Fact #1: Self-publishing is now a viable career option for authors.
I've known this for a couple years now, not just personally through my own career, but also through watching the careers of dozens of other writers launch with self-publishing alone. Through these anecdotes, I knew it was possible, and not just for outlier mega-successes like Hugh Howey. But one of the things I love about Hugh-the-person (separate from Hugh-the-writer, whose works I also adore... currently reading his newest Sand... go get it!), is that Hugh has been a consistent advocate for writers, from the first-novel newbies to veterans who have 20 years of publishing under their belts. Hugh's recent Author Earnings data-scoop from Amazon (he's made the data publicly available for anyone who wishes to download) is just one more example of that. The money-shot graph from that first report (he has a second and third out, and more on the way) shows self-publishing isn't just a possible option, it's taken over a substantial part of the market:
For the top 7000 titles on Amazon, authors make more money from self-publishing than all of the top five publishers. Combined.
I'm not going to quibble with the data - it's by far the most comprehensive data we've seen so far, taken straight from publicly available information on Amazon. There are several conclusions in the report, and I'll let you read it for yourself, but here's the main thing: this report shows that indie authors are commanding a large fraction of the market. Which means: self-publishing is a viable career option compared to going with a publisher.
This report takes the anecdotes I've been seeing for years and puts data behind them. Thank you, Hugh Howey.
Fact #2: Your self-published titles never go out of print (unless you want them to).
I have a friend whose first book with a small press was pulled from the virtual shelves, even before my friend's contract was up. Why? Because my friend opted not to renew with that publisher (mainly because of a poor experience). The book isn't technically out of print... yet it's unavailable in ebook. I know other authors who got contracts in 2010, published in 2012, and are already out of print (both ebook and paperback) in 2014. Fortunately, those rights have reverted to the authors.
When you're self-published, you control how long your work is on the market. For most people, this means forever. Even a title that only sells a few copies a month is providing some income - and there's no cost to leave it up there, providing residuals.
This also means your books are forever.
Which brings me to...
Bravo for finishing your first novel! Even better if you've polished, edited, and feel like it's ready for publication! Can you self-publish? Absolutely! And maybe that's the right choice for you - I certainly don't know everyone's situation, and they are all different. But for most first-time novelists, that first novel is a huge growing experience. The second one will be as well. Even the third.
My and my first published novel, back in the prehistoric era of 2010.
(Note: my first written novel will forever remain only on my hard drive. My first published novel is the second one I wrote, but by the time I published it, I had written two more.)
I understand completely the urge to get your works out in the world, and now with self-publishing a viable option, I understand the desire to get started in your career. But publishing is a lot of work. And you're still finding your groove as a writer. Give yourself the gift of time to finish that second or third novel, to feel more confident in your craft, to mature as a writer. Because once you publish, it's a constant battle to find time for the writing (on top of life, the universe, and marketing your book).
And here's the thing: your stories don't expire.
That first novel you're dying to kick out into the marketplace? It will still be here in a year, after you've written another novel (or two). And you'll have a much better perspective on whether that novel is the one you want to start your career with. (Also: check out my Seven Questions to Ask Before Self-Publishing.)
And if you decide to publish that first novel anyway, please remember to keep writing.
It's why you're in this in the first place, right?