The media loves self-publishing success stories. They make excellent human interest articles, feeding as they do into the American dream of entrepreneurial achievement, the rags-to-riches certainty that you can come from nothing and yet attain everything. A recent example: the $2.5 million sale of Brunonia Barry's self-pubbed debut novel to William Morrow, which has garnered a lot of press and spawned a flurry of blog posts. (Scratch a self-publishing success story, though, and you usually find a special circumstance of some sort--this article enumerates some of the advantages Barry had that most self-pubbed authors don't.)
Self-publishing advocates love self-publishing success stories too, because they appear to support the advocates' view that self-publishing is a viable alternative to "traditional" publishing. There's a long list of such stories at John Kremer's Self-Publishing Hall of Fame. However, some of the stories are apocryphal--like the myth that John Grisham self-published his first book (Kremer acknowledges that this is false, but includes Grisham anyway, on the grounds that Grisham was "actively involved in promoting his first novel")--while others are misleading--starting out with an established epublisher, as Mary Janice Davidson did, is not exactly equivalent to self-publishing--and still others are irrelevant--you can't really compare a pamphlet printed by Thomas Paine in 1776 to the activities of modern self-publishers such as Richard Paul Evans. (For more debunking, see this blog entry by writer Jim C. Hines.)
And of course, there are the shills trying to make a buck on the writerly pipe dreams that inevitably result from this kind of hype. Buy a marketing package from Fred Gleeck Productions for $97, for instance, and you can learn How To Self-Publish Your Own Book, Get Famous, and Make Well Over $250,000 per Year. Or if you don't want to spend that much, you can order Self-Publishing Success Secrets 101 from Bob Baker for just $11.95 ("Ideal for Newcomers and First-Time Authors"). The Internet is crammed with stuff like this.
I have nothing against self-publishing. In certain very specific circumstances, it can make a lot of sense, and for writers who have direct access to their audiences, it can be more profitable than commercial publishing. However, the people for whom self-publishing is right, and the people who parlay self-publishing into major success, are vastly outnumbered by everyone else.
You don't often see coverage of this in the media. Here's an exception, from the Wall Street Journal: "Writing the Book on Self-Help: A Publisher's Cautionary Tale." It's the story of C. Ben Bosah, who was certain his wife's nonfiction book about women's health was a bestseller in the making, and, unwilling to share the profits, decided to publish it himself. Unfortunately, his ignorance of the publishing industry led him to make a number of basic mistakes, from failing to line up a distributor, to neglecting to solicit pre-publication reviews, to disregarding the advice of experts and ordering too many books. Over the course of a year and a half, he has managed to recoup his $40,000 investment--but to do so has required more than 2,500 hours of his time.
Despite the problems and the errors, the book has done pretty well for a self-published title. Less than half the original order of 15,000 books has been sold, but that still means sales of several thousand, figures that might well interest a literary agent or a commercial publisher. Perhaps, ultimately, the book will find a commercial home. But for would-be self-publishers, there are a couple of lessons to take away from Mr. Bosah's experience. First, the importance of knowing something about publishing before deciding to become a publisher, even if your only client is yourself; and second, the incredible amount of time and energy self-publishers must expend in order to have even a hope of breaking even. These are things the self-publishing boosters and the Internet shills often forget to mention, as they're encouraging your starry-eyed dreams of publishing entrepreneurship.