I have come to the conclusion that there are two main philosophies of “self-publishing”.
All broad characterizations are perforce oversimplifications, and this one will be more so than most, so be advised that many–probably most–of self-published authors won’t fit exactly into either category.
Granting the inexactitude of what I am about to say, I believe that there are two basically incompatible ways to define the relationship between self-published authors and traditional publishing.
The first group defines “self-publishing” as “an author acting as her or his own publisher”. That is to say that authors are emulating the model of traditional publishers. These authors tend, to be honest, among the most successful financially. They tend to write in clearly defined genres, with traditionally designed covers, and often judge their work against the standard produced by traditional publishers.
Self-publishing, for these authors, is generally a choice made on the basis of time invested vs. profits. Most of these authors could work for traditional publishers, but they choose to act as their own publishers instead. In fact, most “hybrid” authors fall into this category–they learned how traditional publishers operate and decided that they could do the same thing and keep a larger share of the profits.
The other group defines “self-publishing” as “publishing outside the traditional model.” We tend, alas, to be less successful financially. Our books, by and large, are ones that traditional publishers would not accept. We break genres, confound reader expectations, and generally just don’t follow the rules. For us, self-publishing is a way to get our work to readers directly, outside of the hierarchical producer/consumer relationship.
I don’t mean to be judgmental here, and I apologize if it comes across that way. I’m not talking about “selling out” vs. “being true to your art” or anything like that. It’s a matter of different philosophies, different ways of looking at the connection between artist and audience. The fact that they are incompatible is not mean to imply that they are not equally valid.
It does mean, though, that the overwhelming majority of well-meant advice to self-published authors simply doesn’t apply to me. The first group tend to be very generous with their time and willing to share their expertise (as successful entrepreneurs often are.) It is advice on how to set up my own miniature version of Harper-Collins-Random-Penguin-Whatever, and while I am sure it is good advice, that’s not what I am doing here.
The fact is that if I were to set up my own publishing company, I wouldn’t publish Catskinner’s Book. My work isn’t commercially viable. I wish it were, but I have to deal with the real. My fan base is very loyal, but it’s small and is likely to remain small.
Business strategies that are predicated on the assumption that there is a certain percentage of the populace who are natural consumers of a particular product and simply need to be informed that the product exists would bankrupt me in short order. I am not writing for the “Romance Market” or the “Sci-Fi Market” or any pre-existing market.
Instead I am writing for an entirely new market, and consequently there is no way to calculate a risk vs return analysis for marketing dollars spent. Any marketing I do must be with entirely disposable funds, and I have little to spare.
All of the above is my own way of dealing with my frustration at reading the innumerable articles describing in detail what I should be doing and how I can become just like the latest self-publishing success story. I tried that, and traditional methods work for traditional books. I don’t write traditional books.