I've had a lot of questions and comments coming up on a post I wrote about three years ago on finding legitimate publishers (it must be coming up in searches), so I think it may be time to revisit that topic. People have been asking me for a list of legitimate publishers, but I won't do that for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it's not my job to do all the work and research. If you want to be a writer, you can do your own research and educate yourself. Don't expect everything to be handed to you. For another thing, the Internet is forever but publishing changes. I'm always seeing alerts about the various professional organizations investigating publishers that had been considered legitimate, and then new publishers come along all the time. I don't want to put out a definitive list that will come up in searches but that may be outdated.
What I will do is tell you what to look for and how to do the research so you can figure out the legitimate publishers for yourself. The first thing you need to do before beginning this process is get over yourself. Publishing scams work by preying on writers' egos. For scams to work, writers have to believe so strongly in their own genius that they'll believe what the scammers tell them about how brilliant their books are and do anything it takes to achieve the prestige of being a published author. What generally happens when an aspiring author crows about getting a great publishing offer that more experienced authors or other knowledgeable people recognize as a scam is that the aspiring author goes into defensive mode, all "You don't know anything, you're just a stupid stupidhead trying to destroy my dream. You're just jealous because I got this great offer and I'm going to be a bestseller, and you can't handle the competition." The scammers are counting on that response because if people listened when others warned them about a shifty publisher, the shifty publishers would make no money. So, don't play into their hands. Put your ego aside, lower your defenses and take time to consider.
Ideally, you'd do all this research BEFORE you submit anything. It's a lot easier to be objective about a publisher when you're making decisions about where to submit a manuscript than when you're evaluating an offer. If you don't submit a book to a scammer, you won't have to worry about being willing to turn down an offer that probably isn't legitimate. Before you send a query letter or a manuscript, you should go through these steps to come up with your submission list:
1) Go to a bookstore -- preferably at least one outpost of each major chain operating in your area, a major general retailer that sells books (Target, Walmart, etc.) and any independent stores in your area that sell the kind of book you write. Go to the section where you think your book would fit (NOT the local author/local interest section, where some store managers may take pity on local authors with a garage full of books). Look at who publishes those books. Those are most likely to be your legitimate publishers. If you don't find books from a publisher in any of the stores you check, that's a bad sign. It's harder to judge electronic-only publishers this way since many of them only sell through their own web sites and don't have books in stores, and Amazon will generally let anyone sell through them. That's where you'll have to do more research.
2) Check the organizations representing your genre. Most professional writing organizations have some way of vetting publishers. Membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is limited to people who have been published by approved publishers, so the list of approved publishers is a good place to find legitimate science fiction and fantasy publishers. Romance Writers of America maintains a list of approved publishers, though you have to join the organization to access it (if you're writing romance, you owe it to yourself to join this organization to learn about the industry). Mystery Writers of America also maintains a list of approved publishers. Active membership in the International Thriller Writers is limited to commercially published authors, and they have a list of recognized publishers. And the Horror Writers Association has a list of recognized publishers.
3) Check the alert/warning sites like Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware. These list legitimate publishers and alerts about possible scams. While you're at it, Google the name of the publisher and see what comes up beyond the publisher's own site. If you get a lot of message board discussion about it being a scam, that's a bad sign. Try Googling the name of the publisher plus "scam" to see if anything comes up. One or two complaints may mean embittered writers stinging from rejection. A pattern of complaints or complaints from writing organizations is a big red flag. Joe Writer claiming that a publisher is a scam because they didn't recognize his genius or didn't make him a bestseller can be ignored. SFWA investigating a publisher for irregularities should be taken seriously. A lot of agents discuss real publishers that have engaged in questionable business practices on their blogs, and that should come up in searches. By this point, I figure that anyone who gets taken in by Publish America probably deserves it because there's so much information out there that anyone scammed by them either didn't do any research at all before submitting or accepting an offer or was willfully blind to what they did learn (that "you're stupid and want to destroy my dream and are just jealous" effect). A Google search just for "Publish America," without the "scam," still brought up several warning sites on the first page of results. The bare minimum of research would have raised red flags.
4) Do an Amazon search for the publisher's titles. Go to "Advanced Search" and put the publisher's name in the "publisher" field. Be wary if most of the titles that come up aren't actually sold through Amazon but rather through outside sellers. Look at the reviews. Are there any reviews for books from that publisher? What do the reviews say? A small number of five-star reviews can actually be a bad sign because it might mean that the reviewers are just the author's friends and family -- and they're the only ones who've bought the book. Real books tend to get slightly mixed reviews. Look out for reviews that mention bad editing or lots of typos. You can't judge by just one book. Look for a pattern from that publisher. If most of their books have no reviews or just a few rave reviews or if most of their books are criticized for bad editing or a lot of typos, that's a bad sign.
5) Remember that a legitimate publisher makes money by selling books to readers, not by selling books, publishing services or marketing services to authors. I've found that legitimate publishers advertise their awesome list of books, even in publications aimed at writers. I worry about publishers that focus more on what a great place they are to publish your book in their ads. Legitimate publishers are bombarded with submissions. They don't have to advertise for them. I'd also be concerned with any publisher whose acceptance letter contains a menu of optional services, like editing, enhanced cover treatment, publicity services, etc. An acceptance letter should only talk about what the publisher will pay the author, and editing, cover and publicity are all the publisher's responsibility. Authors may do a lot of their own publicity, but they make their own decisions about who to hire and what to pay. They don't pay their publishers for publicity, for sending books to Hollywood, for sending books to Oprah (or whoever's filling her shoes) or to the Today show.
NOTE: Some legitimate small publishers are starting separate editing and formatting services for people who are self-publishing e-books, and this is different. They should be up-front that this isn't a publishing deal, that they're merely providing a service to format and edit a book for self-publication.
6) This is where you really have to put your ego aside, but a response that's wildly different from what you've heard from other publishers can be a bad sign. Not always -- most major bestsellers seem to have been rejected by a lot of publishers before one publisher took a chance -- but if you're being rejected everywhere by editors and agents and if your rejections tend to be form letters or if they mention problems with the writing itself rather than the "not for me" or "doesn't fit our list" kind of reasons, and then you get a very quick response praising your book to the heavens, then you'd be wise to be suspicious. That's why I recommend doing all this research before you submit because when you've been rejected everywhere, it can be really hard to walk away when you get an offer. If you only submit to real publishers, you won't have to worry about this. But sometimes a scam can slip through the cracks of your research, so if this sort of thing happens to you, you need to do even more research. This is when you should tell the publisher that you're going to seek representation before accepting their offer. A real publisher will accept that because it's a standard procedure, while a scammer will pressure you to accept immediately or may threaten to withdraw the offer if you don't accept it immediately. Agents tend to be receptive if you've got a legitimate offer on the table. If you can't get an agent in spite of this offer, then it's probably bogus. Meanwhile, you should ask more experienced authors about the publisher, and you should consider what they tell you instead of getting defensive.
In summary, don't submit to a publisher without at least checking the alert sites and doing an Internet search. That will weed out most of the known scams or publishers with shaky finances or questionable ethics. There are "legitimate" publishers that aren't thinly disguised vanity presses that are engaging in poor business practices like selling e-books after the rights have reverted to the author or that have a record of not paying authors on schedule.