Let me give my perspective. I have had the opportunity to get to know a lot of other authors, so a lot of what I`m going to say is from the information they`ve relayed to me.
But let me give you my experience first. I have one book published and two in production--all by major business publishing houses. I have chosen that route for a number of reasons. First, I knew nothing about publishing and knew I needed the best help I could get and I couldn`t afford top notch help on my own. For instance, my first book with Wiley Publishing went through a series of edits (at, say 2 cents per word) and design changes (that alone would have been about 5 grand). Secondly, with a major publisher, I had no problem getting the book stocked in virtually every bookstore in the US--and Canada, and the UK, Europe, as well as bookstores in China, Japan, Korea and dozens of other counties. Something that, of course, I could never have done myself. Third, Wiley has been approached by publishers in three other countries wanting to purchae the rights to translate and publish. Again, something I could never have accomplished. Fourth, I have gotten tremendous reviews and endorsements from a number of publications and top sales trainers--SellingPower for example. This would have been very difficult if self-published. The name of the publisher has opened a great number of doors that would have been difficult or impossible to open on my own. To accomplish the above would have cost me a fortune.
Other authors I`ve spoken to are now doing some self-publishing. But they have all established themselves as bestselling authors through traditional publishing houses prior to going the self-publishing route. They have, to some extent, found difficulties in getting their self-published books in certain locations where their traditionally published works have sold well. So, even for authors with a reputation as bestsellers, the road is more difficult. They do, however, self-publish ebooks that they sell on their websites. These are money makers, as they have several thousand people on their newsletter mailing lists that they sell these to. At 15, 20 or 25 dollars for a download that cost them virtually nothing, it isn`t too difficult to make a good profit--if you have the mailing list and site visitors to drive sales. Most have decided to have their major works published via traditional houses and save their minor things for their self-published ebooks.
I would think it worth the effort to try to go the traditional route, at least at first. It is true that very few get selected, but those that do have a tremendous advantage over self-published. Literary agents only get paid if they sell your book, so you`re not risking anything by getting an agent. And since agents only get paid if they sell your book, they have a real incentive to get you a contract. On the downside, that means they are selective. On the upside, if they take your book, they have the contacts that you don`t have.
Let me add that there are some downsides to being published via the traditional publishing house. You lose some control. I personally don`t liket he title of my book. Although the title acurrately reflects the content of the book--how the true million dollars a year sales superstars generate their million dollar incomes via client referrals, I think it comes off as too much hype. Unless one knows the content, the title appears to be another get rich quick book, which it isn`t. But I had no choice in the title--my editor at Wiley chose that. First time authors don`t get their way sometimes. But, even at that, the benefits far out weight the downside. If you insist on maintaining control of every detail, you will have to self-publish. If you`re more interested in selling books and especially the add-ons of charging higher speaking fees, coaching fees, etc., then try the traditional publishers first.
Oh, and one more advantage of the traditional publisher--money up front goes the other way. Instead of paying to publish your work, the publisher pays you for the opportunity to publish your work.
Author, Creating a Million Dollar a Year Sales Income: Sales Success through Client Referrals