A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about self-publishing, and it ignited a small firestorm in the comments section. The majority of it was great, lively discussion and I was really interested in a lot of what you all had to say. Some of it, though not strictly disrespectful/incorrect/&c, was a little heated, and I'd like to revisit the subject to clear up a few things. (Apologies in advance for the rant, but it's in the air this week.)
First (as I've said before), I, too, have been known to write things—primarily poetry, although I also write some weird sci-fi-ish literary-ish fiction. The point being: I am very well aware that what I am writing is not really salable. I am not some sales-obsessed Big Publishing Corporation nut who insists that there is no virtue at all in POD, (fre)e-book dissemination, guerrilla Facebook marketing tactics, &c—on the contrary, I am super in favor of those things. I'm not trying to keep you good folks down! However, what I am not in favor of are vanity presses and self-publishing companies that capitalize on writers' lack of knowledge, insecurities, &c. Which, as far as I can tell, is most of them.
Again, first caveat: if you really don't care about selling books, self-publishing is fine. Go nuts! If you only want to sell a couple copies of your Regional Guide to Edible Berries and Flowering-Type Plants, or you're a college professor who just wants to bind a bunch of notes and excerpts into a DIY anthology for a class, or you want to collect all those fun stories you made up for your children over the years into one neat package they can read and hand down to their children, I say: more power to you. Hooray for self-publishing.
Also, second caveat: this is not a hard and fast rule because there are no hard and fast rules in publishing, but it IS based on probabilities. If you really want to sell your book and you've tried everything and you can't get it published traditionally, you are probably better off shelving it and writing a new one. Here, cats and kittens, is why:
1.) Your book, as I've said, is probably either not something that will earn the publisher (and, by extension, you) much money, is not very good, or both. You have nothing to earn by paying your hard-earned cash to print a tiny run of your book that probably LOOKS self-published (although this can be avoided), doesn't cater to more than six people, and/or is not representative of your best work. (Or, worse yet, is representative of your best work and STILL doesn't pass the proverbial mustard.) Grey Poupon, please, with a dash of mondegreen.
2.) Would you want videos of your very first piano lesson on CNN? Or your first crème brûlée on Top Chef? No? That's what you're essentially asking for if you self-publish. This is not my kidding face. (This is my kidding face.)
Seriously, though, the odds of you getting any attention or money at all for a self-published book are ludicrously small—you'll have to get in line behind all the mid-list authors who are scrabbling for publicity/marketing/fame/fortune/&c and DO have big houses supporting them—but what you're essentially saying when you self-publish is "I want the entire world to read this novel that was declined by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of experts in the publishing field." Again, this is either because it's not considered salable in the existing market, not very good, or both. Again again, there are exceptions. Again again again, your novel is probably not one of them. Write a better one!
3.) If you go through the money and hassle of getting an ISBN and actually getting your self-pubbed book into stores, congratulations: you are now trackable on Nielsen BookScan. Publishers—whose attention I assume you're trying to get (see below)—will now be aware of Self-Published Boy Wizard and His Quest for Publication (as well as the fact it sold three copies in two years) and may likely want nothing to do with you for fear of catching your poor sales themselves. Self-publishing does not show publishing houses initiative. It shows publishing houses you don't have an idea they consider publishable and you're getting desperate.
4.) You're ostensibly self-publishing to avoid having to deal with the Big Cantankerous Publishing Monster... yet, paradoxically, you're also self-publishing to get enough attention from the Big Cantankerous Publishing Monster such that it'll give you a six-figure advance and tickets to the Super Bowl with Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer. Interesting.
5.) But John Grisham and Christopher Paolini were self-published! Oh, wait. No, they weren't. Yes, there are exceptions, but when you consider how many books are self-published every day, the odds of you being the next William P. Young are fractions of fractions of a percent. Your odds are still bad with a traditional publisher, but they're better.
So please, gentle readers, feel free to self-publish if it's not about national media attention, big advances, or triple-digit sales. If you want more than six fans and six dollars in net profit at the end of the day, though, I suggest you write a fantastic book, edit the hell out of it, get an agent, and get a publishing house behind you. E-books will change a lot. POD will change a lot. But we will always need experts to divide the salable from the non-, the well-written from the crap. And let us say: amen.
Tomorrow, our good friends at Nielsen (and everyone else on planet Earth) will have DB's sales figures. The results... when we come back!