Fifty years ago, if you wanted to get your book published, you either had to find an agent and a publisher willing to take a chance on your writing or buy your own printing press and learn how to print and bind the book yourself.
Much like today, there were, of course, journals and literary magazines willing to print short stories and poetry, which might prove to a publisher your writing had merit, but in those situations the number of submissions always dwarfs the number of available slots.
And most journals and magazines only accept the absolute best submissions. When other circumstances, such as the editor's taste and mood, are added into the mix, it becomes more of a wonder that anything gets published at all. The publishing world is changing dramatically, though.
Recently, there has been a major rise in the number of vanity presses and self-publishing companies in the United States. These companies serve several purposes, and offer unique benefits to new or young writers anxious to see their work in print.