Traditional publishing has worked for me, but it’s important to establish what “working” is. The first question I would ask is “What are you trying to achieve here?” In other words, at what point do you feel that your work has succeeded? There is no longer a clean distinction between published and unpublished. There are degrees. In the circumstances, it becomes all the more necessary to decide what constitutes success.
For me, the goalposts have moved. 10 years ago, the very idea of seeing my name in print, and being able to pick up and buy a book by me seemed like an amazing, almost unachievable goal. Five years ago, the idea of writing a trilogy sounded pretty good. Now, I want to write a big fantasy novel and get stupendously rich doing so. Simple, achievable goals.
I grew up before the internet existed, and that clear dichotomy has always been there. For me, the book had to be in print, with a proper cover and the approval that comes from a publisher being willing to invest time and money making and selling something you made. That won’t go away: even if I was making considerable sums self-publishing, I would miss that validation. It feels (to me) like a mark of quality.
My publishers are pretty small, but they have been willing to produce very good products and to try to punch above their weight. I don’t make big money out of it, and it is difficult for a smaller publisher, even one that has put out some respected novels, to get space in Waterstones (things may have changed recently, but this used to be a case of pretty literally paying for it). However, they have made a good job both editing my work and producing good covers. I am frequently told how good my cover art is, and I’m very grateful for that.
So in that way, I am a “proper author”. I sometimes remind myself that I have achieved one of my big goals in life and am very fortunate to have been able to do so. And I couldn’t have achieved that goal without the traditional publishing route. However, I am not a proper businessman. I’ve said it before, but I think that the qualities expected of an author these days are contradictory: six months of introverted genius scribbling in a garrett, followed by six months of jolly self-publicity. I doubt many people have both of those. I also have a full-time job and don’t have the time or inclination, as well as the skill, to self-promote like that. Obviously, the standard publishing model works for me like that, in that someone else can do the promotion, one way or another (although I do pitch in. I’m not amazingly charismatic, but I’m hardly a recluse).
So all in all, as the range of options widens, authors need to ask themselves what they actually want. The definition of success becomes increasingly a personal one.
Two more points: first, a lot of articles like this are essentially horror stories or stories about sharp practice or when it clearly went wrong. On the other hand, some decisions are just better than others, which doesn’t mean that the alternative is useless or corrupt. It seems to be that, for obvious reasons, some self-published writers tend to feel the need to rescue the idea of self-publishing from pure vanity publishing, and in certain quarters (not here) that means doing down the industry. Publishing has certainly got some incompetents and dodgy dealers in it, but it isn’t fundamentally useless, otherwise it wouldn’t be here.
I’d make a further point about the pursuit of money. In the 1980s and 90s, horror was a big genre, and a lot of it was supernatural sub-Stephen King type stuff. I’m sure that a lot of authors who are now unknown or have moved on to other things made a decent amount of money from not-very-great horror stories. But many of these books simply weren’t any good, and are now forgotten. Likewise big fantasy novels. It is possible to make money out of second-rate derivative books, but you will always be riding someone else's coat tails unless you bring something new to what you're writing. That new element will almost always rely on your own creativity.
But it seems to me that the books that do really well – the ones that make a lot of money and, at the very least, are reckoned to be quite good – aren’t cynically written. I don’t think that either Harry Potter or A Game of Thrones is especially great literature, but it’s clear that their writers take what they’re doing very seriously and try to produce something that doesn’t just tick the boxes to get them cash. I suspect that the way towards that kind of success often involves putting several familiar elements together in a convincing way, to product a new way of looking at familiar material.