The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have a terrific website called Writer Beware... and on it they have a detailed article on Vanity Publishers, as well as the pros and cons of doing business with them. The article includes these useful definitions:
Commercial publishers, subsidy publishers, vanity presses,
self-publishing–what’s the difference?
- A commercial publisher purchases the right to publish, and pays the
author a royalty on sales (most also pay an advance on royalties). Commercial
publishers are highly selective, publishing only a tiny percentage of
manuscripts submitted to them, and handle every aspect of editing, publication,
distribution, and marketing. There are no costs to the author.
- A vanity publisher (a.k.a. a book producer or book manufacturer)
prints and binds a book at the author’s sole expense. Costs include the
publisher’s profit and overhead, so vanity publishing is usually a good deal
more expensive than self-publishing. The completed books are the property of the
author, and the author retains all proceeds from sales. Vanity publishers do not
screen for quality–they publish anyone who can pay–and provide no editing,
marketing, warehousing, or promotional services.
- A subsidy publisher also takes payment from the author to print and
bind a book, but claims to contribute a portion of the cost, as well as adjunct
services such as editing, distribution, warehousing, and some degree of
marketing. Theoretically, subsidy publishers are selective. The completed books
are the property of the publisher, and remain in the publisher’s possession
until sold. Income to the writer comes in the form of a royalty.
- Self-publishing, like vanity publishing, requires the author to
undertake the entire cost of publication him/herself, and to handle all
marketing, distribution, storage, etc. However, because the author can put every
aspect of the process out to bid, rather than accepting a pre-set package of
services, self-publishing can be more cost-effective than vanity or subsidy
publishing, and can result in a much higher-quality product. And unlike subsidy
publishing, the completed books are the writer’s property, and the writer keeps
100% of sales proceeds.