Publishing is an often incredibly frustrating culture. If you want to buy a project—let’s say a nonfiction proposal for a book about the history of Sicily—some of your colleagues will say, “The proposal is too dry” or “Cletis Trebuchet did a book for Grendel Books five years ago about Sardinia and it sold, like, eight copies,” or, airily, “I don’t think many people want to read about little islands.” When Seabiscuit first came up for discussion at an editorial meeting at Random House, some skeptic muttered, “Talk about beating a dead horse!”Anthony Hayward speaks of the advantages of self-publishing:
To make matters worse, financial success in frontlist publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big best seller. But the best-seller lists paint nothing remotely like the full financial picture of any publication, because that picture’s most important color is the size of the advance. But let’s say you publish a fluky blockbuster one year, the corporation will see a spike in your profits and sort of autistically, or at least automatically, raise the profit goal for your division by some corporately predetermined amount for the following year. This is close to clinically insane institutional behavior.
As a journalist and author myself, I have done just that. After writing more than 20 books, with major publishers behind them, I have found it increasingly difficult to get new ideas accepted. It is also frustrating as a writer to have a non-fiction book that is up-to-the-minute when "completed", only for it to come out maybe nine months later and seem slightly dated.
...In setting about doing the job myself, I soon discovered some major advantages. Once written, an ebook can be published at the click of a computer's mouse. When I started, Pilger was making his latest documentary, Utopia (in cinemas now and on television and DVD next month), and I have been able to give the book added impact by tying in with its release. How many of the big publishers can do that?
...Authors might also consider that there is more money to be made by going down the ebook route, although that is dependent on several factors – and not necessarily the most honourable reason for switching to self-publishing.Micha Mattix says "not so fast:"
In The Guardian, Anthony Hayward explains why, after writing 20 books for traditional publishers, he has decided to self-publish his most recent book as an e-book. He marshals all the usual (and good) reasons to consider self-publishing: It’s quicker, authors retain more of the profit, and they have more control over the book’s content, release date, marketing, and so forth. The disadvantages—the extra time editing and marketing and designing, and, most importantly, the lack of editorial guidance—are ignored.
...Editors junk bad ideas and fix sloppy prose, and while this can be painful for writers, it is ultimately for their own good (as well as the good of readers and books themselves). After all, deep-down, who wants to spend two years on a book that is little more than a pet project or vanity publication? I’ve seen academics and writers pursue such projects in self-publishing and the results are not particularly flattering.It's usually not editors in general that self-published writers dislike, but editors attached to mainstream publishing houses. I find the disadvantage Mattix cites - "But without gatekeepers, lots of crap will get published!" - to be unconvincing. My counter-argument: Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray. I rest my case. Lots and lots of crap gets published today after it has been passed through several editorial filters.
If you submit your manuscript to a mainstream publishing house, and it gets accepted, you give up a lot. Every writer has to decide for himself or herself if the benefits of professional editing outweigh the costs in giving up creative control and potential profits. If filthy lucre is what you care about, then the choice is obvious. Let's consider the worst that could possibly happen in both cases. If something is wrong with my self-published book, I can fix it immediately. If the entire self-publishing industry implodes tomorrow then I still have all the rights to my work and I can go submit it to a traditional publisher.
If I've submitted my work to a traditional publisher and something goes wrong, I'm up a certain creek without a paddle. I've signed away my rights and have no control over how it's marketed. If the publisher itself implodes, then it will take many years and a lot of legal work to resell my book, if I ever can. Do those sound like acceptable risks in exchange for some editing and cover art to you?
h/t: Rod Dreher