If you believe what you read on some discussion groups, a self-publisher is someone—let's call him Bob—who writes and pays a company to publish a tedious, badly-written, book about his Grandpa Sam's struggle to save his family's farm—let's call it Fighting For the Family Farm: Grandpa Sam's Struggle to Survive. And, since no one outside Grandpa Sam's immediate family and maybe a few neighbors has any interest in wading through Bob's narrative, Fighting For the Family Farm sells only a few copies at inflated prices to people on a list the company requires Bob to provide.
Wrong. Bob is not a self-publisher. Bob has paid a subsidy or vanity press, sometimes called a "publishing service provider" to publish his book. That company—let's call them YourBookInPrint.com has charged Bob a fee to edit and set up his manuscript for printing, design a cover, and print the books. On top of that, YourBookInPrint has used their own ISBN number for Bob's book, has sold him a marketing package, and has set the book's selling price, which is higher than similar traditionally-published books. Bob can buy copies at an "author's discount," but even then, they are expensive.
If Bob were a true self-publisher, he would have started his own publishing company, bought some ISBN numbers, maybe paid someone to edit and typeset his manuscript and design a cover. Or, if he has skills in layout and design, he may have done those tasks himself. Then, when Fighting For the Family Farm was ready to go to print, Bob would have chosen a printer—either offset or digital (POD technology)—to print his books. He then could set the cover price and decide how and where to market the book. In both cases, Bob has paid the costs of publishing his book. But only when he is a true self-publisher does he have control of all aspects of his book.
Either way, Bob's book will be subject to negative prejudices, but as a self-publisher, his book will get more of a chance for reviews, etc. than it would through YourBookInPrint. But what if Bob, as a self-publisher, chooses to have his book printed digitally, through a print-on-demand (POD) printer? Is Bob now a POD publisher? You hear a lot of derogatory comments about POD publishers. And authors report that bookstores turn them down "because my book is POD." What does this mean?
There is a huge amount of confusion about self-publishing these days. It is common to use the term "POD publisher" as synonymous with "subsidy" or "vanity" publisher. Actually, POD means print-on-demand. It is not a method of publishing, but rather a method of printing. Any publisher can use it, and some traditional publishers do use it to keep old books in print without stockpiling thousands of copies. Most subsidy publishing companies now use POD printing. But it's actually not correct to call them "POD publishers." Many small publishing companies such as mine (PMI Books) use POD printing to avoid the book-storage problem.
It doesn't matter to me whether Bob starts his own company and becomes a true self-publisher or goes with YourBookInPrint; or whether his book is printed through offset or digital POD technology. I have my opinions, but the decisions are his. What does matter to me is that he makes an informed choice—that he understands what he is getting and the trade-offs he is making if he chooses a subsidy press rather than self-publishing.