Recently I’ve had friends of friends approached by vanity presses trying to lure them into buying their overpriced mediocre services. The story is always the same–a newbie writer has just written a first book, is not a member of any sort of national writer’s organization, and has absolutely no clue of how the business side of publishing works.
Then there was the whole uproar over the creation of vanity/subsidy press Harlequin Horizons (see the link about it at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for the most info. But be warned, the comment section now stands at over 830 comments!) I’ve read quite a number of comments on this controversy, and was troubled by the number of people who didn’t know the difference between traditional vs. vanity/subsidy vs. self-publishing.
I think Writer Beware at SFWA does a terrific job of explaining the differences. Here’s a link to their publisher definitions page. Once you read this, you’ll know how to tell which press is which.
The Novelists Inc. blog has a post which lists several websites to help understand the hazards of vanity publishing.
My rule of thumb is “keep control of the money.”
In self-publishing, a writer gets competing bids from the best freelancers she can find for every part of the process (editing, art, making the book, publicity, e-book versions, etc.), keeps copyright and controls ISBN, and gets to keep all money made from sales. You don’t get to do those things with a vanity/subsidy press–and on top of that you shell out large sums of money while they shell out little, and then you have to deal with them taking a huge cut of the money from sales as well. A vanity/subsidy press makes its money off of writers, not book sales.
A traditional publisher pays the writer. They take care of all of the expenses, which is why they get a big chunk of the sales. Some writers exchange being paid an advance by an e-publisher in order to get a higher royalty rate (usually about 35%). But those writers don’t pay the e-publisher, ever.
Writing is an art, publishing is a business. Publishing presses are like any other business–there are great ones, good ones, mediocre ones, and slimy ones. Shop around.