4ocious has it backwards. In the publishing world the goal is to get an editor. They represent the publisher and it’s their job to get you to print. An agent represents the writer. They help you hone your work, market yourself and get you to an agent that is a match for your writing. My wife is an aspiring writer and has been learning the business for a few years now. As noted above very few self published works make any money. Most are not taken seriously because anyone can do it so there is no quality control and most is crap The field is slowly changing, and some serious writers have started to move to self publishing, but it is still not mainstream with the industry. If you just want to do it as a hobby, it’s the way to go. But if you want to be a serious writer and have a chance of decent sales, you need to end up with an editor at a major publishing firm.
I too am a writer. I will clarify I'm an amateur writer since I've never had anything published. However, I've been writing for many years and I've talked to writers who have been published. Take it for what it's worth, but here is MY take:
- If you want to be a published author, forget vanity press. If you simply want your work in printed or E-reader form to hand out to friends and family, by all means, use vanity press. Yeah, you may be able to sell a few copies, YOURSELF, to people here and there. But you will not be a published author. No matter what the hype, if the "publisher" wants YOU to pay to print YOUR books, it's vanity press. If they're not up front about this, it's a scam trying to dupe wannabe published writers.
- Just like there are just many actors in Hollywood trying to break into movies and TV, there are just so many writers trying to get published. And just like there are so many scams wannabe movie and TV stars can fall into, there are many scams for wannabe published authors.
- Poetry.com: Complete, total and absolute scam. You can literally submit anything, and I mean ANYTHING, and you'll be nominated as a "Golden Poet" or some such nonsense and invited to their conference/competition. It's all a big ruse to get YOU to pay for THEIR books and trophies and to get YOU to pay for their conferences. Don't bother.
- "Editors": Complete, total and absolute scam. The typical line goes something like, "You have great potential. We really like your work. It just needs a little sprucing up, tightening up here and there. We can do this for you and get you published!". Forget about it. It's simply a useless service they want YOU to pay for. If you're a good writer, you don't need someone to edit your work. If a publisher is interested in your work, THEY will task THEIR editors to do the final editing for you and it won't cost YOU anything. Please share if you know otherwise, but I've never heard of an editor getting anyone published. I have heard of many scams posing as "Editors" promising to get people published but succeeding only in collecting fees.
- Agents: Absolutely. Positively. Good agents are the people who can get you published. Note I did not say "will" get you published. First, you have to get a good agent interested in you and your work. This is no easy task. Remember what I said about just so many people trying to get published? Yeah, it's tough. It's a screwed up system. But that's the way it is. If you can get an agent to take you on, it's the agent's job to get you published. He makes money ONLY when YOU make money. If the "agent" is asking you pay a bunch of fees up front, he's not really an agent. It's just another scam. Even if you do get an agent to take you on, it doesn't mean he'll find a publisher for you. But getting an agent is a very big step toward getting published!
- Online presence: People have become published authors based on their online presence; just like people have become rich by winning the lottery. And just like playing the lottery, don't count on it. Sure, the guy who wrote "The Martian" started off with an online presence, but it's not a reliable way to be published. Nothing wrong with trying. Have fun. Get some feedback. Just don't expect it to lead to a publishing deal.
- Contests: There are some really great fiction contests out there. Almost all of them are for students. Why? Remember what I said about there being just so many people trying to get published? Yeah, the people who run these contests can't read 890,000 entries. So, they significantly limit the entries by focusing only on students. If you can find a fiction contest open to you, by all means, enter. But again, be careful of scams. Some contests will require you to pay a small reading fee. That's usually OK. But if the "contest" requires significant fees, or many different fees, forget about it. It's just another vanity press scam. (Strangely, most of the contests I see are open only to previously published writers. So, what's the point?)
It is possible to get published. It's just really hard. And, even if you do get published, your books/stories will likely not sell. How many times have you walked into Barnes & Noble and saw some writer sitting at the desk for a book signing? I have seen many. And in every case I've seen, nobody was buying the book or getting the author's autograph.
But by all means, keep writing. And have fun!