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Self-publishing is viewed by some as having been detrimental to the quality of writing, but that may not be the whole story.
The Way it Used to Be
Decades ago, it used to be referred to as "Vanity Publishing" - the process by which an author paid a publisher to publish his or her work. As the digital printing age beckoned, it became possible for an author to avoid the cost of having to print and store quantities of books by enlisting a "print on demand" publisher. This made the process of self-publishing much more accessible to the average author. Progress, but not quite a revolution. Self-publishing got the book printed, but not exposed or marketed. As a result, most self-published books did not turn a profit.
Back in the Bad Old Days
Given the tightly-constricted window for getting a work published, it's not surprising that some of the greatest authors of our time faced rejection, and that some of the rejected works turned out to be classics. Orwell, Heller, Golding; Animal Farm, Catch 22 and Lord of the Flies: all rejected, sometimes rudely. Fortunately, the authors persisted, and their works live on today. But one has to wonder how many others gave up, or simply did not find a home for their works, and how many of those might have turned out to be literary classics. And, further, how many never tried, knowing how heavily the deck was stacked against success? The simple fact was that being a great writer or a great story teller was not enough. To have success, you had to get published. And that was totally beyond the writer's control.
Comes the Revolution
Enter self-publishing in its present form, the result of a sea of change over the last decade or so, thanks to the Internet and computer processing power. Today's publishing universe has been expanded and democratized to an extent that is truly revolutionary. So revolutionary, in fact, that the actual book has been largely transformed into the digital wonder known as the e-book. Unless you're one of the major publishing houses, or an author who's written a string of best sellers and can command six figure advances, the self-publishing revolution is the greatest thing to happen since Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450.
Doing it Yourself
Even if you do nothing more than write a blog, your work is available to millions of readers all over the world. Although that by no means guarantees that you're going to have millions of readers, it is still leaps and bounds ahead of where you would have been a generation ago if you had tried to get a novel published. Even just a decade or two ago, having an unsolicited book published was near impossible (for example, in 1976, Viking Press published the novel Ordinary People, by Judith Guest, which was the first unsolicited manuscript published by Viking in 26 years). The self-publishing process today can be broken down into three easy steps: 1. Write your book. Obviously, this is essential. 2. Select the self-publishing method that is best for you (examples: Lulu, Amazon Create Space and a host of others). 3. Do it! Of course, if you have your heart set on seeing your work in hard copy format, you can still pursue the print on demand route.
The Bottom Line
In 2010, there were 133,036 self-published titles; in 2011, that number rose to 211,269. While some might argue that the sheer number of publications has watered down their quality, a stronger case can be made that readers themselves can make that decision. They do not need an editor from one of the big publishing houses to run interference. And, self-published works need not be limited to novels or non-fiction full-length tomes (there are mini ebooks, serialized ebooks, blogs, newsletters, etc.) Creativity has come full circle. All it takes to be published is the will to write, the will to create, and the will to express oneself. The creative universe has expanded and we are all beneficiaries.