Having recently self-published a novel and several collections of poetry, my experience with self-publishing, or print-on-demand, is mixed but it's vast.
For the last four and a half years, I've been experimenting with POD with a mixture of results. I've seen the industry grow from the Vanity houses to the first POD service through Cafepress, to what it is now with iUniverse and Lulu holding on to the lions share.
In 2004, for a total of $110, I published a book of poetry called 'Electronic Butterflies' through Lulu because of the cheap cost and the all-in-one service for ISBN and distribution. I have had mixed results as I've sold a few hundred copies of each of the three titles that I've made available. More people have purchased the books than have left online reviews, which ironically is the exact opposite of what any smart writer/publisher really wants. Due to the pricing and the royalty scales in place, you learn very quickly that you're most likely not going to get rich at this endeavor.
The point I think for most people who get involved in self-publishing has traditionally been to satisfy a whim or an ego, but a lot of that sentiment has changed over the last five years as several writers have used the medium to break through the market and make their titles known. The allure and professionalism of self-publishing has increased dramatically as has the word-of-mouth, and people have flocked to it in large numbers.
In 2006, I began talking with iUniverse to publish my novel 'Yellow Fever'. A story about a Chinese stripper in Los Angeles and her love affair with an L.A.P.D. Officer. After submitting the book to three different agents, I received back virtually the same response from all of them. “Loved your story. Well written and completely engaging, but I don't see a market for a story about a Chinese prostitute.” After painfully reading the same reply three times, I felt like there was some truth to this as it sounded unanimous. Having written several other novels, I knew that if I wanted to get the book into the general consciousness of mainstream readers, I would have to self-publish the novel and do whatever marketing for the book myself. I was willing to sacrifice my novel in the sake of experimentation. Best case scenario would be that it would be picked up by an agent or a publisher directly and worse case scenario ... it would sit there online collecting dust. No biggie. It was already doing that in my desk drawer.
The book has been well-received by those that have read and reviewed it, for that, I'm happy. I've actually broke with iUniverse in the last few months over several issues. One of them is the inaccurate reporting of sales from the many online distributors. Having purchased a handful of copies myself, and received emails from a growing list of friends and family that have ordered and read the book, I knew that the totals were somewhere close to fifty copies. When I looked at the numbers through the iUniverse website, it only reflected three copies. I was curious about this and emailed them but received no response on multiple occasions.
After doing some online research, I found many other authors had reported similar experiences. I know that I've purchased 10 copies from Amazon over the last year alone that I can personally vouch for and prove through receipt. I have also seen with my own two eyes several of the copies my friends and family purchased. I've received emails from readers across the planet that have read the book and liked it and also purchased it from many different online sellers, so there really is no reason for the continuing discrepancy.
I knew when I went through iUniverse that it was like gambling, whatever money I spent, which was $800, I would never see again. I also expected not to have sales recorded properly as I had already heard of this problem when I began. I just didn't know how bad it was. I went with iUniverse on the off-chance that they would select it for their prestigious 'Reader's Choice' slot, which can get a book placed into a Barnes & Noble storefront near the door. As of this day, and after many phonecalls and quizzing Barnes and Noble directly, not a single fiction title has made it forward into this much coveted position. So is it false advertising, or just unmet expectations? The thought is that the publishers honestly have a lock on the stores.
I've republished the book through Lulu for another $90, which didn't hurt me financially or break the bank. Breaking free from iUniverse actually felt good and I regained the ability to adjust the document ad infinitum without penalty or major fee, unlike iUniverse who wanted to charge me another $400 to fix formatting issues that weren't visible until I actually saw the hard-copy.
The biggest benefit from self-publishing, for this author has been two distinct things. The first was the feeling of freedom from a project that I worked on for eight years continuously. I thought that I would continually whittle away at it if I didn't get it out there soon. Publishing the work got it off my desk and off my shoulders. A lot of writers can probably relate similar tales and experiences regarding publishing their work. Putting distance between the book and myself allowed me to finally move on and work on other, more important projects that were bubbling away on the back burner more than ready to be tackled.
The second benefit is the feedback. Toiling away in obscurity is no fun, at least for most of us. Some people do really enjoy it though. Having received a large volume of emails, snail mail letters and online reviews has led to a lot of self-development as a writer that I would have otherwise missed out on. Exposing oneself to a larger community with your work also lets your peers know that you exist. Being stuck on a deserted island without sending out some type of emergency communication is a dark prospect, but it quickly becomes a much greater and rewarding experience the moment you find new readers, fresh eyes and different perspective. Without these things a lot of writers are probably doomed to write the same novel forever, exactly the same way, receiving exactly the same rejection letters from different agents and publishers.
These days, whenever I finish a new book and I'm ready for editing, I have eight to ten people advance read it for me. I go through Lulu and have them print up the galleys as it's cheaper than printing at home and they'll send every copy to a different address. I don't even have to make trip to my rural post-office. When the editing is done by my readers, they always send them back in the mail and I go right back to work on my book. This has proven to be invaluable and every reader has stated that they preferred reading the book bound with a cover over the traditional form of a white-page printed manuscript. The book becomes portable and stays together. I go to great lengths to make the Advance Reading Copy look as professional as possible. This way the reading experience is as unbiased as possible and likens to their regular reading they go through every night.
For me, self-publishing / print-on-demand has worked out even though I do not have an agent or a book deal. But the longer I push that stone up the hill, the closer I get and the more I learn.
And yes, that is a picture of an IBM 5100 ... ;) ... nuthin' like dropping a hint.