Recently, a writer friend of mine asked me for advice about evaluating the quality of small publishers. I’ve talked before about what a great option small publishers can be for writers, but I haven’t really addressed this question before. How do you know that a small press offers quality services? Worse, how do you know if it’s actually a scam, or a vanity publisher in disguise? Even if the publisher is legitimate, how can you evaluate their quality? I’ve worked with several fantastic small presses before, but not all of them are created equal. So, here are my tips for evaluating a small publisher:
There are a number of amazing resources available for writers online. I always, always recommend checking out Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware before signing anything. The writer’s forums at Absolute Write are another great resource. Doing some basic research—and even a simple Google search—can tell you a lot about a publisher.
Additionally, find out everything you can about the publisher’s history and experience. How long have they been in business? How experienced are their staff? Do their staff members actually have a background in publishing? This is a very unique industry, so it’s a major red flag when the staff has limited experience in it.
- Look at what they’ve published
One of the best ways to assess quality is to look at the books they’ve already published. Do they look professional? Are they well-designed? Do they seem well-edited? If you read a lot of books—and you should, as a writer—you’ll be able to recognize one that isn’t professional. The quality of their previous books is a good indication of what the quality of your book will be if you sign with them. Don’t just look at a cover image online—order a physical copy in order to better assess it.
- Look at who they’ve published
Again, a little online research will go a long way here. I’d suggest looking at the author websites of writers who have worked with this small press before. Are they still publishing new books? That’s certainly a sign of a healthy career. And if they’ve published multiple books with this publisher, that suggests they’ve had a good experience with them. Now, to be clear, just because a press hasn’t signed a bunch of bestsellers doesn’t mean they’re not a good publisher. But these are all indicators of how well their books and authors are doing.
- Ask to see the boilerplate contract
If you only follow one tip in this post, let it be this one: Read the contract. Understand exactly what it is you’re being asked to sign. There are so many great resources online about what should and shouldn’t be in a contract that you can use to evaluate it. For a start, go here, here, here, and here. Also, this post at Publishing Hub has a huge list of additional resources on publishing contracts.
Additionally, ask if the terms of the contract are negotiable. It is standard for a publisher to negotiate the contract with you or your agent. (To give you an example, my agency recently negotiated my contract back and forth for a month before I signed it. And that was considered quick. If my agency hadn’t previously established a boilerplate contract with them, it would’ve been much longer.) If they aren’t willing to negotiate at all, that’s a huge red flag.
- Find and read reviews
In addition to evaluating the physical quality of their books, another thing to examine is sales history. It’s not reasonable to compare their sales to those at larger publishers, of course, but you can compare sales with other small publishers. Granted, if you’re considering a small publisher in the first place, sales numbers may not be as important to you, but they are a factor that will help you gauge a publisher’s quality. As for how you know whether their books are selling, if you don’t have access to Bookscan: Look them up online. Do they have a lot of reviews on the big retail sites like Amazon and B&N? Are they available at major retailers at all? Do they have trade reviews? How many ratings do they have on Goodreads? While none of these things will give you the full picture, they are good indicators of how well a book is doing.
Don’t just look at the number of reviews they have, either. Read them. What are readers saying about these books? A negative review doesn’t necessarily mean anything, of course, but if you see multiple reviews complaining about issues like poor quality or typos, that’s another red flag.
- Don’t pay fees
If a small publisher attempts to charge you any kind of fee to publish your book, that’s not traditional publishing; it’s vanity publishing. A true traditional press will never charge you for editing, printing, cover design, reading/submission fees, or anything else. In a traditional model, the publisher should be paying you, not the other way around. I’ve seen several vanity publishing websites masquerading as “traditional” while still charging a fee, so it’s important to be aware that this is not a traditional publishing model, regardless of what their website says.
Finally, I’ll leave you with this post by agent Janet Reid (of QueryShark fame) about evaluating small publishers. She makes several great points about the list price of books and examining publisher’s websites, so check out the link for more info.
There are many great small publishers out there who do very well and work very hard for their authors. But not all small publishers do, and it’s important to understand which one you’re looking at before you sign the contract.
What do you think? Have you considered signing with a small publisher? Have you ever worked with one that you liked? One that you didn’t? Let me know in the comments!
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This post is part of my Submission Tips series. For information about submitting to literary agents, publishing houses, and more, check out other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts.