A lot of people in publishing will tell you that self-publishing is the mark of failure. It's the last ditch resort, they'll tell you, of anyone whose work is so terrible they have no chance of publishing through conventional means. Unlike a band who put out their own record, or a director who funds his own film on a shoestring, self-publishing is considered to be the last refuge of the talentless. Her work is so bad, the received wisdom says, that nobody else believes in it enough to put it out.
In the punk scene, it's the norm to put out your own record (or agree to let a friend do it for you). A large part of the culture of punk is the strength of feeling against mainstream culture, and the corporations who control it. Large entertainment corps like Sony EMI make millions of dollars from the exploitation of musicians. They own the creative endeavours of those who work for them - the music and words they write, and their performances. They can even shelve a band's album, and stop the band from releasing it themselves, if its in their interests to do so.
"Is the publishing industry really as bad as all that?", you might ask. "Surely it's not so corporately driven as the music industry." It's true that there are lots of small presses doing excellent work. It's often the small presses that take the risks; they're often run on a shoestring, by people who have day-jobs who run their publishing house in the evenings and at weekends. These sorts of presses are usually run for love, not money, and they don't make a lot. (One of my favourites is Nightjar Press, who have been putting out a series of short story chapbooks for the past couple of years now.) Big publishing houses, on the other hand, have a responsibility to generate profit for their shareholders, and that isn't always going to mean that they're publishing great literature. Katie Price biography, anyone?
In some cases, the publishing industry actively works against the wishes of its authors. Once the manuscript is sold, the writer may lose a certain amount of power over what happens next. You may not always have a say in how the book is marketed, or what the cover looks like. If you care about whether people will read your book, and whether the content of it is accurately represented by how it looks on the shelf, you will care about the cover. Some publishing houses (hello, Bloomsbury) are well-known for grossly misrepresenting their authors' work with egregious covers. As recently as 2010, Bloomsbury published novels by Justine Larbalestier and Jaclyn Dolamore, both of which had non-white protagonists, with white models on the cover. Why does it matter? Simple answer, it matters because it's racism. The same thing has been done to Ursula K Le Guin's work. There's a comprehensive article on 'whitewashing' on BookSmugglers here.
The tools for self-publishing are now within the reach of most authors. As Zetta Elliot says in her HuffPo article on self-publishing, "Writers today have options. We don't have to wait for someone else's stamp of approval".
There are loads of different ways to self-publish, from e-publishing to offset printing to print-on-demand; each has their advantages and disadvantages. Time spent researching the various methods to decide which will suit you, and your work best, will definitely pay off here. In short, as writer Hamish MacDonald says in his article Do-It-Yourself Book Press (on the No Media Kings website), "Generally, self-publishing involves an inverse relationship of work to money: The more work you’re willing to do, the more money you can save; the more you want to just skip to an end product, the more it’ll cost you".
Self-publishing isn't by any means an easy route, and to my mind if you're going to do it you should endeavour to do it well. There's nothing worse than a self-published book that looks self-published - dodgy formatting, spelling errors, unbelievably shonky sentence construction. You shouldn't look upon this route as a quick route to publication because the simple truth is, if your work is bad, nobody will want to read it. Your work should be the best it possibly can be before you bring it out into the public eye. There's an excellent, if somewhat acid, article by the writer Chuck Wendig on common errors that self-publishers make on his blog terribleminds: "You think publishing is full of mean ol’ myopic gatekeepers and you can do it better? How is anybody supposed to take you seriously when you can’t even approach a fraction of the quality found in books on bookstore shelves, books put out by publishers big and small? ... [if] you’re going to put something out there, make it count."
In other words, make sure your work is ready. Rewrite it, edit it, keep on polishing it the same as you would if you were trying to impress a 'professional'. Going down this route requires much more dedication and self-discipline than does a conventional route. The person breathing down your own neck is you. You must be the one horse-whipping yourself into creating something great, into something that other people actually want to read; and once it's out, you have to be the one who gets around, who networks, who gets the book into shops and libraries. It's not an easy route, but it gives you more control, and maybe more satisfaction.
More information on self-publishing on the No Media Kings website