How to Evaluate Whether a Publisher is Traditional or Vanity

18 Sep

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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