The publishing industry has changed tremendously in the past decade or two, not to mention the last century. What used to be primarily a publishers-seeking-authors market where only the best got published has been lost to the generation of advanced technology, self-marketing via Internet media outlets, and cyber scams. Now, that's not to say that scamming didn't happen in the past; it certainly did. And technology has brought about a wonderful space for amateur writers (and other types of artists) to spread their wings and share their talents with the world. But what I feel is the core of the publishing world that was first created has long been thrown to the sharks. We live in an age where anyone can get published, no matter how much or how little talent there is, and who you know is more important than what you can do. I suppose who you know has always been important, but these days, it takes precedent over skills, which is quite a sad thing in my book. Yes, there are still traditional publishers out there, but the chances of being accepted with one of the big fish are generally one in a million. All that being said, you really need to be careful when searching for a publisher these days. Publishers know that new writers are trying to get published all the time, and many take advantage of that. They will try to win you over, then take your money, and leave you high and dry. But no two publishers are created equal. So for that reason, I'd like to take a brief insight into a few types of publication there are available, and which ones new writers in particular should avoid.
Self-publishing. Since this is the route that many new writers are forced to end up taking, I will start with this one. Self-publishing has its perks of course; you control what gets published and when, you don't have to sit around waiting to hear if you've been accepted or not by some well-known publisher that you hope will take you under their wings and show you the ways of the publishing world. And you don't have to worry about getting an agent or fight with an editor about how a sentence should be worded. You also retain all the rights to your book. The downside? You have to pay for everything yourself, you have to do your own marketing, you have to hire your own editor (if you don't want to hear the never-ending critique from your readers, that is; of course, that's up to you), and on top of all of that, your book will usually only be available in limited places (Amazon and the like) unless you happen to get lucky enough to sell enough copies to get picked up by a big name publisher. However, you know that and expect of those conditions up front.
So what's my recommendation on this route? Well, if you've exhausted other means of getting published without blowing a ton of money, and you have the extra monetary resources to do so, I actually think self-publishing can be a decent way to go, especially for authors just starting out. You can get your work out there and let others discover you when you might not otherwise get the chance. However, as I said, you should at least hire an editor for your piece, before you ever consider getting it published. Good editors won't just fix grammatical errors; they will tell you what they think could be added into your piece or taken away, how wording suggestions could help sculpt your book into a more refined and professional document. They're really worth investing in if you have the time and money.
Another person you might want to consider consulting if you decided to take this route is a marketing person or agent. They can help you increase the sales of your book, and they can give you tips on what publishers might pick up your book if it does well enough. However, an agent isn't necessary for this route, and many self-publishing authors choose to create their own marketing documents, which is fine.
Publish-on-demand or vanity publishing. Out of all the ways to go, this is probably the worst. While you do retain all or most rights to your book, and the publisher will often even accept your book for publication at no cost, they generate the initial loss in revenue by getting the author to buy their own book. Some key signs that a company is a vanity publisher: they offer to completely bypass the editing process to get your book out there faster, notify you that you will have to do the majority of the marketing, and pay you in royalties based off of the sales generated in a given period of time (i.e. the more money and effort you spend on selling your book, the more money you will get in return, minus the chunk that you are giving to these guys). A vanity publisher will provide low-detail statements of the sales that were made during a period of time outlined in the contract, meaning that they only have to pay you for what they say actually sold.
When I was 19 and got my first book published, I opted to go with one of these publish-on-demand publishers. I was naive and thought I had done proper research on the matter, but I hadn't. Like so many thousands of people before me, I feel I was cheated out of some money. No, it probably wasn't all that much, considering it was a rather awful poetry book and I was inexperienced, but I have record of some purchases made that they would never verify. In the end, it wasn't worth the battle, and I only ever saw one or two paychecks, and that was during the first few months of my book being available.
Though it's rather obvious by now, I do not think highly of these types of companies, nor do I recommend this route for publishing. Many publishers will try to hide the words "publish on demand" or "vanity publishing," because they realize that those words are not very reputable or well perceived. But the deal is all the same, no matter how they state it: The publishing company will publish your work, bombard you with special offers to buy more copies of your own book so that you can sell them yourself and do all the leg work, only stock it to online distributors so that there is minimal printing cost for them, and they only have to stock your book as long as it's selling. In the end, it's purely a win-win situation for them, and a loss for the author. You get nothing out of publication this way, except to have your name floating around in cyberspace in my experience.
Subsidy publishing. Though not very common from what I can tell, subsidy publishing is another route similar to vanity publishing, with a few differences. Authors will retain only particular rights to their work, as detailed in the contract made with the publisher, though they will retain ownership of their work. And like vanity publishing, they will generally fund the majority of the marketing costs involved and handle most of the sales. However, unlike vanity publishing, the author agrees to take on a set amount of the cost up front. The publisher handles all facets of production and shoulders the cost for it. They fund the advertising and promotions for public awareness of the product. The author then takes it from there. Similar to vanity publishing, there is no royalty advance, so authors are paid by the number of books sold.
If you choose to take a route other than traditional publishing or self-publishing, subsidy publishing isn't all that bad. There are of course some downsides to it (mostly monetary), but it's more of a partnership than vanity publishing for sure. Another upside is that while subsidy publishers accept more manuscripts than a traditional publisher, they are still picky enough that they won't accept just any manuscript; they want to be fairly confident that it will sell at least a reasonable amount of copies. Subsidy publishing is the most "middle ground" of all the various types of publishers.
Traditional publishing or commercial publishing. Traditional publishing is by far the hardest to get into. Your work doesn't just have to be good; it has to be entertaining, well-written, and above all, marketable. If you don't make the first few pages captivating, your book will be tossed aside along with thousands of others. Few are accepted by these types of publishers, but those that are usually make a respectable career out of writing.
The biggest upside to this type of publishing is the monetary rewards. The author typically receives a royalty advance for the projected future sales of the book. The publisher handles everything: production, sales, promotion, and funds. There is absolutely no cost to the author. The publisher does buy the rights to the book in order to do this, but they are generally considered the most reputable type of publisher, because they only make what they sell. They are responsible for, in my opinion, everything that the publisher should be responsible for. If you're good enough to hit it big with one of these guys, you're golden.
I hope my insight to the publishing world has been helpful for those with unfamiliar with the industry. I wish all of you out there trying to get published the best of luck, and I hope that you will find the path that works best for you.
As additional source on the types of publishing, I'd like to recommend http://www.brightonpublishing.com/Pubtypes.html. The site has additional details on each type, including the typical royalty rates.