Variants of this question get tossed around a lot these days, probably more than ever before. This is understandable since the publishing landscape has changed so dramatically. The dream of writing a novel and getting it into the hands of readers has never been within such easy reach. And of course, we all know that each one of us has a story dying to get out. But what if it's more than just a passing fancy? What if you write that book -maybe even several- and don't know what you should do with it?
When browsing forums dedicated to writing and publishing, I often see announcements proclaiming something along the lines of: "My book is done and now I'm trying to decide whether to traditionally publish or self-publish." The conversation will go on from there, with many helpful voices chiming in about the pros and cons of each choice, and hardly anyone pointing out that 99% of writers do not and never did havea choice.
Sure, you can choose to submit endlessly to agents and publishers who either send you form rejections or ignore you entirely, but the truth has always been that only a fraction of a percent of hopeful writers can get published traditionally. This isn't because agents and editors are mean and elitist (Well, in some cases maybe, but that goes for just about any profession, especially one with a little bit of clout in certain social circles). What it really comes down to is numbers.
Even the largest publishers have a limited number of slots to fill each year. A certain percentage of these publishing slots are allocated to writers already under contract, and another percentage goes to big names who may not be writers but whose fame and/or notoriety essentially guarantee sales. Hollywood celebrities, politicians, musicians, and athletes fill these slots quite readily. According to the Bowker article linked above, traditional publishers put out about 300,000 titles per year. By comparison, Indie authors, small presses, and other non-traditional publishers account for almost 3 million! And these numbers are from 2009-2010!
When you get down to nuts and bolts, traditional publishing really is in trouble, and it has nothing to do with how good they are at choosing books. It has to do with disruption. Traditional publishing works on a model that hasn't evolved well with new technology. They're starting to catch on, but they're not just up against the surge in popularity of e-books, now they're being pitted against the authors themselves. Until the last few years, authors had little or no say in how they were published. If they were lucky enough to be chosen (keep in mind the odds against this happening at all) then the author happily took whatever percentage he or she was offered, and most of this came in the form of a small royalty advance. Publishers were negotiating from a position of power and authors... well, they weren't really negotiating at all.
The industry came up with relatively uniform numbers on these royalties. The publisher generally took 70% or more (often as much as 85%), and the author took whatever was left. But then Amazon came along, and Jeff Bezos wasn't satisfied with merely disrupting the industry with his new Kindle technology. He took it a step further. He gave authors 70%. He gave them the ability to choose any cover they wanted, whereas legacy publishers had usually told the author what cover they got, and that was the end of the discussion. He gave writers the power to manage their own careers, and to run those careers like businesses.
Wait a minute, does that sound familiar?
When James Patterson was first published (after being rejected quite a few times) he knew he could sell more books if they were marketed better. He knew he could publish more than one book every two years, and people would still continue to read. He believed that writing cross-genre titles could be a good thing. Naturally, the publishers ignored him. They told him it doesn't work that way. So Patterson spent his own money promoting his books on television and radio. He not only advertised in ways he wasn't supposed to, he also wrote for markets he wasn't supposed to. And how did that work out?
According to Wikipedia, Patterson has sold more than 300 million books. According to Forbes, his books account for 1 of every 17 hardcover books sold in the U.S.
You see where I'm going with this. Patterson's an entrepreneur. He's a smart guy. Smart enough to analyze the market and write to it, instead of waiting for it to find him. Smart enough to write good books and even revolutionize not just the format for thrillers, but how they are marketed and sold. If he'd listened to his publisher decades ago, you might not even know his name. That's not because publishers and editors are stupid, it's because they have to manage their own businesses. It is not their job to manage the careers of a hundred (or a thousand) different authors. Patterson saw that, and he took his career into his own hands. Now, even though he's still traditionally published, he's the most successful writer in the world, not because of what his publisher did, but in spite of it.
At this point, you probably think I'm telling you to go Indie. Write it and they will come. But the choice really isn't that simple. For some people, managing their own career is just too much work. They don't want to hire editors and artists, to plan book releases and giveaways. They just want to write, and they don't care if they ever make any money at it. That's fine. If you're a writer, published or not, you already have the soul of an artist. You have a drive to create something, and you may or may not care whether or not anyone ever sees it. If it's validation you want, you have to look where its meaningful to you. If you want to make a career of it -if you want to pay the bills, pay the mortgage, and maybe even buy that house with a swimming pool someday- you have to look at this as a business. Crunch the numbers. Look at other writers and analyze what has worked for them.
One last point: If you work hard and maybe get a little bit lucky, you can have the best of both worlds. A few years ago, agents all across America were telling writers, "If you ever self-publish, you will destroy your career. No respected publisher will ever talk to you again." Now, they're trolling the Amazon bestseller lists looking for writers to sign. So don't let those old publishing myths stand in the way of following your heart, and of course, your gut. In the end, nobody else can tell you which career choice is going to be the best for you, but you probably have an idea already.