Recently I was asked to give another writer advice on their career path. I started to answer the email, then realized I didn't have an answer. The path I started on diverted onto a whole different one despite my own best laid plans. I aimed for an Indie Author career, hoping to one day create a big enough book list that I could support myself with my writing. I felt pretty good about this choice, then a whole lot of other things happened, and now I have a deal with Tor.
You have to get tough with yourself and be realistic when deciding in which direction you want to aim your writing career.
Here are your three basic options:
Indie Authors do all the work themselves because they are self-publishing their work to retain control. That is the main reason a lot of writers choose this path. They retain complete and total control over the creative content, the layout, the cover artwork, and the promotion/marketing of the book. They are 100 percent in charge. They also keep all their royalties (after the publish on demand company takes their cut for printing, etc) and can publish in the formats they choose (hard back, paperback, ebook).
It's all about control.
But it is also about ultimate responsibility. If the book doesn't sell well, looks crappy, reads horribly, etc...the responsibility is on the Indie Author alone. It also means not seeing your books on the shelves of your local bookstore (unless you somehow work a miracle with the buyers). Your book will also come under harsher criticism for editing than books traditionally published and you're going to take a lot of knocks for being self-published. It means a whole lot more work than you ever imagined with possibly very little reward.
Being an Indie Author in genre will put you one step ahead automatically. If you write to a small niche, there will be a better response, but you will have to work hard to reach out to your potential audience.
Being an Indie Author is fun and hard work (is it ever!), but can be very rewarding if you find the right recipe for your own personal success.
Small Press/Indie Press
The small press publishers are carving out their own niche in publishing as they put out works that appeal to specific audiences. For example, Library of the Living Dead Press specializes in zombie fiction. Permuted Press specializes in post apocalyptic fiction. Though I know the owners of both of these presses, I haven't had a lot of small press experience. I do know a lot of authors with the smaller presses and some have had very good experiences and others have not. Research is a very important part of the writing process and publishing process. Small presses can sometimes end up being a fly by night setup, so it is important to seek out as much information as you can about a small press before submitting.
Small presses can sometimes provide more personalized interaction with authors and better royalty scales (but not always). A few have made it into major book stores (like indie press Permuted Press) and/or are represented by literary agents to broker bigger deals. An author will most likely not have any control over the cover or the layout. You will still end up having to promote your own book even though the small press may provide some advertising around the web or in magazines. You won't be making a ton of money or going on expensive publicity tours, but your book will have the benefit of being released by a press with a good reputation.
The Big Guys
The Holy Grail of any writer is being published by an imprint of one of the big publishing houses in New York City. We all have day dreams of a huge advance, major marketing push, book tour, appearances on talk shows, etc., but the reality is that you may end up with a very small advance, still do most of the marketing yourself, have to put on your own book tour etc...
The big deal can happen and still does, but for a lot of authors it is not going to be the reality for their first novel. Carrie Vaughn, a bestselling author, sold her first book in her Kitty series for $7, 500 advance. She now lives off her writing and is very successful, but her first sale was not spectacular. My own Tor deal is not the norm for most writers.
The big publishers can get you into all the bookstores, which is a major plus for most writers. If your first book does well, you may end up with a better deal, and closer to your original dream.
Getting into the ranks of those published by the New York publishing houses is not easy though. Prepare for years of hard work and lots of rejection. You will need an agent to get into the big houses. And an agent is not easy to find. I won't go into detail about how to get an agent because there are plenty of websites out there to help you along. But trust me, it is not an easy route to take and you will have to develop a very thick skin.
But the reward could be amazing!
In the end, whichever route you choose, you will need to push yourself harder than you ever have before to accomplish your goals. You're going to have to grow a very thick skin and be ready for heartbreak along with your triumphs. You may start out in the small presses and decide to go indie, or decide that the big publisher is worth all the heartbreak. You may switch paths several times before you find what works for you and your writing.
This is a new era in publishing. Things are changing constantly, but this is providing new opportunities for those willing to take some risks.
So to answer your question on which publication path should you choose...the one that suits you.