After I finished polishing my urban fantasy manuscript, it took me a year and fifty submissions to realize I wasn’t going to get an agent. Part of that was because I had a terrible query letter, and my first chapter was rough. Another part was because I write genre fantasy, and there just isn’t a lot of money in that for a debut author (and therefore not much for the agent).
So when an offer to publish came my way during my agent hunt, it was very, very tempting. But after a wrenching 72 hours, and a ton of research and soul searching, I turned it down. And even though it took me another year to find the publisher I signed with, I don’t regret it. Here’s why:
Three things a publisher should be giving you.
1. A quality editor. Find some books they’ve already published and read them (or at least scan through them). With Amazon, this is super easy to do. Search the publisher’s name, and read excerpts. Don’t forget to critically look through their website – do the author bios or book blurbs have typos? Are they high quality? All these things are indications of the quality of their editor(s).
2. Great cover art. Look at their published books, especially in your genre – do you like the covers? Are they original and high-quality?
3. Marketing. Check out the success of their most recent books, and then books that have been out for a few months. (Search the publisher’s name on Amazon, then filter for ‘most recent’). Keep in mind that as an author at a small press, you’ll be expected to do a fair amount of self-promotion. But they should be able to get specific about what they do for you and what they expect from you.
Four things a publisher should not do.
1. Ask you for money. This can sneak into play a few different ways. Do they require fees for editing or cover art? Do they require you to purchase any of your own books at any point? Do they provide ‘extra’ services like marketing for fees? All of those are signs of (at best) vanity presses and (at worst) scams.
2. Take all your rights. Review your contract very carefully. A pretty average contract should include the rights to your current work only, and possibly the right of first refusal for additional works. Under no circumstances should you sign away the right to anything else you write. There’s also probably no reason to sign away foreign rights or movie rights. If your book becomes that big of a deal, the contract should be renegotiated. Make sure there’s also a rights reversion clause in case the publisher goes out of business (or something else goes wrong).
3. Pressure you to sign quickly / not ask questions. If you are getting pressure to sign quickly, or push-back for asking legitimate questions – run far, far away. A reasonable deadline to respond is fine, but pressure to accept on the spot or else is not. They should be willing to answer your questions, put you in contact with other authors, and potentially consider changes to the contract.
4. Be brand new / have a bad reputation. I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable with a publisher who was less than 5 years old. If they mis-manage their publications / finances / business, you’re going to pay the price. You may not get royalties you are due, your book could be stuck with them through bankruptcy, and even if you do get the rights back it’s very, very hard to get someone to publish your book the second time. Check out writer review sites like absolutewrite. Read through that entire thread and see when they first published a book before you sign.
Lastly, these things are probably up for debate, but I personally take a hard pass on the following:
- The publisher has clearly not read your book. Did they offer you specific feedback? Was there enough time for them to read your book (keeping in mind they are probably reviewing dozens of submissions).
- The publisher won’t take time to talk to you on the phone. Some people may not be bothered by this, but even in the digital age, I think my book should be important enough for them to invest 30 minutes in a call. If they can’t invest that much time into acquiring your work, how much time are they able to commit to marketing it?
- Their published list includes mostly their own work. Or their best selling work includes mostly their own novels. Take a stroll through their published author’s list and the staff list, and compare it to their top selling books.
- Their website is not impressive. Click around all those author links – do they take you to working author pages? Do they still have launch dates for books that have already passed? Does the website have typos? This is a big indicator of how they treat their marketing (not to mention editing) in general.
- They’re primarily focused on acquiring new authors. With limited resources in time and advertising capital – your publisher has to focus on either a) acquiring lots and lots of new authors or b) making the books they publish as high-quality and successful as they can. They should be doing both, but if the balance has clearly tipped, the quality of each book is not the priority. And neither is sustaining your book in the long-run. How can you tell? Check out the number of released books in a month, and compare that to the number of people on staff. If their website is mostly dedicated to finding new authors, then their revenue strategy is acquiring as many books as possible, and you’ll be one of many moderately successful acquisitions.
Anything else a good publisher should do? Anything you consider an automatic red flag? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.