Until she hit her early 30's, Zoe Winters' resume was a list of odd jobs: candle maker, Avon lady, waitress, hotel night auditor.
But when she finally turned her attention to writing, the self-published author of paranormal romance novels stumbled upon success – all on her own. Just two years into her 10-year plan, Winters said, her ebook sales have put her on target to make her first six-figure salary, without a literary agent or big-name publisher.
"Everyone said you couldn't make a living writing and, ironically, the only thing I can make a living doing is writing," she said.
Much like Amanda Hocking, the 26-year-old author who recently scored a rumored seven-figure book deal with St. Martin's Press after hitting it big with her self-published titles, Winters is among a growing number of writers using new technology to bypass traditional publishers and reach audiences directly.
Though the potential for self-styled success may be seductive, those in the industry caution that the road from self-published author to best-selling bliss isn't always so smooth.
Self-Publishing Is Not 'Last Resort' Anymore, Expert Says
According to the Association for American Publishers, while book sales across all platforms grew just 3.8 percent between 2009 and 2010, ebook sales grew a whopping 164.4 percent year-over-year.
That shift to digital books may be threatening to traditional publishing models, but self-publishing experts say it means new opportunities for writers. As more consumers adopt tablet computers and e-readers, like Apple's iPad and Amazon's Kindle, authors are finding that they can leverage digital publishing platforms and social media to distribute and market titles on their own.
They may have to put up some of their own cash upfront and build buzz without dedicated marketing teams but, in return, insiders say they get more creative control, broader deal-making opportunities and, most likely, a higher piece of the profits.
"A lot of authors aren't looking at self-publishing as a last resort any more, but as the most sensible decision for them," said Sue Collier, co-author of "The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing."
Is Stigma Attached to Self-Publishing Diminishing?
While tracking the niche industry's statistics is difficult, she said, as technology levels the playing field, the trend is definitely toward more self-published authors.
Some authors choose to work through so-called subsidy presses, like Lulu, AuthorHouse or Outskirts, which help produce the book and provide editing and design services, but for a price. Other authors, like Winters, skip the middle men altogether, register their own ISBN (or International Standard Book Number, the unique identifier attached to each commercial book) and go straight to an on-demand printer. They have to hire their own cover designer and editor but, Collier (who recommends the latter) said the second option maximizes control, flexibility and profits.
While a stigma has plagued self-publishing in the past, she said, as authors become more educated about what they need to do to bring their work to professional standards, the reputation of the field is improving.
"There is still a bit of a stigma in some circles, but it's diminishing because a lot of authors are realizing that just because they can upload their files to Amazon doesn't mean that they should right away," she said.
Putting on the publisher's hat isn't a decision that should be taken lightly, she adds.
"You want your book to stand up to any New York-published book and it's not hard to do, you just have to take the steps," she said. "It's a business and it needs to be treated as a business."
Author: Self-Publishing Can Be Liberating If You Know What You're Doing
Phil Simon, a technology consultant and author who recently self-published his third book, "The New Small," said that as someone familiar with the traditional publishing process (he worked with a publisher previously), going it alone for his latest book was the wisest choice.
Not only does it mean that he has more pricing flexibility and greater profits, it also means he can define success on his own terms. Since the book's launch in November, he said that between print books and ebooks, he's sold about 1,400 copies. But he emphasized that those unit sales don't tell the whole story.
Because he owns the rights to the book, he said, he can negotiate deals for speaking engagements and other opportunities and raise his visibility and personal brand through social media and critical reviews.
Echoing Collier, however, he said he thinks he's been successful because he was willing and able to take on the business and marketing roles, in addition to the writing.
"It can be very liberating if you know what you're doing--and that's an important distinction," he said. "Most first-time authors don't understand the nuances of the production process, marketing, distribution deals, and the like."
Self-Publishing Is No Replacement for Traditional Process, Expert Says
While self-publishing advocates say their way is the new wave in publishing, traditionalists say it still doesn't replace the tried and true publishing process.
"Amanda Hocking is the fascinating exception," said Tom Allen, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers. Self-publishing options may open doors for hundreds of thousands of writers, he said, but those platforms can't rival traditional publishing houses when it comes to ensuring the quality of the product, identifying markets and doing the level of outreach and marketing that drives sales.
While it's true that even authors tied to publishers need to be their own social media evangelists, he said major publishers can provide more heft than that.
In fact, he said he's found that for many self-published authors, the ultimate goal is using digital platforms to draw mainstream attention.
"If your goal is to sell as many books as you can and get it out to the widest possible audience, that's what publishers are for," he said.
But writers like Elisa Lorello, an academic writing instructor in Raleigh, N.C. and self-published author of women's fiction, said she's perfectly satisfied with what she's been able to accomplish on her own.
In the past two years, she's sold about 52,000 copies of her first two 99-cent books "Faking It" and "Ordinary Worlds," which translates into roughly $20,000 in royalties.
"Everybody's different. ... I think I got a lot of exposure," she said. "I mean 50,000 copies, I'm thrilled with that."
And Winters said if she had taken the traditional route, it would have been difficult to muster the motivation that's led to her own eight ebook titles, including the popular Kindle trilogy "Blood Lust."
"This is the most success I've had doing anything," she said. "And I'm amazed that I even had the self-confidence to go after it in the first place."