What do we want? When do we want it?
As individual as our stories is what an author dreams to get out of publishing his or her story. Before we get too far, BOTH paths to publishing take work and time. So let's not discount anyone with a manuscript working towards publication as taking an easy way out. Nothing is easy about publishing a book.
What do YOU want?
There is nothing wrong with feeling that your writing is validated because it is published by a publishing house. That's WHAT they sell. They sell a service to you, for a percentage of your future earnings on that book, that offers a professional publishing experience. If you don't feel that you possess skills in areas of technology, negotiating with service providers (and not everyone does and there is absolutely no shame in that), and managing marketing and distribution channels, then traditional publishing is definitely for you.
A lot of the anti-traditionally publishing rhetoric I read from self-pubbers involves the fact that many publishing houses now require an author to go through an agent first. You know, this doesn't make them evil. Let's face it, talk about writing a book with any acquaintance and you'll hear all about how they too would just LOVE to write a book. The DEMAND for publishing has grossly outstripped the supply for a very long time. What does this mean? It means that publishing companies have enjoyed many decades as the hot girl at the dance all the boys want to dance with, so she doesn't have try to spark up conversations with guys to get noticed. They can't publish everything that is well-written, they can't. At this point in time, they have bills to pay, salaries to cover, and can only publish the books that are going to bring them the best return on investment (the investment being the cost to publish the book, including the author's advance and marketing).
Now, there is another side to that publishing service that authors need to know and that is bringing more cooks into the kitchen is GOING to change the dinner menu. In most cases, the traditionally published authors I have spoken to feel that traditionally publishing has made their book better, though that doesn't always mean they made more money because they traditionally published. So if control over your creative endeavors is a very important part of your publishing journey, you are going to need to work hard to find a publishing contract that gives you that control, and it won't be easy to find.
Self-publishing isn't all it's cracked up to be, either. You are an island. Sure, you can network with other authors and cross-promote one another, but those are all temporary. Not to mention, the amount of details you have to stay on top of is insane. Yes, you can publish a book faster than the years it takes going traditionally published, but not as fast as you think. It can take weeks to work with an artist for your cover art, or a few hours if you can make it yourself. Editing passes with a freelance editor can be stressful, especially if one of you go on vacation, and you have to be disciplined enough to work usually to their calendar of availability. If you say your final draft will be ready for them in three months, don't be late, or it could be months before there is availability again.
Unless you enjoy managing your book, and I am someone who does, it can feel distracting to an author who loves to just write to have to check sales, look for new sales channels, read blogs and publications that tout the latest changes in ebook formatting guidelines (I'm glaring at YOU Kindle 8 formatting and your many, many headaches) and still work on new projects. Personally, I get bored with just the writing side of things. :) I love writing blog posts and working on technical stuff. I love managing my social media and working with readers on a one-by-one basis.
Now the later is all stuff that ANY author can do, including traditionally published ones. However, I find that I am VERY motivated when my efforts directly bump my sales figures and since traditionally published authors have to wait months or quarters to see sales data, that wouldn't work for me.
What IS your book?
Remember how I said that publishing houses want to publish that which is successful to their bottom line? It's not completely true that is their ONLY motivation. Certainly it's a big deal, but the bigger deal is if the book will make money AND fit into the brand of the publishing arm publishing it. See, to help sales, many companies break down into imprints, smaller companies that focus on a certain type of book.
When I was researching publishing options for CANCELLED, and all I had was an outline, I scoured the requirements for every single Harlequin imprint, even the ones not currently accepting submissions (where there is a will, there is ALWAYS a way). I knew after a few days that my book, a romance without a traditional ending and a non-traditional main POV, was not going to fit any of their imprints. This isn't bad, it just is what it is. My book has been purchased by more than 500 people (and no, my family is NOT that big... lol) and downloaded by nearly 15,000 people. Harlequin can't take the time to serve them and keep their overhead good, but I can. So I did.
Books that really push genre lines and especially the books that are mashups of multiple genres (which I love to read myself) are great for self-publishing because those books usually take a creative and targeted approach to marketing. A chick-lit/mystery isn't just for all mystery readers or all chick-lit readers, it's for readers who enjoy both. As a publisher-author you have to go out and FIND THEM. A marketing department with hundreds of books to promote in a given quarter may not be able to take that time for each title.
No matter WHAT path you choose to publish your book, define what is different about you and your book. If your book is exactly like book XYZ that was a best seller in your genre, guess what, the publisher is going to think "been there, done that." Not to mention, a publishing company has the schedule set for at LEAST the next 12 months. If your book is something that is HOT right now, it won't be hot by the time it comes out.
The more differences you find about your book than the genre you want to sell it in probably means it's better to self-publish it. Certainly, query agents and don't give up on your dreams of traditionally publishing if that is your dream (see what do you want above). But reading ANY agent's blog will tell you that as a new author, you are already an unknown. If your cowboy/alien/cozy mystery/women's fiction novel is loved by you and all of your beta readers, take it as a sign that someone out there will like it too; it just might not be something an agent feels he or she can sell. Big time authors with long-standing con,tracts are allowed a few misses, since they've more than made their money for the publishing company. As a new author joining a publishing company, we have to hit at least a double or a triple to be asked to bat next inning. A walk or a single just won't cut it, and heaven help you if you strike out (well that's not true, because you can always self-publish, teehee).
What does your gut tell you? By all means, do NOT self-publish just because of the money. No matter which path you choose, believe me, the money is slow coming. It all takes time. Second, there is upfront cost to both options. It isn't cheap to mail out manuscripts, unless you just do email submissions.
Authors should follow the publishing path that makes them feel good about their writing, because ultimately, that's where an author is going to be the most successful, personally and financially. Yes, many of us who pursue self-publishing have an independent streak a mile and a half long and a passion that few could match for our work. I'm a great saleswoman in other arenas, so I knew without a doubt that I could sell my book reader by reader if I had to. In fact, do you know I chat up my book with people in real life, handing them my business card with the information about my book on it? You bet I do! And I enjoy every minute of that.
But not every author has that same personality. I know other authors who cared about getting traditionally published and WANTED more than anything to get an agent and they did so without batting an eyelash because they did their homework first. They will also have something I don't, a safety net. If I decide to take 6 weeks off and work on my next novel, my marketing machine stops. In their case, their publisher should still be promoting the book (although I don't know how long exactly publishers will promote a work, many reports on the web are that books only get X amount of time to go big or go home, but I can't see that's always true since books like the Hunger Games were out long before they made it to #1 on any kind of list).
Most of life, and publishing too, is about knowing what you want and making a plan to get it. And when Plan A fails, Plan B fizzles, and Plan C was a non-start, be the person who implements Plan D-Z with just as much faith and excitement as you did with Plan A. The only wrong choice is leaving your manuscripts on your hard drive and giving up.
WIP: STONE. Never up Mom's expectations, a clothing designer kicks "Mr. Right" to the curb.