It all depends on what you want to do with your story, and with your career.
1. You can try to publish your work through small presses – some are more picky about quality and polish than large presses, but there are also fringe/specialist presses that aren’t fussy. If you find and befriend the latter, you might be able to publish quickly. If all you want is to see your work printed with limited market penetration, this is one way to do it.
2. If you are dead keen on getting street cred in the publishing world, without compromise, you have a long journey and you should just keep trying until you get the break. In that case, it is NOT smart to show more than a few pages of your serious material in public access Internet sites (like this) – otherwise you lose what some publishers consider important – "first publishing rights".
3. You can self publish. There are options here. You can do it all yourself, buy your ISBN, get copyright, go through services like Createspace and end up spending fairly small amounts of money and you have something someone can buy through Amazon. It doesn’t market your product – that is up to you, and there is no professional polish, formatting, editing, done. For the vast majority of people who do this, they will have sub 100 units sold, the majority by you, family and friends. But you might think this is ok
4. You can self publish through a self-publishing company. They use Createspace, Booksurge, Ingram and other services, depending on how the company is set up, and many of them are mercenary. They will charge quite high for the services and they will not be fussy about the quality of your work. If your work is unpolished or (forgive me) crap, they wont care, and it will be reflected in the product. They will not edit your work unless you pay for it, and the editor isn’t always THAT good. If you pay for cover art, they will provide it. If you want it marketed, they will do it for money, otherwise, the vast majority will do nothing. Sales are rarely good, much like doing it yourself. Again, this might be what you want.
5. There are a few companies out there that offer a form of hybrid service – you pay them to publish you, and they look after full service, and may even refuse to publish you until a minimum standard is met, despite the client’s willingness to pay. This is the best of both worlds. Again, sales are not necessarily great, but at least you are given the equipment to optimise your chances.
With regard to self publishing, it has a lot to do with the final product. How good it is. Traditional publishers will openly say that a self-published work spells the doom of the title ever transferring into traditional publication. Bullshit. Matthew Reilly, Christopher Paolini and Grisham are examples of the contrary. The fact is that if you sell between about 2000 and 5000 units, agents and publishers will start showing interest. Having said this, boy do you have to work to get your stuff marketed, and also… it has to be good. There is no quick way there.
Also, those of you who want to hold out to get the traditional path break – think long and hard about that too. Luck aside (hey, I would like to win Lottery too), it is a long journey. Most specialised small presses will publish you but is it success? Look at the quality of their work – many are as nearly appalling as most self-published works. Limited. Almost worthless.
Now to dispel the biggest myths. First, if you actually get the break and publish your work through a tradpublisher, don’t give up your day job. On average, a successful writer needs about 10 novels drawing in royalties before a reasonable income can be got. Secondly, when a traditional publisher offers to publish you, they will probably invest about 50K worth of print run (about 5000 units) and spread it among the 120,000 outlets (work that out) and then they will wait and see. Most outlets will try a new author/title out for about a week or two, and if no sale, they will return it for pulping. If it isn’t received well within about 2 weeks, a publisher will simply let the title go to pasture – and the publisher owns the rights to the novel, so the author can’t do anything with it, except try to drum up interest. That’s it, you see, tradpub or not, new writers need to do the work. Publishers will not invest marketing money (beyond about 10k) if your name isn’t Dan Brown.
So where do you go? I think it is relatively simple. You give yourself every chance possible to get your name out there, and do it smartly. Most self-publishing activities, if handled well – the right publisher, the right polish, the right marketing, and the right product – has to be good, will never harm your chances to get traditionally published, but at least you get a foot into the industry and you LEARN from it. Research every step of the way.