When I first became a publisher, back in 1974, it was a hobby. I was essentially a self-publisher (or just about; I also published poetry chapbooks and other experimentalia by friends), I followed the instructions laid out in Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual, and considered myself part of the avant garde that had been around since Gutenberg. I was up to my elbows in Letraslet, Rubylith, and rubber cement. My budget for a book was $100, and the print run was usually about 50 copies. My press was called No Dead Lines, and I meant it.
Well, I’ve changed a lot in the past 37 years, and so has book publishing in general, and so, especially, has the noble institution of self-publishing. Some of us older publishers scratch our heads in wonder or our chins in dismay, but technology is here to stay (ephemeral though it may be), and it’s important to check in from time to time to stay current with the vocabulary.
The term "self-publishing" can be defined in several different ways. Once upon a time it meant doing all the work oneself, from editing to typesetting to printing to marketing, promotion, and distribution. Of course most people didn't do the actual work, but hired professionals or used outside vendors. But the self-publisher paid all the bills and kept all the profits from sales. I've done that. I seldom made back my expenses, but I wasn't trying to sell a great many copies. This is an honorable method, but it's a lot of work and the return is low. Few reviews, few sales, at least for a book of creative literature. If you decide to work this way, you might consider working with a book packaging (production) company, such as Gorham Printing: http://www.gorhamprinting.com/, which offers a variety of services, from editing to design to printing.
Another form of self-publishing is working with a copublishing company (otherwise known as a subsidy publisher). The author pays a publishing company to bring the book out. The results are as good as the company you work with. Some are honest, have high production standards, and make an earnest effort to market and distribute. Others just take the money and turn out a poor product and do nothing to sell books. If you go that route, beware and make sure you’re not asked to pay a bundle only to be delivered a garageful of books. By the way, part of my business is a copublishing imprint, Fithian Press, which you can check out at: http://www.danielpublishing.com/fithian.htm. We’re choosy about what we publish, and we’re proud of our product and our marketing efforts, but it's still an expensive proposition and writers would be wise to consider and exhaust other options first, especially if they dream of profit and fame.
Yet another form of self-publishing is the print-on-demand, or publish-on-demand method. You arrange with a POD company to publish your book, and they make the book available to customers one copy at a time. This is a less expensive means of self-publishing, but there are often pitfalls. See my article about POD at: http://www.danielpublishing.com/resourcesback7.htm. There are lots of competing companies in this field. The leader of the pack is iUniverse, and they have a good reputation. Also consider CreateSpace, a POD division of Amazon.com.
Another way to self-publish is the up-and-coming, brave new world of ebooks. Nowadays it's relatively easy and relatively cheap to publish a book online, via Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook, and lots of other electronic retailers. They don't make books you can hold in your hand, but by golly they sell (e)books. Some authors are seeing sales they never would have gotten through conventional print publishing. I have a few books published this way. See my author page: www.danielpublishing.com/jmd/index.html or my amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001KDJZMU. If you go this route, I suggest you hire a professional to format your manuscript and design a good cover. I use Eric Larson of Studio E Books, and I recommend him highly: http://www.studio-e-books.com/index.html.
I now find myself in the fortunate position of being published by a small publisher who does a combination of POD and ebook publishing. I have a mystery titled BEHIND THE REDWOOD DOOR coming out this fall from Oak Tree Press, and that's the way they work. It won't cost me any money, and I hope they'll make a nice-looking book and I hope it will sell. Actually, this isn't self-publishing, but it has some things in common with self-publishing, particularly the element of promotion and marketing. Oak Tree Press will do what they do (and I don’t yet know how much that will entail), but they and I expect me to do a lot of self-promotion. Note: this paragraph is a not-so-subtle exercise in doing just that!
And that’s true no matter what variety of self-publishing you choose: however you self-publish (in fact however you publish or are published), your sales and your reviews will rely on your working hard to promote your book. That's what I'm learning, and learning fast. I have begun a blog: http://johnmdaniel.blogspot.com/, I've signed up for Facebook, and I'm getting ready to do a lot of horn-blowing that doesn't come easily to me. Authors have to do that, and publishers have to do that, and when the author is also the publisher, it’s no time to be shy.