Certainly, your best advance deal would come from one of the imprints owned by the Big Five corps or houses. Although a great deal could come from a well-known independent like Kensington and others. (Disregard Publisher’s Market Place definitions for a moment) I would consider a substantial deal, or something I was very happy with, as an advance of five figures and over. I would not scoff at $2,000 to $5,000, provided they had reputable distribution for bookstore placement and library inclusion. And, department store and book club sales would be icing on the cake. A participating marketing team and publicity manager is always a plus, and automatically provided by the big guys. These larger houses also have a foreign rights team and go after those huge overseas markets.
In the prehistoric past, I asked Ray Bradbury, Alan Dean Foster and Poul Anderson the same question: "What's the best way to go; high advance, or no advance with higher royalties? They were unanimous (and our own James D. M will tell you the same thing): "fight for the highest advance because it's more than likely it will be all you will ever get." So, if the advance is high and the book doesn't earn out, you're in fairly good shape. I just had that happen to me recently. The money was good but the book is a snail in sales. I don’t think I’ll ever earn out and I’ve done everything humanly possible to promote the title. Remember that you are the one who spent months, maybe years sweating and toiling over that book, possibly costing you some money to bring it up to high publishing standards.
Now, if your earn-out is fairly close to your advance payment, the publisher can make money. It also depends on the book—Manufacturing costs (for paper), editing, cover art and maybe shipping, might determine a break point outlay for the publisher until they make a profit. If sales are really dismal, it is possible that the publisher may lose some money, or maybe a lot.
About small press: It’s highly unlikely that you will get an advance from a small or independent press. They just don’t have the budget for it. There are exceptions—an agent can work a contract and obtain at, the very least, a token advance payment. What’s the typical advance range for a small publisher? This is also subjective, but climbing out on a wobbly limb that may break, I’ll say I’ve seen $50 to $1000. The sweet spot seems to be about $100 to $200, judging solely by the deals I and my agent have tried to wrangle in the past. If the small press has legitimate distribution like Perseus, IPG and Midpoint, there is a higher probability that they may cut loose with a small advance. It’s not a guarantee, it’s just more likely.
To paraphrase: Go to the publisher (with agent or not) with a knife in one hand and a money bag in the other. Don't settle on a boilerplate contract—they are not written in your favor. Never be overwhelmed and giddy with the prospect of publication and sign a contract in haste and then swoon ohhhhhh...mighty God, it's Random House, or Tor, or Baen.
Never, ever be afraid to stand up for yourself and play hardball. State your wishes to your agent, if you have one. The juggernaut publishers have heard it all before--they are professional negotiators--they do not flinch. If they say no, you backtrack a bit and start over. Take your time. They will never say that your demands are unreasonable and that they've changed their mind about giving you print (small press has been known to do this BTW). The largest publishers come from a place of power--you don't. That means you upscale your importance and worth. They will actually respect that attitude. Besides the talent, it means they have a serious business partner on their team. Business...sound familiar?
Back in my day, the (stated rumor) average advance was about $5000. King got $2,500. Anne rice pulled an astonishing $12,000. So you can see the amounts can vary wildly, even today, depending upon the expectations of sales and the budget of the house. But we all thought that five grand was pretty cool back then. Anything over that, damn, we were rich and bragged it up! Takin' about the 1970s here.
Advances today? I'm going out again on that long limb that might break, but I'd say that $7,500 is a common, general average for most categories and genres from the advance-paying Big 5. Marketing has more say-so about this upfront money than any division of the publishing company. And never forget the importance of rights sales; they can often top out over everything, but it might take a little time. Case in point; Jo Rowling's reprint rights to America were $105,000, where her Bloomsbury advance was $1,275 pounds. King's paperback rights went for $400,000, giving him a 50/50 spit. These are examples of big houses, big deals and what it could me to you.