Writers are warned to beware of “bad” publishers. But how are we supposed to know if a publisher is good or bad?
It’s taken me a long time to learn how to spot the good from bad, so I thought I’d share. Note that my research is focused on publishers of novels rather than poetry, screenplays, etc, which might be very different.
Before we get into that, we need to define what is meant by “good” and “bad.” For purposes of this post:
A good publisher will sell your work to a good number of readers.
What counts as “a good number” will depend on your genre and the form of writing, among much else, so let’s say that means “many orders of magnitude more than you could sell on your own.”
Bad publishers fall into two categories:
Some bad publishers are scammers, who will extract money from you and not sell your book.
Some bad publishers have good intentions but won’t be able to sell your book any better than you could on your own.
Good publishers sell your books in good quantities to readers.
So, how do you tell if a publisher is good or bad?
1. Google the publisher’s name + scam, and publisher’s name + vanity press
Dig around the search results and see if there’s evidence of writers paying the publisher for their services. Don’t take anybody’s word for it, but look at the weight of evidence and its source and work out if you need to be worried or not.
Remember: Good publishers NEVER charge you for their services, including editing and marketing. They pay you. You don’t pay them.
2. Look at the publisher’s website.
- Is the website aimed at readers or at writers? For example, does the front page showcase books for sale, or does it ‘sell’ the publisher to prospective writers? Are there more pages on the site devoted to information for readers, or for writers?
Good publishers aim their websites at readers, because they make their money from selling books to readers. They are likely to have one page called something like ‘Write for us’ or ‘For authors’ or ‘Submissions’, with the rest of the site aimed at readers.
Bad publishers aim their websites at writers, because they make their money from selling their ‘services’ to authors. Sometimes they make money by selling YOU your own book.
- Look at the publisher’s staff, especially their editors.
Good publishers are run by people who have significant experience in the publishing industry. Good editors have several years’ experience editing with good publishers. Qualifications in English, good spelling, and/or enthusiasm are not sufficient.
Bad publishers are run by people with little or no publishing experience. Bad publishers are often run by nice people with good intentions, but niceness and good intentions don’t sell books.
- Look at their submission guidelines.
Legitimate publishers NEVER charge fees. Ever. Not for reading, or editing, or covers, or marketing, or anything else. If fees are not mentioned explicitly, but the publisher uses ambiguous terms like “investment” or “partnership” or “assisted publishing”, take several steps back and don’t submit without a lot more research.
Legitimate publishing houses usually focus on one genre or a few closely related genres (like sci-fi and fantasy). The smaller the publisher / imprint, the narrower their focus should be, because they won’t have the staff or marketing budget to successfully sell wide-ranging genres. If a single imprint takes on every genre under the sun, be extremely wary.
3. Look at the books they have published.
You can find the publisher’s books on their websites or on retail sites.
Good publishers sell books you (as a reader of that genre) want to read. The books will have professional covers and the blurbs and any previews will be well-written and free of errors. They should ideally have published books that you’ve heard of and enjoyed.
If the publisher sells print books, go into your local bookshops and see if any of their books are on the shelves. Note that some publishers only publish, or mainly publish, e-books. This does not mean they are a bad publisher by default – some genres do very well as e-books.
4. Look at the sales rankings of some of the publisher’s books.
I generally encourage people who love books not to use Amazon, but one thing it’s useful for is seeing books’ sales rankings. You can’t see sales figures, which are private between the author and publisher and rarely made public, but you can see a rank. The rank shows how well that book is selling in comparison with others.
Look up several of the publisher’s titles, particularly new releases in your genre. For mainstream genres, you will want to see several tiles ranked in the three or four digits. For niche genres, five figures may be good. A publisher whose books are all ranked in the millions, or have no rankings, is selling very few copies. Note that the algorithm favours newer releases, so older books with low rankings might have sold well in the past.
The number of reviews their titles attract is also a rough marker of sales figures. If most of the publisher’s books have no reviews, they’re not selling. The exception I’ve found is nonfiction – these don’t seem to attract many reviews even when selling very well, for some reason.
5. How did you find out about them?
Good publishers don’t approach writers, except in very rare circumstances. They don’t need to; they have more submissions than they will ever need. Likewise, they don’t need to advertise to writers. Publishers who need to tempt writers to submit aren’t selling books.
6. Talk to their authors (thanks to my friend and author Kate Sherwood for this one)
Kate says: “I’d add, once you’ve gotten an offer, asking for some time and then contacting other authors who work with that publisher.
Most authors are happy to say nice things about their publishers, and if you find an author who seems reluctant to say anything, that may be a sign of trouble.
Not conclusive, but not something to be ignored.
(I suggest doing this ONCE YOU HAVE AN OFFER, not at an earlier stage, b/c it’s not great to ask authors for their time if there’s no reason for your request to be necessary).”
I would add that there’s a ‘honeymoon period’ after writers sign a contract and before they get their first royalty statement. In that time most writers will ADORE their publisher and have nothing bad to say. The story often changes when they realise how many copies they’ve sold. Use caution when getting testimonials, and preferably get them from writers whose books came out 6+ months ago. Asking for sales figures may not be welcome, but you can ask very politely for a ballpark if they seem willing to share.
7. Ask in the writing community
Most writers don’t want to ask publicly in case they offend potential publishers, but you can always speak to established writers you trust. If you can, find writers who aren’t with the publisher you’re looking at (or are with other publishers, too) but who are published in the same genre. They will likely have heard things on the grapevine.
Okay, but good publishers keep rejecting me. Isn’t it better to go with a bad publisher than stay unpublished?
No. Don’t be tempted to accept a contract with a bad publisher. I understand how it feels to desperately want to get your book out there, and the voice that tells you maybe you can be the exception who gets on the NYT Bestseller list even with a two-bit publisher.
You won’t be the exception. What will happen is:
a) You can no longer sell that manuscript to a good publisher – they want original works, not reprints
b) If a good publisher is interested in the future, they will look you up and find out your previous book/s only sold 50 copies – not a great look
c) You will be even more demotivated and frustrated than when you were unpublished
Publishing is hard. It takes a lot of time and a lot of rejection. Find your writing cheerleaders and keep going until a good publisher is chomping at the bit to sign you!