With the announcement last week that Harlequin is launching their own "self publishing" (the quotes are important) line originally called Harlequin Horizons, now Dellarte Press (Writer Beware's announcement), I'd like to take a moment to discuss the difference between Self publishing, vanity publishing and traditional publishing.
Fast forward a moment. You have a complete novel. In the traditional model you submit your novel to publishers. (Agents are helpful and I highly encourage them but in the interest of focusing on publishing I'm glossing here). You get rejected a few times but eventually you find a publisher for your debut fantasy novel A Game of Scones. The publisher buys the rights to print and distribute your book in various formats (Hardcover, Mass market paperback, Trade paperback, E book). There is a contract involved, usually an advance against your royalties. Except in the most dire cases of contract breach you do not have to pay this advance back. Eventually the book rights revert back to you and you have the option to resell them to the original publisher. Your book is edited, copy edited, a professional lays out the text and designs the cover. The number of copies printed varies but is is usually several thousand. You receive a few free copies and copies are usually sent out to various reviewers. Your publisher usually contracts with a distributer and A Game of Scones is stocked in bookstores nationwide. Books sell, usually several hundred or thousands depending on many many factors. You pay nothing for the editing, cover, printing or distribution and you receive a percentage of the cover price. This process means you have to write what someones else would consider a good book. It's harder and it's safer.
Self Publishing is when you the author produces their books themselves. You buy the ISBN, register your copyright, edit or hire an editor. The design your own cover or you pay someone to do it for them. You pay to have it printed and pay for distribution if you want it to be in physical stores. You retain all of the rights to the book and other media. When the book is sold you receive the entire profit.
Vanity Publishing is when you pay someone else to publish a book for you. You pay a fee for editing, you pay a fee to have a cover designed, you pay for it to be printed. The ISBN registration is in the name of the company you paid to print it. After paying the company to print your book each time they sell a copy they take a percentage. There are a lot of books being published this way. Someone ran the numbers for iUniverse's book sales from 2004. Out of the 18,000 books they published that year only 83 sold more then 500 copies. (Courtesy of How Publishing works).
Here is the issue, vanity publish tries to sell you that it is an alternative to traditional publishing and that by paying to have your manuscript publish you can eventually have a traditional publisher look at it and purchase it. In all fairness there are a few manuscripts that have passed this way, but look at those numbers from iUniverse again. 83 books out of 18,000 sold over 500 copies. For most traditional presses 500 copies is a poor selling. By my miserable math skills that is a .46% chance of selling over the 500 copies. I'm going to pick on DellArte since theirs is the most recent numbers. Their cheapest package for publishing is $599. I'm rounding that up to $600 for the sake of having zeroes on the end, call it a simplicity tax. They pay their authors a 50% royalty after the publishing fees, it's about $1 per book. You have about a .46% chance of breaking even at their cheapest fee. The math doesn't add up. If all you want is to see your name in print, this can work for you. But for anyone trying to play the odds and break into publishing, you are better off using your money on workshops, stamps or red pens, honing the craft and trying again, then playing the vanity odds.