Disclaimer: Four of the 14 books I have written have been self-published with the ready admission that I couldn't find a traditional publisher to publish them because of their decidedly niche nature.
The topic of self-publishing, which I include to mean both printing one's own books and paying a so-called vanity press, is one that generates heated debate about its place in the literary marketplace. On the positive side, self-publishing has freed frustrated book writers from having to scale the mostly impenetrable fortress known as the book industry and bypass those who hold the keys to the castle, namely, literary agents, editors, and publishers.
The fact is that a few self-published books have had great success and the authors have since received contracts from established publishers, for example, Amanda Hocking, who has sold more than 1.5 million copies of her self-published books, and E L James, the author of the Fifty Shades trilogy. Additionally, established authors, including David Mamet, have chosen to self-publish has a means of gaining more control over their works and keeping more of their profits. Many famous authors started out self-publishing their works including John Grisham, Jack Canfield, Beatrix Potter, and Tom Clancy.
Here's a factoid: Twelve publishers rejected J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book before she found a relatively small publishing house (Scholastic isn't small any longer!) willing to give her a chance. And you know how she's done since! There are, I'm sure, many great works of literature that have not seen the light of day because of the myopia of the book industry. And self-publishing gives those works a chance to shine.
At the same time, the self-publishing industry has allowed anyone with a computer and a small amount of money to call themselves authors. Not long ago, I read a fascinating article in the New York Times (unfortunately, I haven't been able to find it when I did an Internet search) that questioned whether self-published authors should be called published authors. Rather, the article suggests, they are book writers who have their books printed. There is, I believe, a significant difference between authors published by traditional houses and self-published books in that the latter lack the processes that we can count on to ensure a minimal level of quality, both of content and style.
The publishing houses are certainly not beyond reproach as judges of worthy literature. There are many books published by the houses that are critically panned and sell few copies. Yet, despite their warts, the publishing industry does serve a valuable role as an initial arbiter of literary quality (however flawed it may be). Books that are accepted by a genuine publisher go through a rigorous (though obviously imperfect) multi-layer vetting process that includes an agent, an editor, several outside reviewers, an editorial committee, a sales and marketing committee, and often the publisher him or herself.
What process does self-publishing typically go through to ensure quality? Well, of course, the authors themselves write multiple drafts until they are satisfied. But you know how objective authors are about their own works. Then perhaps they have a relative or friend edit their manuscript (that's what I did), another source of dubious objectivity and literary good judgment.
There's no doubt that calling yourself a published author isn't what it used to be. But, to be fair, being published by an established publishing house doesn't ensure that you wrote a quality work or that it will be a critical or sales success (I can speak to the latter point!). And being self-published doesn't mean that you wrote a work of vanity. As someone who has both published and self-published, I believe that there is, however, a difference.
And self-published book writers seem to know too. Whenever I meet someone who tells me they are an author, I always ask who their publisher is. If they hem and haw, I know they self-published because they also know that their state of authorhood lacks a certain legitimacy that comes from having a traditionally published book.
I don't begrudge book writers having their books printed. They should be rightfully proud of the effort required in writing a book. As a friend of mine once said, many a Great American Novel never found its way to paper (or screen, these days). Anyone who is willing to sacrifice the time and incur the opportunity costs of writing a lengthy manuscript should be admired. Far be it from me to extinguish the flames of an impassioned writer.
And someone? has to write the next great work of fiction or nonfiction; why can't it be John, or Maria, or Ken And what if the publishing industry misses its chance? Self-publishing provides a venue to those missed opportunities to find their place in the marketplace of ideas.
But, however wonderful that scenario sounds, it is not very likely. To put self-publishing in perspective, self-published books rarely ever find a place in brick-and-mortar bookstores and they get buried in the websites of online booksellers like amazon. And about 99 percent of self-published books sell only a few hundred copies at most, so even if the next work of literature is self-published, it still will probably not ever be discovered.
The only thing I know for sure is that the rules of publishing are changing. Will self-publishing ever attain the legitimacy of traditionally published books? At this point in its evolution, no one can tell. But until self-publishing has proven itself, I'm going to argue that there is a difference publishing and self-publishing and between authors and book writers.