To sell books, traditional publishers use sales reps to engage national distribution channels like stores and organizations; established review and award networks; dedicated marketing staff experienced in specific markets; and strategic marketing budgets. Each pub season, some “lead” titles spearhead a house’s campaign, but ideally every book has its own marketing plan that includes submission to general and customized review outlets and awards, plus development of book-specific opportunities. The house may pursue cover blurbs from famous people to tap their fanbases, and in the case of picture books can pair your text with a well known illustrator to increase market recognition and thus sales. They pay to bring some authors to regional book events; full tours are reserved for high profile cases. Sales reps walk buyers through the catalog, offering advanced books, promo items and displays, and even financial incentives to help stores market the books they choose to their customers. How much trickles down to non-“lead” books? Each house and book differs but the adage remains true: the more ANY author can do for her books, the better.
Another very important thing traditional publishers do that service providers hired by self-publishers do NOT do, is they get the books properly registered with LCCN and CIP data. These registrations at the Library of Congress are a crucial part of marketing, take months to complete, require listing in the proper marketing categories, and are carefully timed to be completed at the point of the book launch. These registrations are crucial to marketing and sales, enabling the book to be sold thousands of copies at a time in the existing wholesale distribution chains. These chains make the books accessible to the 28K bookstores and 105K libraries in the US, and worldwide. Proper registrations are available only to legitimate publishers who have editorial accountability., ie. who care about the quality of their books. Service providers make their money off of fees that authors pay, not book sales. They’ll publish anything, even if its poorly written and unedited. Consequently, no wholesaler is going to invest in a skidload of books that carry their ISBNs, nor will they accept a book from an unknown self-publisher, expect under extraordinary circumstances. They don’t want the risk of taking up warehouse space for books that won’t sell and will have to be returned.
So, it really depends on your goals as an author. Do you want your book to be available for purchase by libraries and bookstores everywhere? Or is the book more of a marketing tool, and you will just be selling copies at the back of the room after a speaking gig? Is your book more of a legacy piece, a memento for your family?
There are ways to self publish and do it correctly, do the registrations yourself. That requires you to become a bonafide publisher, in addition to an author. That means wearing more hats. Which you may be happy to do. If you’re prolific and have multiple books, or want to publish other authors’ books and you see your business growing to become a publisher, then learn everything you can about publishing. Dan Poynter’s website (parapublishing.com) is a great resource to start.