Finding Legitimate Publishers
Since there seem to be some new people around here, every other Wednesday I do a post on writing -- either craft or business aspects. You can also get these posts by e-mail.
Last time, I responded to a reader question about how you can tell if an agent or publisher is legitimate and addressed the agent side of the equation. Today I'll talk about publishers. As with agents, the Internet has made that easier, in that there are more ways to search for information on publishers, and more difficult, in that it's easier than ever to become a "publisher" and the business model for publishing is changing because of the Internet.
Once upon a time, back in the Dark Ages when dinosaurs roamed the earth without Internet access, it was generally pretty easy to tell if a publisher was legitimate. You could find their books in bookstores and they paid you an advance to publish your novel. Now there are electronic publishers whose books are sold strictly online, there are imprints of major New York publishers that publish primarily online and don't pay advances, and there are scam publishers that do pay "advances."
One way that determines if a publisher is legit has remained the same: money flows from the publisher to the writer, not the other way around. Even if the publisher doesn't pay an advance and only pays royalties based on sales, that money should go from the publisher to the writer without the writer having to chip in. The publisher should be responsible for editing the book, getting the ISBN and creating a cover, and you shouldn't be charged for that. A publisher may give you the option of buying copies of your book at a discount, but you should NEVER be REQUIRED to do so (one of the scam publishers' tricks -- they may not charge you for publication, but then they get you by making you buy a certain number of copies, and you can only recoup your investment by selling them yourself, and that's often the only sales that will happen). You may be expected to do some marketing activity for the book, but you should be able to choose how much of your own money you want to spend and where and how you want to spend it. You should not EVER have to pay a publisher any kind of "marketing fee." The only thing my contract stipulated that I had to provide (other than the book itself) was a photo of myself to be used in the books and for promotional activities, but again, it was my choice of what to pay for that and who to pay, and if I had a friend who could take a good photo with a digital camera so I paid nothing, that would have been my choice. I didn't pay the publisher for that. You know you've got a probable scam if there are a lot of "fees" hidden in the contract.
There is a difference between "self publishing," "vanity publishing," "subsidy publishing" and scams, although the lines blur. In self-publishing, you take on the role of publisher -- you get the book edited and typeset, you create the cover, and you get the book printed and distributed. Subsidy publishing is similar, but they do the work of getting the book published with you paying for the service and the printing. This can be a totally legitimate enterprise if you know that's what you're doing and have your expectations set accordingly. It's less likely to work for fiction, but if you're an expert in a niche non-fiction field and you're often invited to speak to groups, having a book you can sell at talks may be profitable. A vanity publisher is one that will print and bind your book so you can enjoy having a book with your name on the cover. You pay for this service. Again, it's not a scam if you know exactly what you're getting, if you know that your book is being printed because you paid for it to be printed and not because it's brilliant. You're dealing with a scam if they convince you that they've carefully selected your book out of all the thousands submitted because it's just so brilliant, and you'll now be published (once you pay for the privilege, either up front or in a bunch of fees they hit you with after the fact). A scam will convince you that you're being legitimately published, with your book being distributed, when all they're really doing is printing your book and selling the copies to you.
One other way to tell you might be dealing with a scam is if they're overly enthusiastic about a book no one else seems to want. Now, this isn't foolproof because there are countless stories of books that went on to become huge bestsellers after being rejected by absolutely everyone but the one publisher that took a chance on it. But in most of those cases, at least an agent had believed in the book, and the rejections had more to do with market issues than with the quality of the book. It wasn't that the book stunk, but that they didn't know how to sell it. If you get a lot of form rejections or very negative rejections and then suddenly a publisher swoons in rapture over your book, you might want to do a little research (though, really, you should do that research before submitting). In a now-infamous sting, some SFWA members set out to deliberately create the Worst Novel Ever, with each author writing a chapter as badly as possible without reading the previous chapter -- which meant that the characters changed names without reason, the settings shifted, and the story made no sense -- and Publish America accepted it for publication, supposedly out of a highly selective process. Which should tell you something about the legitimacy of that publisher.
Then there are plenty of publishers that are perfectly legitimate and honest, that are not scams, but that just aren't very good, and that's a harder line to draw. The advent of e-publishing means that anyone with a computer, an Internet connection and a web host can become a publisher. Not everyone who tries this really has the skill or the business sense to be a success. Some have become HUGE successes and even start getting print books in major bookstores, some fall by the wayside, and some have gone bankrupt, with their authors' books tied up as assets in bankruptcy court. Some of the e-publishers that have gone bankrupt were even on the Romance Writers of America "recognized" list, meaning that they'd been in business a while and had sold a reasonable number of books. This is where Google is your friend. Before you deal with a publisher, check out what's being said on message boards and blogs. Are their authors happy, are their books being mocked for poor quality, do they actually pay money? You can make decent money on some e-published books (mostly erotica, it seems), and you can make very little money. There have been authors "discovered" by major publishers because of their e-published or small press books. Whether you want to go that route is a decision you have to make based on your expectations and what you want to do with your career.
The best resource for researching publishers, agents and potential scams is Writer Beware, which is run by SFWA. That's a good starting point for research. Just reading some of their case studies can help you tune your own scam radar. Sadly, there are far too many people preying on other people's dreams.
If you have any other questions you want me to tackle, let me know!