The self-publishing landscape has changed considerably in the past two decades with new technologies such as the Internet, and the $1 billion market continues to change at a rapid pace. Increasingly there are numerous alternatives to traditional publishing, and self-publishing is increasingly becoming the first choice for writers. With this growth in activity, the book world has become flooded with titles, much of it of low quality, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for self-publishers to differentiate one's offerings from the stew of average offerings. Most self-published books sell very few copies, although there are approximately a dozen books that sell into the millions. The quality of self-published works varies considerably.
Self-publishing is not a new phenomenon but has been around since the invention of writing. After the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, numerous books have been self-published. In 1759, British satirist Laurence Sterne's self-published the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. While most novels were distributed by established publishers, there have been authors who chose to self-publish, or who chose to start their own presses, such as John Locke, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Martin Luther, Marcel Proust, Derek Walcott, and Walt Whitman. In 1908, Ezra Pound sold A Lume Spento for six pence each. Franklin Hiram King's book Farmers of Forty Centuries was self-published in 1911, and was subsequently published commercially. In 1931 the author of The Joy of Cooking paid a local printing company to print 3000 copies; the Bobbs-Merrill Company acquired the rights, and since then the book has sold over 18 million copies. In 1941, writer Virginia Woolf chose to self-publish her final novel Between the Acts on her Hogarth Press, in effect starting her own press.
Five years ago, self-publishing was a scar. Now it’s a tattoo.
Up until two decades ago, self-publishing used to be described by the negative term vanity press with the connotation that the only reason that a book was being printed was to satisfy the author’s personal ego. Authors were considered to have been insufficiently talented to have been published the “proper” way via an established publishing house. Traditional publishers typically paid authors a percentage of the sales of their books, so publishers would select only those authors whose books they believed were likely to sell well. As a result, it was difficult for an unknown author to get a publishing contract under these circumstances. So-called vanity publishers offered an alternative: they would publish any book in exchange for an upfront payment by the author. With this arrangement, the author would not own the print run of finished books, and would not control how they were distributed. Critics of vanity publishers included James D. Macdonald, who claimed that vanity publishing violated Yog’s Law which states that "Money should flow toward the author." Vanity publishing usually required a one-time payment of $5,000 to $10,000 to do a print run of 1000 books; these books usually ended up in boxes in a garage.
Self-published books have had a negative stigma. To be sure, self-publishing is sometimes seen as a sign that an author believes in his or her work; for instance, photographer-turned-publisher Max Bondi said that "investing in a project shows that you believe in it". Nevertheless, part of the reason for the negative stigma is that many self-published books, particularly in past decades, were of dubious quality. For example, in 1995, a retired TV repairman self-published his autobiography in which he described how he had been stepped on by a horse when he was a boy, how he had been almost murdered by his stepfather when he was a young man in Mexico, and how his ex-wife had clawed his face with her fingernails. The repairman spent $10,000 to have his 150-page masterpiece printed up, and, for promotion purposes, he sent copies to a local library, to the White House, and to everybody with the repairman’s same last name. These efforts did not lead anywhere; today, the book is largely forgotten.