I was planning on discussing a few of the many myths which circulate about self-publishing success but last week David Isaak beat me very eloquently to the finish. Make sure you read the comments which follow his original post, as he adds more information there.
David discussed Grisham, Paolini, Clancy, Atwood and Joyce, but there are plenty more names which regularly crop up as supposed self-publishing successes, such as William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain and G P Taylor.
Shakespeare? If we were working in roughly the same century as him then perhaps he'd be relevant to the discussion but as it is, he’s a very poor example. The whole business of publishing was different when Shakespeare was writing: the technology was different, books were different, bookshops were different, distribution was different, everything was different. And Shakespeare didn't even make his money from selling books: he earned his living through having his plays performed, and by writing pieces for his benefactors and patrons.
Virginia Woolf’s early novels were published by Duckworth: she and her husband then founded their own publishing company, The Hogarth Press, which successfully published other writers as well as Woolf.
As for Mark Twain, he got himself into such crippling debt by self-publishing his books that his only way out was to undertake speaking engagements, which he hated. If a writer as talented as he was cannot make a living by self-publishing, what makes anyone else think that they can?
Despite all the obstacles it can put in the way of success, self-publishing worked for G P Taylor when he wrote Shadowmancer, which went on to sell to a commercial publisher and enjoy stellar sales. Taylor now enthuses about self-publishing, and recommends it to fledgling writers. However, Taylor didn't even try to get a commercial deal: he went straight to self-publishing, selling his Harley on the way to fund the project. How much easier his journey might have been if he'd submitted the book to a publisher or agent or two at the start. Chances are he'd have been picked up there and then, had all his success AND kept his Harley.
When the success of a self-published book becomes a big news story, it does so simply because it is such a very rare thing. Such successes are not models for other self publishers to follow: they are the exception, not the norm, and so when they are used to encourage writers to venture into self-publishing, those writers are likely to be very disappointed, and to be separated from their money at an alarming rate.
(My thanks to author Vanessa Curtis, who has written extensively about Woolf, and to Shakespearian scholar Stanley W Wells, CBE, for their generous help with this piece: it is much appreciated, and despite their help, all errors are my own).