Back in the days of GEnie, an online service run by General Electric (thus the quirky capitalization) and before the spread of the Internet*, there was an SFRT (Science Fiction Round Table). By the time I had joined, the Science Fiction Roundtable had expanded beyond the one board to three: SFRT, SFRT2, and SFRT3.
One of the sysops of the SFRT boards had the online handle of "Yog Sysop" (since then, he's become one of the founders of sff.net, an online discussion group, web, and email host). He formulate what became known as "Yog's law" which states "Money flows toward the writer". An alternate formulation was "the only place a writer signs a check is on the back." This was in the long-ago before the rise of indie and self publishing, of course, when traditional publishing was essentially the only game in town.
That rule was the way to differentiate between "legitimate" publications and vanity or outright scam "publications."
Today, of course, it's not so simple. Nevertheless, as a writer I try to adhere as closely to it as possible. After all, the idea is to make money writing, not spend it.
One of the things I'm trying to do with this "indie" thing is bootstrap my way up. Being incredibly insecure (what? You've never heard of an insecure writer before?) I'm really reluctant to spend much of my own money in prepping and publishing a work. Time? Well, I already spend time in writing the thing in the first place, but money? Money that I could use to do things like buy bacon? That, I'm more reluctant to spend.
So I started with a very small budget, basically $15 spent for Dreamstime credits most of which I used for the image for the cover for Live to Tell.
I was actually concerned that the $15 I allocated for cover art would be a write-off. I'd sink that money and never recoup it.
Did I mention insecurity?
However, the insecurity turned out to be unjustified. Initial sales of "Live to Tell" gave me enough accrued royalties that, even though they hadn't reached a level to be paid out yet, were enough that I felt comfortable spending a bit more money (less than the accrued royalties) for more Dreamstime credits to get more cover art. And so I paid a little more money for cover art for "EMT" and "FTI: Beginnings."**
Hopefully, I'll continue to make sales, and be able to hire someone for things like professional editing, buying my own ISBN's, or more tools for preparation so I can wean myself away from Smashwords. But I want to, if at all possible, pay for these things out of money made by earlier work so that, on net, I'll follow Yog's Law: Money flows towards the writer.
I may have to take off the writer hat from time to time, and put on the publisher hat. And publishers, of course, pay for things. But in the end, when you add up the ingo and outgo, the net flow of money must be towad the writer--me.
If that isn't how it works out then I'm doing something very wrong indeed.
*The Internet existed, certainly, but it was, at that point, largely limited to the government and large schools. Widespread access via various Internet Service Providers was still in the future.
**At the moment, those get the "ready stories" out and available. There will be more to come, but I need a bit more time to prepare, or in some cases finish, those.