Vanity publishing is a fairly pejorative term. Does it deserve that label?
Effectively what it’s saying is that somebody just wants to get published for the ego of it.
Now, of course there’s ego involved in being published, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Certainly, to use myself as an example, I’m proud and delighted to have the kudos of being a published author.
The problem is that self-publishing isn’t really any kind of kudos. It’s like giving yourself an award; it has no value. The kudos comes from having written a novel which is good enough for publication according to the opinion of industry experts.
Now, there are still valid reasons to self-publish, as long as you’re very clear about why you’re doing it. Even vanity, or ego, is a valid reason. If you say, I just want to see my novel in print because it would give me great satisfaction, that’s totally reasonable and valid.
Just be aware that it’s a different dynamic from being traditionally published. And be very much aware that you’re doing this for the fun and you’re not expecting to make money at it. Because you most likely won’t. As explained in the page on self-publishing there’s a lot more to publishing than just getting a book printed.
There are many so-called vanity publishers, or as they sometimes refer to themselves, subsidy publishers or joint-venture publishers. They’re identified by the fact that they take on everybody who comes to them regardless of merit (although this can be hard to judge) and most of all - because you pay them instead of them paying you.
They may say that they put up some of the money and you put up the rest. They may offer to pay you royalties on sales. But their primary business is getting money out of you. You’re the customer, not the reading public. There may well be little or no royalties because there will be little or no sales.
Again, this is fine once you know what you’re getting into.
Just be very clear about who the customer is. And you can identify that by watching which way the money flows. With mainstream publishers they pay you in the form of an advance, and they bear all the costs of publishing, and they only make money from the end-user, i.e. the reader.
In vanity publishing you pay them.
Again, this might be fine if it’s what you want, but do go into it with your eyes open, and don’t be thinking that it’s the same relationship as with a mainstream publisher.
Vanity publishers can use traditional printing, and commit you to paying for a set amount of copies of the novel (which is how they make their money), or they can be print-on-demand publishers.
Many of the print-on-demand publishers would argue that they’re not vanity publishers. It’s very easy to see if they’re right. Do you pay them, or do they pay you? How much of their business model depends on sales of the book? (The less they depend on that, the more of a vanity publisher they are.)
I finish by reiterating that there’s nothing wrong, per se, with this whole model. It’s only wrong if you, the writer, think that you’re getting something you’re not, i.e. a comprehensive publishing service. If you go into it in full awareness of what it involves, then that’s absolutely your choice.