Imagine you're a new writer. You've just completed your first manuscript, and are on fire to get it published. You don't know a lot about the publishing world, or how to identify a good publisher for your book--but that's okay. You have the Internet.
So you open a search engine--Google, let's say--and type "publishers" into the search box. Here's what you get.
The two top nonsponsored listings are for Random House and HarperCollins--big names that you may recognize. You navigate through their websites for submission information...bummer. In your genre, they won't look at any manuscript that doesn't have an agent.
The sponsored listings look a lot more encouraging. Instead of "Agented submissions only," they say things like "We Want to Read Your Book!" and "Get your book published today--the industry leader for new authors!" and "The only choice for new authors." There's just one problem. Of the eleven listings, ten are for fee-based publishers (though you may not realize that right away, since some are less than candid about the fact that you have to pay) or self-publishing services. The eleventh is for a "publisher search" website that includes no real publishers, only vanity publishers and self-publishing companies.
Suppose, instead of Googling "publishers," you'd Googled "book publishers." Here's what you'd see, and it's just as bad. Of the nonsponsored listings, Random House is first...and PublishAmerica is third. Again, there are eleven sponsored listings--ten for fee-based publishers or publishing services, and one for another faux publisher search website, this one registered to Author Solutions, parent of self-publishing services AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, Trafford, and WordClay. Guess which publishers it suggests?
Just about any general search you may do--"novel publishers" or "find a publisher" or "getting published" or "how to get published"--is fraught with similar perils. Of course, the search pages also throw up helpful links--to Absolute Write, or Publishers Marketplace, or Publishers Weekly, or Harold Underdown's tongue-in-cheek but very helpful how-do-I-get-it-published quiz. But I've gotten enough email over the years to know that many inexperienced writers look no farther than the highly-visible sponsored links.
All of which underscores the need for caution on the Internet. (Yes, I know I've blogged about this before, but it's such a consistent issue for the writers who contact me that the point can't be made too often.) Don't get me wrong--I love the Internet, and can't imagine my professional life without it. It's an invaluable research resource, offering unprecedented access to a treasure trove of information, enabling knowledgeable writers to fine-tune their agent- and publisher-quests as never before. For new writers, however, it can pose substantial hazards, since there's at least as much bad information as good--not to mention all the people who want to sell you something that may not be good for you. Even so-called professional resources aren't always reliable--the writing and editing question forums at LinkedIn, supposedly a place for business and professional networking, are absolute pits of bad advice and misinformation--and as for writers' message boards, it's a good idea never to forget that people who know nothing are as eager to opine as people who know something.
Unless writers are able to filter the information they find online, they're at risk of making bad decisions or falling victim to predators. In other words, writers need to know something about publishing before they start searching for publishers (or agents). Rather than plunging in and attempting to learn on the fly, it's a much better idea to first take the time to build a knowledge base. There are many ways to do this, and it doesn't have to be tedious. My blog post, "Learning the Ropes," offers some suggestions.
Trust me: it's one of the best investments in your future career you'll ever make.