This question came up on the pros and cons of publishing avenues question; when I tried to look it up, I found the results confusing.
For example, SFWA's explanation of publishing types gives the following distinction:
A vanity publisher prints and binds a book at the author's sole expense. Costs include the publisher's profit and overhead, so vanity publishing is usually a good deal more expensive than self-publishing. The completed books are the property of the author, and the author retains all proceeds from sales. Vanity publishers may exclude objectionable content such as pornography, but otherwise do not screen for quality.
Self-publishing, like vanity publishing, requires the author to bear the entire cost of publication, and also to handle all marketing, distribution, storage, etc. However, rather than paying for a pre-set package of services, the author puts those services together himself. Because every aspect of the process can be out to bid, self-publishing can be much more cost effective than vanity publishing; it can also result in a higher-quality product. Completed books are owned by the author, who keeps all proceeds from sales.
The page also contains a recent amendment to the "vanity" tag:
A vanity publisher relies on its authors as its main source of income–whether by charging fees for publication or other services, or requiring authors to buy or pre-sell their own books. There’s little if any meaningful quality screening, and adjunct services (editing, marketing, and/or distribution) are generally minimal or of dubious value. A vanity publisher claims various rights by contract, and owns the ISBN. Payment to the author is in the form of a royalty or a percentage of profits.
Wikipedia's attempt at distinction is similarly vague:
With vanity publishing, the author will pay to have their book published. Since the author is paying to have the book published the book doesn't go through an approval or editorial process as it would in a traditional setting where the publisher takes a financial risk on the author's ability to write successfully. Editing and formatting services may or may not be offered and they may come with the initial publishing fee (or more correctly, printing fee) or might be offered at an additional cost.
Self-publishers undertake the functions of a publisher for his or her own book. The classic "self-publisher" writes, edits, designs, lays out, markets, and promotes the book themselves, relying on a printer only for actual printing and binding.
More recently, companies have offered their services to act as a sort of agent between the writer and a small printing operation. In these cases, the distinction between self-publishing and vanity publishing is less obvious than it once was.
What I'm getting from all this is somewhere between:
- A vanity publisher offers a combined bundle of services for self-published authors, whereas a "pure" self-publisher might choose services from several different venues,
- A vanity publisher is a skeevy self-publishing service.
Both of these seem to me merely particular subsets of self-publishing services, rather than an inherently different mode of publishing. E.g., for the purposes of the pros/cons question, a vanity publisher would be considered by exactly the same guidelines as any other self-publishing service (pertinent questions including "Do I trust them to do good job with my work?" and "Is the price they're offering me fair for the services they're providing?").
Is there a clear-cut distinction, or is "vanity publishing" just a pejorative for the bad end of self-publishing?