And by beginner's guide I'm referring to myself, not the potential reader. I've never been published, so obviously I don't really know what I'm talking about. But that's never stopped me before so I will share my understanding of the process. Maybe it will help others. Maybe they will point out where I'm wrong. Maybe it will just amuse you.
Let's first talk about what publishing means. Publishing generally gets broken down into two categories: 'mainstream' publishing and 'self' publishing. Of course, there are lots of vagaries and sub-categories and arguments that can follow. But let's keep it simple for now. Self publishing is when you do the publishing yourself (I know, kind of obvious). That used to mean you paid for the printing of books. Anyone could self-publish anything, they just needed the money. These days, we have lots of great technology and the ever present internet. That means you no longer need to have money. You can basically upload any document to several different sites and wall-la, you have an eBook. (Smashwords is one of the big ones and explains the process fairly well). And other sites actually let you upload a file and they will print a physical book when someone orders it. (Lulu's a good example). The key thing is that there is no gate-keeper. Anyone can publish anything, and now it's free.
There's nothing wrong with self-publishing. I plan to do so myself shortly. But it also means little by itself. Only if people actually buy (or download or whatever) your book does it prove anything. But getting published by an actually publisher; well, that means something. It means that someone else, at least one person, believes that what you wrote is worthwhile. And their opinion is suppose to matter since it is what they do for a living. It means you really are an author. That you have achieved something. That you'll get paid for your work. At least, that's what we writers like to think. Truthfully, it can mean all that or it can mean nothing. But it's still the goal for most of us. It's still the validation we seek. And I'm no more immune to that desire than anyone else. (Aside: ultimately writers write because they want to and validation comes from within and from your readers. No one else really matters. But that's just philosophy.)
So how does a writer go about getting published? Well, it depends on what you write. If you write short stories, the kind of stuff that gets published in magazines, you can often go directly to the publisher. Submit your work and some poor schmuck of an editor reads through the pile of offerings and picks yours out. It's direct and simple, though hardly easy. There are hundreds of articles submitted for every opening. And these days there are lots of places looking for stories - even though actually print
magazines are dwindling, web e-zines are constantly sprouting up (and
disappearing). It's a bit of a crap shoot, but if you're writing is good, and you submit it to the right place, and you keep working at it, you will get published. You might not get paid much, but at least it's recognition. There are many sites out there that will help you find a market for your work, some general (Duotrope) and others specific to genres, like Fantasy (Ralan). This is where lots of folks start since it's faster to write short stories and a quicker process to get published (though the actually time it takes may not be quick at all).
But that's not the big goal for most of us. The classic goal of writers is to get a novel published. To be a true author, a contributor to the world of literature. To be special. For that you generally need a little more help and have to pass through more gatekeepers. You can't go directly to most publishing houses. They only work with agents. So you have to start by getting an agent. Someone who will represent you. Someone who believes your work is worthy of publishing and will try to convince the publisher of that fact. A great thing to have on your side, but how do you get an agent? Them you can still go to directly.
Agents can be found many places, but the good ones, the big ones, will be members of the Association of Authors' Representatives. Honest agents work on commission and only benefit when you do. Don't trust any agent that somehow costs you money. There are also sites that help you search for agents (QueryTracker) and sites that inform you about agents (Predators & Editors, Absolute Write). Most agents take direct submissions, called Queries, and each has their own preference for format and content. Many also attend conferences or workshops or pitch sessions; ways to get a more direct audience with a potential agent. Again, it's just a matter of impressing the right person with your work to convince them to represent you.
But once you've gotten an agent you're still not done. That agent needs to sell your book to a publisher, the people who will actually print it. That means convincing someone that readers will pay for your book (quality is a different standard altogether). If the publisher believes in it, then they will generally offer an advance to buy the rights to publish your work. But even then, you're still not done. Publishers will ask for more editing on the book. And that editor, or maybe a more senior one or even a panel of people, will ultimately decide when and if they feel your book is ready to go to print. So it's a small group, a cabal of agents, publishers, and editors that decide if you will be published. Only then have you reached your goal. Then you are a published author. But what will you have to show for it?
Once in print, it's up to the potential reader to actually make the purchase. It's their money that drives this whole process. Part of that money goes to the seller, part to the publisher, part to the author (royalties). That's what allows the whole cycle to continue. So ultimately it is the reader that matters. That's whose approval and support we need as writers. That's who we want to please. That's who publishing is for. It just takes a lot to get to them. Self-publishing avoids the middle men, but takes much more work to reach the reader directly. Publishing houses already have the channels to reach readers, so that is where most writers head. And that is still where most of the money is to be made. And don't lie - money is what most of us are after. For no other reason than the fact it will allow us to keep writing, to write more and to get more published. Because getting published is the goal, but not the finish line. It's actually the start.