Like many unpublished writers, I research ways to get published. The traditional one is to send out query letters, find an agent, have her find an editor who takes the book to a publisher, who agrees to publish and market the book. That can take years. I mean years. Not one or two, but ten or more. Nearly every major bestseller has a story behind it of the author collecting rejection after rejection before finally "hitting it big."
Other ways are to use vanity publishers, small presses, print on demand, subsidized publishing, and more. If you read the statistics, it is true that alternative publishing surpassed traditional publishing in the number of titles last year. But dig deeper, and you find that statistics can always be spun to tell a story. It just might not be the story for you.
When you add up the number of titles and the number of books sold (for those few "transparent" alternative publishers), you get between 50 and 150 copies per title. And except for the small press, few if any of these alternative publishers take returns, provide marketing, or placement in book stores. Small presses often do take returns, may provide limited marketing, but rely on the author to gain placement in bookstores.
I looked into Lulu.com. A best seller is 500 copies. One of my friends has published five titles with Lulu.com. And he has purchased five copies each. No other sales. Why? He publishes specialized cookbooks for his family -- one per year for Christmas.
Everyone should be aware of the pitfalls of alternative publishing. With no marketing, you should expect no sales. If you have a strong platform, and a strong marketing plan, you might do all right. It all depends on the numbers you want to hit.
Sometimes an author starts with print on demand, for example, sells upwards of 1500 copies, does her own marketing, and develops a readership and demand for future works. At that point, the author is moving into the realm of a small press, even though she is not printing anything physically. My friend Sally Roseveare sold nearly 2000 copies of a novel set at Smith Mountain Lake. Her second novel is due out in July. With such a readership, she should be moving a lot of "product" in the next few months.
One last point. Anyone going the alternative publishing route should pay close attention to costs. Amazon is promoting its Booksurge program. A 75,000-word book starts at $4,599. At least that was the cost on Friday.
Bottom line: There are no right answers in publishing. The best advice I've received is to do thorough research before jumping onto one band wagon or another.
And one observation: Didja ever think that some books should not be published?