I was a panelist at a fantasy/science fiction convention a couple of years ago and while I and the other panelists were waiting to start we looked at each other's books. As the fellow to my left examined a copy of my history of Byzantium, I looked over at his novel.
"Who was your publisher?" I asked.
"AuthorHouse," he replied, slumping in his seat.
I can see why he slumped. AuthorHouse is a vanity press, meaning he paid to have his book published. He will get no marketing from his "publisher" unless he pays even more, no copyedit unless he pays more, no distribution in stores, and most reviewers won't take him seriously. His work won't even be recognized by the Library of Congress.
When I first started as a writer and was expressing frustration at not being able to get my books published, my wife (who now knows better) suggested, "Why don't you self-publish?"
My response was "No thanks, I'm already a nobody."
Despite a lot of hype to the contrary, fueled by the vanity presses themselves and defensive self-publishers, paying for publication will probably not help your career. Agents and editors don't consider self-published works as prior experience, and almost nobody makes back their initial layout. "Oh," but they say, "What about The Christmas Box? What about Eragon?"
What about the thousands of books that are self-published every year that never make it anywhere? Yes, there have been a few success stories, but they're few and far between, and the authors of the above two books happened to be talented, unlike most self-published authors. Both eventually got picked up by major houses, which helped with their distribution and advertising and made them more money than they ever could themselves.
One of my more soul-destroying jobs was as a copyeditor at a major self-publishing firm. In the six months I was there I didn't see a single book worth reading, let alone publishing. Flat characters, hackneyed and occasionally nonsensical plots, and not a glimmer of literary worth. The fact that my pay came out of the author's pocket and not the publisher's gave me a queasy feeling. Now I only do freelance editing. It helps me sleep.
So is self-publishing always a bad idea? No. Self-publishers fail because they have no market for their books. When was the last time you looked through the catalog of iUniverse or PublishAmerica for something to read? But if you have a guaranteed market you can reach cheaply, then you just might be able to sell books to people other than your mother. If you self-publish a history of your church, for example, you know you can sell a certain amount of copies to the parishioners. I met a guy who was an expert in a certain rare tropical fish. Through newsgroups he knew pretty much everyone who owned this type of fish and they acknowledged him as an expert. So he self-published a book and sold it to people in his newsgroups. I doubt he made much money, but he did get his ideas out there.
You can also do well if you build up a major platform. Cynthia Hope Clark has built up a reputation for writing advice through her fundsforwriters website. Now she's self-publishing books filled with writing advice. Since she's spent years building up a reputation, she can market through her popular newsletters and website. It helps that she knows how to write. She blows all the authors from my old job out of the water.
So my advice is, unless you have a major reputation or a tight hold on a niche market, stay away from self-publishing. It will only break your heart.
And that guy I was on the panel with? I didn't see him sell any books at the convention. He never came out with the sequel he was planning, or the audio book of his first novel, and his personal website hasn't been updated since 2006. Yet another casualty on the self-publishing highway.