I don't know how it was in the past, but in this century becoming a published author is not easy at all.
To start with, you should set your goals. If you want to be published with a major company you need to quality with the following requirements:
a) write extremely well, use a fresh language nor riddled by any grammatical error or flaw in style, bring forth new or unusual ideas
b) find an A-list literary agent who will not put your manuscript on the slush pile
c) hope and pray this agent will get you published
You can always try. But not many succeed. If you ever visit writing forums, you'll see hundreds and thousands of beginning authors who have failed in landing such a contract. This doesn't necessarily mean they write badly or their work is shit. You can have a very good story, but the powers above might consider it 'not fit for the market' - meaning they presume they can't earn money representing you.
I write for fun. Luckily for me, otherwise I'd have grown white hair trying to find a publisher. Now I know for myself my writing is good - ok, I won't win a Pulizer prize, but then I don't feel the inclination to write such literary prose. I concentrate on historical fictiton, with elements of romance. Some of my stories are more romantic, while nowadays I'm tending towards the more dark of the gothic novel and time-travel.
When I first sent out my manuscripts years ago I only met refusal. The nicest rejection letter came from an editor at Avon who wrote me she loved the book - but only wished I'd sent her this manuscript 20 years before, when it would have been an instant hit... So right, the story is fine, but they don't think it will sell.
Nevertheless, I kept on trying - which is something you need to do as a beginning author: never give up hope! One day I sent out my usual query mail - to receive an anwer not second later. It came from a respected agent, who was willing to have a look at my WIP. Foolish me, I did not believe this could happen. I hesitated, trying to find out if this was genuine. When I finally realized it was no hoax, the agent had lost his patience with me.
So I considered my other options. I could alway go for vanity publishing, but did not feel like handing over my hard-earned money to some people who live of the foolishness of new authors. I'm not that crazy!
Another way was self-publishing, but then I knew this would also not work for me, as I'm living in Belgium and I wanted to be published in the USA. How in heaven's name can I do promotion when I live so far away?
God bless, then came e-publishing. Lots of new companies (sharks and others) but after some time the bad ones got recognized and big warning posts appeared on the forums. (Think of Publish America!).
At long last I came into contact with a new publisher, mainly into ebooks. They read my WIP and offered me a contract. I did not receive any advance, but they treated my work with respect. I got an editor and had to work on re-writes under her direction. The cover was made professionally and all in all the whole process was as it should be.
I'm still with Rogue Phoenix Press. I trust them and I know they do a great job and are expanding year by year. They are also very honest when they tell you how many books are sold and calculate the royalties.
I continue to write without stress and I know I can get a manuscript published now. Now at last I have the freedom to try and find an agent who can (perhaps) get me with a bigger company. One day or other, my genre should become popular again - everything always returns!