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!

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25 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!

      • G says:

        I sent them a similar email today and they sent me a response which I’ve pasted below in quotes. It’s pretty gross how they basically call small presses a bunch of students. Hate the way they boast about their design skills like their book covers are amazing (they’re not), and also their marketing skills (which are terrible if you look any of their books up on Amazon or Goodreads).

        “We do require an author investment, which you can learn more about via our FAQ and Testimonials. We work this way so we can pay our attentive and exceptional editorial and design team; many small presses require hit-or-miss volunteer labor, and/or are student workers subsidized by government funds, such as universities. And self-publishing has its drawbacks. I’m pretty skilled at the process of editorial, but I am clueless when it comes to interior and cover design. Plus, I want pros marketing my book. Perhaps you feel the same way?

        Our set-up tends to work out very well for authors, as we also give the writers whose books we accept final veto power over content, and allow them to maintain 100% rights to their material, as opposed to a far less advantageous traditional contract, in which the publisher can garnish much of the author’s profits and artistic control.

        In other words, if you’d like to reconsider working with us, let me know and we can schedule a call to discuss all the good specifics!


  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.

    • Dave says:

      Ann, every author pays for publication. Do you believe that traditional publishers publish work out of the pure goodness of their hearts? No, they take the lion’s share of earnings, even 10, 20, 30 years down the road.

  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!

  8. M.Z.M says:

    I believe having publishing options is beneficial to writers. I recently received an acceptance letter from Atmosphere as well. I researched articles and comments regarding the company. I found that the bulk of the negative comments were by people who didn’t follow through with the acceptance call. So I decided to follow through. I was pleased to hear what Atmosphere offers for under $5k. Yes, $5k is a decent chunk of change, but they also provide a lot. To be honest, I do not have the time to self-publish (the route I wanted to go), and traditional publishers frighten me. To add to that, I also have no idea how to edit, design, or market a book properly. I found solace that Atmosphere Press takes care of that and more. Making money isn’t my goal. My goal is to get my novel in the hands of readers. The guidance that Atmosphere said they would provide makes this the right path for me. I have yet to sign a contract. I will update this post if I choose to continue with them. I feel it’s essential that authors hear a first-hand experience rather than speculation ^_^.

    • I definitely agree, as long as you know what you’re getting into beforehand! 5k is not that much money to produce a high quality book, just pay attention to the fine print of the royalties and what you get out of the book for that investment you put in.

    • G says:

      You can get editing services, graphic design and conversion to a kdp and paperback format on Fiverr for a much less than what Atmosphere are offering. I’d be willing to do all of that for five hundred. All you’re getting from Atmosphere is their logo on your book, a bad cover, and no marketing when it’s published. Check out any of their books on Goodreads and you’ll see that hardly anyone is reading them. Look at their ratings on Amazon and see that no one is buying them. Don’t fall for it.

  9. Chelsea says:

    I just recently been accepted by atmosphere press then I read how much is going to cost. To me it’s quite alot of money, I already struggling financially. I am torn because I was excited but I am also afraid of the costs and it would be all for nothing.

    • Hi Chelsea, I tell every author who reaches out to me with financial questions NOT to put themselves in a financially perilous situation with an investment in their book. And as a freelance editor, that means sometimes I lose clients! But that’s fine with me because I would feel awful helping someone with a book that doesn’t end up selling and then they’re in a bad financial situation. There are ZERO GUARANTEES that you will ever make that money back. Can it be wise to invest in self publishing a book? Yes. Can it be wise to invest in an editor, or classes, or grad school, to gain an education as a writer? Yes. But don’t do it if it’s putting you in a bad situation financially.

  10. Michael Mammay says:

    This is great. I think there are always options for publishing, and what a writer needs to do with ANY of them is know what they’re getting into.

    For this option, if we focus on the $5000 for a minute…the percentage of published books in any given year that make more than $5000 is very, very small. Definitely less than 10%. Probably closer to 1%. And that includes small press, self pub, and traditional.

    Yes. There are people in every one of those spaces making money. I’m one of them. But the odds are against it, and I think a lot of times people get focused on what could happen if they’re part of that 1%, not if they’re part of the 99%.

  11. Wendy says:

    I used Atmosphere Press to publish my book, Family Legends, Family Lies.
    I wouldn’t use them again.

    Nick Courtright is nice. But, even with an editor and proofreader, the published book has significant typos in it. The editor was nice, but I felt she gave just “ok” suggestions.

    I am wary of the payments. My book has sold more Kindle editions. But, I am personally aware of people who purchased the hardcover edition. Yet, when I asked Nick for a sales report from Ingram, not all of those hardcover sales showed up. And I didn’t get paid for them. The total dollar amount is not much. Still, it makes me wonder what is going on. It has also made me hold off on marketing the book.

    Then I used Atmosphere Press for my author’s website. I had an existing website. They took over the URL. It’s Nick’s brother, Evan. He made a mess of the website. Plus, he forgot to transfer over 5 years worth of archived emails, which were then lost forever.

    Then I received a payment for a book in my PayPal account, but it was for another author’s book.

    I’m working on my next book in conjunction with another author. We are going to self-publish. I can hire separate editor and proofreading services for less than I paid Atmosphere Press.

    Maybe other authors feel differently, but that’s my opinion.

  12. Dave says:

    I had a very positive experience with Atmosphere Press. Their editors were friendly and insightful, but respected my autonomy. Ronaldo made me an awesome cover. And the marketing has more than I could ever hope.

    I think some of the people commenting on this thread have not had experiences with traditional publishers and are living in a fantasy world about what an author gets from that experience. Traditional publishers often barely bother to market a book.

    Also, if you think you can hire a copy and developmental editor, proofer, interior person, cover designer, and marketing people for less than what I paid at Atmosphere, you are fooling yourself. Tracy, I would be happy to see you provide an article on whether traditional publishers are vanity or not. I think that’s a question worth considering as well!

  13. Elizabeth says:

    I heard about this page from some another Atmosphere author. I bothered by how few of the comments are by people who actually worked with Atmosphere. And almost all the comments are about money rather than visibility or other concerns. My book got tons of reviews thanks to Cammie Finch, who is just absolutely amazing, and the rest of the marketing team staff! At a time when most traditional publishers don’t even bother to most of their catalogue, Atmosphere actually worked with me to get my book to readers. And the sales numbers have been really good! Seems a lot better than years of writing to agents with no response, and that is the experience of the vast majority of writers.

  14. Larry says:

    I have had a good experience with Atmosphere. The cost was much less than $5K, and I received several thorough editorial conferences via phone and additional support via email. While they offered to provide a cover design, they were also receptive using photo art provided free to me by a talented friend. Atmosphere helped me select from several options. They also included reviews by friends and acquaintances who are themselves published writers. The final product was very attractive. Copies that I purchased at a greatly reduced cost sold out after I offered copies at higher cost on Facebook (I also charged for postage). Those sales plus sales at readings plus royalties from Atmosphere for sales at their end have pretty much helped me break even. And I’m I’m OK with that.

  15. Hi Tracy:
    First-time reader. Thanks for this excellent guide to differentiating publishing companies (Atmosophere Press, in particular). I like your conversational, non-condescending style. Very helpful.

  16. Nadean Stone says:

    Hello, I self-published my memoir in 2019 on KDP Amazon. It has earned great reviews on Amazon, 77 all five and four stars. I did not want to wait two years to find an agent then another couple of years to find a publisher as story is so relevant today. I have done TV interviews, been featured in magazines.
    Parklander Magazine Review of No Stone Unturned: A Remarkable Journey to Identity by Nadean Stone – July 2019
    If ever a cable series suggested its own sequel that promised to be just as or more captivating than the original, The Handmaid’s Tale, this would be it. And local writer Nadean Stone has provided a true-life look at how such a shocking dystopia can play out in the next generation. In No Stone Unturned, the debut author and Coral Springs resident traces her 44-year search for her mother, who was among the hundreds of thousands of unwed mothers across Canada, from 1945 until the 1970’s forced to give up their babies for adoption.
    The Canadian government has only recently come to grips with its lead role in what became a program of stigmatization and illegal coercion, which provinces and territories carried out, largely in secret, with the help of religious and charitable organizations. Stone, one of the more than 600,000 babies deemed “illegitimate” in Canadian census records from the period, tells a tale that’s often raw with emotion, recounting a grim childhood and her winding, but determined journey to find her birth mother – and herself. A must-read in these times of forced family separations and dystopian fantasies come true.
    Taleflick an LA based company has recommended my story for a Netflix or Amazon series and selected it as a Taleflick Pick! My issue is obtaining publicity for my book. I have scheduled a call with Cammie next week to discuss publicity. Will let you know outcome.
    Excited to share Official Book Trailer for my memoir No Stone Unturned; A Remarkable Journey to Identity on YouTube.

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