Philosophy at Ten Paces!
Here is something to think about: Vanity presses and unskilled writers aside, there is a new "philosophy," if you will, rising up out of the dust of the old publishing regime. Namely, rather than viewing getting published as some sort of honor/privilege/reward for those who actually "break in" to the scene via a good agent and an editor who decides he likes the story, the "new breed" of author views publishing a book as developing a product -- a product he has worked hard on and perfected; a product he believes in.
He then uses whatever means he chooses to get the book into print, and markets the book like any other artisan markets his wares -- charcoal portrait-scribblers on the boardwalk; angora sweater-knitters on ebay; gourmet chocolatiers on the streets of Paris. It boils down to viewing a book as "the culmination of having been accepted by the publishing establishment and having therefore been officially 'published;'" or, viewing a book as "the culmination of having worked hard to produce a good product (re: book) that will ultimately be devoured or rejected by the reading public.
"Nobody who knits angora sweaters or makes divine chocolates (shipping worldwide, of course) has to be stamped with the same kind of approval that writers do (songwriters as well as authors) -- they work hard at their craft and then they sell it. They don't have to wait for somebody to tell them, "OK, your product is good enough now. We'll put it on the shelves for you." They put their product on the shelves themselves. And the savvy marketers and dedicated salespeople are very successful at selling their labor of love. That, I believe, is the basic difference in philosophy between the established publishing system and the "new breed" of writers who want to view their work -- and publish their work -- differently.
I have to disagree with your basic premise. Books are not products. Books are not sweaters or chocolates. They are not created with patterns or by following a recipe. I don't mean this literally either. I understand your point and I'm saying books are not fungible. One book is not another, whereas one Hershey kiss is another.
Books are not products. They are art. Even Bridges of Madison County. A person cannot reproduce that book (even if they wanted to), like they can a chocolate or a sweater. One sweater or another will keep you warm, and one chocolate or another will woo your true love, but one thriller is not the same as another.
I've never met a writer yet who's first choice for distribution was selling it on street corners or in the subway. They do that cause they didn't know how to get their book in front of the right person to work with them. I admire those folks actually, but they're there because they don't know what else to do, not because they know what to do and chose that.
You don't always need an agent or an editor to get your book published. There are scads of small and medium size publishers who produce all sorts of wild ass things. The hard part is finding them if you don't know where they are.
We've talked about how many query letters to send before you retire a project. I said 100. Think of this: there are more than five thousand publishers in the United States who publish more than 165,000 titles. If you query 100 of the five thousand, you've only asked 2% of them.
It's not that hard to get published if you've written something compelling. Agents and editors are not gatekeepers who admit only the handsome, strong, true and brave. The publishing arena is open to anyone who has a good book and is willing to work hard to find a publisher.
If you start adding conditions like up front money and a pr department at your beck and call, you reduce the number of available outlets ... but if you want to be published it's not that hard.
I've said this before and it's worth repeating: the process for how books get published works just fine. It's the distribution and sales model that needs fixing.