Alan Jacobs, writing at TheAtlantic.com:
[O]ne of the illusions most common to writers — an illusion that may make the long slow slog of writing possible, for many people — is that an enormous audience is out there waiting for the wisdom and delight that I alone can provide, and that the Publishing System is a giant obstacle to my reaching those people. Thus the dream that digital publishing technologies will indeed “disintermediate” — will eliminate that obstacle and connect me directly to what Bugs Bunny calls “me Public.” (See “Bully for Bugs”.) And we have heard just enough unexpected success stories to keep that dream alive.
I’ll chime in with my own success story, but only in service of paying off this post’s title:
I spent most of the last decade financing, producing, directing, editing, marketing and promoting, and distributing a series of documentary films. I did everything from hand-delivering cans of 16mm film to the lab to hand-addressing envelopes to send DVDs directly to customers.
In that time I produced 7 films, and sold upwards of 50,000 DVDs, with a “box-office” (ie retail) gross of about $1.25 million dollars. Of course we didn’t pocket all of that money. Some of it was our retailers’ cut. But we did collect enough money that we were able to shoot on film, pay our crew union-scale, appropriately compensate our subjects, pay mortgages on an apartment in Manhattan and a house in Montauk, pay health insurance for a family, and save enough money that when my fortunes as self-distributed filmmaker turned, there was working capital to throw at a new venture.
Yes, I’m proud of all of the above, but I also want to make it clear that I have lived the experience of successful self-distribution, and hope that that will lend some degree of credibility to what I’m about to say:
Self-distribution is over.
Going into self-distribution now is like buying Apple stock now. Yes, it might go up, but it might go down. Either way, the opportunity for returns disproportionate to risk and effort is long, long gone.
As Alan points out in his post, going the traditional route offers him the ability to focus on what he likes to do: write books. Not speaking engagements, not copy-editing, not proof reading, and certainly not designing, printing, marketing and promoting, warehousing or shipping orders. (Or even worse, selling Alan Jacobs t-shirts and tote-bags!)
I’m not saying self-publishing doesn’t work. The fact that I’m spending my days building a 40′ ocean going catamaran is proof that it does, or at least that it did for me.
I am saying that it takes a very particular sort of person to do it, and that person has to be comfortable with the idea that they’re going to spend upwards of 75% of their time and effort doing things they (probably) regard as secondary to the creative act, and that there’s no (longer) special reward for undertaking the effort. The chances of your work being embraced by the market are not higher than going the tradition route; the return on your investment of time and effort (and in the case of movies, money) is not higher than going the traditional route.
And self-distro is certainly not the (much hyped) solution to the chaos and uncertainty that reigns in music or movies or publishing. It’s simply another route that might work, but probably won’t.