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.

But.

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 🙂

Self-Publishing Mini-Series – Meet Suzanne McGovern (And A Giveaway!)

I’m sure we’re all in a little bit of withdrawal on our first Friday without PPBF, so to lessen the sting a little – well, a LOT really! – I have a fantastic and educational post to share with you, the first in our 4 part mini-series on self-publishing!

(Also, a large plate of assorted danish… help yourselves :))

Also, there will be an awesome giveaway at the end of this post!

So without further ado, let’s welcome Suzanne McGovern.  Thank you so much for joining us, Suzanne!

Suzanne McGovern
SLH:  When did you first become interested in writing?  Was it something you always did, or something you came to later in life?

SM:  I’ve been an avid reader since I was a young child, and writing assignments were always my favorite in school, but I wouldn’t say that writing stories was something I always did. What has been clear for as long as anyone can remember, however, is that I am horse crazy.
Suzanne with Gator (dk. bay) and Milo (gray)

SLH:  If you began as a child, were you encouraged by family/teachers?

SM:  I was encouraged by my parents to pursue all of my interests and got positive feedback on my writing from family and friends (though, again, writing wasn’t a spoken passion at the time). In high school, for me, writing became part of my self-identity.

SLH:  If you began later, what drew you to it?

SM:  The opportunity to express myself – to talk about a particular topic or situation through my own lens. As a Communications and English/Journalism double major at the University of Delaware, I always enjoyed writing features and “column” type stories more than reporting news.

SLH:  Is there an author who has been especially inspirational or instrumental in your own development as a writer?

SM:  So many writers have impacted me as a reader – it’s much too hard to choose just one or two. I can say that when it came to writing my Gator books, the gold standard I had in mind was a poem written by Jimmy Cagney about his deceased dog – “A Dog Named Beau.” It was so simple, so illustrative, so poignant and so pure.  That’s what I wanted my stories to be.

SLH:  You are self-published.  How and why did you decide to go that route?

SM:  Though I had crafted my Gator idea and written several scripts, I had virtually no access to publishers. I’d heard the endless stories of manuscripts sitting in piles on publishers’ desks with little chance of ever being read and considered. And I heard horror stories about writers who lost all input and access to their stories once they signed a deal. I had one friend of a friend in publishing who told me that my stories were nice, but that rhyme doesn’t sell – that, at minimum, I needed to rewrite them as prose. To me, this was sacrilege, as I believe the rhyme in my stories is a critical part of what I have to offer as a writer. I like the rhyme. And moms who read the stories said they liked reading it aloud. Long story short, I decided to focus my efforts on publishing the series as I envisioned it, end to end, vs. trying to please publishers (if and when I actually connected with one!). This required a tremendous investment of time, energy and dollars on my part, but it enabled me to maintain control of the entire process. This was important to me, as I only had one idea (I’m not prolific like some writers I know!)  and that idea was based on personal experience, so I wanted to keep it pure.  I realized in making this choice that I would be severely limiting my ability to publish and market my work, but it was a choice I made regardless.

SLH:  Can you describe the process?  How did you get your illustrator?  How did you manage paying the illustrator (flat fee, royalties?) Did you have a contract with your illustrator?  How did you decide where to have your book printed?  Did you hire an editor at any stage?

SM:  I didn’t have an editor at any time, but an advertising copy writer friend did proof the stories and offer a few suggestions in terms of word choice and punctuation.
I found my illustrator Donna in an unusual way… I started with an extensive online search, which yielded a few illustrators of interest; however, all had agents and I’d been told by a few friends to avoid illustrators with an agent if at all possible, as the agent’s fee drives the total cost of hiring an illustrator up quite a bit.
At the same time, at the suggestion of a friend, I phoned SCBWI to ask for guidance on negotiating Illustrators’ fees. (I had zero experience at any of this!) The woman at SCBWI offered to post my job on the SCBWI online bulletin board, for members to consider. So, I submitted a short classified ad and, within days, started receiving emails and links to portfolios – 20+ in all. One or two even took the initiative to draw a spec illustration based on the requirements I’d outlined in my ad. I considered each one carefully, made a short list of two, interviewed both by phone and requested additional spec work. In the process, it became clear to me that Donna Bizjak was the one and only illustrator for Gator and me.
Donna and I sign a contract for each Gator book (three so far). I believe doing is is critical — it is both professional and practical; it protects us both. We negotiated a flat fee, which was my preference, given that I had no idea where this project was headed and I wanted to be sure Donna felt she was being fairly compensated for her amazing work.
For printing, I again conducted an in-depth online exploratory around domestic, digital, on demand and printing abroad. For my purposes and given several key considerations, printing abroad proved to be the best option.

SLH:  As a self-published author, how do you handle marketing and distribution?  What has worked best for you?

SM:  By day, I work a career in advertising, so I have a solid foundation in marketing. At the same time, the time I have to focus on marketing my Gator series is limited to nights and a few hours on the weekend. I got the three books I’ve published so far on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. I built a web site. I did some readings and book fairs. And, I sold the books to local shops door to door. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time or wherewithal to pursue the type of marketing efforts I know have the best potential to build awareness and drive sales. This is frustrating, but I console myself by believing that the books are timeless – they will still be relevant whenever I have the opportunity to make them a priority.

SLH:  Have you tried digital publishing in any format?  Can you share your experience?

SM:  No, I have not tried digital publishing. My exploratory indicated that digital publishing options are inhibitive for a classic children’s storybook – no hard covers, no sewn binding, sometimes no color, limited page sizes. As with publishing, I had a very specific vision of what I wanted the books to be and digital printing wasn’t able to meet my needs. Important to note — this was about seven years ago and things may have changed by now. I do recall that digital printing was the most economical option for modest quantities, a major pro for that route!

SLH:  Have you done apps for any device?  Can you share your experience?

SM:  No, but it’s a great idea. I’d love to pursue the Gator series as both e-books and apps. For me, there’s nothing like books printed on paper, but digital is an absolutely critical path to pursue today.

SLH:  Where/when/how do you get your ideas?

SM:  Horses have always been my passion. I’d wanted a horse of my own since I was about eight years old but, given realities, it took me until my mid-30’s to make it happen. Until that time, as much as I loved a good book, and as much as I wanted to write, I never felt I had anything of interest to say…no story to tell, no ideas. That all changed when my first horse, Gator (aka Montana) came into my life – then the Gator stories just started popping out of me. My childhood dream come true was also the lens through which I realized what I wanted to say and how to say it.

SLH:  What has been the most challenging thing you have faced as an author and/or as a self-published author?

SM:  Too little time to make it happen. If I had the time, I’d probably be most challenged by the financial investment required. When you self publish, you’re on your own for everything – figuring out how who to sell to, how to sell, marketing, distribution, franchise development, finding a partner/investor, etc. As best I can tell, traditional distribution points (i.e., retail chains and larger independent booksellers, as well as smaller independents beyond driving distance) are not accessible to those without a publisher. Non-traditional marketing is the way to go for the self publisher – I believe there’s major success to be had via clever efforts online.

SLH:  What has been the most wonderful thing that has happened to you as an author?

SM:  I’ve created something I’m proud of, so I’d say the most wonderful thing is the sense of accomplishment at having actually become the writer I’ve aspired to be since college (albeit in my own small way). There’s nothing like a child telling me how much he or she loves Gator, or calling out a favorite detail from the books. Or, a parent telling me that my Gator books are bedtime favorites on the night stand, alongside famous classics handled by major publishers.

SLH:  Do you do school visits?  Would you be kind enough to briefly describe your program/presentation?  What is your preferred age range and group size?  Do you have materials available for parents/teachers to go along with your books(s)?

SM:  I’ve done a few, but not enough to intelligently comment here.

SLH:  What advice do you have for authors just starting out?

SM:  Frankly, I think I’m the wrong person to ask, as I consciously chose not to follow the traditional rules of writing for or pursuing publishers. In doing so, I understood that I was not setting myself up to create a writing career, but it was more important to me to bring my personal project to life exactly as I’d envisioned. All I can suggest is to be honest with yourself about your objective, do the necessary homework to understand how to pursue that objective (unbelievable how much information and how many resources are available online), and keep the energy flowing as you go. The process can be both exciting and gratifying (as well as scary and frustrating) – whether you win or lose, it’s a great life adventure and fantastic learning experience.

SLH:  Can you give us any hints about what you’re working on now?

SM:  As previously mentioned, my “day job” has absorbed all of my time over the past couple of years. (After all, it is the day job that funds the self publishing!). So, I’m not working anything new. Just looking forward to a time when I can really dig into all the ideas I have for Gator.

SLH:  Do you attend writer’s conferences?  Enter contests?

SM:  No, not since I entered a few contests with the first book.

SLH:  What has been your best selling book so far?  Which book’s sales (if any) did not do as well as expected?  Why do you think that might have been?  Were you surprised by one book’s success over another’s?

SM:  As previously noted, all of my sales have come through local door-to-door distribution and personal sales. I’ve sold the most of the first book in the series, Gator and Pete – More Alike Than It Seems. But I think that’s because I was able to focus the most time and energy on that one. Less for Blue Ribbon Gator . And, less still for Gator to the Rescue.
One interesting learning for me – Moms seem to like Gator and Pete best, because they love the sweet story and the moral. They say they love to read it to their little ones. At the same, kids seem to like Blue Ribbon Gator best, because it shows lots of horses, has lots of movement and has lots of bright, primary colors. They also say they like winning – go figure!
My personal favorite is Gator and Pete, so I published it first to ensure it made it to print if I was only able to do one.

Where can we find you?
gatorsgang.com; suzanne@gatorsgang.com


Books can be ordered direct from Suzanne’s website, or from Amazon!

Just for fun quick questions:
Agented or not?  Not
Traditionally or self-published?  Self
Hard copy or digital? Hard copy
Apps or not? Unfortunately, not (yet!)
Plotter or pantser? Not sure what this meansJ
Laptop or desktop?  Laptop
Mac or PC?  PC
Day or night worker?  Night
Coffee or tea?  Hot chocolate
Snack or not?  Absolutely
Salty or sweet?  Sweet
Quiet or music?  Depends on the day but, generally, quiet if I’m creating.
Cat or dog?  Horse!
Currently reading?  The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and A Respectable Wife by Robert Goolrick.

Thank you so much for sharing all your knowledge and expertise with us, Suzanne!  We all really appreciate it!


Now then, Suzanne has graciously offered to answer any questions y’all might have, but she is traveling, so please be patient for your answers 🙂


In addition, we are offering a fantastic giveaway – a complete set of the Gator and Pete books – that’s 3 hardcover picture books, folks! – signed by the author!  All you have to do to qualify is leave a comment saying who you would like the books for (it’s okay to say yourself :))

I hope you will all be back Monday for our visit with Vivian (and just so you know, I know this was a long interview and post – Vivian’s is long too – she was incredibly generous with her knowledge and advice – but the other two are not this long! :))

Have a great weekend everyone! 🙂