The Publishing House Dance – When to Sign, When to Run

In the past eighteen months or so I have been approached by more than two dozen ‘publishing houses’ asking about my work with offers of publishing contracts. Most of the houses have been small, which I don’t mind, but I have turned all of them down. Why? Because not a single one of them was a legitimate publishing house.

I know what you are thinking. How do you know? What makes you such an expert? I know because I started trying to get published with mainstream publishers approximately twenty-five years ago. I spent years researching the industry, learning the big houses’ rules, regulations, submission guidelines, and how they operate. Since I spent so many years learning all about submitting to traditional publishing houses that were listed in the Writer’s Marketplace, it is no surprise that when I started getting offers from small houses, I could easily spot those who were legitimate from the ones who were not. In today’s article, I will share some of my knowledge with fellow authors in hopes that it will keep them from being parted with your hard earned money.

First, let it be said that scam artists and vanity publishers prey on authors who are so desperate to see their books in publication that they will gladly hand over vast amounts of money and sign any contract, no matter how ridiculous, just to make their dream a reality. Please don’t be offended by that statement. I am just as desperate to be published as any other author, which is why I chose to become independently published. The difference between me and authors fresh to the publishing world is that I have been in the industry for so long that I know what I am doing, I know how to spot scams, and I refuse to be taken in by them. I hope that if fellow authors take away anything from this article, it is that you do NOT have to sign the first contract that is tossed your way, you do NOT have to settle, and you do NOT have to give in to these scammers or sign your rights away to small publishing houses in order to make your dreams of being a published author a reality.

So what red flags should an author look for when considering possible publishing houses? What separates the legitimate houses from the fakers out there just looking to make a few bucks off of us? What are the differences between large publishing houses that can back up their authors with marketing budgets and those small houses that cannot? Below, I highlight the most obvious flaws that make faker companies and tiny publishing houses stand out like a sore thumb.

One – a legitimate publisher will NOT ask you for money, EVER. As a first time published author, they most likely won’t offer you any type of advancement until they have ‘recouped’ their financial expenditures on the business deal. The total number of copies you need to sell prior to seeing royalties will vary depending on the amount of money the publisher spends to produce and market your work, so be sure to discuss this up front prior to signing any contracts.

Companies that require you to pay any type of retainer fee, marketing fees, publishing fees, or the like are not legitimate publishers, regardless of their excuses and explanations as to why they ‘MUST’ ask for this upfront cost. Companies that request any type of upfront payment are either vanity presses that are charging you to publish your work, or scam artists looking to make a few quick bucks. This is not how legitimate publishing houses work, even small ones. They recoup their marketing and production expenditures from the sales of your work, which means that the only way they are going to make any money is if they are actively marketing and promoting your work. Basically, they make money when YOU make money, so there is a high incentive to at least get your books onto shelves and in front of readers.

Think of the publishing house as an investor. If you planned to start up a company, you would ask investors to invest THEIR money to help fund the business in return for stock in the company, or royalties paid out over time as the company grows and becomes more successful. Investors do not expect you to front the entire cost to start the company, that’s why they are called investors. They are investing THEIR money in hopes that they will receive more money in the long run from a profitable business. Publishers are your investors. They are using THEIR money to fund the business (your books and name brand) in hopes that their investment will pay off with more money received from a profitable venture.

Two – a legitimate publisher will have a marketing plan in place for your books that includes something IN ADDITION TO posting about the book on Facebook, publishing the book through Amazon, and posting buy-it links on their own website. The plan should include getting your books onto bookshelves of major book retailers nationwide, or, at the very least, small independent book stores in your general area. Again, discuss the marketing plan prior to signing any type of contract. If the publisher only plans to publish through Amazon and B&N, then you need to look very closely at their marketing plan. You can publish to these sites on your own and not have to pay out any of the royalties to a publisher. However, if they have a good marketing plan that includes spending money on advertisements that will show up on high profile/high traffic sites, then it could be a good trade off to sacrifice part of your royalties to them in exchange for them using advertising dollars to get your works out to the masses.

In addition, a legitimate publisher should have no problems going into detail regarding their marketing plan. Keep in mind that the plan will most likely be broadly stated until contracts are signed and a plan is drawn up for your specific work and market. However, the publisher should already have some type of marketing and business plan in place, so they should be able to give you a broad scope of what their marketing plans look like for any given book. At the very least, they should be able to share a marketing plan they have drawn up for another author.

Three – a legitimate publisher will NOT require you to sign over your copyrights. The contract generally gives them exclusive PRINTING RIGHTS to your work for a specific amount of time, but it should NEVER require you to give them COPYRIGHTS. You will want to look hard at the specified time frame that they retain these exclusive print rights and negotiate this wisely. You do not want them to hold the exclusive print rights for an extended period of time in the event that the work does not do well through them.

Consider this: your book fails with them and you signed a contract that gives them exclusive printing rights for 10 years. That means that until those 10 years are up, you cannot take the work to another publisher in hopes that it will do better with a new house and marketing plan. The last thing you want is for a publisher to hold print rights for so long that you have to scrap the work completely, especially if you feel that there is a market for it. You also do not want to have to take them to court to get your rights back or buy yourself out of an expensive contract. Negotiate this upfront to alleviate any possible pains that could arise in the future.

Four – legitimate publishers have STANDARDS and submission GUIDELINES while vanity presses, fake/scam companies, and other small houses do not. That is to say, legitimate publishing houses have very specific types of genres that they will publish. Vanity presses and other smaller houses and scammers will take on any genre from any author in any form, regardless of how badly written, poorly edited, or the content of the work.

If you have ever visited a larger publishing house’s website, like one of the Big Six, you will find a link to their submission guidelines page. Many publishers will no longer take on authors directly and will only communicate with literary agents. Most publishers rarely accept unsolicited manuscripts. In other words, you cannot just submit a sample of your work for consideration. Instead, you or your agent would have to submit a proposal which would include a query letter, a blurb, and a synopsis of the story. If the editor is interested, they will then request a sample from you or your literary agent. The submission guidelines will also outline what types of genres they will accept, how they want samples formatted, what types of files they will accept when submitting samples, even what to include on query letters. Most publishers also will not consider samples that have not been properly edited by a professional editor.

Fake publishers, vanity presses, and tiny houses rarely have any such guidelines. They will often approach authors out of the blue, will publish any genre including those taboo genres such as erotica that most reputable houses will not publish, and do not care about editing and formatting. Most of the houses I have been approached by have told me up front that they do not do any editing and that it was left up to me to hire a professional editor to clean up the manuscript. Otherwise, it would be published “as is,” meaning that however I submitted it to them was the way it would be uploaded to Amazon and printed out for any print copies that were being produced. They are not generally concerned by the quality of the product, only gathering up as much content from authors as possible and publishing through Amazon so they can collect a percentage of the royalties earned.

Legitimate publishers will NOT do this and they will NOT accept works that are unedited. Not even Anne Rice can get away with submitting a pile of unedited garbage to Random House, so if you have submitted work to a ‘publisher’ that you know is riddled with editing errors and they still agree to publish it, it’s not because you are a great writer or that they think you have ‘raw’ talent, it’s because they think they can sucker you out of money down the road. A true measure of the publisher is to purchase a few of the books that they have published and have an editor go through them. If the editor comes back with tons of errors, then you pretty much have your answer as to the quality of work they produce. And if you are giving serious consideration to signing on with them anyway, then you need to ask yourself if you actually want your name and your brand associated with such shoddy work. As an author, your reputation is everything. You do not want the world’s first encounter with your work to be anything less than absolutely stellar. Believe me, readers WILL remember, and they will review, and they will blog and share it with the entire world. You want to make certain that the work being produced will stand up to scrutiny by even the most hard-to-please critics.

Five – legitimate publishing houses only publish approximately 1% of all submissions they receive each year. Phony publishers and vanity presses will publish ANYONE, at ANYTIME, regardless of genre, content, strength of plotline, or writing ability. Legitimate publishers are very selective in signing on new authors, phony houses and small houses that are just getting started hand out contracts like candy. Again, you have to ask yourself if being published by any one calling themselves a publisher is really worth sacrificing your reputation as a writer who produces quality work. Do you want to be known as a professional writer, or have readers associate your name with work that is riddled with editing mistakes and typographical errors?

Six – when you are a freshly signed author, neither traditional houses nor phony/faker/small/vanity publishers are going to spend a lot of marketing dollars on you. That is not to say that a real publishing house will not have some type of marketing/business plan in place, but don’t expect them to start footing the bill to send you to author events or book signings. Most authors, even those that are well known, have to pay for such events out of their own pockets. Once you have proven that your work has marketing potential, however, a traditional publisher will begin spending more and more marketing dollars to get your works out to the masses. Small houses rarely have any type of marketing plan and expenditures aside from making posts on FB and their website, and of course scammers will never spend any of their ill-gotten gain on marketing anything but their scam.

Seven – legitimate houses are more than willing to answer questions and give details, vanity presses and scam artists will not answer questions directly, they try to avert your questions by changing the subject or ignore your questions altogether. Sometimes they will try to pressure you into signing contracts by telling you that their offer is for a very limited time, or make you think that you are doing something wrong by asking questions. I’ve had some of these houses tell me that if I was that worried about being scammed then they would just have to retract their offer (they didn’t have to, I politely told them that if they were that offended by me asking questions then I didn’t think we would be a good fit for each other).

Even if they are a legitimate publisher and they do not have time to answer your questions to your satisfaction, then you might want to consider going another route. I had contacted a very well-to-do publisher because I did not see their submission guidelines on their website. I sent a very short inquiry into the types of genres they accepted. What I got back was a very unprofessional “Just look at our site.” They could not take the time out to simply point me to a link, so what did that say about their work ethic? If they can’t be bothered to answer a simple question, then would they half-ass the marketing ventures for my books as well? Needless to say, I marked them off my list post haste and went on to the next publisher on my list.

Perhaps the best advice that can be given is the tried and true “when in doubt, do without” or in the case of publishing houses “when in doubt, do not sign.” Always trust your gut instinct, and if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Don’t think that you have to sign the first contract that comes your way, don’t think that you have to settle, and don’t sell yourself short. Ask questions, ask for sample contracts and sample marketing plans, engage other writers and ask for advice. If you have any doubts whatsoever, then do yourself the best favor you can and simply walk away. Take it from those of us who have been there and done that. Handing over your hard earned cash to scammers and signing away your copyrights just isn’t worth it in the long run.

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