(Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
Over the last three days, I've discussed why self-publishing is, at best, a huge time sink for writers who should be writing, and at worst a way for scam artists to prey upon those desperate souls and steal their money. As I noted yesterday, there do exist legitimate print on demand (POD) services who don't pretend to provide the editing, advertising, and other services that real publishing houses do, and those companies are a great asset for certain creators. But that's printing, not publishing. There's a difference.
There's a long tradition of people printing their own stuff when no one else would, because they were passionate and wanted to put their work out there. Here in Portland, Oregon, the public library system and Powell's ("The greatest bookstore on the planet," says PNH) both feature entire racks of zines covering a wide variety of interests and topics. They come in all shapes and sizes, many obviously handmade. They serve small, local audiences. They have no pretensions or wider ambitions. This is what they're for. (Science fiction fandom also produces tons of fanzines, but that's a whole other discussion.)
These days, it's trivial for anyone to create their own "e-zine" by setting up a blog or a web site. Of course, just because it's easy for anybody to find your content, it doesn't mean that they'll go looking for it, or that they'll like it. If you build it, they will not always come. And even if they come, they may not stay.
So who gets to be a "real" publisher? These days, short fiction writers can submit their work to a lot of online-only markets. Many of these are little more than blogs, and most don't pay writers a lot (if anything) for their stories. Mac Stone, whom I met at Viable Paradise XII, runs Coyote Wild Magazine out of her own pocket. She doesn't make any money doing it. She does it because she wants to help get good stories out there.
Leonard Richardson and Sumana Harihareswara just released Thoughtcrime Experiments, "a free 2009 anthology of fantasy and science fiction stories and art, published under a Creative Commons license." As Leonard explains in Appendix A: How to Do This and Why, he and Sumana spent $2,300 and nearly 400 person-hours putting together the anthology, and the main reason they did it was so they could find and share stories that suited their own personal tastes. In other words, for fun. They're not making any money off TE; in fact, they're losing money. But they consider it money well spent.
Are Mac and Leonard and Sumana publishers? Sure; they've found content they like and helped present it to a wider audience. Are they professional publishers? No, and they don't pretend to be running a business. They're publishing because they want to give back to the community. They have no illusions about reaping financial gains from these transactions, and that's okay. We all do things for love that we would never do for money.
Tomorrow: the anticlimactic conclusion!