In 1998, when I started Civil War Book News, the only options for an author with low interest in a manuscript were self-publishing or subsidy publishing. White Mane is one subsidy outlet that has brought out a number of interesting titles; I believe Stackpole, at that time, was also open to author subsidies.
These are rocky roads but not dead ends. Edward Bonekemper self-published (or subsidy published) How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War in 1997, and seven years later scored a major hit with A Victor, Not a Butcher, brought out by the small trade press Regnery. There were no books in between, as far as I know.
In about 2000, a number of new dotcom publishers, like Xlibris, began issuing Civil War titles. They were leveraging 10-15 year old print-on-demand technology to lower the costs of self-publishing, the authors still bearing all of the financial burden. Authors could now have a print run of as low as 10 copies and respond to demand with short runs.
They put a twist on the business model practiced by ancient vanity houses like Vantage. Vantage used to do a full press run (2,000 plus hardbacks), a small publicity campaign, reviewer mailouts with press releases, and it would attempt distribution through normal channels. In sum, it acted like a trade publisher based on the author's budget.
Thus, companies like Xlibris conformed more to a manufacturing model (cheap book printing) as to a vanity publishing system; they simply printed the book at the author's expense (with its profits built into even small runs) and made it available through an electronic bookstore, doing less than a Vantage. The author was the salesman and distributor.
The next generation of publishing hybrids seems to have arrived. I see that Publish America is using the short-run technology to function without taking author subsidies. Their proud claim is "We treat our authors the old fashioned way - we pay them." This youth has published a Civil War novel through Publish America.
I'll be watching for more micropublishers like this in 2005.