Anyhow, back to writing about writing.
There's an emerging school of thought that purports all vanity presses to be scams of a most nefarious order, dooming your precious tome to an eternity of obscurity. Well, you do have to do your own legwork. All a vanity press does is print your book for a fee - there's no shelf placement, promotion, marketing - all that stuff to get the word out and get your book on the shelf is left up to you.
But does that make every vanity press a scam?
I don't believe so. There are a number of vanity presses, such as Lulu, who are quite upfront about what it is that they do. Upload a PDF of your manuscript, and they make it possible to run off copies. That's it. (Now they do have pay to play packages for those who don't or can't do their own formatting, but it is simply a charge for a service.)
Others offer those packages for a fee, often a very high fee. Xlibris, for example. But they don't promise or imply fame and fortune if you'd only use their services. You pay the fee, you get your book shipped to you. That's it.
Some are without a doubt, scams. Those who imply that your book will be shelved next to those of a commercial press (Publish America), that all you need to do to become a 'real' author is to pay the fee, and somehow the buying public will find you (Publish America, Tate). They appear to promise the moon and the stars, but all they really do is print your book.
Even worse, the wording on the websites is deceptive. It plays on your dreams (i.e. vanity) to make you believe that all you need is a printed book and then the readers will come.
Publish America is by far the worst of these. Besides being rude and adding hidden costs ('editing'- read 'spellcheck' - $99, when they claim to take no upfront money; another charge if you want to change the stock image cover they dump on your book), they claim you 'never pay a penny'.
Every vanity press model involves selling copies of the book to it's writer. What PA pulls is grossly overpriced softcovers (typically $30 or more EACH to the author - imagine what they'd have to sell for!) and hideously inflated shipping charges (the last one I noticed was $3.99 PER BOOK).
NO other vanity press that I've researched pulls that. While POD (Print on Demand) books tend to sport a slightly higher price tag than a mass market book, places like Lulu let you set your own price per copy - you get to decide how much money you make per book. This allows the writer to set a price that's at least competitive in the market.
While severely overpricing the product may be shady, that bit isn't really where the scam hits. A scam claims to do something it has no intention of doing. PA has no distribution. Lightning Source is a printer/wholesaler, not a distributor.
'Ah', you might say 'but they have books at Amazon and B&N.com, etc' - Surprise! ANYTHING with an ISBN will be listed on those sites. Amongst the millions of books available, who is going to order a hideously over priced paper-back without being able to look at it?
YOUR BOOK WILL NOT BE IN STORES. YOUR BOOK WILL NOT BE IN STORES.
I'm not sure how I can make that any clearer. 'Available' means that cousin Johnny can walk into a bookstore, ask for the title, and order it (payment in advance) and have it sent to his home. Not that there's any guarantee that he'll ever receive it - PA is notorious for not filling out orders, so don't blame the book store.
Honest vanity presses have their place, and it's up to you to decide if doing that route is a good idea. Just make sure you are going with a company that is up front in their dealings, and that you have realistic expectations of the results.