This blog post was inspired by a recently-seen "acceptance letter" from a fee-charging publisher (which doesn't admit its fees on its website; writers don't find out about them until they've actually submitted). The arguments below are commonly used by less-than-honest fee-chargers to distract authors from the fact that they're being asked to pay several thousand dollars for publication.
We aren't a vanity publisher because we don't publish every manuscript we receive. Many fee-charging publishers make this meaningless claim. Sure, they probably do reject manuscripts, if only to keep their output in line with their production capacity, or for logistical reasons--mss. that are too long (and would reduce the profits from fees), that conflict with stated goals (for instance, if the publisher self-identifies as Christian), or that are written in crayon on construction paper (digital conversion would cut into profits). There may even be some real level of quality control. But fees are a fee-charging publisher's main source of income, so it can't afford to be too picky. Any gatekeeping that exists is unlikely to be even remotely equivalent to that exercised by genuine trade publishers. In any case, whether the publisher is selective or not, it doesn't change the fact that you're being asked for money.
We aren't a vanity publisher because you're not paying for publishing, just for [pick one] editing/publicity/a supply of books to keep on hand. In an attempt to dodge the "vanity" label, some fee-charging publishers have switched their fees to aspects of the book publishing process other than production, such as editing, publicity, cover art, and the like. Or else they pretend to avoid fees entirely, requiring authors instead to buy bulk quantities of their own books. These diversionary tactics allow them to claim, with straight faces, that authors don't have to pay for publication--even as those authors are being asked to hand over thousands of dollars.
We aren't a vanity publisher because we don't make you buy your own books. Amazingly, some fee-chargers attempt to use a diversionary tactic by their less-than-honest brethren as...a diversionary tactic. You don't have to buy your own books! Instant non-vanity! Just overlook the fact that we want you to give us several thousand dollars!
We aren't a vanity publisher because we also offer non-fee contracts. Okay. But you only have their word for that, right? And even if it's true, YOU are getting a fee-based contract. Think about that double standard--what does it say about the way the publisher views you and your work?
We aren't a vanity publisher because your fee covers only part of the cost--we provide the rest. Again, you only have their word for that. It's highly likely that this claim is being made not because it's true, but to make you feel better about surrendering large sums of money. In most cases, where publishing fees are due, they cover not just the full cost of production and publication, but the publisher's overhead and profit as well.
We aren't a vanity publisher because we refund your money if you sell a certain number of books. Once again, this is a sales ploy, designed to make you feel better about paying a fee. It's likely that the sales threshold is set so high that authors will rarely, if ever, achieve it--especially given the very limited distribution and marketing that most fee-based publishers provide (since the bulk of most fee-based publishers' income comes from authors' fees, they have little incentive to cut into their profit with effective marketing and distribution--although some will provide more if you pay extra).
Another thing to wonder about: if by some amazing chance you do manage to reach the sales threshold, will your publisher make good on its refund pledge? Some fee-based publishers will. Others are just plain lying.
We aren't a vanity publisher because if your first book sells X number of copies, we'll publish your second book at no cost. I've been seeing this claim from fee-based publishers since Writer Beware was founded twelve years ago. Again, it's a marketing pitch--a carrot to make you more amenable to writing a ginormous check. As with the sales thresholds for refunds, the bar is usually set almost impossibly high--and once again, while some fee-charging publishers do make good on their promises, others don't.
If a cost is associated with publication--no matter what that cost is supposed to cover, or how you incur it--never allow yourself to be distracted from the fact that you are being asked for money in order to see yourself in print. In other words, you are buying a service, not being chosen for a privilege or a partnership. As in any consumer situation, you owe it to yourself to make sure the service is reputable, honest, and cost-effective--which means not just researching the service and comparison-shopping, but being sure that buying the service is a good idea to begin with.
An honest self-publishing company or book manufacturer will be straightforward about the fees they charge and the services they offer. They will not attempt to pretend they are something they're not. Beware of any fee-charging publisher that invests a lot of time and/or verbiage in trying to convince you that it's not what it seems to be--especially if that publisher presents itself misleadingly on its website or in other public documents.