Spoiler alert in the first sentence! The difference between vanity presses and small presses is you pay the first one to work with you, and the second one pays you to work with them.
That's mostly it.
Or let's put it another way: with a vanity press or self-publishing, you assume most of the risk of publishing your book. When you work with a small press, they assume most of the risk of publishing your book.
If you self-publish or use a vanity press you call the shots because you're paying. You decide if your book is edited, its cover, layout, format, and when it's published.
If you work with a small press they call most of the shots because they're paying you in royalties. So the press makes most of the decisions, from edits to layout, cover to publication date.
Yeah, But Does a Small Press Get All the Say in My Book?
No one gets to do anything with your book unless you agree they can. So if you don't like the changes to your manuscript your editor requests, reject them. Understand though…the press can then reject your book. If we ask you to revamp the second half of the novel because it drags terribly but you disagree, you absolutely get to take your original manuscript and go home.
If you want to be published through a traditional press, you have to please your editor. Because here's the thing: small presses don't make a bundle publishing books, but they keep doing it because it's glorious to share great words with the world.
A small press' mission is to give your book every chance at making that money. That's why we edit it, have pros proofread it, lay it out, and design its cover.
We work with you to get your book in the best state we can. We do this for a living.
Fine, Fine, But Why Are You Telling Me All This?
Why? Because there are lots of things affecting a writer's ability to get published. Luck, skill, and timing are important sure, but manners matter, too. Once a publisher is interested in your book, keep them interested by letting them do their job.
That means not telling them how many edits you expect your novel to have, that you'll be designing the book's cover, or when you expect publication.
Share your ideas, plans, questions, eagerness yes! If you want complete control self-publishing is a good option, but if you choose traditional publishing, remember that we love your book or we wouldn't have accepted it.
Now let us do our best by it.
(I'm endlessly happy to answer questions about any of this, and none of them are dumb: ask me.)