Okay, so since this is a question that comes up a lot, I decided to do several posts (of which this is the first) on checking out publishers.
(NOTE: Ebook publishers are the focus of PART 2. Scroll down for the link.)
A lot of writers give writing advice. I personally don’t think I’ve achieved anywhere near the kind of success that would make people yearn for my words on that subject. You won’t see me doing workshops anytime soon, anywhere—if I ever do, which I most likely wouldn’t.
But I do know rather a lot about how to spot a scam publisher or one that won’t necessarily advance your career, and since this is a topic I’ve blogged about off and on since the beginning of this blog and one I care a lot about, I decided to give it a go.
Several months ago on a different site, one of my friends asked about an anthology and whether it was worth submitting to. I’m going to use that particular publisher as an example of a legitimate, if small, press.
For the bad? I’ll use the Champion Scammers, Publish America.
(Note: None of my comment are absolute absolutes, as you’ll see [although Publish America does SUCK]. But hopefully this will be a good base.)
So first. The house I looked at for my friend was this one: Cleis Press. I chose them because they’re small, so the chances you’re heard of them are also small. Because they’re niche, which also lessens the chances you’ve heard of them. Because their site is a good example and their reputation is stellar. Plus because I was just there. (I’ll find a different publisher to use for epresses.)
Okay, so there’s the Cleis website. What is the first thing you notice on this page?
You notice that it’s a professional-looking site. The colors mesh. There are no visible typos. The layout makes sense, too. You can see a couple of book covers, with blurbs. There’s a description of what they publish, and a link to an interview with the owners.
That last is important why? Because right there, you know who runs this business. Nobody’s hiding.
Go to the bottom of the page at Cleis. See the little menu? Notice the options. “How to Order”. “For Booksellers”. “Academic Resources”. “For the Media.” “Best Sellers”. Etc.
Those options tell you something important as well: that Cleis considers its job to be selling books to the public, and to booksellers. That they have a media/publicity department. That they keep a list of their best sellers and make it available.
Okay. Now let’s look at Publish America, our scam publisher. What is the first thing you notice on their website? What’s right near the top? (Aside from the slogan “We treat authors the old-fashioned way: we pay them!” which is a red flag because, that should go without saying.)
“Submit your book!”
This is why that’s odd:
Because most legitimate publishers already have plenty of submissions. Because, in fact, most of them are drowning in submissions, even small presses, and the reason for that is people see their books in stores, decide they liked them, and decide to submit their own work. A publisher begging for submissions is a publisher with no track record.
Let’s see what other difference we can spot on the PA (Publish America) web site:
1. This website seems specifically geared towards writers wishing to submit, doesn’t it? I don’t see any spots up near the top for booksellers, for example, but I see a lot of information geared to get you to submit.
2. The PA site also has, right near the top, a list saying how great they are as a company. That’s funny; Cleis doesn’t. Neither, for that matter, do Random House, Simon & Schuster, Kensington, or Harlequin. In fact, have a look at the websites of the publishers of any random book on your shelf; I doubt they’re bragging about how many books they publish, or how many queries they get.
Also note, not one of these publishers—even Cleis, of whom you very well might not have heard—has a link right there on the front page so you can submit your work to them. And why are they so focused on “first-time” authors and “helping” them? Why do they care if you’re a beginner or not? And why are they talking about “helping”? Their job isn’t to help you; it’s to sell books.
Note, too, that this list makes no mention of sales; only number of submissions and books published. Hmmm.
3. Let’s look at that little bottom menu now. “How to get Published”. “Get Published Free”. And some links that don’t seem to make much sense: “Children’s Book Publishers/Poetry Publishers/Christian Publishers/Fiction Publisher/Book Publishers/Directory/Resources 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8/Site Disclaimer”.
That’s kind of odd, isn’t it? None of the other publishers have a “Site Disclaimer”. None of the other publishers have what seem like generic random lists at the bottom either. And why is there nothing on the site about buying books? There’s a little button at the top for the online bookstore, but shouldn’t there be more information here about buying books, rather than submitting them? Even as you navigate through the site, there’s no link, anywhere, for Booksellers. It’s all geared towards authors.
Two more important things to note about the PA site:
1. The “About Us” link is hard to find. Take a look at it. It says “About Us”, sure—but there are, oddly enough, no names listed. Clies Press told us right on the first page who runs their company. PA? Nope. Nobody has their names listed. There aren’t any names listed on the “Contact Us” page either. (Although there is a link to “Author Testimonials”; why? Shouldn’t we be hearing from readers who love these books? Reviewers?)
2. This is a BIG one. Notice in the upper left, on the home page, there’s a box with a star that says “PA Books Become Movies!” Read what it says. A book of theirs is “stocked in a whopping 42 bookstores in 21 states”.
42 bookstores nationwide? In 21 states—less than half of the states? Is that really something to brag about? Out of thousands of bookstores in the US, one of their titles is in 42 of them?
3. Why do they keep saying their authors are “happy”? I want to know if they’re making money and being treated professionally. I’m sure some of them are happy, but why do I care? Why do they need to tell me?
Let’s go back to Cleis. Let’s click a link at random. How about “About”? Publish America’s “About” page told us how they don’t charge fees, how they put their faith in new writers, how thousands of authors who wouldn’t have been published any other way managed to get published through them, which sounds rather bad, really, but oh well.
Cleis’s “About” page features a photograph of the publishers, an interview with them about their company and work, and once again, their names. Say, these ladies have a publishing history! There was no mention of that on PA’s site, but there is here. Even before starting Cleis 25 years ago, they had history in the publishing business—as writers, as publishers, as editors, even as booksellers.
You want people who know what they’re doing..
Now what haven’t we seen yet at Cleis? There are sections about ordering their books (”For Booksellers”) and a list of their books used in classes at colleges across the country (”Academic Resources”. Both of which go far to convince us this is a legitimate publisher.
But we haven’t seen submission guidelines yet? Why? Because a legitimate publisher doesn’t usually need to go begging for submissions.
Let’s try clicking on “Contact”, though, since we’ve already tried “About”.
Cleis tells you very specifically in their guidelines what they publish; provocative gay/lesbian works, sexual politics, feminism, etc. (The guidelines are there, you can read them. This is already way too long and I’m nowhere near done.) They tell you how many submissions they get and of those how few they publish. They tell you what to send and where to send it.
PA, on the other hand, doesn’t really mention what they publish. It seems from looking at the site that they’re open to anything. Nor do they seem particularly choosy; in fact, under “Facts and Figures” they mention they have lower acceptance standards.
Here’s what doesn’t matter about the submission guidelines for either:
The format in which they accept submissions. Cleis accepts only email, and there’s nothing wrong with that. PA accepts both and, loathe as I am to admit it, there’s nothing wrong with that either. Some publishers accept only paper, and that’s fine too. Cleis wants MS Word or PDF attachments, PA wants MS Word or Word Perfect, which is odd as nobody in publishing really uses Word Perfect anymore but most places don’t ask for PDF either.
Their response times. Well, not really, anyway. PA claiming to be as big as they are yet still being able to reply to queries within 1-2 days should give you pause. It might not disqualify them from further investigation if everything else on their site wasn’t so full of red flags, but some publishers (and agents) do work that quickly on queries.
So what have we learned so far (tomorrow we’ll look at ebook websites and further investigation)?
We’ve learned that the website of a legitimate publisher is geared towards selling books to the public and not on getting more submissions;
We’ve learned that a legitimate publisher lets you know who runs the company and what their publishing experience is;
We’ve learned that a legitimate publisher doesn’t need to talk about how many authors it “has” or how many books it’s published;
We’ve learned that a legitimate publisher focuses on the business of publishing, and not on discussing how “happy” everybody is.