Every now and then there's an outbreak of distaste from almost everyone who writes about being an author on the subject of vanity publishing. Most recently this blew up when the big US romance publisher Harlequin announced it was coming out with a vanity imprint. Such was the reaction that within a week they had decided that, though they'd still go ahead, they would take their name off the imprint.
Just to clarify terminology, we're talking about a way of getting books published where the author pays to be published. There are broadly two approaches to this. The more respectable is self publishing. This could be anything from using Lulu.com to setting up your own deal with a printer etc. When you self publish, you take on the costs of producing the book, print as many copies as you like and try to sell them yourself.
There are a number of good reasons for self publishing. It might be to produce a special book for friends and family, or to sell as part of your business dealings. Or it might be that you have a good idea for a book that will have niche 'long tail' sales, and you are happy for a copy or two a year to trickle out.
The despised end of the market is vanity publishing. This is where a company claims they will do everything for the author a conventional publisher does, including marketing and distribution into bookshops. They will typically charge up to ten times as much as is involved in self publishing. Generally speaking, this is a rip-off, because the vanity publishing company gives the impression that you will be treated just like a 'real' author. But in fact they won't provide the same level of editorial service, they won't usually do much in the way of marketing, and they have little chance of getting your books into a bookshop.
I don't discourage people from self publishing - though you do need to be aware that it's very hard work if you want to sell your books yourself. And it's very rarely a useful route to get into 'real' publishing - consider it a totally separate activity. Vanity publishing is a different kettle of fish.
I wish, in a way, that the word 'vanity' wasn't attached. In a sense all publishing is vanity publishing. It all requires the chutzpah to think 'what I write is good enough for other people to want to read it.' But vanity publishing is really not the route to take if you want to see your name in print. There is always a better way.