You used to know right where you were with vanity publishers. They charged an extortionate amount to print a few copies of your unedited book and left you to do all the selling. That upfront charge was the way to spot them: no reputable publisher charges its authors anything. Eventually, most writers got wise to that and many vanity publishers had to change their business model in order to continue trading.
Their first change was to call their business model subsidy publishing, assisted publishing, cooperative publishing, joint-venture publishing… you get the picture. Rebranding. It worked, to some extent, until along came James MacDonald with Yog’s Law, which states simply that “money flows towards the writer”. And not away from the writer, in the form of cheques to “subsidy” (or any other euphemism you care to use) publishers.
Then came PublishAmerica with (I’ll grudgingly admit) a brilliant business model. Instead of charging money up-front, PublishAmerica relieves writers of their cash after their books have been printed by getting them to bulk-buy copies of their own over-priced books, with hiked-up shipping costs included as part of the bargain. It is a brilliant idea. By providing a token advance of one dollar, PublishAmerica masquerades as a mainstream publisher but the end result is still the same: writers pay over the odds for books of limited value, which they then often struggle to sell.
Some vanity publishers operate as hybrids of these two forms, charging a smaller upfront fee while also encouraging their writers to buy stacks of books for resale.
Many vanity presses insist that they are breaking the mould of “traditional” publishing; that publishing is changing, and new business models are required, particularly in periods of great technological advances or economic uncertainty. Print on demand is often considered essential for these new business models which has an awful lot to do with the fact that it’s near-enough to free for the publishers to use, so they avoid incurring those high up-front costs that an offset litho run involves. I’ve even read some publishers insist that they’re protecting the environment by only using print on demand technology to print their books and while I’ve not researched the full implications of that claim I’m cynical enough to doubt that it is their primary motivation for relying on POD the way that they do.
It doesn’t matter what publishers call their business models. If the authors end up paying the publishers money—whether at the front-end of publication in the form of editing costs, typesetting fees, subsidised print runs or ISBN purchases, or at the back end of publication by buying books by the boxful in order to resell them—then they are dealing with a vanity press. No matter how much that presses concerned insist that they are not.