There's been a great deal of controversy lately at RWA concerning "recognition" for publishers as well as what kind of books can be entered in the RITA contest.
While I'm not going into the controversy (I have my opinion, but it's being discussed very well elsewhere), it occurred to me that newer authors might not know what the heck they're talking about. What is meant by "non-vanity, non-subsidy" press? What's an e-publisher? What's the difference between small press and e-press, and what does it mean when people talk about "New York"?
Vanity press: Vanity publishing is different from self-publishing. In vanity publishing, you send your ms. and a sum of money to the publisher, who then does all the editing (if any), creates the cover, prints the book, and sends you back a carton or twenty of published, bound books. There is no "acquisition" process--anyone can publish at these presses as long as you pay (some are fairly inexpensive; some can run into thousands and thousands of dollars.) Vanity press can be useful if you want to publish your great-grandmother's diary or your child's picture book as a gift for family members (some presses specialize in "gift books"). If you dream of becoming a big-name, NYT novelist, this is not the way to go.
Subsidy press: Subsidy is much like vanity publishing although the press might pick up some of the costs (e.g., it pays an editor but you pay for the cover and the printing.)
Self-publishing: Self-publishing differs from vanity press because you are essentially becoming a publishing company. You pay for everything, yes, but it's in your hands to hire an editor, hire a proofreader, hire a printer, design the cover or hire a cover artist, and decide how to market it. Self-publishing works well with books that will sell to niche audiences--regional cookbooks, regional histories, how-tos, etc. (mostly nonfiction). Self-published authors have been quite successful, although I think it's a rare author who is successful in self-published fiction. It can be done, but it's rare. Most readers looking for fiction hit Walmart or B&N.
In these three types of publishing, self-publishing is the most respected. Tip: If you have vanity-published a book, never mention that in a query letter to an agent or editor, unless it's become an NYT bestseller (which is not very likely).
Note also that with these types of publishing options, you must distribute, market, and sell the book yourself. If you are fantastic at hand-selling, love to get out with the public and press your book into as many hands as you can, you go for it. It's not for me, but some people are good at it.
E-press: E-publishing has been around for ten or so years now, and now every major publisher has started putting out their list in e-. When someone talks about an e-publisher or e-pub, they mean publishing houses who release e-book originals, bringing a print copy out months later in a secondary process. They sell the e-books from their own website or partner with distribution points like Fictionwise, Sony, Kindle, and the like.
Examples of highly successful e-book publishers are Ellora's Cave, Samhain, and Loose ID (pronounced "Lucid"). I submitted a ms. to an e-publisher about five years ago to see what it was all about, and was pleasantly surprised at both the income and the quality of the press. (The submitted book is still selling, btw). Please note that all e-presses are not created equal. Before you submit to e-presses, purchase their books, look over their website, talk to authors who write for them, ask questions about their contracts. Object strenuously to contracts that pay royalties on "Net Receipts". Or get an agent and let her object strenuously for you. Stick to your guns on this or don't be surprised if you get ripped off.
Small Press: When most people say "small press," they mean presses that print a limited run of nicely bound hardback books. Small presses can be quite prestigious. Poisoned Pen press, a mystery publisher, has produced novels that win top mystery awards and have been optioned for TV mini-series. Avalon press and Walker are well-known in the library industry, and produce quality titles. Small presses don't pay very high advances ($1000 is typical), nor are their print runs large (2000-10,000 is typical). However, small presses can then sell mass market rights to a larger house, getting you more distribution and more $$. Small presses usually cater to a niche market (e.g., the mystery genre; library market; nonfiction only; etc.). I've not published with small press, but authors tell me they have a homey, intimate atmosphere.
NY House: When people refer to a "NY House" or simply "New York," they mean the big dogs of the publishing industry with big offices in New York City: Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, HQ/Sil, Simon & Schuster, as well as a few independent houses like Dorchester and Kensington. NY pubs can pay million dollar advances and get your book shelved in every supermarket, bookstore, library, and mass merchandiser in the country and around the world. Note that they can also pay you $1000 and send 20,000 books to a few bookstores only. The NY House is where the big distribution happens, where the big money rolls around, and where authors get famous. My biggest advice about NY: Get an agent. You can sell a book without one, but please have someone by your side after that!
Another thing to remember: While small press and e-press (and even self-publishing) can be a stepping stone to a NY House, please realize that vanity/subsidy press is not. It's a rare, rare, rare, rare occurrence for a vanity author to make it. I'm sure everyone can point to one instance where it's happened (that's what "rare" means). Point to twenty or thirty, and I might start believing.
And one more thing:
It's perfectly fine to want a career in small press or e-press! I know authors who are happy as clams writing for two or three e-presses or sticking with their small press. Writing isn't always about money and glamour. And you can make money at an e-press (Hint: The key is backlist.)
I think I've covered the bases here--if not, or you have questions, let me know!