Tracy C. Gold


How to Evaluate Whether a Publisher is Traditional or Vanity

on September 18, 2019

I just got an email from Submittable about a call for full manuscripts from Atmosphere Press. With the recent discussions of financial transparency on publishing Twitter, I thought I’d share thoughts about this call and the spectrum between traditional, self, and vanity publishing.

Disclaimer: I only know what’s on the email from Submittable and Atmosphere’s website and I could be totally wrong, but this is an example of how to analyze publishers based on what I’ve learned after years of my own submissions and my editing clients’ submissions.

To start, I’ll define traditional, self, and vanity publishing.

Traditional publishing is when a publisher chooses to publish a book and takes charge of the editing, design, distribution and basic marketing. (Marketing mileage varies WIDELY.) The author receives royalties and maybe an advance. The author pays NOTHING to get published.

Self publishing is when an author publishes a book themselves, either by piecing together freelancers/DIYing or working with a company that takes a book from a manuscript to a final book. The author puts all the money up front and keeps all of the profits from the book.

Vanity publishing is when a publisher convinces an author they’re chosen/special yet charges them money to publish their book. I’ve heard of authors spending as much as $40,000. Vanity publishing also covers those anthologies/collections that seek out authors but then charge $100 or so for a copy of the book. Traditional anthologies, lit magazines, and collections GIVE contributing authors at least one free copy of the book or magazine.

The term “indy publishing” adds to the confusion, because it sometimes means self-publishing, sometimes means working with a small traditional press that’s independent of the larger publishing conglomerates, and sometimes means working with a publisher that has a pay-to-play model (there are many different models within this last category).

On to the specific call from Atmosphere! Here is how I analyzed this email and press.

I started by noticing they don’t charge a reading fee. That’s good! Many small presses do charge reading fees for special contests, and literary magazines charge reading fees regularly for short work (this helps cut down on the flood of submissions they see and keeps the doors open). A reading fee is not always a red flag, but you should investigate to be sure if you see one.

The email says: “Atmosphere Press is an independent full-service publisher.” They have a “collaborative publishing model, allowing you to retain your rights while Atmosphere helps make your book awesome.” Some small presses that aren’t affiliated with large publishing conglomerates (the Big Five) call themselves “independent,” but I’ve never seen a traditional publishing company call themselves “full-service.” This definitely makes me think they’ll ask authors to spend money.

I skimmed over the sparse Submittable page and went to the press’s website. The best stuff is on the FAQ page, where you have to scroll way down to see “How much will this cost me?” Yup, they charge authors to publish books. They also say it’s not self-publishing and they only choose to publish exceptional books. However, when an author pays to publish their book, that’s considered self or vanity publishing by literary gatekeepers (reviewers, booksellers, librarians), no matter how the author defines it.

It’s hard to trust a company that charges its authors for publishing services when they say they only publish exceptional books. It’s in their financial interest to publish as many books as possible. Atmosphere may truly pick the best or they may only say they do. Authors can easily be tricked by companies like this. They make authors feel special and then present the bill. Atmosphere seems to be relatively upfront about its structure, which is a good thing, but the Submittable email was a little misleading. I would say Atmosphere is at least trying to fall between a traditional and vanity publisher rather than going all the way to vanity.

However, it is not necessarily a BAD thing to work with a company like this. Let’s say you want to self-publish for one of the many good reasons to do so (control, speed, market too niche, wanting to avoid rejections). Self-publishing a high-quality book costs money. Editing, design, printing, and marketing costs money and/or the author’s time to do these tasks themselves. A company that handles this from start to finish can save authors from a lot of time spent researching and piecing together services. Atmosphere says their services cost $5,000 or less. That sounds reasonable. $5,000 is the ballpark figure I normally tell self-published authors to expect to spend on multiple rounds of editing, design, and printing costs. Of course, it’s cheaper if authors can do the design themselves or are going with an eBook only.

I’m a freelance editor and many of my clients are self-published. I see how hard they work to research the publishing process and fit multiple freelancers into their timelines. It’s not easy, so there’s a need for services like this, though that’s what it seems like this company is: a service provider putting a publisher hat on.

Whew, these calls can be confusing! If you’re thinking about working with a company like this, try to get your hands on some of their books before signing anything or spending money. Do you like the covers? How’s the writing? Are there typos?

I would love to hear other perspectives on this. There’s no set glossary for publishing. Rather, the vocabulary of the industry morphs and changes as the industry does. But that’s my two cents!

Want updates when I write more blog posts or have book news? Sign up for my newsletter or follow me on Twitter @tracycgold (where I tweeted this in a thread!).

9 Responses to “How to Evaluate Whether a Publisher is Traditional or Vanity”

  1. D. J. Irvine says:

    I read the title and thought you were going to shit on all self-publishers, “how wrong I was”. I actually learned something here, in my mind ‘vanity publishing’ was a mock at the self-publishing world.

    I tried to get a few on my poems published on numerous website with very high ranking authority. They all wanted money to read them and to publish them on their website. I knew this wasn’t correct and turned them all down.

    I learned how to use the Amazon kdp software and got to work. I’m a graphic designer and web developer by trade and really enjoyed the process of compiling all my work into a book.

    Long story short, I’ve published 3 books on the Amazon and Google platform. I sell copies everyday and received some fantastic ratings. I do everything myself: digital marketing, book cover design, content, copyright, booking an editor and create the pdf and kdp files.

    In my eyes, I’m a self-publisher who enjoys the process of creating and selling books to people who love to read. I have 5 new titles I’m working on this year, and people are waiting on my next releases.

    My advice is to be aware of online websites who say they are a publishing company. Never pay to enter competitions or part with huge amounts of cash for graphic or content work. If you take your time and have a small budget, you can publish a book in this day and age on your own.

  2. Lance Mason says:

    My reply to Atmosphere:

    Hi Nick,
    Thanks for the encouragement. When you say you think TBR “would be a good fit” for Atmosphere, are you saying it has good sales potential in the market place, and that Atmosphere would enjoy the opportunity to share in that business/financial success? However, you “[take] 0% royalties on book sales.” That business logic escapes me. If Atmosphere can produce the book, and believes it will sell well, why wouldn’t you deserve to benefit from that success? Is the answer that Atmosphere is in the business of selling production services to authors, not in the business of selling the results?

    Perhaps I made a mistake in submitting to Atmosphere (in Sept. 2019, if my notes are correct), as I made a lot of submissions at that time. While I would be delighted to hear from a publisher who actually had an honest marketplace interest in producing and selling the book, and sharing any success with me on a rational basis, your offer asks me to take all the financial and sales risk while paying you up front to produce the book. Yet I have already taken the writer’s risk — years of work to produce and promote the manuscript. If, in your broad and experienced professional judgment, that manuscript is “a good fit” for Atmosphere, a book publisher, then surely you and Atmosphere are willing to stand behind that judgment by taking the risk of publishing and marketing the book, and being paid accordingly. I am certainly willing to discuss that concept with you, as well as how we should share the royalties.

    Lance Mason

    • Haley Allen says:

      Hi Lance,

      Did you receive a response to this from Atmosphere Press? I received a very similar email this week after submitting in October through Submittable, and am unsure how I feel about it. I want to be excited but I fear that they probably solicit to the majority of writers, knowing not all will commit. Being new to the submission process (as well as the publishing process), I have no idea if my book is actually good, or if they’re just fishing. Having so much control isn’t necessarily what I’m looking for, since I’d be looking for more guidance than anything.

      Thanks for any feedback!

  3. Susan Waters says:

    Thank you so much for the info!

  4. Ann says:

    I think that any publisher that requires a payment is not a real publisher. The important thing is to promote the book after it has been published. The risk with the publisher who wants the author to pay is that they would take the money and would not do the promotional job that is vital for the book survival.

  5. Dear All

    Dear Nick
    Thanks for the offer but I think we misunderstood each other. I am not (and never been) interested in any sort of author funded creation and publication of my books. I rather have a traditional publisher who uses his funds for the initial creation and publication of the book (even if he gives me 0% royalties on book sales in the first lot of print) because then he tries to sell the book to get his money back. In my view that is logical because I am not (and never will be) convinced that if a publisher will work hard after getting the money for publishing.
    Sorry for the inconvenience and please forgive me if my words are too harsh for you.

  6. Lynda says:

    This was interesting for me – I have also been contacted by Nick after sending my chapbook manuscript to Submittable. I have an appointment to speak with this publisher on December 1. I am glad I read the article here and the comments. I’ll see how it goes. I do have 4 books on Amazon at this time.

    • Lynda, I’ve also received a letter from Nick via Submittable, offering to published my poetry book. I have a small independent publisher for my novels, but a poetry book would not be a good fit for them. Did you proceed with Atmosphere, and if so, what was your experience?

  7. Kara says:

    I just had a phone call with Atmosphere. I have been considering it. I will at least read their contract. I was viewing at least as an experience to go through the process but reading this has me thinking that I will do more research. Thank you for your thoughts. My book is a children’s book poetry and non-fiction fusion. I have it created and for sale on Amazon but at this point I almost the only one that has ever read it. It is planned to be part of a series so I think I should take more time considering a publisher that can make sure it is well put together and marketed well. Thank you for this convo!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *