The Reckoning: The Perils of Self-Publishing

Writing is hard. Writing and editing, designing, publishing, marketing and distributing your manuscript is even more difficult. Annelies Judson looks at self-published books in Aotearoa and offers some pearls of wisdom to authors looking to take on all those roles themselves.

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Writing is a challenging business. Published authors all have stories about rejections, often many rejections. Sometimes people imagine that it’s just that first book that is hard to get eyeballs on, but no—even seasoned authors are regularly having manuscripts rejected. And it’s hard not to feel like this is a direct judgment about the quality of one’s writing. Surely, the aspiring writer thinks, if my writing was good enough, then I would have a publishing deal by now. Fortunately, already-published authors are there to reassure you that no, rejection is not necessarily a reflection on your writing, and yes, you may have to submit your manuscript to many, many publishers before it’s accepted.

Unfortunately, the consequence of this narrative is that there is a sense that all manuscripts just need to find the right publisher at the right time. Keep trying, the aspiring writer is told. Rejection is part of writing. This pushes people who are more impatient, more well-off, or both, down the path of self-publishing. Why wait for a traditional publishing house to take you on if you could simply fund this yourself?

…Rejection is not necessarily a reflection on your writing, and […] you may have to submit your manuscript to many, many publishers before it’s accepted

What the rejection is a part of life mantra fails to impart to would-be authors is that sometimes—I would even venture the word often, but I have no data on that beyond anecdote—a manuscript is rejected because it’s not actually good enough. Or worse, not actually good. And with the rise of self-publishing, many of these manuscripts are now seeing the light of day.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with self-publishing a manuscript of any quality, if you have the money and the will to do so. It would be literary snobbery to suggest that publishing houses are the only benchmark for value. And there are self-published books in the Aotearoa market that are done to a very high standard, such as those by Kat Quin (formerly Merewether), who publishes the Kuwi the Kiwi books, and Mark and Rowan Sommerset of Baa Baa Smart Sheep fame. 

It would be literary snobbery to suggest that publishing houses are the only benchmark for value

However, I regularly see books that, from the moment I open them up, I know are self-published. This is not just because of a minor flaw in the writing or an awkward layout on a page. It is usually because in most if not all aspects, they lack a precision, a crafting, a professionalism, that comes from going down a more traditional publication route. It can be in the writing style, with awkward grammar, or poor or awkward rhymes in a rhyming text. It can be the writing itself, where a story lacks focus, or the author can’t quite convey the message that they want to. It can be in the illustrations, which may appear amateurish, or don’t add anything to the story, so end up being just for decoration. It can even be in the nuts and bolts of the physical book, such as unusual typesetting or layout, low production values such as low quality paper or cheap binding choices, and spelling errors. Often it’s a combination of these factors.

…I regularly see books that, from the moment I open them up, I know are self-published

These things are not inherently problematic, but when a book is self-published, the onus is entirely on the author to market and sell the book, and anything that makes the book less appealing to an individual or a shop (because there are instances when a self-published book is sold through a retailer) is likely to lead to fewer opportunities. Awkward rhymes or strange layout can cause a frisson in the potential buyer, even if they can’t articulate why. And seemingly minor technical issues, such as a lack of a barcode, or a lack of an ISBN (which are required by larger retailers) can mean being completely shut out from a potential avenue for sales.

Not everyone is as critical a book buyer as I am. But the market for children’s books is pretty small, and once a self-published author has used up their supply of family, friends and acquaintances, the book is then competing against publishers who have the budget to hire graphic designers, professional illustrators, experienced copy editors, and a whole marketing team. So unless there is a real point of difference that makes the book appealing to a wider audience, then these little issues no longer seem like preferences of pedants but in fact quite big reasons for an unsold stack of books in the back of a shed.

Awkward rhymes or strange layout can cause a frisson in the potential buyer, even if they can’t articulate why

So does this mean you, an aspiring author, shouldn’t self-publish? Absolutely not. But what it does mean is that a self-publishing author needs help. It is a rare jack-of-all-trades who is able to write, edit, design, market and distribute a book to a professional level. Employing someone to do the jobs that the author can’t do should definitely be in the publishing budget. (Note: It’s almost never appropriate to ask a professional for pro bono work, in the same way it’s inappropriate for someone to ask an author for a free copy of their book. If you want a high-quality book, then you need to find—and pay—high-quality professionals to get you there.) If you’re truly determined to go it alone, or the budget is really that tight, then finding a critical friend or friends is absolutely key. These should be people who have expertise, yes, but are also willing to give you the hard line. They need to tell you not just the glaring errors, but every single issue that they spot, large or small. And you have to keep pushing them, because giving that kind of critique to a family member or friend can be pretty hard.

That brings us to the flip side, which is that a self-published author who wants to publish something truly excellent has to be open to criticism and critique. This is much, much harder to hear if the people giving the critique are friends or family. Ignorance is bliss when it comes to having a manuscript rejected by a publisher; except in very rare circumstances, writers never get feedback from publishers about why their manuscript has been turned down. When you are receiving critique to your face, it’s quite a different prospect, and requires the writer to focus on the end product and not on the emotional attachment that they have to their own writing. This is very, very difficult for most people.

It is a rare jack-of-all-trades who is able to write, edit, design, market and distribute a book to a professional level

Of course, the goal of self-publishing may not be to reach the widest possible audience. It may be just the joy of seeing one’s writing in print. It may be the desire to promote a particular idea that isn’t super mainstream. It may be to tell a story for a niche group. These are all valid and valuable reasons to publish a book. What I don’t think any self-published author wants is to have boxes and boxes of books from the minimum-size print run sitting in their garage, or having to spend months or years selling one copy here and there to eventually break even. So if I have any advice, it’s this: do your research, accept critique, and pay for professionals.

Writing is a challenging business. Publishing a book, with the many skills required, is even more so. But there are so many great stories out there that are waiting to be told. I just hope people have the money, time and willingness to tell them as well as they can.

Editors’ note: The Reckoning is a regular column where children’s literature experts air their thoughts, views and grievances. They’re not necessarily the views of the editors or our readers. We would love to hear your response to any of The Reckonings – join in the discussion over on Facebook. 

Annelies Judson
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Annelies Judson writes book reviews and poetry for children, among other things. Her many loves include cooking, cricket, science and the em-dash. She can be found on Twitter/X and BlueSky @babybookdel, and on Instagram @babybookdeltest.