WHEN Should you Indie-Publish a Book?

Don't Publish the First Thing you Write!

On a recent Facebook post, an Experienced Writer was righteously indignant that a Newbie Writer was insisting on publishing the first manuscript she’d ever written. She asked folks to post indicating if the manuscript they wrote first had been successfully published. Of course, the answer was overwhelmingly that it took time to develop the craft of writing. Guitar players don’t become rock stars within a month of picking up the instrument!

This is one of the defining problems of the current self-publishing environment. With so few barriers anyone can publish a book.

But let’s dig into it and try to understand the impulse to publish right away. The question is when should you publish? When is YOUR writing to a level that you should take that step?

Learning Respect

For those not steeped in children’s literature from Make Way for Ducklings to Last Stop on Market Street, a children’s book is a trivial thing. It’s a “real book,” of course, but not a very difficult one. They don’t respect the art form that constitutes a great children’s book. It’s just for, well, kids. Can’t be too difficult, right?

For those writers, I just shrug and let them do their best. I know that their best will not find its place in the market unless they are a whiz at marketing. And even then, it’ll be an uphill battle.

In the end, they need to learn respect for their audience and the art form they are working within. Kids are much more sophisticated than you might think at a glance. And the picture book has a long history with lots of experimentation and innovation. Try studying it!

Out There

Some people don’t care what anyone says. They just want the book “out there.” The nebulous term “out there” means they don’t know their target market, probably aren’t writing age appropriate topics, and are—frankly—self-centered. It’s all about ME. 

“I want it Out There. So everyone can read what _I_ wrote,” this writer thinks.

This is a recipe for failure, especially in today’s crowded market. Instead, you must consider your audience and target to specific readers. Think about the reader’s needs — not yours.

Minimally Viable Product

Still others just want to try it out. In the business world, there’s a term and practice known as the minimally viable project. Business people must make money on a project; they aren’t building their project just to serve mankind. But the exact direction to take the project depends on their customers. 

The good thing is that these people are focused on their customers! In business, it’s common to start by putting out a minimally viable project, one without bells and whistles, that is focused on doing one thing and doing it well. They plan to add other things later, as more money becomes available for development.

Part of this idea is that if the project doesn’t find customers, there’s only a small investment. You quickly put out a project to find if there’s any real paying audience. If there’s not, you can pivot to a new direction.

Some people do this with publishing, even if they don’t say it that way. 

To put it baldly: they publish a book just to see if it will sell. 

If it sells as expected or better, they might invest in a better copyeditor, better cover art or illustrations, and more marketing. They’ll grow along with their catalog.

This writer at least respects the audience; it’s an approach that clogs the market with poor books, but it has the possibility of directing future projects to a higher level of quality. If you chronologically line up books from this author, progress in quality should be evident.

Is there a Right or Wrong Way to Indie Publish?

I spent years reading to my children the best children’s literature available. I learned to respect the artistry of a story well told and well illustrated. I spent years learning to write, and have taught how to write children’s picture books and novels for years. I was traditionally published, having to revise and revise to create better stories. 

THEN, I pivoted to indie publishing. 

But—is there a right or wrong way to do this? No.

The Experienced Writer’s story at the beginning expresses much of the frustration people have with indie publishing of children’s books. In some ways, I empathize. But in some ways, I’m impressed by the gutsy Newbie Writers. I watch with awe when they pull off a miracle and actually publish a children’s book. I watch with envy when they intuitively understand marketing that has taken me years to master.

These indie writers—they’re a brave, determined bunch. They don’t know what they don’t know. And frankly, they often don’t care. They just know that they’ve written a book that they’ll bring to market. They dig in, learn on the job, and produce a book.

Great. These days, I just step aside and let them try. Because publishing a book is easy enough to learn. Writing a great book is what’s hard. If they a) don’t respect the format and the audience, or b) don’t want to learn on the job, well, no one can stop them. You can discourage them all you want; they won’t listen. In the end, the marketplace will respond one way or another.

Recommendations on When to Publish

If you are listening, here’s what I think. 

You should NOT publish your first book. It’s lousy. That’s a true statement in 1 out of 1,000,000 cases. (And YOU are not the exception.)

First, get a little respect by reading 100 picture books published in the last five years. Yes, 100! Reading current books rather than classics will help you understand today’s market. Notice which ones appeal to you! Do you like tender family stories or sarcastic stories?  Take note of which illustrations appeal? Watercolor or abstract? Choose ten of your favorites and read them aloud. (It’s convenient if you have a kid to read to, but not mandatory.) Read them aloud again and again, trying to understand what makes them work.

Then, write ten more stories. Find a critique group or hire a freelance editor. Again and again. Until…

…there’s this one story that when you reread it, you cry. Or laugh.

You want this story to affect the reader in a certain way, and even you—who have read it a thousand times—have THAT reaction. The story is as good as you can possibly make it! Wow!

Then, and only then, make the decision of how to bring it to market, whether you want/need a traditional publisher or you will indie publish it. Focus on the writing first and foremost; then put on your business hat.

When should you publish a book? When you’ve written a story that has potential to affect readers in a powerful way.