The explosion of small and micro-presses in the United States (and elsewhere) makes it more important than ever for authors to investigate publishers carefully before signing a publishing contract. While even diligent research can't help you foresee and avoid every possible problem, here are some tips to help you evaluate whether or not to accept a publisher's offer:
1. Does the Contract Require the Author to Pay for Anything?
If the answer is "yes," do not pass go, do NOT pay $500...or even $1. This is not a traditional publishing house. It's either a "hybrid press" (where the author shares the costs--and benefits--of publication), a "vanity press" (where the author pays far too much for far too little), or a scam. If you think it's a hybrid press, contact an agent or a publishing attorney you trust and arrange for professional review and negotiation before you sign.
Do not rely on the publisher's word that the contract is "hybrid" or "fair"--and don't forget: a traditional publishing house will never expect the author to pay anything out of pocket (and none of the publishing costs, except for unreasonable changes demanded by the author after the proofs are approved). No exceptions.
2. Does the Publisher Also Offer "Paid Marketing Programs"?
A number of vanity presses have recently started offering "fully traditional contracts" which also require the author to participate in paid "author training programs" and "marketing programs." The marketing contract is an addendum to the "traditional publishing deal" and can cost the author several thousand dollars out of pocket. Legitimate traditional publishers never make authors pay for anything out of pocket, either as part of the publishing contract or in a separate (but required) agreement.
3. Does the Publisher Make Any Claims About Success, Sales, or Reviews?
No legitimate publisher can or will ever promise an author success (financial or otherwise), sales, or good reviews (they can't even promise legitimate reviews, let alone good ones). Any publisher whose website contains statements like "Make extra money writing books!" or "Become a bestseller by publishing with us!" -- or anything else of that nature -- is not a legitimate, traditional publishing house. Run, don't walk, in the other direction.
4. Does the Contract Require Authors to Purchase Copies of the Finished Book?
Some small presses' contracts require the author to purchase a stated number of copies of the book upon release. Many times, the author is also required to pay for these books (in part, or completely!) before the publication date, and sometimes before the author even sees the proofs of the finished work. Legitimate presses will never make an author commit to purchasing any copies of the work (though often they do offer authors a discount on copies the author elects to buy).
A little related publishing math: if the author commits to paying the publisher $8,000 for copies of the work at $16.00 apiece, how many additional books does the publisher have to sell to pay for its investment in the book? (The answer is generally, none, especially since these publishers normally publish "Print on Demand," which means the publisher keeps no stock of the printed work.)
5. How Long Has the Publisher Been in Business?
The answer to this is not a deal-breaker, but it's something to consider. The longer a publisher has been in business, and the more books it produces, the better authors can evaluate the publisher's history of contract compliance, sales and distribution, and successfully published work. It's perfectly fine to take a chance on a newer publisher if you choose...but only if all of the other factors align with industry standards. Also, authors should be aware that working with newer publishers represents a business risk, because publishing houses have high failure rates--so make sure the contract contains appropriate protections for the author (including appropriate termination rights).
Note: new presses that work with experienced counsel, or have experienced editors or publishers at the helm, generally present a smaller risk in this regard.
6. How Much, And What Kind of, Publishing Experience Does the Publisher/Editor Have?
Again, while not a deal-breaker, authors should be aware that many small publishers open with great intentions, but little or no practical experience in traditional publishing, sales, and distribution. This creates enormous risk, both for the publisher and the author. Before signing with a small press, always ask about the publisher's experience, distribution program, and how many books they have in bookstores outside their local area. Also, publishers without much practical experience tend to have a more difficult time negotiating contracts and complying with contract obligations--not from malice, but because they simply don't understand what's involved in running a traditional publishing house.
7. What Do Other Authors & Industry Watchdogs Have to Say?
Never, ever sign with a publishing house unless you've researched both the house and the publisher/editor with industry watchdogs like Publisher's Marketplace, Writer's Digest, Writer Beware, and Preditors and Editors. Pay attention to what you see there, too. While lack of a listing may suggest the publisher is legitimate, it also might indicate a publisher is simply too new for the watchdogs to have flagged its bad behavior. For maximum safety, don't sign with any publisher unless you can actually confirm legitimacy and positive ratings with industry watchdog sites.
Also: always talk with at least 2-3 other authors published by the publisher before you sign a contract. Ask the publisher to give you authors' names and contact information, or find them online--make connections through friends, if you can. If authors won't speak with you honestly (or tell you the contract won't let them talk about the press), move on. Don't ever commit yourself and your work to a press that doesn't get glowing reviews from its authors--no matter how big or experienced the press.
8. What Do the Publisher's Other Books Look Like?
You have seen their other books, right? In print? On Amazon ("look inside" should be enabled, and you should actually do it) or in bookstores. Find them. Hold them--on an e-reader if they're ebook only. Look at the font, the production values, the covers, and then ask yourself: is this what I want my book to look like? Would I be proud if my name was on this cover?
9. Where Are the Publisher's Other Books Sold?
Many small publishers don't have distribution arrangements, and even if they do, that may or may not translate to actually having books on shelves in stores. Ask where the publisher's books are sold. Confirm it. This isn't a deal-breaker, one way or the other, but you need the information to decide whether this is a house that will be able to support your work the way you want them to.
10. How Many Books Does the Publisher Release Each Year?
Again, not a deal breaker, just something smart authors evaluate. Sometimes a lower number works in your favor, and sometimes larger numbers work against you. Sometimes, it's the opposite. Generally speaking, the more books a publisher releases each year, the fewer resources the publisher has to dedicate to each individual book. That's especially true when you consider that many publishers dedicate the lion's share of advertising time and resources to A-list titles by authors who already have a substantial following.
11. Does Anything Else Seem...Odd?
Trust your instincts. They're better than you think. If anything seems "odd" or "not quite right" about the publisher, remember: you're better off with no publishing deal than signing a deal you later regret.
12. Even if Everything Else Looks Good, Consult a Publishing Lawyer or Agent Before You Sign the Contract.
Starfleet regulations don't allow a compromised captain on the bridge...and every author is compromised (to one degree or another) when it comes to evaluating a publishing deal. Always consult a lawyer or an agent before you sign a publishing contract, particularly if you're not experienced reading and negotiating legalese.
I can't promise these questions will save you from signing a publishing deal you regret, or protect you against every predatory or inexperienced publisher. That said, if you keep these in mind, you'll have a much better start when evaluating prospective publishing houses for your work.
*Disclaimer: This post does not constitute legal advice, create an attorney-client relationship between the author and any person, and is intended for educational purposes only. Author makes no representations that this post is complete or contains all relevant information required to protect authors when choosing a publishing house, escaping from zombies, or trying to avoid a swarm of lawyers wielding bee-infested carp. Your experience, legal rights, and favorite cupcake flavor may vary.