You might ask is there a difference? The answer is yes, and quite often, it is a big difference.
You can usually easily spot a vanity publisher in the following ways:
They call themselves a publisher, but they charge you to print your books.
Actual publishers take on the responsibility of printing your books, and the risk associated with it. Printers who work with self-published authors will very clearly state that they are book printers, not the publishers.
They offer pricey packages that include everything from editing, to design, to distribution and marketing. They will make you famous!
Always be wary, and remember caveat emptor. If it seems too good to be true, it is. Once again, these are services that real publishing houses will take the risk with, exempting marketing, in many cases. Some printers will work with editors and designers that they can have work on your book, or that they will recommend you to, but they won’t offer fancy packages to cover it all.
They offer you an ISBN. For a cost.
Always be leery of this. In Canada, you can obtain an ISBN for free. What is their rationale behind the charges? Well, someone has to do the work to obtain the ISBN, which is a reasonable thought. However, why on earth would you pay for an ISBN, when you can easily get yourself one for free? Also, the ISBN will be forever linked to that company, and not to you. This was a common practice with vanity publishers, and book printers in the past, but once it was realized that the book was linked to the company, and not the author, many of us in the book printing industry stopped this practice. Vanity publishers still offer them up like they are a unicorn, something that is so difficult to obtain. They aren’t, so don’t buy it; Or the ISBN for that matter. See our blog on ISBNs and CIP data for more information on how to obtain your own.
They ask you to sign away some or all of your rights to the book, AND charge you to print your book.
Actual publishing houses will ask you to sign away a portion or all of your rights to your book in exchange for payment, as described in the contract that you sign with them. This will be very out in the open, and not secretly hidden away. You will still need a lawyer to review the agreement, to make sure that it is in your best interest, but at the end of the day, in exchange for your rights, you will get reimbursed. Meaning, you don’t sign away your rights, and then pay the “publisher” to take them. When you agree that the company owns rights to your files, this means that you can not ever change anything to do with that book without their assistance. You have now just married yourself to a company for the lifetime of that book. If you are trying to self-publish, then you should not be signing away any ownership of your book to the printer.
There are companies out there that wear both hats, as the vanity publisher and the straight forward printer. They will always be trying to upsell you. Don’t get sucked into packages, when you can do some research, and find yourself great editors and designers/formatters that will give you a professional final product. Strive to find partners to work with that care about you and your book, not just about turning a dime off of you.