Down the Publishing Rabbit Hole — To Catch a Little Fish (part 1)

Last Monday, I started this two-part “down the rabbit hole” series with a discussion of Catching a Charlatan–essentially a set of tips to help prevent authors from signing contracts with publishing scammers.

Today we look at the other side of that “down the rabbit hole” situation … the side that leads to well-meaning but inexperienced houses, the “startup” publishers who don’t set out to take advantage of authors, but whose inexperience and lack of planning often leads to an unsatisfactory publishing experience (often for both the author and the publisher).

PLEASE NOTE: This post is NOT about all small presses–only the newly-formed ones which also operate without the experience and/or professionalism required to produce an adequate product.

In the title, I refer to these small, startup publishers as “Little Fish.” Little fish can be wonderful. Little fish CAN grow into big fish, and many small start-up presses eventually become established, well-respected publishing houses. However, authors need to be sure that the small, inexperienced press which makes them an offer is run by experienced people with the professionalism and business sense to succeed in the publishing world.

This week and next week, we’ll look at some ways to tell the “keepers” from the little fish that authors need to toss back into the publishing lake.

I’d like to start off by saying, again, that there are MANY well-run, competent, and professional small presses, even at the start-up phase. (I know, because I represent quite a few and have negotiated contracts with numerous others.)

Competent start-up presses have experienced staff, talented editors and artists, detailed contracts, and professional business practices. They produce a high-quality product, and their authors are often happy to sing their praises.

I wish the story ended there. But, unfortunately, this isn’t the entire story where new small presses are concerned. 

Let’s talk about what makes a startup publisher more likely to succeed … or fail. 

The startup presses we’re discussing want to be professional publishing houses. The publisher and staff want  to produce a high-quality product. This is NOT the charlatan press that sets out to take advantage of authors.

The problem is, publishing isn’t an industry where any well-meaning person can find a few authors, hire a printer, and take the bestseller lists by storm. Inexperience and lack of organization almost always lead to trouble in the end.

New publishers need to take at least four critical steps before opening their doors for business. Authors can and should investigate to see if a publishing house, and its staff, meet some or all of these characteristics:

1. The owner/publisher should have worked, in a managerial or supervisory capacity, at an established publishing house for a substantial period of time. In most cases, that means at least five years (the more, the better) at a single house.

It takes that long for even a bright, capable person to learn how to operate a publishing business. Note: work as a copy editor qualifies you to edit manuscripts. It doesn’t necessarily give you the skills you need to run an entire house. In order to run a publishing house, a person must understand all sides of the publishing industry, from manuscript acquisition and editing to distribution, marketing, and all the steps in between.

2. The owner/publisher should write a professional business plan, have it vetted, and deposit several months’ worth of operating capital in the bank before the publisher opens its doors for business. 

Unplanned and underfunded businesses usually fail. A publishing house which opens “on a whim” (or worse, “on a dream”) will usually close as a nightmare. Although it’s not appropriate to ask to see the publisher’s financial statements or business plan, it’s usually easy to tell which publishers have a plan and which do not. Questions like “Can you tell me about your standard marketing effort for new titles?” and “Can you tell me which printing and distribution companies you work with?” will solicit answers that tell you a lot about a publisher’s experience and business plan.

Hint: Concrete answers are good. Vague ones, not so much.

Hint #2: If the publisher distributes only through venues where you can self-publish your own work (e.g., Amazon, Smashwords, and B&N Nook), think carefully about what benefit the publisher is actually providing. If there is a benefit, great–but don’t assume a benefit exists just because someone offers you a contract.

3. The owner/publisher should hire experienced staff, including editors, cover designers, copy editors, proofreaders, marketing personnel, and attorneys. 

The problem? An experienced staff costs more than new recruits. Unfortunately, many new publishers think their personal experience is sufficient to train an entire staff, while simultaneously editing, publishing, marketing and distributing a catalog’s worth of books. This is dangerous ground on which to tread. Without an experienced staff, the entire process falls on the publisher’s shoulders, and it’s simply too much for one person to handle–even if that person has experience and a drive to succeed.

Ask about the size of the staff, its experience, and the name (and experience level) of the person assigned to edit your book. Ask politely, and don’t be threatening. That said, expect a real answer in return.

4. The owner/publisher must understand industry-standard publishing contracts, legalese, and contract terms, and must have a competent publishing attorney (in-house or outside counsel) to advise on contract issues.

I can spot an unprofessional contract, or one written by an inexperienced publisher without a lawyer’s assistance, in less than a minute. That’s not bragging or exaggerating. The contract language speaks for itself.

An inexperienced publisher who doesn’t invest in good legal help will often end up with a non-standard contract that doesn’t protect either author or publisher well. At best, it will be ambiguous. At worst, it will contain illegal terms or provisions which unfairly exploit the author.

Again…this generally isn’t intentional. It’s a product of inexperience, haste, and the choice to open a business based on dreams instead of business plans.

I love small publishing houses, new ones as well as experienced ones. I’ve worked with them almost every day for the last ten years of my business life. That said: I recommend that authors steer clear of new or inexperienced publishing houses unless the author is working with an agent or an experienced publishing attorney. 

This isn’t intended to put small presses down. It’s simply a fact that many authors lack the capacity to evaluate contract terms (and publishers) with the skill required to spot a house that, though well-meaning, may not be able to deliver on its promises. An experienced lawyer or agent can help the author spot issues the author might not notice on his or her own.

If you want to debut with a smaller house, try to hold out for one that’s been in business for several years (and established a catalog of titles, and authors, to act as your reference points). In addition, look carefully at the publisher’s contracts and business practices–and spend the time and money to hire a qualified agent or an attorney to review the contracts before you sign the deal.

Tune in next week, when we’ll take a closer look at some specific questions authors should ask about small or newly-founded publishing houses.