The Business Side of Writing: Vetting Publishers Online

Let me take a brief moment to introduce myself. I’m Emily Mah Tippetts, a science fiction (as Emily Mah) and romance (as E.M. Tippetts) author who used to practice law. I’ve done a lot of legal work for writers and seen a lot of contracts, and have also spent many, many years on my writing career. I’ve been asked by the website powers that be to do a series on The Business Side of Writing, which will cover everything from finding the right publisher to negotiating the best contract, clause by clause. If you have any particular topics you’d like me to cover, drop me an email at emilymtippetts (at) gmail (dot) com.

This first post, however, is by a guest blogger. Please welcome Amy Metz, author of Murder & Mayhem in Goose Pimple Junction. She’s written a fantastic piece on vetting a new publisher. So without further ado:

Vetting Publishers Online

by Amy Metz

So you’ve written your masterpiece and you’re ready to have it published. You send out queries, and you start collecting rejection letters. You wait. And collect. And wait some more. You finally get a yes. You’re thrilled. Ecstatic! Someone wants to publish your work. This is so cool. Except…

The publisher is brand new.  So what, you say. Their website looks professional. They have four editors on staff. Okay, maybe they don’t list the editors, maybe the site uses stock photos and common templates, maybe they haven’t yet published any books, and there are a few grammar mistakes on the site, but let’s overlook all that, because they’re new and you really, really want to be published, you say.

Friends advise you to be careful about signing with an unknown publisher. So you do a little research. You don’t find much, but that’s to be expected with a new company. They have to start somewhere, right? You don’t care. You want to sign.

So the publisher sends you a contract. You look it over, but you have questions. You ask, and the publisher answers, although nothing is changed, there is no negotiation, and you feel a little uneasy. But he was nice, and you really, really want to be published! So you push aside those niggling feelings and sign.

Friend, with the stroke of a pen, you just signed away your writing life for the foreseeable future to this unknown, untested publisher. But I’ll be a published author, you say! It’s all good. Right?

Um…no. What you just did is the equivalent of marrying Prince Charming after you met him online. The “romance” is fast, it’s seductive, it feels right. You agree to meet at the wedding chapel. And…your dream man or woman turns out to be a smelly, hairy, ugly nightmare wielding an axe.  I would never do that, you say. That’s right. You wouldn’t marry a stranger, and you shouldn’t give your baby (AKA manuscript) to an unknown publisher.

Fact: Anyone can call himself a publisher. All they have to do is put up a website, spout pretty mission statements, make a lot of great promises, say they have a staff, and declare themselves a publisher. It is up to the author to do a lot of research before signing a contract, because once it’s offered, the promise of publication is so seductive, you’ll be tempted to ignore red flags you should have heeded. A writer simply must vet a potential publisher as if he/she were hiring an employee. This is so important I’ll repeat it: Always, always, always vet potential publishers.

Look at the publisher’s website. Does it look professional? Is it kept up to date? Does it list its authors and published books? Do they look like quality products? Are there typos in the text? Grammar mistakes? If you see grammar mistakes on the publisher’s website, that’s a big fat red flag. Publishers should be excellent editors. If you don’t see a site unique to that publisher, that’s a second red flag. Anyone can slap up a website. If they’re serious about growing their business, they’ll be serious about their website.

Are their editors listed with names, experience, and photos? It’s easy to say you have four editors. But those four editors could be merely friends who like to read. Make sure they exist and they know how to edit. (I’ve even heard of one publisher who pretended to be one of the editors by getting a fake email address and corresponding as if he were she. It turned out there was no such person. The “editor’s” first and last names were those of the publisher’s dogs. Think hairy, smelly, ugly axe wielder.) The more information on a website, the better. And make sure they can back up their claims.

What about their overall online presence?  Are they active in social media? Look at their Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads pages. What’s on them? Do they promote their authors? Their websites and posts should be active, plentiful, professional, nit free, and up to date. Don’t settle for anything less.

Next, Google, research, and investigate the company and the people associated with it. And when I say Google, I don’t mean look at the first one of two pages of hits. Dig deep. You can find all sorts of interesting information if you’re patient and diligent. (One author found out her publisher had registered eleven domain names—all publishing related. But she found it on the tenth page of hits.) Do Internet searches on the publisher’s and the company’s names. How long have they been in business? Is the company’s address legitimate? Not all small presses are going to be housed in big fancy buildings, but you do want to make sure the address is real. That “suite” that’s part of their address? Is it an actual suite, or just a box number? Check it.

You also want to look for the publishing company on Preditors & Editors ( http://pred-ed.com/ ). This site keeps an active list of publishing companies (and agents, distributors, organizations, and much more), and they state whether a company is recommended or not. If a company is “not recommended” on this site, you don’t want to do business with them. Period. Also check out Writers Write ( http://www.writerswrite.com/ ), Absolute Write (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/ ), or other online writers’ forums. It’s trite, but true: leopards don’t change their spots. If there’s negative press about them, don’t even approach them.

Does the publishing company want to charge you for editing, formatting, distributing? If there are any costs to the author, they are a vanity press. Publishers pay authors, not the other way around.

Verify the quality of the company’s work. Examine their published books. At the very least, go to Amazon.com and look at the “Inside the Book” feature. Are there nits? Bad grammar? Poor formatting? Poorly written work? Make sure the editing and the product is quality. If they haven’t published any books yet, be very cautious about signing with them. Be very, very cautious.

Is an advance offered? An advance simply means the company has faith in the author. There are many legitimate small presses that don’t pay advances, so a deal with no advance isn’t always a red flag. It’s just something to consider. Ask why they don’t pay advances. They might say they don’t offer them so they can keep the overhead low and pay higher royalties to the author. Well, anybody can say anything.

Ask who will print the book. Some companies use CreateSpace. Don’t give away royalties for something you can do yourself. Just as there are hairy, smelly, ugly axe wielders proclaiming to be George Clooney look-alikes and Romeo clones, there are publishing companies who are either inexperienced and in over their heads, or out and out crooks. Writer beware!

Vetting your publishing company is vital, preferably before you send the query letter. Failure to vet could turn your dream into a nightmare. Cyberspace breeds unscrupulous people faster than a hot knife through butter. It’s an ugly world. Let’s be careful out there.

 

Website: http://amymetz.com/

Blog: http://abluemillionbooks.blogspot.com/

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AuthorAmyMetz

Twitter: https://twitter.com/authoramymetz

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/AmyMetz

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11 Responses to The Business Side of Writing: Vetting Publishers Online

  1. Any writer out there who thinks “this can’t happen to me” better print off this blog post multiple times and wallpaper their house with it. Every single example listed in this article is true. It’s happened to people I know. I’ve even heard of a publisher who refused to fix a typo in the author’s name. Sadly, once the publisher has control over your book, it can be hard to get it out of his evil, hairy clutches, even when you’re obviously in the right and he’s in the wrong. Few authors can afford a costly legal battle, and unfortunately, the bad publishers out there know this and use it to their advantage. Great post!

  2. Wm says:

    Thanks, Amy! Good advice here. I think it boils down to:

    1. What benefits do you gain by signing with the publisher?
    2. What rights do you give away in order to gain those benefits (and is that equation worth it)?
    3. Can the publisher actually deliver on those benefits?

    And: I’m looking forward to this series, Emily.

    • Emily Tippetts says:

      Thanks! I look forward to writing it and getting more guest posters. And yes, those are *exactly* the questions to ask!

  3. Dean Wesley Smith recommends that new writers “stop submitting unpublished novel manuscripts in any form to traditional publishers or agents.” Instead, “indie publish your work first . . . If you want an editor or a dozen editors to know about it quickly, send them a copy of the finished paper book.”

    A lot more here: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=9358

    • Emily Tippetts says:

      Which is Dean Wesley Smith’s opinion. He and I have an overlapping social circle in science fiction, and I won’t say anything bad about him. I will say, that’s his opinion and that his experience with indie is limited. His wife holds herself out as an expert on indie publishing and runs workshops. I would dispute a lot of the advice that she gives (which means I suggest you listen to both of us).

      I’m an indie author myself. I’ve been on the Kindle Top 100 twice, so I’m technically a “bestselling” indie author. I help other indies launch their careers; the last person I helped cracked the Kindle Top 100 with her first book. Susan Ee, who wrote the breakout indie bestseller, Angelfall, and I were in the same Clarion West class. I think indie can be a fantastic opportunity.

      But it isn’t for everyone. Hence this series on the ins and outs of publishing. Please note, Dean Wesley Smith has his detractors. I’d vet him and his workshop just like vetting a publisher. You won’t find out that he’s a crook or anything sinister. He’s not. But his approach may or may not help you much. It very much depends on your style of writing and what you want to achieve in your career.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        Hi Emily,

        I appreciate your balanced way of expressing this.

        Questions of how writers (beginning and experienced) can/should manage their publication, sales, etc., elicit a range of very different opinions. I think it’s fine, and indeed valuable, to know about that range of opinions, and especially about different people’s varying experiences — so long as we’re respectful about experiences and opinions that differ from our own. “Your mileage may vary” — probably the single most true statement that can be made about any part of the writing/publication/sales process.

      • Lee Allred says:

        “I will say, that’s his [Dean Wesley Smith's] opinion and that his experience with indie is limited.”

        Kris Kathryn Rusch’s and Dean Wesley Smith’s approach/advice/opinions on indie publishing definitely are not for every writer. Much of it isn’t suited for the peculiarities of the LDS book industry. That’s a fair argument (and a great topic for some future post — differences between national market indie publishing and LDS market indie publishing) and a point that should be made on this blog.

        However, …

        Kris’ and Dean’s indie experience is ‘limited’ enough to where their indie publishing firm (WMG Publishing) generates enough income to employ five employees, lease a two-story office building (with its own audio book recording studio), and in addition to publishing their own works (well over half a dozen titles — backlist and originals — in print, electronic, and audio versions each month) now produces Fiction River, a bi-monthly short ficiton indie-published anthology series.

        • Emily Tippetts says:

          Yeah, I don’t know the current status of WMG. The site seems to be down. To my knowledge, they mostly published backlist books of Kris and Dean’s, and the thing about their writing style is that they write a LOT of books – which can work very well for authors who have the talent to do that. What I mean by limited is: a) mostly pubbing the backlist of formerly trad pubbed authors and b) using the model of writing a lot and writing fast, which is definitely one of the popular models for indie.

          Now, I won’t hold myself out as some mega-expert. Both Dean and Kris have been in publishing much longer than I have. I’m working on getting more breadth of experience by working with everyone from new authors who’ve never been pubbed in any format to veterans who are getting their backlist up. I know authors who can churn out a book in a few weeks, and then I know plenty like me who… well… can’t.

          There’s nothing wrong, per se, with Dean and Kris’s model. It works for a lot of authors. If you’re a good fit for their style, definitely go learn from them. If you’re not, that doesn’t mean indie publishing or any other kind of publishing is closed to you. You just have to find another model. So again, I don’t *not* recommend Dean and Kris. I just recommend studying up on them. And I definitely don’t recommend you listen to only me! I emphatically recommend you not do that. I know what I know, but also have my limits, which I’ll always be very up front about.

  4. Lee Allred says:

    Appreciate the response and clarification on some of your earlier points, Emily.

    Yes, “write a lot and write fast” is the Kris and Dean method. (It was Charles Dickens’ method, too, and Twain’s, and the young Kipling’s.) It’s one of the reasons they do have that large backlist of traditionally published work to indie publish through WMG (though they are currently “writing a lot and writing fast” for original WMG publication material as well).

    There’s a lot of resistance to that particular method and it doesn’t work for every writer, but I’ve seen it demonstrated in their workshops too many times, by writer after writer, to be able to dismiss the technique out of hand. (My particular downfall with that method isn’t the “writing fast” part, it’s the “writing lots” portion of the equation, alas.)

    Their opinions on the value of professional literary agents raises some hackles (particularly among professional literary agents), and so do their opinions on re-writing and multiple drafts.

    Kris and Dean are very…firm…in their opinions and that, too, raises hackles. On the other hand, they are constantly studying and learning new changes in the publishing industry and are willing to very publicly reverse those opinions as changes in the industry happen, which is a rare talent in most “experts.”

    I’ve “studied up” on them a number of years now and picked up quite a bit from their methods.

    I look forward to reading your future posts and picking up things from “studying up” on your methods, as well. As Kipling, one of those fast writers (at least in his India newpaperman days), once wrote about the Craft of Art:

    “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
    And every single one of them is right!”

    • Emily Tippetts says:

      I wouldn’t dream of dismissing the writing fast and lots model out of hand. It’s worked for modern bestselling authors like Abbi Glines, John Locke, Jasinda Wilder, and many, many, many others. Indie is a good place for authors who write at this blistering fast pace as traditional publishers often can’t keep up. Kris and Dean are also right on the money when they say that some stories can’t be saved by rewriting. Redraft them or move on, but don’t waste years of your life on rewrites. That’s like doing maintenance on a car for which there will never be an engine.

      Having said all that, a lot of slow authors grace the bestseller lists too, and it is possible to burn yourself out by trying to write too much too fast. Kris and Dean both have enormous backlists but neither is a household name, in part because of their myriad of pen names, and in part because no one of their books has rocked the charts. It isn’t because they lack the talent, and the game is far from over for either of them who have many, many years of writing books still left in them. So that observation about them not rocking the charts, likely has an expiration date on it.

      You can also learn a lot from watching my former writer’s group mate, George RR Martin, who writes very slowly, releasing a book every five years or so. What he did well was invest in the publicity for Game of Thrones so that the fans base built and built. Each of his sequels now has so many preorders that it’s guaranteed a spot on the NYT Bestsellers list when it goes live. Too often people look at an example like George and dismiss it as the equivalent of being hit by lightning, hence no further study is required. They think, forget about it, it won’t happen. I know of no way to guarantee it will happen, but from George I’ve learned to keep investing in publicity for my best seller so far. I’ve been working on finding that sweet spot that novel hit and so far haven’t nailed it, but that’s okay as long as I keep trying and keep that novel moving copies. This is investing in my career – and no, I don’t think it’ll land me on the NYT, but I hope it lands me with more income than I would have otherwise had.

      While from people like Kris and Dean, I’ve learned to simplify what I’m writing, and that it’s better to practice by writing different projects instead of rewriting the same one to death. Hence my advice, study everyone. Figure out what applies to you and what doesn’t. There aren’t any “right” answers, but there are a ton of “wrong” ones, so weed them out. Kris and Dean get high sales volume with a lot of titles. Other authors get higher sales volume with fewer titles – and they don’t do it with pure luck, even if that is a factor. There are methods you can learn from them.

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