I’ve recently had to explain the difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing. This is not the first time I’ve had that kind of discussion.
Both forms of publishing might involve paying someone else. But in self-publishing, *you* are the publishing company. Any expense you go to might be for things like professional editing, or cover art, or printing if you choose to have a print run done rather than print-on-demand. (Print run means you have a certain number of copies printed and try to sell them; print-on-demand is things like CreateSpace, where no book is actually physically printed until someone orders it.) But at the end of the process, *you* have published the book. You just paid for services you weren’t able to do yourself.
Vanity publishing, on the other hand, means you send your manuscript and a bunch of money to a company, and they take it from there—to an extent. They might handle the printing and cover art, but there is probably no editing done. You’re still responsible for marketing the book and making sales, just as you would be if you self-publishing. But the publisher of the book isn’t you, it’s Vanity Press Inc. (or whatever the name of the company happens to be.)
In self-publishing, it is entirely possible to do the whole process without spending a cent. Go with a print-on-demand service like CreateSpace; it’s free. Make your own cover if you’re good with digital graphics, or have a friend do it if you know someone who can. Or barter for it; offer to trade proofreading for cover art, for example. I wouldn’t recommend editing the book entirely by yourself, because it is easy to miss things, but you could also barter for editing, or have someone you trust read the manuscript carefully and call things to your attention. Not the ideal, but it is free.
In vanity publishing, you don’t have a choice. You pay, they do a book, and you have to run with it from there. You might not sell enough to recoup the cost. You might, as a friend of mine did, find yourself having paid $5000 for a box full of books you can’t do anything with.
However you choose to publish is your choice, but it’s important to know what you’re choosing. I’ve encountered a number of people who think that paying a company to publish your book is the *only* way to get published. I’ve also encountered a number who think paying a company to publish your book is the same as self-publishing. Make sure you know what choice you’re actually making.