The above question occurred to me in the context of examining the pros and cons of the main publishing options for Worm: Demon Attorney at Law. Ruling out actual 'vanity' publishing (because I have no money), the two main options are self publish right now, or take the longer route of traditional publishing and all that brings.
So which should I choose and why? It really boils down to what I want from my choice of publisher, and by extension my 'career' as a writer.
Money: neither option provides much of that at first, so it's not really a consideration.
Support: as a new writer, there probably won't be much in the way of support for advertisement and editing services. There are still some perks to having a trad publisher in terms of producing a run of physical books, and y'know, publishing them. Chalk up one for tradition.
Formats: with ebook and print on demand services, a self-publisher can have the same product available online as a traditionally published writer. It's a draw.
Timing: I can self-publish right now if I want to. Right this second. For a traditional deal I estimate that it might be up to two years before I could even hope to have a book out (if it happens at all with this work). That's a definite point in favour of self-publishing.
Contractual obligations: with self-publishing I don't have to answer to anyone (apart from the blogdog - see below). With a traditional deal there's bullshit like deadlines and responsibilities to blog, tweet, and Facebook about my damn book. Maybe I feel like blogging, maybe I don't. I don't want to be forced into taking my focus away from writing when I barely have enough time for that anyway. 2 points in the self-publishing corner.
So far I've got to say it's a very tough fight to call. In practical terms, a self-publisher can have everything a traditionally published author can have. And, since 50 Shades of Grey, there is precedent for a self-published author to become a massive success - although let's be clear, the success of that book was all in the shock value as opposed to artistic merit. I could go on, but 'shock value' as a marketing technique is beyond the scope of this post. Let's get back to the comparison of traditional publishing versus selfing it.
Vanity: now we're getting somewhere. I have self-published 9 works of various lengths, but I have a real difficulty calling myself a 'writer'. Maybe it's just me, but unless I have a traditional publishing deal, or something published in a magazine, I don't think I'm a real writer.
Should that matter? No. Does it though? Kinda.
Maybe it's this whole new self-publishing phenomenon which has made 'writer' a meaningless title. Previously one had no option but to grovel to the big publishing houses to attain the status of writer. Now, any idiot with an internet connection can throw some words onto a page, click publish, and call themselves a writer (and occasionally: become a massive success (see the erotica section of the Kindle bookstore)).
So what? If I'm happy with my work, I've put in the effort, and I'm putting out a professional product, should it matter that others don't? No. Does it though? Kinda.
And as I alluded to earlier, although I can have a physical product printed up, I can't hang around for hours in a bookstore next to my book, leaving a copy open to the 'picture of the author' page.
"Did I write this? Why yes, yes I did."
Without the negotiation clout of a publishing house, a selfer will probably never see their book in a book-store.
So, to sum up: before taking vanity into consideration, there's no clear winner in the war of tradition versus newfangled self-publishing. However, the latter comes without the coveted gloating rights of having been approved by someone 'in the biz', invested in, and put into print. And when there appears to be so little money to be made from this career/ calling/ hobby, maybe that's all we can get from it...
Hmm, that was a bit more melancholy than I had intended. I'm going to go play with the blogdog to cheer myself up.