For me, the answer is simple for now: self-publishing isn't my dream.
My parents took me to see Star Wars before I could read and I knew right then that I wanted to tell stories like that. Then there was the first grade and the letters started to mean something in the books whose pictures I'd stared at. Sometime around puberty, I knew that my destiny was to be published by Tor. As an adult, I can't even begin to recall which favorite author made my adolescent imagination got for Tor rather than ..::shrugs::..Ace or whomever. I no longer hang my hopes on a particular imprint, but I am too new to taking the process seriously to drop my dream of being traditionally published for a goal of being published by any means necessary. I'll finish revising, revise again, submit my query packages and receive my rejections as expected.
But why get rejected? Why send the words you sweated over to people who will hold your hopes in their hands for months and might reject it because you had a passive sentence in the query, which they won't mention if they can be bothered to send you a quick, "It's not for me"?
Hopefully, you're writing because you love to. If you don't get real enjoyment from seeing your characters come to life on the page and turning an idea into a story, why are you torturing yourself with all the hard work along the way? Love is the first part, but it's not the only part or you wouldn't be worrying about publishing one way or the other.
1. It's nice to be paid. Advances are good; this does not mean that we should ignore small presses that may not be able to afford them, but don't sell your work short, either.
2. It's good to be recognized for your work. If you've set fingers to keyboard and finished--hell, even started--a work of fiction, I hereby declare you a writer. Tell your friends if you like. I'm afraid that the publishing industry isn't going to accept you as an author if you pay someone to print your book. That seems completely unfair you've written a good book that you know is being rejected for being "not commercial enough". Why should your art have to be commercial?
It's also completely realistic considering that anyone with the cash can self-publish. Have I complained enough about the issues with my manuscript? I can pay for a publishing package and have my book in print right now, complete with the red text reading "this is unclear; revise" and "then this happens."
3. Because of the sweat and tears we to put into our words, we tend to think of them as golden. Sometimes we're wrong. It's good to have an editor to point out that the three page description of the room that is only in the book for the one scene kills the pacing. It's nice to have a copyeditor to catch that we wrote 'diety' ten times when we meant 'deity'. (::wink::)
That goes along with #2. Publishing companies offer a standard of quality, from bookbinding to editing that readers have come to expect. If we even manage to get our hands on your book, people like me will report all across the internet about the pages coming loose and the awkward phrasing. We don't hate you, it's just what we do.
4. And how are you going to get that book into our hands? Bookstores won't order your self-published work until a paying customer requests it, so it won't be on the shelves for browsers to pick up. Newspapers and magazines won't list it with the new releases, nor will they review it. With all that free publicity lost, there's a good chance that even if your book is as good as you think it is, the rest of us will never know.
If you want to self-publish because you’ve sent your manuscript to a few (or half a dozen) agents and have nothing to show but form rejections, take a step back. Have you followed all the submission guidelines for each submission package? (Know the agent’s name if it’s going to a specific agent, did not send the same query/synopsis/10 pages for the Irene Goodman Agency to the Rappaport Agency that wants query/synopsis/5 pages or the Bradford Agency that wants a synopsis/3 chapters?) There are no typos and you’ve included everything else you should?
What about the story itself? OK, your mom thinks that Nora Roberts and Stephen King have nothing on you, but have you shown it to someone who (a) knows what they’re doing and (b) is more interested in seeing the work be all it can be than in stroking your ego or sparing your feelings?
If all your ducks are in a row yet every door seems closed to you, maybe it is time to open your own by self-publishing. Christopher Paolini’s mom thought his writing was all that so they self-published and took it on the road. Long hours, not a lot of pay off…until there was. Maybe they would have saved themselves a lot of gas money if they had gone the traditional route first. Or maybe a few dozen agents/editors would have said, “Robert Jordan meets David Eddings with just a touch of Weis and Hickman, just like the last hundred and fifty fantasy novels to cross my desk. Don’t call us and we won’t call you.”
There are lots of reasons other than a book’s quality for publishing houses to pass. Religious fiction might be a large niche, but it’s certainly a niche market. And when the novel in question is New Age with a just a hint of a plot to get the author’s spiritual ideas across? No wonder publishers originally passed on The Celestine Prophecy.
I’d never considered the market for middle-class, African-American, bi-sexual coming-of-age stories; apparently, neither did the publishers who rejected E. Lynn Harris’s Invisible Life.
As I wrote in Writers, Unblock!, the list of self-published books that made it can go on for quite some time. We still need to be realistic, though. For every rich best-selling author who has gone the traditional route, there are hundreds in the mid-list who are lucky just to pay the rent or mortgage. And there are thousands more who never get to quit their day jobs. The chances of making it are much lower for the self-published. If that’s the way you want to go, take your time researching just what you’re getting into.