Often known by a far less flattering and inaccurate name - vanity press - self-publishing has become more readily available over the last couple of years. Heck, it's even recommended for poetry anthologies these days, since the market is so 'niche'. However, with that recommendation comes a list of sites to avoid as long as my arm. I spent some time researching different publishing houses, when I was thinking about my poor little anthology, gathering dust. There are a lot of informed opinions out there, if you know where to look, but if you don't, consider this a quick-start guide to the research you need to do if you're even considering the self-publishing route.
1) Is your book sellable, ever?
If the answer is yes, don't self-publish. No matter how long it takes, keep sending that manuscript out. There is a good reason for this - if you self-publish your book, and one of the publishers you sent your manuscript to comes back with - glory of glories! - an acceptance letter, you're immediately in a bit of a bind. What the publisher will want to buy is first publication rights, meaning they will be the first person/company to publish your work. What you effectively use up when self-publishing is, you guessed it, your first publication rights. You might be able to negotiate, if it was a small print run that only went to friends and family, but self-publishing should be considered the same as posting your novel, chapter by chapter, on your blog. It's still published, and it's still available somewhere that isn't exclusive to your potential buyer. This is bad, as far as publishing houses are concerned. They want exclusivity. If you've sent your manuscript to every publishing house you can think of and it still hasn't been accepted, but you still believe in your work, not only do I envy you, but you may have a strong case for self-publishing.
2) How will you distribute your book?
Sites like Lulu.com will provide you with an ISBN and Amazon.com distribution, for a price. Their services are POD (Print On Demand), so they don't have stock sitting around, using up valuable real estate. If, however, you don't want to take that route, or your publisher of choice doesn't offer it, you might have a rather big problem on your hands. Distribution is normally handled by your publisher, if you were to go the classical route, and they already have deals with most major bookstores. Failing that, they know enough indie retailers, and have enough of a marketing budget, to make enough sales to get back the money they paid you as an advance, otherwise they wouldn't still be in business. Trying to get your self-published book up for sale in a store like Borders is going to be beyond difficult. Even if you can convince them that the book has merit, they buy in bulk and have the titles shipped to their different stores from one distribution centre. Unless you're willing to pay a heck of a lot of postage, you can't compete with that. Smaller bookstores might carry your book, but then, as with smaller publishers, you face the issue of marketing. How are you going to convince people who have never heard of you to buy your book? How are you going to let them know it even exists? This is why, personally, I think Lulu's system is ideal. Amazon.com keywords could lead potential customers right to your book, with no extra effort on your part. It may be substituting money for that effort, but since we live in a global economy, I think the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
3) Are you getting value for money?
This is where the distinction between Vanity Press and Self-Publishing comes into play. Vanity Press will make you sound or feel important, while ripping your wallet from your cold, dead hands. Self-Publishing is legitimate and respectful, and charges a decent price for all of the stages leading up to publication. Vanity Press will look something like this. Dellarte is the Harlequin Vanity imprint, previously called Harlequin Horizons, and recommended to budding authors in rejection letters as an alternative to being published in the regular fashion. I don't know who has $20,000 to spend on a book trailer, but I imagine if they do have that much money to burn on a gamble, the idea of Vanity Press isn't going to be bothering them in the first place.
Some places will charge for mandatory 'services', such as editing, formatting, review copies, and other things. There are many, many horror stories related to these 'services'. I won't go into them here. Suffice to say that if it's costing you more than $700 for 6 copies of your 281-page, A5 book, bound in red-cotton hardcover with silver embossed lettering, as my friend recently bought from Kainos Printing in the ACT, you're probably not getting a very good deal.
4) Is it worth it?
This is a personal question, and one only you can answer. Will it make your heart flutter to see your work in print? Do you have the money to support what is essentially a non-business venture? Are you content to know that your book will never achieve record sales? I say never, as devil's advocate. I haven't heard of any massive success stories. What I have heard of, are stories like this, where people were happy with what they paid for, and content with the level of acclaim they acquired. If you honestly don't think your book will ever be published by conventional means, or if it's too niche-market, like my poetry anthology, then go for it. Do your own editing, or pay someone to edit your work. The same goes for layout, cover art and deciding on which grade of cardboard you want for your cover. If you want to pay them, some companies will do everything for you. There's no shame in that. There's no shame in self-publishing. You need only be prepared, forewarned against disaster, and aware of what you're getting in to. And, hey, let's face it - a signed copy of a limited edition book with your name on the cover makes a wonderful Christmas present.