How to Avoid Unscrupulous Publishers

*I’m in Raleigh, NC, this week attending Bouchercon, so today’s post is focusing on publisher scams…our discussion of author email and marketing will continue next week.

With the explosion of small and micro-presses in the United States (and abroad), authors sometimes have trouble telling the legitimate presses (and offers) from scams. In light of that, let’s spend a little time discussing how to recognize–and avoid–an unscrupulous publisher. 

1. Legitimate traditional publishers never require writers to pay money out-of-pocket for (or as part of ) a publishing deal. In a traditional publishing arrangement, the author pays nothing out of pocket, and any permitted deductions from author royalties are very limited, and detailed in the contract. 

Corollary–Legitimate hybrid presses or self-publishing services (e.g., formatters) charge only reasonable, industry-standard fees described in detail in the contract. If the contract doesn’t contain a highly detailed fee or cost schedule, along with firm estimates for the author’s costs, request one–and if the company refuses to provide it, walk away.

2. It’s very, VERY rare for legitimate publishers to make “first contact” with aspiring authors “out of the blue.”  If a publisher approaches you, claiming to have found you online (or in any other way aside from standard submissions) be extremely wary–and have the contract reviewed by an agent or publishing attorney before you sign. 

3. Investigate all publishers before querying directly or sending manuscripts for consideration. Big-5 publishers and other large or well-known houses may be easy to research–or the author may already know their practices and reputations. With smaller or unfamiliar houses, authors should research carefully before sending material–not just before signing a deal. The Internet makes researching publishers easy–and if you can’t find information about a publishing house online, beware. Keep digging until you know for certain whether or not it’s a reputable house.

Here are some (though by no means all) good ways to research publishing houses:

–Check with Industry Watchdogs. Watchdog websites like Preditors and EditorsWriter Beware!, and the Absolute Write forums (to name only three) exist to help spread the word about writing scams and unscrupulous businesses.

— Do Internet Searches. Run a Google search for the publisher’s name (remember to put the name in quotation marks if it contains more than one word). Check the results. Run a second search with the name and ‘scam’ (for example: “Made-up Publishing” scam). Check those results too. Investigate the veracity of the search results, and always use caution when clicking through to websites (pop-up and virus blocking software is strongly advisable).

–Talk to authors whose books the publisher has published. Be especially wary if the authors ‘cannot’ or will not talk with you about their experiences–that’s a huge red flag. Look for houses where the authors are happy, willing to talk, and have good experiences to relate.

–Check Facebook and Twitter. Does the agent or publisher have a Facebook page? A Twitter account? If so, does it look like the pages of other reputable industry professionals? Social media isn’t a mandatory exercise, so not having a Facebook or Twitter page doesn’t necessarily mean the publisher or agent isn’t legitimate. You can also investigate what other people are saying to or about the agent or publisher in those spaces. A verifiable positive (or negative) account from a living person can provide valuable information – but as always, take opinion with caution and wherever possible verify it with facts.

–Remember that publishers may be ‘unreliable narrators’ when talking about themselves. Once you have a relationship with a (legitimate) publisher, you should be able to trust what the publisher says. However, you cannot and should not trust the unknown. Scrupulous publishers should answer your questions truthfully…but liars will lie, and you can’t always tell the difference on your own. Weight reliable third-party information more heavily than that provided by people who have an interest in making you sign a deal. Sign a contract only with a publisher you’ve investigated and know you can trust.

4. Be aware that ‘letters of intent’ are legally binding contracts in many states–never sign one without agent or attorney review.  

5. Use Common Sense. If an offer or promise sounds too good to be true…it is. No publisher can promise you riches, good reviews (or bad ones), or even a single sale. No legitimate publisher will promise an author success, high sales, or reviews. If a publisher’s website uses phrases like “easy money,” “supplement your income with writing” or “support yourself by writing a book a year”–or says or suggests that publication is anything other than hard work with no promise of success – that’s not just a red flag, it’s a mushroom cloud. 

Note: all of these methods will also work for authors seeking to evaluate self-publishing services and hybrid presses. Regardless of the path you choose, be smart about evaluating your options and choosing widely.

The good news is that with diligent effort, authors can often avoid unscrupulous publishers before it’s too late. Thorough research will almost always reveal a problem–or at least raise enough red flags that an experienced agent or attorney can help the author make a smart decision. Never forget: it’s better to have no publishing deal at all than to sign a deal you later regret.

Have questions about this or other publishing issues–or an experience to relate? I hope you’ll share it in the comments.