You're exhausted. You've brainstormed until you've just about electrocuted yourself with the mental lightning, typed until your fingers nearly fell off, and edited until your manuscript looked more like a homicide case than a novel because it was bleeding from your merciless red pen.
But your book still isn't a published book. Today I'll be briefly discussing a couple of approaches to publishing.
This is how pretty much all publishing worked until a few years ago. With the advent of e-books, this is changing a bit, but I'll get to that later in this article.
The first step in traditional publishing is finding an agent. To do this, you follow a process called "querying" where you email different agents and hope that they email you back.
The job of an agent is to be an advocate for your book. Many major publishing houses will not accept books/ manuscripts unless the writer has an agent. The agent talks to publishing houses, works out deals, and, in return for this work, will eventually get some of the money you get from your book.
A few publishing houses (especially smaller ones) will accept un-agented books, but this is relatively rare. Plus, if you can land a well-known agent, you can already have a little street-cred for your book. After all, the publishing house already knows that someone liked your book (your agent, that is).
One of the exceptions to this is publishing houses that have book "interviews" at writers' conferences. This is one of the prime opportunities to pitch a book without an agent, as well as to find agents (not to mention a chance to improve your craft).
The key to traditional publishing is to persevere in soliciting both agents and publishing houses. According to booksandsuch.com, A Wrinkle in Time (one of my all-time favorite novels) was rejected 26 times. So don't give up!
After a novel is accepted by a publishing company, the book will be given to an editor (just when you thought you were safe!) and you will be given suggestions and deadlines. You'll probably end up taking most of their suggestions, but don't feel obligated to follow them down to the letter. Just be sure to meet the deadlines!
That done, you'll send the manuscript back to the editor, when it'll be microedited (and you thought I was kidding when I said the editing never ended). You'll also get a cover, a marketing campaign strategy, and, at long last, a finished, published novel. And some cash.
Of course, this all an extraordinarily oversimplified version of the process. For a more detailed overview, I would suggest this article.
Self publishing, sometimes called vanity publishing, is a relatively recent invention and has been aided by e-books. Examples of this are Kindle Direct Publishing and Lulu. Essentially, an author skips all the agents, querying, waiting, etc. and just clicks the "publish" button and...voila! Instant book (publishing times range from about two days for e-books to several weeks for print-on-demand paper books).
It sounds so much easier than traditional publishing, so why doesn't everyone do it?
Precisely because anyone can do it. As a self-published author, there's very little to separate you from the thousands of people who've written other stories. These stories range from ones that eventually hit it big, to moderate successes, to some that look like people published their NaNo book without looking at it a second time.
You also have to do all of your own editing, cover design, and marketing--or pay money for these services from independent entities.
For success, self published authors have to produce a high quality work in great volumes (I've heard people say as much as one novel every three to six months). They also need to possess excellent marketing skills to get their books out there. In short, it's a lot of work for not much money.
So why do people choose to self publish?
Some people think they're never going to have a chance at real publishing, whether because of their book genre or some other reason. Other people are happy to just get their books out there and don't really care about money or fame. Still others rush into self publishing without really knowing how much work it entails.
Self publishing does have some perks as well, including keeping all the rights to your books, being able to work on your own schedule, and not being expected to write only in one genre.
If you're debating the pros and cons of each method like I am, I would recommend this article.
Any questions about publishing? I'm not an expert, but I can answer a few questions here and there. I also welcome questions on my own writing, if you have any.