Let's start with a quick breakdown: the credibility of a DIY project varies dramatically depending on the medium one is working with. If you are a musician or a filmmaker, a DIY project can garner instant respect, especially if it turns out well. It is the fruit of a heroic devotion to your dream. If you are a writer, but even more specifically if you are a fiction writer, self-publishing is about as respected as blatant nepotism. Read a bit more about this basic disparity (if you don't get it already) here at the Washington Post.
We've moved from calling them "vanity presses" to "self-publishing" houses. That does seem like some small forward motion. But the stigma that people who pay to publish their own books are (1) less talented writers than those who are already under the protective financial blanket of traditional houses and (2) narcissists, remains. And, due in part to the fact that most self-published titles are nonfiction, the stigma is stronger for fiction writers. (I openly acknowledge here that many self-published fiction titles are in desperate need of editing and don't bear up well under literate scrutiny. However, I also submit: the majority of websites are poorly designed and/or written. Somehow we don't dismiss the internet based on that fact.)
Another reason why the stigma is strong for fiction writers is that underneath the grand ubiquity of the big houses, there is a thriving and brilliant culture of smaller presses such as Greywolf, Akashic, and Red Hen, plus hundreds of literary magazines in which fiction writers who are "serious" about literature (i.e. hold an MFA, read current literary fiction, go to readings, teach writing, and so on) can theoretically be getting published. So self-publishing a fiction book appears to be the choice for people who have generally failed to write well enough to be chosen.
But here is an interesting fact: of the 750,000 self-published titles last year, average sales equals ten copies. Ten. There were somewhere around 300,000 traditionally published books, and it's harder to find average sales for those, but I'll put a serious amount of money on it being higher--much higher.
This disparity in sales is not simply because self-published books can't find their audience, it's because many self-published writers aren't interested in marketing. They wanted to write a book, they did it, and really they just wanted a few copies for their friends/family/coworkers. The self-published writers who are willing to commit some time and money to marketing their books end up doing very much the same thing authors at small houses do now: they schedule their own events, make their own publicity calls, send out their own books to smaller magazines for reviews, and so on. That at a small press you might have one or two marketing people serving 20 writers means that most authors who aren't getting a big push at Random House are doing a lot of the legwork on their own.
I believe traditional publishing to be a paternalistic, failing business model. What I respect and love about it is the way a team of people all work together to make a book, and to make a book available to readers. What I hate is that it is the publishers (i.e. people with financial interests at the fore) who are the arbitors of culture. With self-publishing, much like the internet, there is a theoretical democratizing of the means to cultural production. As a writer, I am no longer told by Big Daddy Publisher Man what is worth publishing and what isn't. I may be told what will be backed by marketing dollars, what will likely sell to the widest number of readers, and so on, but I have so much more room to breathe when it comes to just making BOOKS. The downside, of course, is that I am not in a close editorial relationship with someone who can help me make my novel better than it was. Oh, wait, most writers don't have that anymore either. It's only a few small presses that do any developmental editing anymore.
The advent of ebooks is another piece in the puzzle--and it is a big one, according to the Wall Street Journal. Authors have even more control in the emarketplace.
So the question I am fielding as I near the release date of A Crack in Everything, my first novel and a self-published title, is: Why would YOU choose to self-publish? The assumptions here are basic: I am an already-published writer in the early bloom of a career, I have the requisite degree, and I'm obviously serious about literary fiction, so logically I should have gone with a small press, if I couldn't get a deal at a big house.
The fact is: even the small presses are flooded with submissions, and as literary agents feel the squeeze of a shrinking traditional publishing field, they aren't taking on a lot of new authors. So let's be clear: I didn't reject any offers from small presses in favor of a self-publishing model. I didn't and don't have an agent. (Yes, I want one.) I simply decided to stop pounding the pavement for a novel that needed to get kicked out of the nest. I love A Crack in Everything for what it is, but I'm done working on it. I'm writing a new book. I'm entering a PhD program. I wanted to give Crack a body, and then turn her loose.
This is the great beauty of self-publishing, and one reason why I feel I'm part of a fiction vanguard, instead of an embarrassed band of self-righteous rejects. Publishing has already changed. Publishers are slow to catch up. Even the solidly creative, truly interesting and wonderful work coming from small presses functions in what feels to me like a rather incestuous clique of cool kids who like to print each others' stuff. I don't much blame them for this--they don't have time to vet the billion new MFA writers sending them manuscripts every day, and what they're putting out is by and large awesome. I'd love to be one of the cool kids with a punk-rock marketing plan and a Brooklyn freelancer doing my retro-chic covers. I'd love this more than I'd like to be a big-list Random House author, because of the great amount of creative freedom and teamwork that is missing at the top.
I will likely never write a piece of fiction that you can buy in an airport bookstore--mainstream fiction is not how my brain works now and I'm only getting weirder. My first novel is a kind of hybrid erotic-political-literary-twenty-something micro-bildungsroman, and the next book I'm writing is more fragmented, more academic, and has more sex in it. Maybe I'll find a home at a small press in the next few years, and maybe not. What I care about is ensuring that I am in a situation where I can make art without concern for the market, and that is nearly impossible once you've been contracted by a publisher whose main goal is profit.
This is what I celebrate most about self-publishing, small presses, ebooks, and every other force that undermines the New York hegemony: that the capitalists are less and less in charge of what is being bought, and therefore what is being written. Sure, Dan Brown will still sell millions of copies to my few hundred (or thousand, if I'm fortunate), but because of the internet I have the capability to connect directly with readers in a way that was twenty years ago nearly impossible. I know iUniverse (one of the largest self-publishing businesses, and the one I'm using) runs on a business model that emphasizes selling "services" to authors instead of selling books, but a savvy self-publishing writer can still use any one of the supported self-publishing houses for their basic book design, print-on-demand, and distribution infrastructure without becoming a victim of the company's system. In other words, we can use the tools of the capitalists to take back control of the means of production. Are most self-published books just a boring rehashing of existing cultural values? Sure. But the morphing structure of publishing offers greater opportunity for revolutionary work to take shape and become available, and that's thrilling.
Authors at traditional houses (with the exclusion, again, of many small presses) are generally left out of much of the production of a book, and give the rights to the publisher for a specified period of time--sometimes as long as the book stays in print. They are defensive players: constantly fielding attempts to change things that may or may not need changing, having to justify any problems they might have with typesetting and cover design. If they make a certain sales goal with one book and not the next, they can get dropped, even if their second book did very well. As a self-published writer, I retain copyright and could go with a different publisher at any time. I give design input that would never be allowed at a traditional house. As long as I keep my wits about what I invest, and remember not to become emotionally affected by the systemic prejudice against DIY books, I get to enter a whole new game. And in this game, I am the offensive striker, not the goalie.