Let me begin by saying that everyone’s journey is different and if you want to see your book in the hands of the masses, there isn’t necessarily a right way to do it, but there may be a wrong way.
I spent five years submitting to agents and publishing houses. I have a wonderful agent still, but he was unable to sell any of my books to NY houses. In December of 2010, I decided that the books that he couldn’t sell (The Last Pendragon, Footsteps in Time, Prince of Time) might as well be out there in the world for people to read because they weren’t doing me or anyone else any good on my laptop. I published them through Amazon’s KDP platform and through Smashwords as ebooks, and through Amazon’s indie paperbook arm, Createspace. It costs nothing to sell ebooks on Amazon or distribute to bookstores and libraries. These days Createspace has been merged into the KDP platform, so you can publish in both ebook and print there:
Another option is another distributor, Draft to Digital which some people have been very happy with and I strongly recommend as I use it now too. It’s link is here: https://www.draft2digital.com/
For a comprehensive list of publishing aids, see Bookbub’s blog: https://insights.bookbub.com/publishing-resources/
I’m getting ahead of myself, however, because before you release a book into the wild, it has to be the best it can be, and you need to be sure that you’re ready to start your own small business. That’s really what indie publishing is–a small business–and you should approach it as such. Professional editing and cover art really are necessary. Even on a low budget, you can get good covers for $250 or less, and if you have a posse of literate and educated friends, you could possibly get a lot of help with editing and proofreading in addition (or in a pinch, instead) to paying someone to help you. That said, you don’t want yes men who will tell you your book is great. You want people who are willing to tell you what you need to fix and why.
What you want to do is to stay away from any company that is going to offer you a package deal of services or take a cut of your profit. There are SO many scams out there, many of which are run by traditional publishing houses themselves (Simon and Schuster, Harper Collins, Random Penguin, and others all have vanity publishing arms), all preying on indie authors. There are a couple of blogs that are very helpful for navigating this kind of thing:
If you do pursue a traditional publishing deal, you really must look at Writer Beware, a web page that details agents and publishers to avoid: http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/
The owner of the second blog, David Gaughran, has written a book called ‘Let’s Get Digital’, which is EXCELLENT. Well worth a purchase as a way to get started. In fact, before you do anything else, you should read his book. It is available here: http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/lets-get-digital/
He also gives the what-for to the vanity publishers mentioned above, masquerading as traditional publishers.
In addition, the community of writers online is an invaluable resource for information, as well as support when times are hard. I recommend two groups in particular: Indie Writers Unite, a Facebook group with nearly 2000 members (https://www.facebook.com/groups/indiewriters/) and the Writer’s Cafe at the Kindle Boards (http://www.kboards.com/index.php/board,60.0.html).
Both these groups have a yellow pages listing editors and proofreaders.
Before all that, however, I would reiterate my real advice about all this: above all, focus on the writing. Sit down every day and plow ahead, with whatever word count goal you choose. And as you write, don’t think about the fact that you’ve never written anything longer than a twenty page paper and that was for a class you hated in college. Today, even if what you put on the page is terrible, no-good, the worst chapter ever inflicted on a word processing program, believe that through editing, educating yourself, and reading what other people write and say about writing, you can learn and improve. You can get better day by day—until one day you read over the two pages you managed to write the day before and think to yourself, ‘hey, that’s pretty good!’
Don’t think about publishing either. It isn’t that you can’t publish that first or second book, but that it can’t drive the work—the publishing experience is too frustrating, with too little compensation—for that to be a significant motivation. It’s only after you’ve written a book, revised it fifteen times, shown it to a few people you trust who have given you feedback, and then revised it several more times, that a novel is ready for public consumption.
And then come back to this post.