Vetting A Publisher

So, yet another smaller press is in the news the last week or so because of non-payment to authors, poor performance, etc.  Who the publisher is doesn’t really matter.  Because next year it’ll be another publisher in the same situation.  And the year after that, another one.

Best bet is to never sign with a publisher like this.  But how do you do that?

Here’s a good start:

  1. Do a basic internet search for the publisher’s name and pay attention to any bad news
  2. Check the Bewares, Recommendations, & Background Check forum at AbsoluteWrite to see what people have to say.
  3. Check Writer Beware for any public reports on the publisher
  4. Use an agent to solicit publishers*
  5. Hire a lawyer familiar with publishing to review the contract for any red flags*

*I’ve put an asterisk on those last two, because sometimes the first step down the road to a bad publishing deal is signing with the wrong agent and many, many authors over the years have said it’s better to have no agent at all than a bad one.  So, vet an agent almost more stringently than you would the publisher.

Those are some basic first steps to take.  But I had a friend caught up in one of these messes and they did all of the above.  What else can you do?

  • Talk to other authors published by that publisher

Now, this one’s tricky.  In the current scenario there’s lots of talk of being verbally attacked by the publisher for speaking out.  If I were in that situation and someone I didn’t know came to me and asked about my publisher, I’d probably keep my mouth shut because I wouldn’t know this was a legitimate person.  It might be a trap.  Also, a few years back there was an editor at one of the big publishers known for being a horrible human being, but many people were scared to lose that big publishing contract so didn’t speak out.

  • Be wary of one-person or family-run companies

Some companies that are owned and operated by one individual or a married couple are fantastic.  Some are a shit show.  My brother used to work for one of the latter.  It was awful.  They’d just stop paying him sometimes.  And change the terms of his employment whenever they felt like it.  Now he works for someone who has years of corporate work experience and is an excellent boss.  But more times than not a small company is very much about the person running it and survives or fails based upon that person.

  • Look at the rankings or coverage of other books by the publisher

If most of a publisher’s books are ranking in the 500K plus range on Amazon, they’re not doing anything for your books that you couldn’t do yourself.  And if those books aren’t being reviewed by a lot of reviewers that are only open to trade pub books, again, not doing anything you couldn’t do.  Indies can give out ARC review copies and they can buy a slot on LibraryThing.

  • Read a few books by the publisher

Look for typos and formatting errors and overall book quality.  Look at the cover art.  Is it good?  Are the stories books you think are worth reading?  Better to be in the company of others and think “what did I do to get so lucky?” than to be in the company of others who you really think suck.

  • Don’t let your desire to be published get in the way of making a smart choice

I know the wait is hard.  Trust me.  It’s why I self-published even though that was probably just a different version of shooting myself in the foot.  I saw on an agent blog a while back that the “magic number” for selling a first book is usually four.  That’s four novels written before you write something commercial enough and well-written enough to get the interest of a quality agent and publisher.

Just because someone says yes, doesn’t mean they’re the right choice for you.

Step back.  Assess everything.  Think worst-case scenario.  How do you get out?  What do you lose if it all goes south?

It’s funny that authors are so in love with a book that they’ll accept a deal they shouldn’t (and, no, you can’t always tell at the time) for a book just to get it out there when sometimes accepting that deal means the book, and possibly the name behind it (thank God for pen names) die a painful death.

Of course, from what I can tell, the ones who make it in this industry are the ones who take a situation like this, brush themselves off, and carry on.  There are other publishers and you have more books in you.  If this one fails, move on to the next.  And, remember, it’s a business no matter how much heart and soul is involved.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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