No, I don’t believe that ideally anyone can self-publish a book and it will find a readership without any concerted marketing effort. If I thought that, I’d probably still be trying to do it!
What I do believe is that self-publishing is a particular refinement of the traditional publishing model. In traditional publishing, the publisher invests a lot of money in bringing a book to the market without any clear indication that they’re going to get their money back or make a profit. As businesses go, it’s an unusually risky one. The costs are high and the returns can be good but will often come mainly from a small number of the authors on the publisher’s list.
Self-publishing is a phenomenon that wasn’t invented by Amazon, of course, but that company very skilfully took it over and monopolized it. When you self-publish with KDP, Amazon isn’t legally the publisher but it’s in a position analogous to Uber’s: whereas Uber’s drivers are independent contractors in form, but employees in substance, KDP’s authors are formally their own publishers but have limited autonomy and are usually dependent on Amazon’s publishing tools.
Like a traditional publishing company, Amazon is the one making most of the profits. Unlike the traditional publisher, it has found a way to avoid many of the costs — editing, design, print runs, publicity and marketing — and to spread the remaining ones, and the risk, over as wide a stable of authors as one can easily imagine.
Let’s imagine, for the sake of easy calculation, that there are ten million self-published authors on Amazon’s books. Say that, on average, each of these authors sells $100 worth of books (ebooks or print-on-demand) a year, of which Amazon takes 30%. That’s $300,000,000 a year gross profit for Amazon from self-publishing.
It doesn’t make any difference to Amazon whether a given author is earning much more than the average $70 a year or much less, perhaps even nothing at all. Amazon doesn’t have to decide which authors to risk its money on — the authors do that for themselves, choose their own cover design and set their own marketing budgets. All it costs Amazon is space on a server, the printing costs of just those books that have been ordered, and the use of its ecommerce site to collect and distribute the payments. Amazon has solved the traditional publisher’s dilemma: which books should we take a risk on?
And that’s the business model of self-publishing. It’s based on the principle that a large number of people can sell (on average) a small number of books each and make a tidy profit for the de facto publisher.
Of course, none of this is a good reason why any author should hold back from putting together a brilliant marketing plan and aiming to sell as many books as possible thereby pulling in a much larger than average share of the KDP pie, if that’s what she wants to do. It doesn’t appeal to me and, anyway, I think that the available tools are inadequate. I may be wrong but I believe that the days of the days of the enthusiastic mailing list, and of the long reach of ads on Facebook, Goodreads or Amazon itself are probably behind us.
I don’t expect to make a living, or even any money, from my writing. That’s not to say that I “just do it for myself”. I do want readers, and recognition, but I’d like to think that I can be satisfied with a small number/amount of each.