Faster ≠ Better
These days, nothing stops you from converting your beloved ms to a .pdf and posting it on your blog for the world to see. Not that many people do this; I'm just saying that if you're looking for quick and dirty, you can self-publish your work in a matter of minutes.
If you want your book to look a little more slick and reach a wider audience, there's a panoply of options open to you, including—but not limited to—Lulu, iUniverse, Xlibris, Trafford, and (increasingly) Amazon (via CreateSpace). Be forewarned, however, that the vast majority of titles produced via these self-publishers do not compare to their traditionally pusblished counterparts: they are not as well-written, they contain significantly more grammatical errors, and their overall design (typesetting, cover image, &c) are not as good. They also don't sell very well at all (almost all sell fewer than 100 copies).
I'm not blaming the printing technology for the general inferiority of self-published books; devices like the Espresso Book Machine can produce copies virtually identical in quality to mass-produced, traditionally published books in a matter of minutes. Frankly, I'm blaming the self-publishing authors.
You're authors, folks. You're not graphic artists, you're not marketing gurus, you're not salespeople, you're not copywriters. (At least, most of you aren't.) If you're all these things and you've written a very niche book that publishers won't touch, go ahead and self-publish. As usual, I'm not aiming this advice at the outliers: I'm aiming it at the vast majority.
So, by all means, eschew the traditional method of publication and save 18 months (minimum) if you'd rather produce a sub-standard text that no one except your friends and family will read.
This Goes for E-books, Too
More on this below the next header, but just because you're not creating a physical book doesn't mean you should skip traditional publishing altogether (so long as you're writing something you believe will appeal to a wide audience; your family's genealogy or a book that will only appeal to Kazakh agronomists living in Indonesia are good candidates for self-publishing).
As e-books become a larger and larger component of the market, more and more people will flock to e-self-publication as a means of getting their words out there. The more voices there are competing for attention, the more difficult it becomes for any one voice to succeed on its own merits. Not only does your e-book have to be phenomenal, it has to command attention in some way; in other words, someone has to vet it. (More on this under Brand Management and The Democratization of Publishing is a Myth.)
Every Author Needs an Editor
When you write a book for publication, you're creating a text for someone (generally many someones) besides yourself. This means, mes auteurs, that the presentation of your story that seems optimal to you may not be optimal for the greatest number of readers; there are probably a myriad grammatical, typographical, and stylistic errors/problems to which you are blind; and the aspects of your work that you find most clever/entertaining/engaging might distract or turn off a large number of potential fans.
That is to say: you need someone else to read your work before it goes to press.
Not only that, you need (à mon avis) someone who is familiar with the current market, someone who knows the ins and outs of your genre and can speak to what is effective and what isn't, someone with whom to collaborate to produce the best piece of art of which you're capable.
In the world of publishing, meine Autoren, you are the brands. As a début author, your goal is to establish yourself as a brand in your chosen field or genre; you want people to say, "Guys! The next Francisco Battlebro thriller is out!" Or, "Oh man, I just got the new Sylvia P. Conundra mystery from Amazon!" Your reputation as a writer, your name or pseudonym, are social currency in the Land of Books; you need to establish yourself if you want to succeed as a working writer.
Here's where publishing houses come in. When your book comes out from a publisher (big or small, venerable or brand-spanking-new), it says that someone besides you has read your work and loves it. (Or, at the very least, can sell it.) Further, that house is investing in your talent (they paid you instead of the other way 'round, remember?) and wants you to succeed! They want the world to know your name and buy your books and make them (and you) money. That house uses their team of professionals to design, market, and sell your book, and it's their job to help brand you and make you a household name.
When you're flying solo, that's all up to you. And the vast, vast, vast majority of the time, the author who attempts to do this on his or her own does not succeed.
Past Sales Affect Future Sales
Remember BookScan? Well, if you decide to self-publish in any meaningful way and receive an ISBN, BookScan will be able to track your sales. And, as I've mentioned before, a poor sales history can scare off an otherwise interested agent or editor.
If your poor sales are the result of publication through a previous (legitimate) house, you can at least explain to your new agent or editor that those sales were, at least in part, the fault of said publisher (poor positioning, little or no marketing money or co-op, mishandling of stock, &c). If those poor sales are the result of your efforts at self-publication, you've got no one to blame but yourself. Yourself, and the reading masses who you tried to reach directly because agents and editors were keeping you from your adoring public.
The Democratization of Publishing is a Myth
Finally, there seems to be this rumor floating around that the rise of the e-book and the sophistication of current POD systems (where physical books are concerned) will not only make editors, literary agents, and publishing houses obsolete, but will usher in a Golden Age of Publishing where a true merit-based democracy will rule, and the reading public will determine, by show of electronic hands clutching electronic dollars, who will succeed and who won't. No more gatekeepers; no more insiders and outsiders.
Alas, mes auteurs, this myth has existed since the time of Gutenberg (and probably before) and is no closer to reality than it was six hundred years ago.
As I said earlier, the sheer volume of voices competing for attention guarantees that a system of separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff will be necessary. Consumer recommendation systems (like those employed by Amazon) are helpful, but insufficient; people often give five-star and one-star ratings to books for nepotistic, spiteful, or downright bizarre reasons, and while this might not affect titles with large followings (read: established brands), it can wreak havoc on lesser-reviewed titles. Which, if branding is determined by consumer review, will be all of them.
All this to say: there has to be a way of identifying, cultivating, and branding talent such that the fresh, engaging, and important voices are heard, and the rest are left to their own devices. While word of mouth is a necessary condition for this to occur in a free market, I don't think it's sufficient. Another filter is necessary, and that filter is the publisher.
That's all for today, bros and she-bros. Tomorrow: what I think the publishing landscape will look like by the year 2020!