I wrote my first novel, Unbroken Hearts, in 2002-2003.
I began querying agents and publishers in January, 2004, and I continued to do so into 2006. Back in those days inquiries were done via snail mail, so it took 6 weeks to 3 months to get a response to a simply query letter.
I came close to the brass ring (one publisher requested the full manuscript, others requested partials), but no cigar. Comments in the rejections ranged from "you have a clean style and this is an engaging story, but we are currently overinventoried [sic] in historicals" to "the western market is really tough right now" to "we are heavily committed to our present clients, we seldom take on new work" to "I was not sufficiently enthusiastic to feel that I'd be the right agent for your work."
I didn't know it then, but those rejections were a blessing.
Kindle Offers New Market Channel
In 2008 I learned about Kindle store. It was free to publish in the Amazon online store, and I had all the requisite skills. What the heck? Loading Unbroken Hearts up to a real store, a place where someone might possibly buy my book (!), was a huge morale booster. I was so encouraged I returned to work on the second book in the series.
It took over a year for the Amazon sales to take off. At first I sold 2 or 3 books a month. My initial price was too high. I had to learn where to market online. But people were reading my book.
In late 2009 I started to see real sales growth. I made a little over $700 that year, mostly on the first book, and I donated all of it to American Heart Association. In 2010 rapid acceleration of sales began, and I'm on track make 20-30K in 2011 (hopefully more, IF I can write faster).
Time on Shelf: Key to Building Audience and Sales
I've learned it takes time, and word of mouth, for a new author's books to take off.
Being on the ebook shelf means you have that time -- months and years. In the traditional contract, print-only world, a new author in a genre such as western romance might get 6 months to gain traction before being pulled from the stores.
I've come to believe that rejection from the publishers was a gift. As a new author in a less popular genre, I don't think I'd have made it in six months in the traditional distribution channel.
After all, it took a couple years in the world's largest ebook store to find an audience. "The western market is tough" and "we are overinventoried" don't matter in the ebook store. If you have a good book it will eventually find it's niche, because you have the greatest advantage: Time. A good book stays on the shelf until it is "discovered." Setting a low price and aggressively marketing through social media will help, but just being there is the key.
It worked for me. It can work for any writer with a good book, and the resolve, to try it.