Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was only one path to publication: the one we now call "traditional." It was a murky one sometimes, too. Not the bright and cheery yellow brick road you might have been imagining.
You'd submit your work to a publisher who either would or would not accept it for publication.
If your work was rejected, you could submit to other publishers, but there really weren't that many, and eventually, you might just have to accept a life as an unread author.
But this is no longer the case! Now you can publish independently, work with a small publisher, or put your work out as a serial. You can develop a podcast, produce content for YouTube, or put it up on your own website. In fact, there are so many ways to get your work out there that it can be hard to choose.
When I first started submitting novels for publication (around 2012), I started with what was known as "The Big Five": Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group/Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Books & Random House (merged), Simon & Schuster.
It was a frustrating process. So slow! I'd send my work off, and not hear anything for months. Then, even if the news was good (they want more chapters! they want a full manuscript), I'd wait months or even a full year just to get to "no." Usually, that "no" didn't even come with any feedback or advice, just a form letter thanking me for allowing my work to be considered.
I played that game for only two years before I decided to go smaller, looking into small, independent publishers.
I still wanted a publisher (as opposed to becoming my own publisher). I wanted that feeling of validation that comes from someone else valuing your work enough to invest in it. I wanted a team behind me that could serve my book with skills I hadn't developed: formatting, professional editing, cover art, marketing, etc. I wanted to see my book on the shelves of physical bookstores, and that meant finding a publisher with the right kind of distribution networks.
Other writers I know value complete control over their product more than the things I've listed above, or have a skill set I don't possess that allows them to handle things that seem like problems to me. So, they've chosen to go indie. I don't see that this makes any significant difference in the quality of the product. I've read traditionally published books that were badly edited and had terrible covers. I've read indie published books that were beautiful and near-perfect. There's a range of work regardless of venue.
I was pretty lucky. Going Through the Change: A Menopausal Superhero Novel, my first published novel found a home within a few months of my beginning to shop it around to smaller publishers. The process was much faster! Most rejections came within weeks rather than months. The space between signing a contract and holding a paper copy of my book was less than a year. That's lightning speed in the publishing world.
I found my eventual publisher through another writer I knew online who was already published with them. I did my research and liked what I learned about the terms, so I decided to take the plunge.
They published my debut novel in 2015.
We're still working together. They've published two more of my novels and a collection of short stories since then. It hasn't been all roses and love songs. The company has had growing pains and staffing changes that made for tensions at times, but my books have sold consistently and remained available for purchase, which is the point!
I've learned a lot about how the industry really works since then. The biggest surprise was how much of the onus for marketing still falls on the shoulders of the author, even when you have a publishing house behind you…even if that publishing house is big.
Another surprise was that finding a publisher doesn't mean that you're set for life. Publishers have niches and markets, and you might write something that doesn't fit with the catalogue. For example, I have a women's issues historical fiction trilogy I'm working on, and when I'm ready, I'll be taking it to different publishers. It's not right for this publisher.
These days, I'm moving toward becoming a hybrid author. I've put out a couple of indie-published collections with friends, and am considering making my next novel entirely indie. I still haven't learned much about book formatting or cover art but I have made connections and learned about how that work can be hired.
So, whether you take the road less traveled by, or throw your hat into the three-ring-circus of traditional publishing, it's entirely possible to find a path to publishing that works for you. We're so lucky to live in such times!