Becoming an author is as much a balance of self as it is a system of effort and sacrifice. Obviously a great deal of the process relies on one's dedication to the writing process, but there comes the time when a writer must take the step from a private scribe to a potentially public figure. A wise mentor of mine once said that a writer becomes an author when they find that writing is only half of being an author, and while writing is undeniably an inescapable step in the process it's true that a writer who never submits their work can never advance.
There are a number of options in this second step, but for the purpose of simplicity it's best to view it as a choice between three distinct paths: self, indie, & traditional.
Self - despite what many say, self publishing is not an ugly word and there is no shame in doing so (while it stands to reason that self publishing is the "easiest" way to get a piece out, if it is of low quality or sub-standard effort then the piece will not go far and, worse yet, the public that is reached can--and often does--do substantial damage with poor reviews and word of mouth). While self publishing can be an unforgiving crash course in what it's like to be in the public eye when one is not ready (it's been said that every rejection letter is easier to swallow then another reader pointing out you weren't ready to see print), many well-written authors see monumental success in this process. Because self-publishing puts near-total (if not total) control of every element of how the piece goes out (including cover art, internal formatting, networking platforms, etc...), then somebody who is well versed--or has connections who are well versed--in the various arenas can see the release of a compelling piece that will earn them 100% of the earnings.
Indie publishers - This process represents a "cool center". Though self publishing represents a form of indie publishing, there are publishers who operate in this realm. These publishers are less dictated by the confines of commercial publishing and, as a result, more author-friendly (I've heard horror stories of traditional authors submitting a completed manuscript to their publisher only to be told that they need to completely rewrite the piece in order to incorporate a "crowd-pleasing" element to cater to the publisher's demographic; regardless of what those changes mean to for the piece). The submission process varies for indie publishers (they'll often specify their guidelines; for example, my company, Tiger Dynasty Publishing, has a guidelines page that mirrors the standard formatting guidelines of traditional publishers that can be found HERE), and the services provided will vary as well. However, for the most part the general process of going through an indie publisher allows an author a great deal of ease in the publishing process (TDP and others, for example, will provide editing, cover designs, and other publishing costs at no expense to the author), as well as helping to market and promote the piece upon publication.
Finally, there's traditional publishing. This is, of course, what most people think of when they consider the process. Many will argue that this is "harder" than other methods, but it stands to reason that, as mentioned earlier, a rejection letter isn't always a symbol of failure, but one of being not yet prepared (the success rate of traditional publishing mirroring the fact that commercial publishers only accept pieces that they personally feel will return the multi-thousand dollar investment an accepted piece represents). However, time, ease of submission (the shift from mailing manuscripts to one of simply emailing a file has made the proverbial "inbox" for publishers substantially more filled each day) and an over-saturation in the market has motivated many publishers closed to what is referred to "unsolicited manuscripts". An unsolicited manuscript is a submission by an author who is not represented by a literary agent, and it has been said that acquiring a literary agent is often more difficult a process than getting the actual publisher. The process of querying an agent isn't altogether uncommon from querying a publisher--it follows the same general premise of "here is my piece and why everyone should love it"--but an agent (at least the honest ones), are more hesitant about accepting due to a number of elements, the most predominant being a preexisting workload with other clients as well as the gamble of representing a piece that might not succeed (a true threat to somebody whose time is directly proportionate to their earnings, especially when their earnings are based on a percentage of the piece's sales ~ usually in the vicinity of 10-15%). Whether or not an agent is involved, an accepted piece through a traditional publisher is often met with an advance (a pre-determined sum of money that represents, as the name would imply, an advance on estimated earnings from the piece).
Now, despite what many will say, no one option is "the best" for anybody. Just as every person is unique, every author is an individual, and the personal know-how and strengths will determine which option is best for them. I'm often asked "what did you do?" or "what path would you suggest based on your success?" in regards to my own path as an author, but I rarely offer up solid advice for them in this measure as what I've done does not hold any merit in what would work best for them (though I've never refused an aspiring writer the information they would want/need to make an educated move of their own).