To be frank, I think self and indie publishing have a bad rep. I know that, part of it, is deserved; far too many people out there who went to a vanity press like Lulu without any actual work except pressing buttons on a keyboard until there were thousands of vaguely English (or French, Italian, Japanese, or whatever) words spread across a few hundred pages. Sad thing is, there’re books out by major publishers that are hardly better, really.
The sad reality is that, while self-published and indie press are gaining momentum and a foothold, while they are being given respectful nods from the likes SFWA president John Scalzi (well, he’s given up the post to someone else, but he hasn’t taken charge yet, that I know of — I’m not a member and doubt I ever will be, so I don’t watch closely), but by the same token no matter how many copies you sell a self-published title and some indie press titles don’t qualify for membership.
The reality ought to be that putting it out yourself with today’s POD and digital options what they are, that a self or indie published title gets the same respect as any other. If it’s good, it’s good, if it’s bad it’s bad. This isn’t the case. A book that sells less than 2000 copies, but through Tor, might get a movie deal. An indie or self press that sells that many can forget it, unless you know someone. A book on the NY Times bestsellers list, might get a deal (self or indie, I mean), but they still might not. Another sad fact. Apple is the only electronic distribution channel that allows everyone to arrange for pre-orders. Can’t do that through Amazon’s KDP or CreateSpace, nor Kobo or Nook or … anyone, let’s not be silly here, I mean you’re not a serious author or publisher or whatever! You’re just a cute child making a four page picture book with crayons and running to Mother.
Until this perception completely changes, for some authors, self publishing really shouldn’t be the way to go. An agent, a big publisher, years of waiting to see your book … that’s the only way. Oh, sure, you can say “It’s more important people see it, than anything else, so I’m selfing it.” Bully for you. The point is, you’ll have to be a mix of lucky and prolific to make and maintain a living. If writing is a hobby you’re quite good at, this is fine, but if you wish it to be what you write on census forms as your job, then probably not so much.
Now this isn’t to vilify the traditional publishing methods. Some agents are very nice people, some publishers apparently try quite hard to do their job well.
The fact remains, some genres and types of books you pretty much can’t self-publish … the market doesn’t really exist yet. The would-be professionals should stick with agents and traditional methods, while the quality hobbyists pave the way, and of course you could elect to write something to help in this, by all means. Want to do middle grade reader books? Want to be in the Scholastic Book Fair? Yeah, and look around, there’s a reason that Goosebumps and Fear Street, Baby Sitters Club and Sweet Valley are still fairly common at certain age ranges.
In other cases it’s nothing so dire. Erotica or Romance? DIY or take an agent, the question is just how fast do you want to make those sales, and do you want an advance? SF? Don’t bother, in my opinion, with traditional model. If it isn’t Military SF and NEW Space Opera (which in my opinion isn’t Space Opera) you won’t sell it to the big boys, and even if you write the stuff they want the typical rates are just insulting, you may as well go DIY for all the difference it’ll make, unless you really need a bit of lump sum cash to make a downpayment on a car, or some such. Westerns? If your name isn’t Louis L’Amour you’re probably better off self publishing … or possibly not depending how you look at it — Westerns are pretty close to dead, so possibly that Advance, if you can get one, will be the only pennies you see for the book. Mysteries? I couldn’t say, if it isn’t the Bernie Rhodenbarr books by Lawrence Block I haven’t really read it, well … the first half dozen Sneakie Pie and Rita Mae Brown books, too.
Research. All I can say is research, and when in doubt try to get your questions straight, straight forward, and clear and then find a good, helpful person in the industry to ask them of. An agent, perhaps, or an editor. Don’t ask them about your work, ask them about the details in general. Ask them for the numbers, for the fact, for the stats. Ask them for what one might expect. Then think, soul search. Are you writing for money? Possibly you want to go major publisher, unless you know you’ll be prolific — self-published work doesn’t necessarily sell many copies, but a few copies over several books adds up well, but a few books with an advance might be a nice lump sum you can invest. Writing an obscure thing? Is there actually a major publisher out there who’ll touch it? Might just as well do it yourself. In the end it’s up to you, what do you want out of your writing, how do you want people to find it, and so on.
I still feel that I’d rather self-publish most thing, but Now & Forever, for example, I have decided (given a positive response from an agent) to traditionally publish. It seems a better choice given its genre, but I’ll merrily drop it onto the world myself if they say no, because I think it’s a fun, cute story and had fun writing it so I’ll have fun sharing it as well, how and via whom doesn’t matter.