I've been extolling the virtues of self-published e-books since at least 2007, but the process has only recently gained widespread notice. I wrote my first novel in 2004 and was originally thinking of going the traditional route of finding an agent and hoping a big publisher would pick me up. I wouldn't say no to that route even today, but there are just some aspects of the business that are not very attractive to me. As near as I can tell, all of those aspects are resolved by self-publishing.
Self-publishing still holds some stigma. I am frequently treated to rolling eyes when I mention it to other authors. The truth is that people self-publish their novels all the time. The list of famous self-publishers includes writers like James Redfield, Christopher Paolino, and L. Ron Hubbard (I'm told John Grisham's first novel was initially self-published, but couldn't find a credible source to confirm that).
The following is a short list of the virtues of e-publishing, compiled from all the research I've done and people I've talked to inside and outside of the writing industry.
1. No Slush Pile
If you submit your novel to an agent or publisher without their consent, your work goes on a slush pile. The company or agency will eventually sift through that pile and (hopefully) find your book and like it. The problem is that there's no telling who will read your work, and many times you will not get the editor or agent who should be reading it. One published author told me about the slush pile at a major publishing house being reviewed by college students. Not editors. Not experienced professionals. College students. Not that there's anything wrong with college students, but the general procedure with this particular slush pile was that if they weren't hooked on the story on page one, they'd throw it out. Slush piles like theirs are simply too big and I don't want my book to disappear in one. Self-publishing an e-book has no slush pile. When it's done, you publish it.
2. Time Frame
Let's assume a publisher loves your work and wants to purchase the rights. Great! Now, when does it get into the hands of the readers? Next week? Try years. Possibly as many as three years, depending on the publisher's backlog. The Writer's Market handbook I flipped through had only a handful of publishers who could publish new authors faster than two years. Granted, I'm sure that figure changes often based on several factors, but still... I want readers to have access to my book when it's done, not years later.
3. Creative Control
This is the biggest point with me. I want full creative control. I'm absolutely petrified of some agent or publisher saying "this is great but you should add 20,000 words", or "remove 20,000 words", or "you should replace the main character with a giant inflatable badger". Arbitrary changes like that just make me cringe. It's not that I don't want feedback. That's what workshops and writing groups are for. What I write is not perfect, but I don't want anyone to be able to force me to make changes. Self-publishing, whether it's an e-book or a vanity press, lets me keep full control over the worlds and characters I create. Maybe I'm a control freak. I don't really care what's selling now. I want to tell the story I want to tell without having it tainted by changes to make my writing more popular or mainstream. I'd rather make trends than follow them.
I've read many stories from authors about the publishing industry. The general consensus is that you get very little help with marketing your first book. Once it becomes a best-seller or gets a good review from someone influential, then you get the publisher behind you, helping out as much as they can. Otherwise, new authors can very easily disappear without that marketing support network. The bottom line is that you have to do most of the legwork yourself. So, if you have to do it all yourself, why not... do it all yourself? Is it possible to succeed this way? Ask James Redfield, author of The Celestine Prophecy, who self-published and sold 100,000 copies from the trunk of his car before being picked up by Warner Books.
5. Cost vs POD
If you get picked up by a big publisher, they pay you an advance and royalties based on sales. If you try to self-publish, it usually costs quite a bit. I've done research on Print-On-Demand (POD) services like Amazon's CreateSpace, Lulu, Booklocker, and iUniverse. As much as I like the idea of holding a copy of my book, it's just too expensive. Most of those services charge you to publish and then leave you with a book that has a retail price of $18 or more. Who's going to pay that much for a paperback from a new, unknown author (well, besides me)? Even with services that have no up-front cost, you can easily end up with a novel that would cost a reader $12 to $14. Going the e-book route, the cost is cut to almost nothing. Services like Lulu and Apple's iBookstore take a cut of the sale price, usually around 15% to 30%. Selling an e-book for as little as $1.99 per copy becomes a cost-effective option.
I expect the influx of devices like the Nook, Kindle, and iPad to continue accelerating, and the inevitable price wars between them will make reading e-books an even more common practice. People can read e-books on their computers as well. I've been doing that ever since I discovered Project Gutenberg in 2002 or so.
I originally started writing that last reason as the article summary and spent some time arguing with myself over whether it was a summary or not. Electronic delivery of virtual media is the future. As much as I like holding a book in my hands, I expect them to become rare in my lifetime. Amazon recently announced that their e-book sales finally surpassed physical copies. I don't think there's anything that could prove my point more.