5 Ways to Tell if a Small Publisher is Legit

The publishing industry, especially in the age of ebooks, is a lot like a rugged frontier teeming with snake oil salesmen, rabid ferrets, and lots and lots of prey in the form of desperate souls who will do anything, and I mean ANYTHING to be able to call themselves "published authors."

When you're first starting out, it's easy to become enamored with anyone other than your mom or spouse who deems your work worthy of publication, even if that someone is doing very little for you in terms of exposure or pay. Also, when you're first starting out, you may not even be thinking about the long game. You're just dipping a toe in, writing short stories in your spare time, maybe. You're happy even if only a dozen people read your little piece of art. My first publication credit was for an anthology that no one other than the contributors and their few friends and family members ever bought. It never even got reviews on Amazon, and as far as I know, the editor no longer even resides on this planet. But I was still thrilled to see my work in print, and it was that first publishing credit that gave me the impetus to believe that maybe I could be somebody in this business. And maybe that's fine for your very first short story credit. After that, though, it's a good idea to start looking a little further downfield.

It seems that writers, especially the ones who haven't been slapped hard enough by reality to grow the standard author's carapace, just want to have their egos rubbed. And that's when you're going to make some mistakes. You will encounter one of those aforementioned rabid ferrets, and it will take a small chunk out of your ass. Often, that's how you learn what not to do, and you'll discover that a shoddy publisher will do far less for your career than you could do publishing yourself. After all, if you're going to make a pittance, wouldn't you rather keep most of that pittance for yourself instead of splitting it with an outfit whose only real contribution was stamping their name on your work?

I'm NOT saying you shouldn't go with a publisher. You won't find me spouting that evangelical nonsense. I think a good career is built by working with publishers of all shapes and sizes, as well as producing works independently, but how can you tell a good publisher from a shitty one? The truth is, nearly any average Jane and Joe can set up a publishing company. They come up with a name and a slapdash logo and put it on a simple website, and then proceed to take the work of others, shape it into a book-like product, and put it up for sale on Amazon with almost no out of pocket costs. Then they proceed to pocket fractions of the pennies you're making, leaving you to do pretty much everything else to try and get people to buy it. Compared to most large publishers, who are laying out thousands in order to package a book and bring it to market, there is very little risk involved, so it's easy enough to become a book mill after a while, and you can't help but wonder if anyone is actually benefiting from it. Most of them do print-on-demand, if they even do a print edition at all, and that decreases the risk factor even more. Hell, I do the same thing with some of my own work, and a bunch of authors do the same thing for theirs. We're broke as hell to start with, so it's not like we can afford to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a product that will take years to make back its investment, if it makes it back at all.

That's not to say that people who operate this way are bad. In fact, there are a lot of passionate, gifted people running micropresses just this way. They have the connections to get editing and good cover art on the cheap, and they have also established relationships with the community to help get reviews. And their authors are selling books, winning awards, and carving out nice little niches for themselves in their respective communities. But it doesn't always work out that way, and given the number of disappointments, heartbreaks, and instances of total inertia I've seen in the book selling world, I have come to the conclusion that there are just some people who shouldn't be doing this kind work, period. That goes for both the authors and the publishers.

I'm not trying to be mean about it. I'm just voicing a core truth about the difference between the art of writing and the business of publishing, and how a lot of people might have a head for the former, but not even an iota of sense for the latter. It's how so many writers get taken for rides time and time again by unscrupulous publishing people, to the point that various watchdog organizations have been formed around sniffing out the opportunists and ne'er-do-wells. Preditors & Editors and Writer Beware are two such examples, but since there are so many presses and individuals out there claiming they can bring you and your literary baby to the promised land, you won't find all the offenders listed on any red flag sites. That's when you, as a writer, have to put your investigative acumen to use and start performing various sniff tests. As Montel Jordan once famously intoned, this is how we do it:

1. Scour the Website

This is all about first impressions. Every single publisher's website, from the Big 5 all the way down to the tiniest micropress, should follow the same very basic rules when it comes to constructing a site. There should be a listing of authors the press publishes as well as a list of all the books they have up for sale. Often times, you will have the ability to buy the book direct from them, but if not, you should find ample links to all the places where you can buy the books. You should also see a submissions portal, or a link explaining submission guidelines.

A good publisher's website will look clean and will be easy to navigate and not tarted up with obnoxious graphics and banner ads. It should also be free from grammatical and spelling errors (seriously, I've seen publisher pages rife with them). If they have bragging rights, like bestselling titles or award winners, those will probably be posted front and center. A publisher is first and foremost in the business of selling books and promoting its author list. If you don't get the immediate impression that the site is doing this, or that things look out of date or like something out of Geocities circa 1998, keep looking.

2. Look at the Book Covers. LOOK AT THEM!

Quality cover art says a lot about how much a publisher is investing in making an author's book stand out. It amazes me how many small/micro publishers fail at this most basic test, and it amazes me even more that there are so many authors who still sign the dotted line despite that very obvious deficiency, and who will allow some "artist" to slap flat black letters on a sloppy watercolor and call that their book cover. It's enough to make me wonder if some authors are just completely "colorblind" as to what makes a professional cover, but if this is something you struggle with, go visit your local bookstore or the bestseller lists on Amazon. Study what a great book cover should look like. They'll all look different in various ways, and some will be better than others, but all decent covers will have a certain polish to them. Then visit Lousy Book Covers and see what truly awful covers look like. If the covers at the press you're investigating look more like what you'd see at LBC and not at your local bookstore, there's a very big problem, and again, you should run.

3. Check the Sales Ranks, Reviews, and Samples

They might make great covers and have an awesome website . . . but are they actually selling books? Sales rankings can be a volatile indicator of a book's performance, especially if there are multiple distribution channels and the possibility that the author has other sales strategies that aren't reflected by Amazon's numbers. Also, a book that might have been doing gangbusters for a few weeks could be going through a downturn that is not entirely in a publisher's control. But you can also use the ebook tracker at Kindle Nation Daily to track the titles for a couple weeks and see if there is any kind of upward movement. If you're not seeing any, that can be troubling. Also, read the reviews. Are there editorial reviews from any reputable trade publications, authors, or blogs? Are there at least 8-10 customer reviews? If there are none and the book has an extremely poor sales ranking, and it's been on the market for at least a few months, that could signal that the publisher is more or less milling out books and not getting anything in return. That's only a sign of potential disappointment for you. Finally, look at the samples. If you see errors or questionable formatting, keep moving. This publisher is not going to do anything more for your book than you can do for yourself.

4. Talk to the Authors

The writing community is a relatively small and tight-knit one. If you haven't started befriending other authors, particularly in the genres you write, now is a good time. Facebook is where it's at, generally, though Google Plus has started to show a lot of activity for interactions in the writing community. Once you've met a number of the authors, feel free to ask them how happy they are with their publishers. Not all authors will open up and they certainly won't want to discuss their actual contract terms, but I think most of them would be happy to talk about general stuff, and if they are very happy, they will certainly let you know. Questions to keep in mind: Do they pay their authors on time? How fast do they work to get the book to market? What is their response time like for queries or submissions? Are they communicative when you have questions? You namely want to get a feel for how the authors are being treated, because that could be you.

5. Dig Deeper

Google them. Are people talking about them on various forums, like Absolute Write? What about the company's business name? Is it registered with the Secretary of State? Is it a LLC or other corporation, or is it a sole proprietorship or cooperative? Cooperatives are relatively new on the scene, and they come with a whole other host of things to consider, as well as potential headaches that you will have to sort through. A reputable publisher looking to do business with other authors will hopefully have its ducks all in a row. It's a good sign if a publisher is at least an LLC, because they will understand the importance of protecting themselves in the event of a lawsuit, which is always possible when working in this business. This again goes back to business sense. A publisher that doesn't have this stuff figured out can't always be trusted to do other things correctly. You could wind up with an orphaned book when the IRS comes storming through the door, or having to hire a lawyer to get your rights back when it turns out they aren't mailing you your checks on time and have no interest in releasing your property back to you.

Just keep in mind that even if a publisher does appear to be legit--they have a good website, successful titles, decent word of mouth, and appear to be run by skilled individuals--that still doesn't mean things can't go sour at some point. It happens in the big leagues as well as the minors. Signing with any publisher means you're taking a certain gamble, just as they are taking a gamble on you. But if a publisher can at least pass the smell test on the minimal criteria I've listed here, it might be worthwhile to at least submit your manuscript and see what the next steps look like. If you wind up receiving a contract, that's a whole other ball of wax. We'll save that headache for another time. 

Finally, it's important to note that a small publisher, even the best one, might not have the money or the horsepower to propel your book to the stratosphere. You will encounter unique challenges, and you have to go into it with the proper expectations. You may not hit any major bestseller lists or be shelved in bookstores, but maybe you get many excellent reviews from readers and develop a local following through attending events and conventions. You may not get rich, but you may get a start to a fruitful career with a well packaged book you can be proud of. There are a ton of advantages to working with a reputable small press. They take risks on material that larger publishers often can't afford to take. They give you more creative control, and they're often always on the forefront of trying new things. They can lay the groundwork for a bigger career down the road. I have loved working with a small press for my two novels, and I wouldn't have traded that experience for anything. The key is to making sure you pick the right one, or that the right one picks you.