Self publishing and vanity publishing are not entirely the same these days… well, not according to everyone. If you listen to your uncle Bob who knows everything about everything and definitely knows everything about books despite never having written one, self publishing and vanity presses are all for “stroking yer delicate damn ego cuz you can’t hack it in the Real World (TM) of publishing!”. Sigh. Really need to stop talking whenever uncle Bob is around….
So let’s break this down a little. A vanity press/publisher takes on small runs of books to publish. They may offer a package deal on 1000-2000 copies that would include cover design, but most vanity publishers have a set price for the run and then they want you to buy editing and cover design and publicity at an extra charge from them. You will pay out of pocket for the books that you’ll eventually receive and then have to work your butt off to contact sellers and hawk your wares because the money you just invested (and it’s not going to be a small amount) is now sitting in your living room/garage as physical copies of the book. There are publishers who do this with digital books as well. Point is: YOU pay, you pay a lot, there’s little to no marketing done by the publisher on your work and sellers are reluctant to stock items printed through these publishers because they’re perceived as “of lesser quality”. The out of pocket costs for a few boxes of books in this case can be in the tens of thousands. The product here is not the book. Vanity presses don’t make money selling books to readers, they make money selling publishing services to authors. This whole practice started in 1959-60 when a few publishers started offering to publish poems in anthologies for a fee from the author. You’d pay to get your poetry included. Vanity presses, the worst ones, continue soliciting would-be authors with letters of flattery and taking out ads that say “XYZ Publisher is looking for books!”. God I hope that’s not an actual publishing house… Y’all, that’s an example, so any similarities to an existing publishing house is purely coincidental!
Self publishing through Amazon/Createspace/Lulu/B&N/Kobo etc. print on demand services is a bit different, as your initial, required, monetary investment is very small. Usually about as much as you’d pay for a single paperback book, sometimes even less, and this goes down to you needing to order a proof copy from them. The marketing platform is already there but there’s still little to no marketing on the service provider’s end and it’s easy to get lost in the crowd so you can and should do marketing yourself. BUT you’re not treated differently by the publisher for not wanting to buy editing or cover design services from them as you might get with a straight up vanity publisher. You also wont have most of your money tied up in stock. Createspace, for example, has options for making your book available through Amazon and B&N as well as their own website. That’s already 3 platforms as opposed to 1 or none. Your book exists in a digital form with the publisher and physical copies are made when orders are received, hence the moniker Print On Demand. They make their money by selling your book as well as selling publishing services to authors.
You can also go “full” indie by simply contacting a printer and dealing with them directly to get your book made. Now that’s hardcore self publishing. You find a good printer and you might get good deals for making book related merch as well since, ya know, they print stuff. Books aren’t their sole bread and butter nor are authors their sole client group.
Ok, so why does uncle Bob and a whole host of other people say all self publishing is vanity publishing? It’s not entirely unjustified conflation, but really depends on how you view the extent of the publishing process and not just how you view the author. First “vanity publishing” as a term clearly states what the person flinging it, and uncle Bob, think of the person who takes that route: you think your writing is too good and pure to be touched by dirty, old strangers and whatever you have to say has to be heard by everyone. DO NOT EDIT MY PRECIOUS BOOK, IT IS PERFECT!
The reality is that a lot of smart self publishers do employ someone to edit their work and take on their suggestions, not just the proofreading. If they have the money to spare. Seriously, a lot of the time when you wonder how such a misjudgment of creativity was ever put on sale, it’s not because the author didn’t want to put their best foot forward in a creative sense, it’s because there were limitations like, say, money. Or experience. Or time and place. Take your pick. They also look for beta readers (people who don’t edit but represent your average potential reader) to give input on the book. That’s an awful lot of trouble to go through for a quick ego wank.
That’s not to say that there aren’t those special snowflakes who take pride in never having shown their work to anyone for a second opinion before unleashing it to the world. But writing and publishing aren’t a matter of agreeable personality. Authors, like plumbers and politicians, come in all shapes and sizes.