. It's the only way to start to reverse the stigma.

  27. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Yes, maybe try a little bit of everything 🙂 I must say though, that self-pubbing a PB would probably be quite expensive no matter how you do it. If it's hard copy, you need that color printing, and even if it's digital, unless you're a competent illustrator yourself, you'll have to pay someone to do it. The cost makes you stop and think!

  28. Hannah Holt says:

    Your replies are so thoughtful and balanced. I love your thoughts here.
    I would never consider self-publishing giving up. As you mentioned, I think it's even more work than being traditionally published. You become your own marketer, warehouser, mail runner, brander, packager, salesperson, and… oh, writer/creator/illustrator. Self publishing should never be undertaken on a whim or a “let's see what happens” approach. Power to the people who undertake it, but it's not for me.
    I have a few books up on my website, but I don't consider them self-pubs. For me, these books are more like portfolio practice. They feed my soul during this phase of life where I have a bunch of small kids and not a lot of free time. I hope to start submitting traditionally in two years or so (different work, not the stuff on my site). Maybe at that time I'll reconsider my online library.

  29. Sharron says:

    There are two reasons for going the 'traditional' route not mentioned. One – self-published books will not be considered for some awards. Two – to become a member of some national writers groups, you have to be traditionally published. These reasons can be of infinitesimal value or insurmountable value. The choice, as always, is ours. I'm hoping these criteria will change in the near future.

  30. Peggy Eddleman says:

    I love this! I think that there is a perfect publishing path for ever single person, and that you should find that one that is perfect for you. And then not feel like it's any less of a good choice than any other!

  31. Robyn Campbell says:

    Excellent info. Lynn Kelley self-published. There is not any disgrace in doing it. (You know what a self-pubbed snobber I once was) But I see it as a viable option to get your story to the kidlets. I missed Monday. Sorry. As soon as I am home I'll email you my little diddy take on that story. 🙂

    I just read Monday's post. Me too. (The stall mucking thing.) I muck all the stalls but Ivy's horse. That's up to her. And lemme tell you. She's getting better. FINALLY! If I can (if you'll let me), I'll try to get by and do the S&S when I'm home and settled.


  32. Laura Anne Miller says:

    Awesome question/discussion. Thanks for the question, Saba, and Susanna for presenting it. My daughter and son-in-law are both writers. They deliberately made plans to self pub at first. Because building a social network is emphasized these days their feeling was that by building a platform and readership they will be somewhat 'established' when they finish their joint novel project and pursue a pub contract. Together they have self-pub 5 small e-books. The integrity of the books is important to them so they paid for professional design/photos for the title pages and went through several editing processes (in-house and outsourced). Since last December they have had 3500 sales between the 5 books. They went through Amazon who offers some promotional/advertising incentives if you give them a 3 mo exclusive. After that the work is available to your publishing preferences again. I am doing some illustrations for an upcoming e book for my daughter and hope that it will get my work out there and recognized for when I finally have my first writing/illust project ready. Appreciate everyone's input.

  33. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    “Self-pubbed snobber” – you're funny, Robyn 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts. And of course you may add in a Short & Sweet any time you like!!! How many horses do you have besides Ivy's and Mr. Ed? Lucky for me, I only have to do one 🙂

  34. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Thank you, Hannah. I'm glad you enjoyed the discussion. I've seen the books on your website and they are really beautiful! I loved that spice alphabet one, and it seems like something a publisher would like!

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