Not to pick on anybody in particular, but in the past week, I've heard from a number of authors who have written and published a novel with limited success. Very limited success. In fact, one self publisher used the "F" word in describing the results, as in "Failure." In one instance, several thousand dollars was spent on advertising the novel with zero sales resulting. I'm always sympathetic to people who give it the old college try, but I'm also constrained to question, "What exactly did you expect?"
I've had a finished novel sitting around for the last twelve years that I never published, because I couldn't imagine it being anything but a guilt purchase for friends and family. OK, maybe at this point I get enough attention for writing about self publishing that some of my readers would buy it out of curiosity, but that's neither a business plan nor a boost for the old ego. It's difficult for me to assess the quality of my own novel, I'd say it's pretty poor, but that doesn't mean a lot since I find most modern fiction to be uninspiring. One rejection letter I got from an acquisitions editor way back when I wrote it said, in essence, "We publish literature with a capital "L" and sleaze with a capital "S." Your book is neither so it won't work for us." I thought that was pretty fair and accurate.
There's nothing new or daring about self publishing a novel, authors have been doing just that since time immemorial, and any self publishing hall of fame will contain many success stories with fiction. What is novel about using POD to publish fiction, either through subsidy presses or through setting up your own self publishing company, is the relatively low financial commitment it requires. As somebody who's already set up as a publisher, I could have my novel in print by tomorrow morning for a set-up cost of about $100 if I chose, but I know that writing the book and getting it into print are the two easiest steps in the fiction publishing process. Selling unconventionally published fiction takes a great salesman, and it doesn't hurt if the target audience judges the novel to be well written as well.
Whether you're talking about a few hundred dollars in fees to a subsidy publisher or buying a block of ISBN numbers for $250 and doing all the work yourself, forcing a novel into print these days costs an order of magnitude less than it would have just a decade ago. Subsidy presses in the pre-POD days used to charge anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 to get your book "published", and all that guaranteed was that you'd get a garage full of books. In the past, people used to mortgage their homes to chase the dream, and without an Amazon to list all of those books, their slim chance of ever selling a handful was even slimmer than today.
But there is a difference between the authors of the fiction being published in unconventional ways today and those self publishers or subsidy authors of the last generation. Simply preparing a manuscript in the days before wordprocessors was a nightmare for those of us without secretarial training, correction tape and crumpled up pages ruled the day. With today's technology, it's almost trivial to knock out something that at least looks like a book, and the spellcheckers will even catch some of the wrong letters, though rarely the wrong words. The big commitment of the last generation of authors, in terms of time and cash investment, may have given some pause to think before writing or printing their book. A chance to ask oneself, "What do I really know about how books get into stores?" or "How will I reach a large number of people and persuade them how to buy my book?" I'm not saying all authors did that, but in the case of those hall of famer's, I'd be surprised if they didn't.
Too many authors think that marketing is simply a matter of screwing up ones courage and asking somebody to buy a book. It may work that way if you're extraordinarily attractive, but most of us need to make a compelling argument, an argument that works from the side of the buyer. Most of the correspondence I get from authors who ask me to critique their marketing demonstrates that they approach the sale from their own side, rather than from the perspective of the potential buyer. The author ends up giving the buyer a lot of reasons why it would be good for the author if the novel gets purchased. That's just not that persuasive of an argument from the point of view of the buyer. The buyer doesn't know that it's the greatest book ever written, and would be a bit of a fool to take the author's word for it.
If you have written the greatest novel of the young century, my advice is to put all of your effort into finding a positive agent and selling it to a large trade publisher. If that's entirely out of reach, then try to find a legitimate small publisher with a moderately successful fiction list. This requires a lot of social networking for most authors, attending conferences, rubbing elbows, getting phone numbers and maybe even picking up checks. Some authors have even found that marrying a literary agent is the best way to get two feet in the door.
The only really novel thing about publishing novels with POD is that so many new authors are doing it, full of conviction that the books will sell themselves. I've never heard of it happening, and I'd assume it was some freak occurrence if I did. A large number of bookstore managers aren't going to order your book for stock just because you ask them, and while you might hear POD in the explanation, that's just a convenient excuse. If you self published your novel on an offset press or used a subsidy publisher to do the same, they'd still say no. They aren't rejecting the printing technology, they're rejecting a novel they've never heard of by an author they've never heard of who has no proven marketing resources to help them sell the book. And that's what bookstore managers are looking for in a book, something that will sell and make them money. When you walk in the door with your novel, you're just asking them to do you a favor, and it would be a novel response for somebody to say "Yes."