A new member posted a query regarding a specific subsidy press company, and I thought my response to her may help clarify the confusion many people have regarding the difference between self publishing and using a subsidy press/vanity press company.
There are a rapidly increasing number of subsidy press publishers (or vanity press publishers, to use the less flattering term). They should NOT be confused with self publishing (which, unfortunately, is a confusion that is encouraged by these companies).
If you self publish your manuscript, then you are the one acting as the publisher regarding every aspect of your book's production. If you go through a subsidy press company, they are acting as the publisher, even if they refer to it as "self publishing."
If you self-publish in the true sense of the word, you arrange for all aspects of production, etc., yourself. It is a lot of work, but you will ultimately receive a greater return for your investment.
The problem with subsidy press companies is that they usually charge an inflated price for the service of publishing; they accept anything for publication (even if they give the appearance of being "picky"); they do not require the manuscripts to be edited; they may charge for any changes after the second proof; and they pay very small royalties to the authors on what are usually over priced books.
Different subsidy publishers have different angles, so not all things will apply to them all. There are also types of subsidy publishers that give the appearance of selecting the books they publish, but then requiring a partnership payment from the author (sometimes an exorbitant amount). Sometimes this may come with a promise to refund that amount once a certain number of books have been sold retail (something that is actually quite hard to achieve for the average book published in this way).
If an author is considering using a subsidy press/vanity press publisher, they should first do a lot of research before signing any contracts. A Google search will usually provide a lot of discussion in writer's forums from people who have been both unhappy and happy with certain services. Don't just take one person's opinion (and don't base your opinion on glowing testimonies on the company's website).
Here is the bottom line regarding the three basic forms of publishing:
Traditional Publisher -- The publisher takes all the risks regarding the publication of the manuscript on behalf of the author. The traditional publisher makes their money by selling books, and then passes on royalties (at industry standards) to the author.
Self Publishing -- The author takes all the risks regarding the publication of their manuscript--including pre-press and post-press production tasks. The self-publisher makes their money from the selling of books. Although it is hard work, the author will have the satisfaction of doing it all themselves, and will hopefully see a return on their investment by recouping their outlay (and possibly more). Of course, this will totally depend on the standard of the book published. An unedited, poorly produced book on a common topic will struggle to make sales beyond the author's immediate circle of influence.
Subsidy Press/Vanity Press Publishing -- The Subsidy Press publishing company makes its money by charging the author, not from selling books (although they will make money from that as well). They pay small royalties to authors (at varying rates and at varying times). In other words, the author is still taking the financial risk, but their publisher is taking no risk at all--yet making more money out of the deal.
If that last sentence didn't make you stop and think, then go back and read it again.
So with a subsidy press company, the author is taking all the financial risk regarding publication of their manuscript, but is trusting a subsidy press publisher to undertake all the pre-press production tasks. (The layout and formatting will be undertaken, but editing is rarely part of the package, and believe me, this shows.) Although some packages may give the impression that distribution and marketing is included, this is a minimum, and even though it may say the books are available in Borders and Barnes & Noble, they are not physically available on book shelves.
Most subsidy press companies are print on demand (not a problem, as long as the author is aware of this) OR they require the author to purchase a certain number of books up front. This can lead to a huge outlay for the author.
So it's a case of being aware before you sign anything. If you go into it with a clear understanding of exactly what it is (and what it isn't), are aware of all the pitfalls of going with a subsidy press publisher, and basically just want to get your book in print, then it may be an option for you.
Otherwise, try submitting to a traditional publisher first, or try your hand at self publishing (in the literal sense of the word).
BUT whichever path you take, make sure your manuscript is polished as perfectly as it can be. Ensure it has been professionally edited for structure (not just proof read by a friend or two). As Christian writers, it is our responsibility to ensure we are presenting something excellent for God's glory. Not being willing to go with second rate. The market is flooded with very weak material at the moment, due to the proliferation of subsidy press companies and ease of self publishing. You have one chance to make a great impression with your book, so get it right before you even think of going into print.