Why choose self-publication?
There used to be only one reason people self-published: they couldn't find a publisher who would take their manuscript. Consequently, self-publishing acquired a very low reputation as the preserve of whacko theorists and talentless egomaniacs.
Times have changed.
A number of factors have converged to dramatically change the landscape of book publishing so that self-publishing is now emerging as the dominant mode. More titles were self-published last year than by established publishers.
The emergence of the print-on-demand services and ebook formats, combined with online distribution through the likes of Amazon, has made self-publishing ridiculously easy and affordable. Self-publishing no longer requires an author to invest thousands of dollars printing a book that may never sell; or warehousing hundreds of copies of their book in their basement or garage; or going door to door trying to place copies with local bookstores, or trying to set up their own mail-order business. A few hours studying Self-publishing for Dummies and you're in print....or e-format. E-books reduces the costs and logistics even further, since there are no paper, printing, warehousing, or shipping costs.
Consolidation of Legacy Publishers
The bottom line for any corporation is profit; editors may think they're in publishing to bring great literature to the masses, but the marketing department knows its all about sales and market share. Unfortunately, book publishing is inherently unpredictable: all the editorial board can love a book and it can go nowhere; an unknown writer publishing with an obscure press can suddenly turn out to be J.K. Rowling. So, somewhere along the line, corporation publishers realized that producing better books than the competition was an unreliable strategy for increasing market share. So they fell back on the time honoured corporate strategy of simply buying up the competition. Small, editor-owned presses were bought out by regional presses; national presses bought up the regional presses, but were in turn bought out by the multinationals. The end result is that publishing today is controlled by a very few giant multinationals.
Unfortunately, this has placed traditional publishing in an extremely vulnerable position. As is routine in the corporate world, buying out the competition meant taking on considerable debt to finance the purchase; the logic being that the resulting increase in market share and greater economies of scale would allow the company to manage and eventually to retire the debt over the long haul. Thus, as acquisition fever reached its peak and the mammoth multinationals bought out everything around them, they took on correspondingly gigantic levels of debt. They were therefore left in a precarious economic position exactly as the emergence of new technologies (Amazon.com, print-on-demand, various e-formats, etc.) undermined the traditional publishing business model.
This has created three problems for authors.
First, as the giant corporations bought out everyone else, they naturally rationalized their operations by consolidating their various imprints. Thus the number of editors to whom one could submit one's manuscript has decreased dramatically. Clearly, a manuscript has a better chance of finding a home when there were 40 different editors one could send it to then when there are only five. Thirty-five years ago, odd books could eventually find the odd editor who liked it; today, not so much. Consequently, breaking into print has become more difficult than ever.
Second, even authors with proven track records found themselves dropped from the roster if the number of copies sold are less than six figures. Giant publishers require correspondingly larger economies of scale—print runs and sales in the hundreds of thousands, or preferably millions—to be economical. Midlist authors who sell 60-75,000 copies are now considered poor performers, and their titles dropped. Similarly, proven authors writing for niche markets—that is, any market that has fewer than 100,000 potential buyers—is of little interest to the major publishers.
Third, the most creative, innovative, boundary-pushing literature is now more likely to come out of the new small presses than the giant corporate machine. As the fantastic debt load and shrinking book market puts additional pressure on (the surviving) editors to produce only winners, the corporate publishers have become increasingly conservative. Better to put out yet another Star Wars/Trek title then risk an unknown author with an unproven product. Critics have labeled this dysfunctional emphasis on "reliable product" within the legacy publishers "processed cheese." For authors, it means 'pushing the envelope' creatively may require looking to smaller, quality presses—and correspondingly lower sales.
Decline in Readership; Increase in Competition
The emergence of new media (video games, social media, YouTube, Google, Wikipedia, etc.) has diverted time and energy away from reading. The public buy and read fewer books than they used to; fiction magazines have all but vanished.
Ironically, the number of book titles chasing the few remaining readers has significantly increased. As print-on-demand technologies bring more books to market, and allow titles to remain in print longer; and as Project Gutenberg and eBook platforms give away hundreds of thousands of older titles for free, the opportunity to bring one's own book to the attention of readers has sharply declined.
Why Choose Self-Publishing?
There are several reasons an author may choose self-publication over submitting to a publisher:
To Avoid Unreasonable Wait Times
As the larger publishers have consolidated, the number of editors one can submit to has correspondingly gone down. To take my own genre, for example, houses publishing SF&F has gone from about 40 imprints 35 years ago, to the five or six sf/fantasy lines left today. Consequently, everyone ends up submitting to the same five or six publishers, and the resulting log jam of submissions has meant that many beginning authors often find themselves waiting years to even hear whether their book is being considered. For example, one author told me he had waited eight years to hear from one publisher; another author had waited seven; the average among the authors involved in the discussion had been two to three years. And these were all published authors with excellent track records, who had been invited to submit a manuscript by one or other of the editors; one can only imagine how long unsolicited manuscripts were left moldering in the slush pile.1
And that was before the major publishers let a third of their editorial staff go, during the 2008 recession.
Since almost no press accepts simultaneous submissions, working your way down the list of publishers from the top to bottom could well take decades. Submitting through an agent can considerably speed this process, but many agents are charging reading fees, and/or have similar backlogs themselves.
Finding such delays unconscionable, many beginning writers have chosen instead to self-publish.
To Service Niche Markets
If one knows that one is writing for a limited readership, such as a book on local history (which is likely of interest only to those in that locale), or an entry in some tiny sub subgenre (say, East-Indian Steampunk), then there is clearly no point in approaching one of the majors, which typically think in terms of print runs of hundreds of thousands. The choice then becomes one between a small niche / regional publisher, or self-publishing. Consideration should be given to finding an appropriate small press which could provide editing, book design, cover art, distribution, and marketing services for the title. If a reputable small press offering these services is not available, then self-publishing is the best choice.
To Retain Artistic Control
Every published author has some horror story about inappropriate cover art (e.g., spaceship battle on the cover of a book set in downtown Toronto); bad editing (e.g., copy editor eliminates one of two characters with similar names by 'correcting' the spelling to keep it 'consistent'); bad book design (e.g., uses author's default Word file to print the book); or lack of marketing (e.g., publisher focuses sales efforts on their 'big sellers' and essentially abandons lesser names). Frustrated by previous experiences with the bureaucratic giants or inexperienced or underfinanced small presses, some authors have chosen to go it alone.
Alternatively, some control freaks end up having to go it alone because, frankly, publishers often find authors who demand input over every little detail a pain to deal with. Since there are always three other equally competent (but more deferential) writers waiting in line, publishers have no need to be particularly patient. I know a number of cranky authors who have been quietly blacklisted by publishers as simply more trouble than they're worth.
In either case, the author choosing self-publishing needs to be aware of the services normally provided by the publisher, and to ensure that s/he contracts for the equivalent assistance. It is completely unrealistic to believe that any one person could have obtained professional standing in all these different disciplines, so any attempt to do everything oneself will inevitably lead to an amateur production. Ideally, the author retains control over the selection and direction of freelancers, but is prepared to defer to their expertise where appropriate. By all means hire your favorite cover artist, send detailed instructions on what your spaceship looks like, but leave decisions about brush strokes and lighting angles to the artist. These other professionals need room for their artistic contribution too. And be aware that you will have to pay professional rates for professional quality work.
1. My own experience with academic publishing is similar. I once submitted a book chapter (on grading and encouraging student writing) that was accepted almost immediately (a matter of months only), but it was another seven years before the book actually appeared. The delay was so long, both of my co-authors had retired, and I had changed disciplines by the time the book finally appeared.
Last updated, April, 2017.