While Q&Q shone some light on the success of projects like the Cooking Ladies', where personable authors who identified a niche market have done well with their self-publishing projects, the SFWA Atlanta Nights sting operation, which has been big news in the publishing blogosphere shows the other side of the self-publishing coin.
Grumpy Old Bookman (who is now required reading for This Crazy Industry) discusses the claims, made by several self-publishing outfits,
that almost every famous writer in the entire history of literature started out by publishing his or her own work. Trafford, for instance, gives us a list including Alexander Dumas, Edgar Allan Poe, and Margaret Atwood. Advocate House reminds us of Mark Twain, James Redfield, and John Grisham. And even so straitlaced a body as the UK Publishers Association mentions Jill Paton, Timothy Mo, and Susan Hill. The longest list is to be found in the self-publishing hall of fame.
(I'll forgo the rant about how, like much good PR, these claims leave out more than they include. They imply that these authors were successful because they self published, as if self-publishing were a first step on the ladder to literary success. The stories behind self publishing ventures are almost always more complicated than that. Margaret Atwood's, for example, self-published her first volume of poetry. Her first two novels were published by small literary presses; it was only when McLelland and Stewart published her third novel that those first two novels gained much commercial success for their publishers, this interest sparked interest in her poetry. But I was going to forgo that rant.)
More to the point, as the Bookman points out, for every Cooking Lady we hear about, there are thousands of self-published authors whose works are never read by more than a handful of people.
One rarely hears of self-published authors who continue to self publish after they achieve publishing "success" (where success seems to be defined as being picked up by a mainstream publisher). The Cooking Ladies are now carried by a Ten Speed Press. India Edgehill's novel Queenmaker, touted in Wired News as an example of a self-published success, was "traditionally published" in 2002 by St. Martin's press. David Chilton's legendary self-publishing success The Wealthy Barber is published by Random House (and I believe it was published by Stoddart prior to the Stoddart disaster) For all the claims that self-publishing is coming into its own, it seems that success is still defined by the the publishing industry, which still controls the means of distribution. A "successful" self-published book is one that comes to a publisher's notice, so that it can be "traditionally" published in its second edition.
Does it seem paradoxical to anyone else?