[This posting originally appeared on the Authors Guild forum. Since that’s exclusive to AG members, I reposted it here for my blog readers.]
Several years ago, when Print On Demand (POD) was becoming practical, I started my self-publishing “company” — Mulberrry Knoll — and produced my first book, a collection of poems (start small!) called Cave Paintings. Create Space didn’t exist, and Ingram had only Lightning Source, which they were already willing to make available to self-publishers. LS didn’t, however, initially realize how much hand-holding would be required as people with no prior experience in book production suddenly began experimenting with self-publishing. This spawned IngramSpark, specifically designed to serve newcomers to publishing.
Since I do have experience in content and copy editing, and in the technical side of publishing, and have designed book covers and interiors over the years, it was tremendously satisfying to have total control over the whole process. This, of course, meant that I saved thousands of dollars (and paid myself nothing), but I got the books I wanted, and since no initial press run was involved, it cost about $100 per title.
To my surprise and delight, I found that Ingram’s long-standing business relations with Amazon, largely through the massive Ingram Catalog, meant that without doing anything at all further, I could have my book listed as “in stock” and “sold by” Amazon. No special arrangements, no contracts, just $12/yr to keep the listing in the Ingram Catalog, and suddenly my book was available to the entire planet. What’s more, Amazon offered my books at a modest but worthwhile discount. (That discount changed, and is still changing, but it’s a long story.)
With one slim volume under my belt, I tidied up my short novel, The Rules: for playing the game of life, and published it the same way. More recently, I collected and revised 21 short stories, under the title Brain Frieze, and that’s also on Amazon for all the world to see.
Of course, it’s immediately obvious to anyone who’s tried this that the world doesn’t see. Nobody knows that your book(s) are among the bazillion others on Amazon, or even among the mere tens of thousands newly listed each year. So “publishing” isn’t a very apt word for this new process of getting a book “out there.”
That said, traditional publishers are also no longer performing all the services they were known for, so the distinction between self-publishing and traditional publishing is much less dramatic. There are too many details to consider in one posting, but, for example, if your self-pub title doesn’t accept returns, then probably no bookstore will touch it (not that they’re likely to hear about it). If your wholesale discount isn’t the archaic industry standard 55%, then distributors and book-sellers probably won’t touch it. But again, without the expensive marketing campaign that publishers used to do, nobody will ever know your books exist. You may, of course, have a good connection with a world-famous bookstore, or an existing audience of some kind, in which case you do have a market and you may sell some books. But that’s the primary challenge for self-publishers — marketing.
Ironically, the biggest disadvantage of self publishing has also become part of traditional publishing. Authors are expected to conduct substantial self-marketing campaigns that far exceed what was usually required only a few decades ago. But now self publishing may be the only remaining means of getting “out there” even for well-established authors.
One interesting caveat has cropped up recently. Some of the periodicals that publish short fiction, whether in print or online, are absolutely not interested if your story has been self-published. In some cases, this applies even to making a PDF available on your website (e.g., Cave-Paintings.com), but it certainly applies to having a book available for sale on Amazon, even if the only buyers are your immediate family. Others don’t care at all — the Iowa Short Fiction prize, for a first collection, was perfectly OK with my book already being on Amazon. Part of this inconsistency is due to the industry’s lingering disdain for self publishing — to many in the traditional world, it’s not really publishing. But be aware that technically, it is publishing, since your book is now available to the public in any quantity, whether or not they buy any.