I'm often asked by both would be and published authors, if and when to consider self-publishing. For those unpublished, the question often comes from the desire to be published as quickly as possible and frustration with trying to break into the industry. Both are often asking because they've read of significant success coming to self-published authors and wondering whether they even need traditional publishers anymore. As a literary agent, I earn a living representing successful authors to commercial publishers, but I absolutely believe there is a place for self-publishing. However, whether successfully published or looking to publish for the first time, there a few considerations that apply across the board.
Most publishers are looking more and more to the author to help sell their book. Publishers are having a harder time than ever successfully breaking out new authors. However, they can absolutely help amplify an existing audience. When you self-publish, there's no amplification. You want to know how big your "platform" is? Self-publish. Self-publishing may be a shortcut to selling your content, but there is no shortcut to building a following and an audience for your work. Self-publishing will expose how successful you've been at this faster than anything else.
When you publish with a commercial publisher, your book is generally available anywhere books are sold. When you self-publish, you are typically locked into a specific ecosystem. For example, to sell your book electronically through Amazon, you have to agree to exclusively sell your book on Amazon. Most people don't consider that a big deal because Amazon controls 65% of the electronic book market. But only 19.5% of all books sold in the US are Amazon Kindle titles. In actuality, you're tapping into a small segment of the overall book market. If you self-publish into a different ecosystem, you're reaching an even smaller segment. All the more reason you need to have a robust following for your work to be successful.
A lot of authors will decide to sell their book directly from their own website to cut out the middle man and retain as much of their revenue as possible. But this means you'll have to figure out how to deliver your book in the format your audience wants to read it in. Does you audience read on a Kindle, or a Nook, or an iPad? Do they know what specific file format each device uses and how to load that file onto their device once they've downloaded it from you? What if your audience wants your book in a physical format? Do you have the means of producing, warehousing and fufilling physical book sales? When you become a direct seller, you have to take all of these things into consideration.
In short, there's no easy street to publishing, self or otherwise. But if you decide to take the plunge, there can be significant benefits. For a published author, it offers you the ability to offer your audience something to tide them over between commercial releases. It can be an opportunity to generate revenue off of valuable content that makes sense for self-publishing, but that wouldn't make sense for a commercial publisher to consider. It can allow you to bring a resource to market to capitalize on a trend significantly faster than most commercial publishers will be able to. It can be a valuable tool used to gain fans and followers and build your platform. For a self-published author, when done successfully it can help gain the attention of commercial publishers and prove that you do, in fact, have a loyal following willing to engage with your content. For anyone, it can be an opportunity to try your hand at content that doesn't necessarily fit your "brand," but allows you to introduce your audience to some of your other interests and creative endeavors.
As a few examples, here are some books my commercially published clients have just recently released as self-published works for many of the reasons above:
Charles Martin - River Road: A collection of short stories from Charles' early writing days.
Margaret Feinberg - Live Loved: An adult coloring book encouraging scripture memorization, which has since been contracted and published by Bethany House.
Rob Bell - Millones Cajones: A fun and surprising novel about a motivational speaker that suffers a crises of identity.