Some Thoughts on Self Publishing
Some definitions too
I'm obviously in favor of self publishing; I've done it and will again. It's not the only way to go, but it is a totally viable option.
A Brief History of Printing and Publishing
It's amazing, but books haven't been in existence all that long, at least not in the form we think of them today. While it's true that many early societies had written language, it wasn't until Johann Gutenberg, invented letterpress printing that books became, gradually, available to the general public. The first was the Gutenberg Bible, which was printed in 1454. Until then books, when they did exist, were written or copied by hand, one at a time. It was a laborious process.
It wasn't long before presses were established to print books to sell to the public. This created great controversy between the printers and the Church of Rome, which wasn't sure laypeople should be allowed to read the Bible. In fact, it can be argued that the printing press and the subsequent distribution of books and ideas is what led to the reformation, to science as we know it today and to almost every element of our modern society.
In a sense, we've come full circle, for it's now possible to economically print one book at a time which is a relatively new phenomena.
It's difficult to say when trade publishing got started - perhaps as early as early as the 1450s, when a printer in St. Albins, printed eight books. But what it means today is a company that publishes books for sale and distribution to bookstores, libraries, book clubs and other special markets, assuming all costs of production and paying authors a royalty on sales. The key is the phrase "assuming all costs of production." If you're paying any of the design, printing or other production costs, your self-publishing.
You get a trade publisher when a trade publisher offers you a contract for your book. The contract will, among other things, spell out the royalties (percentage of sales) you will receive. The key to making money with a trade published book is, of course, is the marketing.
Note that even if you're working with a trade publisher, you may end up paying marketing costs - unless you're already a famous author, much, if not most, of the marketing of your book will fall to you, even when you're published by a trade publisher.
Generally, when someone says they want to get their book published they are thinking of trade publishing.
Note too, that with Print On Demand technology, publishing definitions tend to blur a bit. POD technology means small companies can get into legitimate trade publishing; so can authors, although now their moving into the self-publishing arena.
Vanity or Subsidy Press
Vanity or subsidy publishers are scams, pure and simple. Oh, before POD, a case could be made for these short run books, but POD is so inexpensive that there's no reason to pay someone thousands of dollars to publish your book.
How do you tell the difference between a vanity publisher and a legitimate print on demand service? It's getting more and more difficult, but the real clue is the high cost. Anthologies of essays or poetry that you have to pay to be included, or buy an expensive book are also rip-offs. A vanity press will take anyone; a good pod publisher has at least some discretion.
Even if you only want 10 copies of your aged aunts rather poor poetry for the family archive, you'll save money using a reputable pod publisher.
Self-publishing is when an author pays the production costs of a book. Until the 1990s, the cost of printing prohibited anyone but trade publishing houses and vanity presses from successfully publishing books. Now, technology means that it can make economic sense to print one book at a time.
Today it's possible to contract with a Print On Demand publishing company to publish your book yourself. You will pay all the production costs. But they are low enough now so it may make sense for you to do so. If you are successful at marketing your self-published book well, you can actually earn a great deal more money than you would if the book had been put out by a trade publisher.
But it's not easy money. The marketing of a book is no small task. Some people self-publish in order to get the attention of a trade publisher; some because they believe passionately in their book. While there are success stories in self-publishing, there are also lots of failures.
As you probably guessed, I'm in favor of self-publishing. Not for everything of course. But if you've got a book you believe in and you haven't been able to sell it to a trade publisher, self-publishing can be a wonderful option.