POD technology has also proven to be a fabulous windfall to a set of people who have been in a lucrative industry for decades — not the publishing industry, but the industry of making money off of those who dream of being published. This is a set of people who understand how widespread and tenacious the dream of being able to say "I am an author" is in our society. They know that the impulse to tell stories is strong within many of us. They don't care much about writing or writers. They care about parting dreamers from their money.
I am not completely opposed to self-publishing, but I think there are only a few — a very few — circumstances when an author should go this route. I'll go into some of those at some point, but right now I'm going to focus on the publication of one's first work of fiction. Usually, a new writer of fiction should choose self-publishing only when he or she really doesn't care at all about book sales. I mean that — you don't want to make money and you don't care if you are the only person who owns a copy of your book.
Self-published new authors often dream that their books will light fires of enthusiasm in readers, build huge sales by word of mouth, and start to sell like discounted tickets to the Superbowl. The statistics say otherwise, and I'll get to the reasons they do at some point in this series of posts.
Maybe you really don't care if your book only sells 12 copies. That number isn't one I pulled out of the air. I did a study for a major writers' organization a couple of years ago, and the vast majority of participants in its self-publishing program — a relatively deluxe program that also included experienced, known authors reselling out-of-print titles from their series — sold 12 or fewer copies. (For a number of reasons, the organization dropped the program.)
Publishers Weekly, the major trade magazine for the publishing industry, ran an article in 2005 on iUniverse and included some numbers from 2004 — after the company was well-established — that should give any fiction writer considering self-publishing pause. Of the 18,104 titles — fiction, non-fiction, you name it — published by the company, only 83 sold more than 500 copies. Let me tell you right now that in the world of publishing, setting the bar at 500 copies is setting it low, and only 83 titles jumped over it. Do the math and you can figure out the odds of making that little leap.
I know a handful of people will read these cold hard facts and ignore them. They will want to tell me about someone who got famous by self-publishing. See the sentence about the two-headed calf in yesterday's post. (And for God's sakes, do not give me that old crap about Poe being self-published. He apparently self-medicated, too. Let's not even talk about his marriage to his 13-year-old first cousin. All of that aside, like other industries, publishing has changed since the 1830s, and so has the world of selling books. Even back then, by no means were all of his works self-published.)
So when should you self-publish a first novel?
If you are terminally ill — I am not saying this facetiously — and you all you want is for your family to have copies of your story in trade paperback book form (and simply making a photocopy of a clean manuscript to pass down to your grandchildren won't satisfy you), and you have the money needed to self-publish, by all means do so. The commercial publishing process usually requires at least eighteen months between the signing of a contract and the release a first book. The process before that point, of getting an agent and the agent making a sale, may take even longer. If you don't have that kind of time left, then don't wait for an agent to take you on.
If you aren't dying, you probably don't have a worthwhile excuse for your impatience.
Unless, of course, you have written something that you are certain will never appeal to more than 80 or so readers and has no commercial value, and you have no fear of embarrassing yourself, and you really don't care if you have to hand sell every single copy of your book yourself. If that's the case, go ahead and self-publish.
Here's one of the basic problems. If you self-publish, you aren't just the author. And you aren't just the person who pays to have your manuscript physically made into books. You take the place of everyone in the process of publishing, except those who physically produce the book.
You must either find and pay an experienced editor (assuming you would even know how to recognize someone who could do this extremely important job in publishing — a job that is almost never understood or appreciated by new writers) or become your own editor. The latter case is very unlikely to produce a well-edited book.
You must find or pay a copy-editor. Being your own copy-editor will likely doom your book to being a storehouse of unprofessional if not laughable errors.
You must also be your own advertising, legal, art, sales, publicity, and distribution management departments. To name a few.
All of that takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. Energy that most writers need for a different challenge — to grow as writers.
Where do you want to put your time and energy?