So here's my dark little writer's secret. When I was sixteen, I finished writing a fantasy novel called The Shattering Sigil, and got it published by a vanity press. They don't call themselves that, of course; they call themselves a small press that accepts a small amount of money from new writers, to help them get published in a cruel and selective world of big presses who'd rather not see such amateurs get any attention. Perhaps I'm just being bitter because the novel sold almost nothing and ended up replicating itself 1000 times across Australia only to be pulped back into the primordial slush of unsuccesful writing after the 2 year contract was up.
But the truth is, at sixteen, I didn't know the difference between paying a company to publish your book, and getting a publisher to buy your book and publish it. At sixteen, my head was filled with delusions of being the Indian J.R.R. Tolkien. Whose fault is it that I basically wasted time and money to create a printed version of my first novel that sits meekly on my shelf back in Calcutta, and lies mouldering unread in the National Library of Australia catalogue? Mine? Surely, for being naive enough to believe that I could get published and become the next J.R.R. Tolkien at age sixteen. My parents? Not at all; they would support me through anything, and while they weren't clear on the mechanics of the whole process, they believed that I was good enough to get published (they are my parents, after all). The publisher? Well, yes. I share the blame, but they get a nice dollop of it too. When a teenager sends in a poorly edited if enthusiastically written fantasy novel to get 'published', a company like that should make sure said teenager knows exactly what he's getting into.
I have nothing against people self-publishing, either through presses like Equilibrium Books (the Australian company that printed my novel) or using their own resources and initiative. It's their own money at stake, and they're hurting nobody. But companies that print the work of writers with barely a glance at the quality of the work they're helping churn out should at least brief the poor souls who are paying them on the unlikeliness of reaching a wide audience this way. First of all, the costs incurred by the presses for printing a book that is most likely sell no copies hikes the price of your book up (mine was 25 AUS dollars per copy, I think), and let's face it: no one is going to dish out that kind of money for a 166 page novel written by a teenager and printed by a self-pulbishing press. Second, this method allows for little to no marketing, and very poor distribution; people don't know about your book, and never will, because it probably won't make it to bookstores (Equilibrium Books took only online orders).
The failure of my first novel to become this generation's The Lord of the Rings didn't crush me, it cleared my youngfool head of excessive hubris and made me much, much more determined to be a writer, instead of a prodigy. It also made me do my research and actually find out a little more about how this whole writing books and making people read them thing works. I don't think I'd still be writing, here in this MFA program, if I hadn't hammered out that first novel and tried to get it out into the world.
To sum up: self-publishing is admirable, and sometimes it works (the comic book field, especially, has some resounding successes that started out self-published, including Jeff Smith's Bone). But if you go that route, it's best to know its limitations, and be prepared to do your own marketing and distribution. More importantly, if you start up your own self-publishing press, consider the ethics of luring young writers into paying money to see their book in print, quality be damned.