I thought it would be useful to cover this topic because there are still misconceptions about what it is. First, it will probably help to explain about traditional publishing.
A traditional publishing company will only take on work that they consider commercially profitable. After all, they are a business. Generally, manuscripts are submitted to publishers by literary agents, and the decision to accept or reject them depends on the potential of the story, market trends, and production costs.
If you are fortunate enough to have your novel accepted by a publishing company, all of the hard work required in the production and selling of the book is done for you. That’s the editing, cover design and typesetting, proofreading, printing, marketing and distribution. You will receive a payment in the form of an advance, which you pay back, over time, out of the royalties you earn from the sales of your book.
With true self-publishing, you publish your work independently and at your own expense. No literary agents or traditional publishing houses are involved. You manage the whole process from start to finish. However, the amount of work you can realistically do by yourself is dependent on a number of things, including: IT skills, time, and a reasonable understanding of the processes involved.
If you just want to see your work in print and don’t mind about quality control, you could complete the whole process at little or no cost. That’s an achievement in itself. But if you lack the resources required, or you care about how your work will be received, or you would like your novel to be produced to a professional standard, you will have to pay.
The ability to self-publish was made possible by the arrival of Internet companies such as CreateSpace, Lulu, and Smashwords, back in the early 2000s. Prior to this, the only way to publish a book outside of the traditional route was to use a vanity publisher, where an author paid quite a lot of money up front to have their book ‘professionally’ produced. This was often regardless of potential or quality, with little or no editorial service, marketing, and distribution. As a result, vanity publishing earned a bad name.
These days, many independent publishers have sprung up to offer self-publishing services, but in essence, these are no different from vanity publishers. The author still has to pay up front. As I write this, the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook lists over 100 such companies. Some are even offshoots of traditional publishers (where rejected manuscripts are passed to a ‘self-publishing’ department). Prices vary greatly, depending on the service offered. You could pay anything from £200 to £2000 to see your book in print. If you decide to take this route, shop around and find out what is offered for the money.
Regardless of the route taken, there is a lot of work involved in publishing a novel, whether it is produced as a printed copy or an e-book. It is not a quick process, either, taking months rather than weeks.
I hope this offers an adequate explanation as to what self-publishing is. If I’ve missed anything, or you have any questions, please feel free to ask. There’s one last thing I would like to mention: whatever your resources, try not to skimp on the production of your novel. If you do, the hard truth is that you are unlikely to sell many copies beyond your circle of friends and family, however good the story. After all your hard work in writing it, this would be a shame. It does not necessarily mean paying someone else to do the work, but just spending some time researching what is involved in the production process. 🙂