A heated debate is raging in the community of professional authors on whether self-publishing is a good idea. On one side are authors who have always worked through traditional publishers to offer their works. On the other side are authors who are earning a living by self-publishing (and may or may not also be working with traditional publishers).
Those on the traditional agent/publisher side of the debate feel that self-publishing diminishes the overall quality of books in the marketplace. Their fear is that unskilled amateur authors will flood the market with badly-written books that will discourage readers from buying any books. These authors feel that the traditional agent/publisher system acts as a gatekeeper that stops bad books from getting to market. There is some merit to this viewpoint, in that anyone can digitally publish a book regardless of its quality. It is also quite reasonable to believe that if a traditional publisher turns a book down it is unlikely that book will ever be a bestseller.
Authors who engage in self-publishing have found that it increases their income. Their backlist titles, which may not sell enough to warrant a small print run, can be offered digitally or through print-on-demand services. The authors can offer books that appeal only to a niche group of readers, a group small enough not to interest a publisher but large enough to yield a profit for the author. Self-publishers also have more creative freedom, telling the stories they want to tell – without agents, editors, or publishers demanding changes the author disagrees with. Perhaps best of all, self-publishers collect a much greater royalty from the sale of their books (and usually collect it much sooner than with traditional publishers). On the other hand, in order to ensure a quality product, self-publishers must be sure to invest in a reliable editor to review the work and commission an artist to provide a professional cover for it. These services would normally be provided by a publisher.
Chris Anderson published an article in Wired magazine in 2004 that (while not talking about self-publishing in particular) explains why authors should offer their works digitally themselves, even when a traditional publisher isn’t interested in them. I would encourage any creative artist to read that article and the book on the subject (The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More). In a nutshell, Anderson says that a “hit” and a “miss” are on equal economic footing today. A book that might sell only a few hundred copies appears (electronically) alongside a million-copy bestseller. He presents a number of real-world examples where books, movies, and music that wasn’t selling through the traditional publishing world is generating regular income for the creators in the digital marketplace.
One of Anderson’s examples is the story of Joe Simpson’s book Touching the Void. Simpson’s book received good reviews but generated only modest sales. A decade later, John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a similarly-themed book, became a sensation. Touching the Void began selling again, and soon overtook Into Thin Air. Anderson asks, “What happened? In short, Amazon.com recommendations. The online bookseller’s software noted patterns in buying behavior and suggested that readers who liked Into Thin Air would also like Touching the Void. People took the suggestion, agreed wholeheartedly, write rhapsodic reviews. More sales, more algorithm-fueled recommendations, and the positive feedback loop kicked in. Particularly notable is that when Krakauer’s book hit the shelves, Simpson’s was nearly out of print.”
Amazon doesn’t distinguish between product categories in its recommendations (nor do other retailers, generally speaking). An eBook could be recommended alongside a hardcover or paperback (or a blender, for that matter). If an author’s backlist, out-of-print titles are available on Amazon, they’ll still sell long after a traditional publisher has decided they’re not worth printing anymore. Someone buying an author’s new book will see recommendations about backlist titles. Someone buying a book by one author will receive recommendations about similar books from other authors. All of this results in more sales for all the authors, which is a good thing.
Will self-publishing allow anyone to put a book on the market regardless of its quality? Yes. But will that result in financial harm for those authors who put out quality books? Of course not. Good books, whether self-published or traditionally published, will get positive reviews on sites like Amazon. Lousy books will likewise get skewered in the reviews. People will steer clear of the bad books, and spend their money on the good ones. Mediocre authors will be forced to step up their game or get out of the market.
Ultimately, it’s all about getting your work in front of the people who will appreciate it. If traditional publishers want your book, there’s nothing wrong with publishing through them. But if they aren’t interested or decide not to reprint it, can there be any harm in publishing a digital version yourself? I don’t think so.