Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware
When Writer Beware was founded in 1998, the main actors in the arena of literary scammery were literary agents (or people calling themselves literary agents). Though there were certainly many disreputable publishers out there (you can read about some of them on the Case Studies page of Writer Beware), complaints and questions about faux agents outnumbered complaints and questions about faux publishers by better than 4 to 1.
The rise of digital publishing has changed all that. Digital technology, which makes it easy and cheap to set up a publishing operation, has created a tidal wave of publishers--small and micro, POD and electronic. These publishers don't work with agents (nor, since they typically pay no advances and generate few sales, would a reputable agent be interested in working with them). The result has been a reduction in authors' perception of the need for a literary agent, and thus, a reduction in the ability of fake literary agents to make a killing--er, a living.
That's not to say there aren't still literary agent scams (there are), or amateur "agents" attempting to break into the business without any vestige of publishing industry knowledge or contacts (sadly, there are still plenty of these). But new ones aren't popping up every couple of weeks, the way they once did. Nowadays, Writer Beware receives far more reports and complaints about questionable publishers.
Perhaps as a result, one of the most frequent questions we receive (often after we've told someone that they should maybe think twice before signing that publishing contract they've just been offered) is Can you recommend an honest publisher that won't rip me off? Or Can you send me a list of publishers you'd recommend for my kind of book? Or, from really frustrated writers, You only talk about bad publishers, why don't you ever talk about the good ones and help us writers out?
We think we are helping out by identifying questionable publishers and questionable publishing practices. But the main reason we don't provide "good publisher" lists, or recommend specific publishers, is that even the best publisher is only "best" for some writers. There are many, many excellent publishers, large and small, digital and non-digital--but their focuses vary so widely that any one publisher won't necessarily be right for any particular author. For instance, Tor is one of the top US science fiction and fantasy publishers, but if you've just completed a memoir or a romance, it's not an appropriate choice. It's really best, therefore, for writers themselves to choose which publishers to approach, rather than relying on recommendations from others.
(My 2006 blog post about providing agent recommendations offers more detail on why Writer Beware prefers to stay away from recommendations.)
In looking for a good publisher, it's very important to know the warning signs of a bad one. One of the most obvious warning signs is fees of any sort. I'm not talking about the fees charged by publishing services such as iUniverse and its ilk, but about operations that identify themselves as "publishers" yet want their authors to pay something or buy something as a condition of publication. This includes (but isn't limited to) publishing fees, editing fees, design fees, publicity fees, or a requirement that you buy your own book or find an "investor" to fund it. Don't be fooled by publishers that claim that your money covers only part of the cost, or try to convince you that they invest substantial resources of their own--it's far more likely that your fee or payment includes not only the whole cost of publication, but also the publisher's overhead and profit.
Other (but by no means the only) red flags: amateurish cover art (suggests a lack of professionalism), bad writing/editing/interior formatting (suggests poor quality standards and/or a low acceptance bar--it's always a good idea to order a book or two from any small press you're thinking of signing with so you can assess quality), a gigantic catalog of mostly new authors (suggests the publisher may be an author mill), nonstandard contract terms (you can write to us with questions--we're not lawyers, but we have seen a lot of publishing contracts), complaints of any sort (always do a websearch on a publisher you're thinking of querying, or contact us and we'll let you know if there's anything in our files), verbiage on the publisher's website about how fresh new voices are tragically being lost because of the shortsighted, exclusionary practices of the big publishers (suggests the publisher is run by frustrated writers, which is rarely a good recipe for success), staff with no discernible professional writing or publishing credentials (someone running a business should have at least some relevant credentials).
Something else to avoid: brand new publishers. There's a very high attrition rate for new small publishers, so unless you're sure that the people involved have real publishing experience--not to mention a business plan--it's best to take a wait-and-see attitude. We've written several posts on this subject:
- An Open Letter From a Writer to New Publishers
- New Publishers: To Query or Not to Query
- Precautions for Small Press Authors
Okay, that's how to avoid questionable publishers. So how to search for reputable ones? One of the most obvious ways is to go to the bookstore, and spend some time in the area where books similar to yours (in subject, genre, and/or focus) are shelved. The ability to get books into physical stores is one of the key characteristics that separates commercial publishers from other kinds. You can also identify books you like, or authors you admire, and find out who publishes them.
A print market guide that includes publisher listings can also be helpful. (Why a print guide? Because you can run into a lot of trouble if you begin your publisher search on the Internet. This blog post discusses why.) Writer's Market, from Writer's Digest Books, and Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, are just two examples.
For larger commercial publishers, you will probably need an agent--most of the bigger houses are closed to unagented submissions. (My article, "The Safest Way to Search for an Agent," suggests some research techniques.) But there are also many reputable independent publishers that are willing to work directly with authors. Here are a few reasonably reliable online resources to help you find them:
- Association of American Publishers
- Independent Publishers Guild (UK)
- Independent Publishers Group
- The Complete Review (US)
- The Complete Review (UK)
- NewPages.com's list of independent publishers
- Association of American University Presses
- Locus Magazine's list of specialty SF/fantasy/horror presses
- Fictionwise's list of electronic publishers
I've saved till last the most important piece of advice: Know something about the publishing industry BEFORE you start submitting your manuscript. Not only will this help you target your submissions appropriately, it'll make you a better researcher, and help to keep you out of the hands of scammers and amateurs. If you know how the publishing process should work, you'll be more likely to spot a problem publisher before you waste your energy querying it. This investment in education takes time at the outset, but it's one of the most worthwhile investments in your future writing career that you will ever make.
My blog post, Learning the Ropes, goes into a lot more detail, and suggests resources.