Being a Better Writer: Finding a Real Publisher

Welcome back writers! It’s another Monday, and you know what that means. It’s time for more Being a Better Writer!

In more ways than one, actually. See, for those of you that are new, BaBW takes its topics from a variety of souces: Online conversations, writing chats, reader requests, books I’ve read recently, and more. But all of those topics share a commonality: they eventually end up on a physical list of paper that sits on my desk as I go through topics one by one.

That’s right. An actual, physical piece of paper. At some point I started numbering these little sheets, and currently the one sitting before me is #20. Given the size of the notepad, a fairly significant number of topics can fill each one, but there’s always an inevitability.

Eventually, the list runs out. Which is where we are now with Topic List #20. There are only two topics left on the list—including today’s topic—after which Topic List #20 will have nothing left to give us.

In other words it’s time for Topic List #21 to start being populated. Those who have been long-time readers of the site know exactly what this means, but for those who have discovered it in the last few months or only drop by occasionally, this means that I put up a “Topic Call” post asking if there are any topics that anyone wishes to see addressed that we’ve not covered recently or before.

That’s right: A topic call is coming! It’ll drop later this week, so if there’s a burning writing question or curiosity you’ve had blending your brain for a while, now’s the time to post it. Usually about a quarter of each topic list—about five or six out of twenty or so topics per list—ends up being from readers, so there’s usually a good ratio of reader questions to go around.

So, if you’ve got a writing topic/question you’d like to see Being a Better Writer address, get ready to post it. When the topic call shows up later this week, you can drop it in, and I can go ahead and find a spot for it on the list.

Now, speaking of reader request, today’s topic is actually a reader request, one that has a bit of a story attached to it. So lean back, grab your favorite beverage or snack of choice if you so desire, and hit that jump. Let’s talk about finding a real publisher.

It’s a curious choice of words, I’ll admit. “Finding a ‘real’ publisher?” Some of you are almost certainly wondering what “real” means in such a context. Aren’t all publishers “real?” Others may be nodding their heads and thinking “Aha, a post on how to avoid the vanity press!”

Well … to both of these the answer is “sort of.” Let me get to that alluded story.

Some time ago, I was contacted by someone online with an inquiry. Someone close to them had just secured themselves a “hope spot” with a publisher and they were on the way—with their first book, no less—to being a “real author” (and, you know, not one of those fake, self-published authors who make all the money).

Why was I contacted? Well, this person was a little concerned after a few details had been dropped, and asked me what my opinion was on this “publisher” that had so excited their friend.

Now, I’d never heard of the publisher before, but with so many new publishers springing up like weeds in the current boom of Indie-hybrid publishing, that’s not exactly surprising. An early red-flag, however, was when I was given a link to a blog post about said book and the author was encouraging people to go “vote and show interest” at the publisher so that it would get picked up.

Wait a minute, what? That, as some of you might have guessed, is not normal publisher behavior. However, this is a new era for publishing, stormy though it might be. Webcomic publishing giants like Webtoons use interaction and vote metrics to decide which webcomics on their platform get to live and die, as well as what gets published in dead-tree format, so couldn’t a new publisher by trying out the same thing and effectively “open-sourcing” their slush-pile?

But … then I dug a little deeper and looked at the publisher’s actual page. And … it was not that. No, it turned out what was going on here wasn’t even a bygone relic of the now largely dead and gone vanity press. No, this was a new kind of vanity press. Bluntly, it was a scam.

Here was how it worked. Anyone could submit to the publisher, but all that did was create an account on their page. Once you had an account, you could pay a “subscription fee” monthly for various “tiers” of work one would expect from a publisher.

Oh yeah. The worst of the modern web, turned into a sort of publishing house? That’s exactly what this was. There were a whole bunch of helpful “tiers” of monthly payments, each with “bonuses” such as “Copy-right editing” or “We’ll promote your book upon publication.”

Where did the votes come in? Well, they came in by reducing the “subscription cost of each tier of service.” The most basic tier, which was something like $15 a month for being “listed with the publisher” (nothing else), could be made free by getting X number of account holders to vote for your book each month. Successive higher numbers of voters each month made each tier above that “cheaper” (as in you paid the “difference” left for the tier you’d selected after the votes for the free tiers below that added up) with one of the top tiers coming out at something near a thousand dollars a month.

This wasn’t vanity press. This was so much worse. Vanity press on modern-web FOMO steroids.

I dug more. After all, despite all these red flags, maybe the process worked? But no, it only got worse. I found a complete list of every book the publisher had for sale. To an utter lack of surprise, not only had they published very few in the years they’d been around, but the majority of them were written by the owner of the publishing house. And the few others that had actually made it through this process? Not only were they small in number (and in no way recent, another bad sign), but also the kind of books you’d have seen back in the day from a vanity press.

I passed my thoughts onto the person that had contacted me, and that was that. Well, almost.

See, shortly after that someone else who had a common thread between the chain of people contacted me and requested a future Being a Better Writer topic: How to find a good publisher? A real one, that wasn’t a vanity? How was a new writer to know? So I scrawled it at the bottom of the current list …

And from there, we’ve finally arrived to today. So, with that backstory serving as a word of warning to not just take the first publishing house Google feeds us, how can we as writers and hopeful published authors find a publishing house that’s legit?

Now, I’m going to lead with a slight difference here today. As most of you know, I’m indie, of the self-pub variety, and I’m both pretty positive to the concept and pretty pleased with how it’s turned out (over 9,000 sales across seven books isn’t bad).

But today, I’m not going to talk about Indie as a form of self-pub, because the question I was asked was specifically about publishing houses. And while I don’t publish through a typical, traditional house myself, even an indie one, that doesn’t mean that I don’t know a bit about them or about how to look for one. Nor does it mean I don’t support those who wish to go the traditional route. It’s not the choice I made for myself, but as I’ve noted here before, fully independent, hybrid, and traditional routes are all currently open to the aspiring author. While that could change in another decade, for now it’s an open choice, and if you want to go a trad route, then you should have the best tools available to determine how to do that.

Okay, so how do you go about finding a good publisher? One that isn’t a vanity or a scam?

Well, this is gonna sound weird, but I’m going to repeat the advice that one of my writing teachers in college gave me: Pick up a book that you like that’s of the same genre as your manuscript and see who published it. You can find detailed information on that on the back of the inside title page, along with the copyright information. Often you’ll even find the name of the editor who was responsible for the book, allowing you to send your manuscript right to their desk—though I will note here as that teachers did that not all publishers are keen on this, so check what their official website says about submissions before giving your manuscript a one-way trip to the can for failing to obey their instructions.

Look, I know it sounds almost foolishly simple, but this method is perfectly valid. If there’s a book that you love that’s of a similar vibe, theme, or style to what you’ve written, well publishers tend to like to publish similar things (those of us that go into bookstores can certainly attest to this). Book publishing through a traditional publisher has always been a long shot, so anything you can do to increase the odds of a publisher looking at it—like say, sending your horror manuscript to an editor that edits and publishes a bunch of similar horror books and will therefore have more interest in looking at your manuscript than a rank-and-file slush reader intern—is a good idea.

But slight increases to your odds aside, this is a very solid and recommended way of finding a publisher. By using an existing book, you’re confirming that the publisher does in fact exist and is not only publishing books, but books that end up in people’s hands. This means not only are they making said books, but they have distribution channels to get them out there, and have recognition from bookstores and other outlets that get them put on shelves. All of which are very important to an author, as most of you might have guessed.

Of course, this shouldn’t be your only avenue for finding a publisher. And even if you’ve opened a book’s pages and found that information, you should not resign yourself to publish there like a classical fairy-tale protagonist falling in love with the first person they see (you would be surprised how many would-be authors I’ve spoken to that are determined to publish with the first publisher they ever heard of, even without knowing much about them). No, there’s more to do.

Google them. I put that in bold for good reason. While getting guidance from a book is all well and good, you’ll need to know what sort of submission guidelines the publisher has anyway, so Google them and get reading.

But don’t just read about their submission guidelines. Learn a little bit about the publisher. How many books have they published? What markets do they cater to? Was the book that you picked their name from an anomaly in their usual lineup, or was it what they aspire to?

What about the authors that have published from them? How are their books selling on Amazon? Does it look like the publisher is supporting and helping them out, or does it look like the author is doing all the work themselves? You may have to duck to an author’s personal site and do a little digging. Does the author do any other work, or are they signed with that publisher alone? Do they talk about their experiences with the publisher on their site? Is their site their site, or is it only on the publisher’s domain?

Okay, that’s all good advice … if you’re looking at an established publishing house. But there are a lot of newer, smaller publishers out there in today’s era. What if you’re looking for something newer rather than traditional? How are you to know if a publisher that’s just gotten started is really going to deliver, or if they are, like the example I encountered, more of scam that’s looking to make money off of the would-be authors rather than on sales?

Well, this is where some research of your own comes into play, even if you’re to be one of the first authors signed by this new publishing house. For example, what are they offering? Does anything sound too good to be true? What does one of their contracts look like? Is there a contract at all, or are they just giving you generalizations? Are they forthcoming with answering your questions, or are they dodging or pushing you at an advertisement that doesn’t really answer anything?

For that matter, if they’re brand new, keep in mind the questions you should be asking, such as who keeps the rights and what happens to your book if their publishing house goes under or is acquired? How will the publisher promote your book? What’s their process for editing?

A real publisher will have answers for these questions, often in a FAQ. Anything that tells you “not to worry” or points you toward a subscription service is a red flag.

Again, Google is your friend here. Even a new or small publisher will have some sort of internet presence of some kind, and you should go find it. Look at what books they’ve already published, and how they’re being promoted or received. Again, look at any author pages you can find, and see what they have to say about it.

Sands, maybe check to see if they publish everything with this one imprint or if they’ve published from multiple houses. If the latter is true, why? Differing genres? Also, if they’re doing it, might you as well?

I’m aware that no matter what, this sounds like no small amount of effort. This is true: You’re going to have to dig. At the same time, however, you should want to go through this much effort, because as important as writing a manuscript is, seeing that manuscript and yourself treated properly is just as important. Your book will be worthless if it doesn’t do anything for you or traps you in some deal you don’t like (such as a now thankfully rare author stable) because you didn’t read the contract or bother to look deeply into what the publisher was like.

Now, I do acknowledge that I’ve given a lot of warning’s as to possible things to avoid here with today’s post. But I want to assure you that there are plenty of honest publishers out there if you just look. These warnings come by way of the topic, IE here’s what to not look for, versus what you should be looking for. Remember, publishing through a publisher is an agreement of give and take, and you should be aware of that going in: You’re going to have to give up some things, such as temporary control, but in return the publisher is giving things to you in return, such as promotion and editing (though who has the final say in editing is also something to be aware of). That’s not a warning, but a pointed reminder to the purpose of the publisher/author relationship so that both sides are a balance you agree with … or at least close enough that you’re happy.

So, what’s the ultimate takeaway here? I’d say it’s twofold. First, we as writers need to acknowledge that the work of writing doesn’t stop when the manuscript is done. Finding a publisher is a work in and of itself, but it serves the book, and thereby, ourselves, and is just as important to the act of releasing a successful book as that of writing it. As with editing, there’s no excuse to skip any portions of the process.

Second, there are a lot of options out there for legitimate publishing houses. There are the old trad pubs, but also there are plenty of new publishing houses that are experimenting with the new. Publishing ventures that are embracing hybrid mechanisms or new printing technologies in ways we’ve not seen until now. As an aspiring author or even an established one, you now have more choices than ever for your personal path to being published. And that’s great!

But it does mean a little more work on your part to figure out which path you’ll take. It means being a bit of a sleuth and looking at publishing houses—even legit ones—and asking yourself “is this process what I want for me and my book?”

Some might decry this freedom, and indeed some do, longing for the “simple” days of “I submit my manuscript to the same seven publishing houses until I get tired of rejection or they take it.” Yes, that was a simpler time. It was easier.

But I think this newer era is better for all involved. You’ve got options. When it comes to the publisher you want for your book, you’re almost spoiled for choice. And as new technologies continue to evolve the world of writing, it’s all but guaranteed that more choices are in every author’s future, as well as the future of those who aspire to run their own publishing house.

Personally, I think that’s a good thing.

So, while writing your manuscript isn’t the end, take some solace from the fact that you have options, more than most authors who ever came before. Yes, there are some “publishers” out there that aren’t interested in seeing you succeed but in seeing you line their own pockets. But with a little research, they’re not hard to spot. Like understanding the basics of a plot is vital to writing a book, understanding a little about your publisher will tell you a lot about whether or not you wish to publish with them. So don’t just blindly click the first thing that Google presents like a fairy-tale love interest. Do some digging, consider what you want, and find a publisher that, if not a perfect match for it, at least looks like it’d make for a comfortable fit. Then start with that cover letter.

Good luck. Now get writing … and publishing!

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