The Plague of Independent Publishers

Today, we’re going to talk about the plague of independent publishers. There are more small presses than any of us could possibly count. They pop up seemingly overnight, publish ten or two-hundred books or so, and then vanish, often leaving bewildered authors to pick up the pieces of their publishing careers. Though there are vanity presses and scammers intent on defrauding authors, there are many small publishers who started their company with the very best of intentions.

I’d like to believe that most small presses set up shop with the intent to help authors and perhaps make a bit of money in the process. I’d like to hope these well-meaning entrepreneurs have a solid business plan, a proven marketing model, and good financial backing before they undertake such a venture. I’d like to hope the publishing company and their authors will thrive, eventually growing the business and becoming successful, respected players in the industry.

That’s what I’d like to believe.

Sadly, the majority of these overnight indie publishers burst into the industry, believing their ambition and passion will overcome their lack of experience. Or, they believe a couple of years editing their college newspaper and a degree in English Literature is enough experience. They think it will be easy. They might be passionate, they might have years of editing experience, they might even be successful authors–but, do they know what it takes to run a publishing company?

Many of these small publishers are the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. They’re honest, reliable, and, smart. The twelve-year-old who mows your lawn is nice, honest, and smart too, but would you trust him to edit the book you’ve worked years to write? Would you trust the helpful teller at the bank to market your book? Would you ask the friendly waiter at your favorite restaurant to take over all aspects of publishing your book? How about your doctor? Your hairdresser?

The fact is, anyone can claim to be a publisher. All they need is a website and a few willing authors. They don’t need a business license. They don’t have to pass a State test for certification. They don’t even have to know what the hell they’re doing, because if they can convince you they know more than you do, chances are you’ll sign with them. In many cases, the publisher doesn’t know any more about editing than the author. The guy who sets up shop as a publisher today, might have been a bank teller, waiter, hairdresser, or doctor yesterday. They might not have any experience in publishing at all!

If you’re lucky, the newbie publisher will outsource formatting and cover art to professionals. If you’re NOT lucky, they’ll use their amateur skills to perform these tasks themselves, often with bad results. They’ll use print on demand services in order to produce paperback books. They’ll list your book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The rest is up to you.

Guess what? Any author can hire an editor, commission cover art, and outsource formatting. We all have access to print on demand services, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. So why do we need a publisher?

We don’t.

Why give up control of your book and a percentage of royalties to someone who doesn’t have any more clout in the industry than you do? For some of us, we might think any publisher is better than no publisher. We find the prospect of self-publishing daunting. Before you shake your head and mutter about the naivety of newbie authors, remember this: We were all newbie authors at some point and we’ve all made mistakes.

If you’ve made a mistake and you’ve signed with a nice, but inexperienced publisher, all hope is not lost. You might have lost out on some book sales, maybe lost a bit of money, maybe learned a few hard lessons…but, you’ll be stronger and wiser going forward. If your publisher is an honest businessperson, there should be a way to terminate your contract. An honest publisher won’t want to hold on to an unhappy author and will work with you to find an amicable resolution. I know several authors who have been able to terminate an unfavorable relationship with a publisher and are now happily self-publishing.

So what happens when your starry-eyed publisher realizes setting up shop as a publisher isn’t as easy as he thought? What happens when he isn’t able to turn a profit after a couple of years and decides to close down his business? Or worse–what  happens if your publisher stops putting forth the effort to do his job, but refuses to close up shop? Some small press owners quickly tire of ‘playing publisher,’ but aren’t quite ready to close up shop, leaving your poorly edited and unmarketed book languishing in Amazon cyber-hell. After all, it doesn’t make any difference to them if your book is selling. It doesn’t cost them anything to hold on to your book–the burden of selling the book is on you. And, who knows? Maybe it’ll start selling some time in the future. They don’t want to miss out on the big bucks if your book suddenly hits the bestseller list.

So, what’s worse? A dishonest publisher, or an inexperienced small press? Which is worse in terms of your reputation as an author: A well-edited self-published book, or a poorly produced book with a small press’ logo slapped on the back cover?

For those of you who choose to take a chance with a small press, I wish you the best of luck. We all make decisions based on a number of factors. I’m not telling authors to avoid small publishers, nor am I telling anyone they made a mistake. I just want to make certain up-and-coming authors look more closely at their publishing options. Self-publishing, vanity, small presses, or traditional publishing–they all come with risks and benefits. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for every book.

So, here’s my advice for new authors: Ask questions, do your research, go with your gut, and do what’s best for you and your book.


51 thoughts on “The Plague of Independent Publishers

  1. I must say Preditors & Editors and the excellent Absolute Write are MUSTS for any new author contemplating signing with a small press/indie publisher. How much experience do they really have? Often the claims are widely exaggerated from the actual truth. How much impact do they have in the marketplace? What is their track record like on sales, publications etc? Do they employ real professionals who are qualified cover artists, copy-editors etc? The cover of a book for instance, is SO important, it is the shop front to your work, the first thing that will initially entice the customer. I am a professional and qualified artist (BA Hons degree level graphic design, fine art, painting and photography), but even I am not a qualified cover artist. It is vital that you have a professional looking cover done by a professional. What are the covers like for the publishers that you’re thinking of signing with? If the covers are great, great! If the covers are poor, then yours will be too!

    Do they have a marketing budget with an actual sales team? Do they support their authors or expect them to do everything? Are they really honest and open with good working relationships with all their authors? All of these are very impostant questions and ones any new author should be investigating. After all, you wouldn’t allow your child to be taught by someone unqualified, or have an amateur doing your dentistry. You wouldn’t buy your groceries from the back of some dodgy van. So why entrust your cherished work to someone who may have just as much or as little actual book publishing experience and klout as you? Think first before you jump. Great advice, Tricia and a great post. Well done!

    I think ‘Absolute Write Water Cooler’ put it best – that incompetent publishers, even the well meaning ones, can be just as dangerous to new authors and their work as the deliberate fraudsters. A case of be happy, but be cautious and DO your research before you sign! 😀

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    1. You are absolutely right, Sophie. I couldn’t have said it better. A well-meaning publisher can unintentionally damage your career and your book’s chances. An honest publisher isn’t necessarily a good publisher. There’s so much more that goes into publishing than the ability to edit a book.

      For new authors, it’s important to realize they can’t afford to take a ‘no news is good news’ approach to P&E and Absolute Write when researching potential publishers. A new publisher might not be flagged on AW and P&E until there are problems, and by then, it’s too late for the poor authors who are stuck with the publisher in question.

      When in doubt, don’t sign a contract. Self-publishing is always an option.

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  2. An excellent article, Tricia. And it is as you say, an honest publisher with the best of intentions does not equate to a competent publisher. I’ve seen too many authors speak of small Indie publishers just closing up shop and leaving books in limbo.
    Marj.

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  3. Thank you for writing this and doing it in a calm, respectful manner. I am glad that you finally decided to post this. Dishonesty in publishing is a sad reality and aspiring authors (or any author who is changing publishers) needs to be aware of it.
    –JW

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  4. I think that one of the problems with small publishers is that, in trying to grab a bit of the market for themselves they bite off more than they can chew. Using the principle that signing a hundred authors who will sell very little is better than signing a handful who will sell well if they are marketed correctly, they end up taking on more than they can handle just to keep ticking over. In the first case the publisher takes a substantial percentage of the royalties for doing very little—often editors and cover artists are themselves paid out of future royalties. In the second case the publisher might end up with a big selling author, but only if they have done the leg work to promote the book, and with the fear that a successful author will probably migrate to a bigger publisher for subsequent books.
    When you have scores of books to edit and prepare for publishing and staff who have no reason to hang around because they aren’t getting paid correctly, it’s easy to see how things start to go pear-shaped. The usual advice is not to go with a brand new publisher, give them a couple of years to settle in, and find out how they deal with editing and promotion before you hand them your manuscript. It might be just another name in the catalogue to them, but it’s your baby!

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    1. Oh, you’re absolutely right, Jane. I’ve seen some independent presses crank out a dozen books a month. In their haste to publish, they often send these books out into the world riddled with errors. If a prospective publisher isn’t going to take care of your baby as if it were their own, then they aren’t the publisher for you.

      And the other point you made–to avoid brand new publishers. You are absolutely right once again! Starting a new business involves a lot of trial and error. Let the new publisher work out all the kinks with someone else’s book. If the publisher is still around in a couple of years and has built a favorable reputation in the industry, they might be worth taking a look at. Later.

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  5. Excellent post, Tricia. I’ve been burnt by one small publisher who didn’t understand cash flow and it’s painful. Another problem I see with small publishers (and authors) is they don’t understand their brand. If a small publisher opens his/her door and takes any author on any subject, they will find it very difficult to market themselves.

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  6. Hi Trillium. Excellent point! Sometimes new publishers try to diversify too quickly and it isn’t just marketing that suffers. For example, if they take on YA romance, but have never even read a young adult book, how will they know how to edit or even choose a cover for it? For authors who’d like to learn more about branding, I highly recommend Kristen Lamb’s blog and books.

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    1. Thanks for reblogging! I don’t want to make anyone feel bad for their choices, I just want to make people think. I’ve published with a small publisher, so I understand why someone might make the decision to do that. I’ve also queried agents in hopes of going the traditional route. Now, I’m ready to self-publish.

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  7. I love your very objective approach. You’re right. Every author should do their research and figure out the best path to take. Thanks for blogging. I’d repost it on Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors, but I see Joleene beat me to it. 😀 I’ll share on Twitter instead.

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      1. Thanks Tricia.

        I am at that very step of handing over the introduction to my manuscript to publishers or agents and am really lost as to which way to go. I have handed it to one publisher so far and waiting for an answer to see if I am fit to be an author or not? Please advise on the first step to self-publishing. Much appreciated.

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  8. Very important advice! I know of many disappointed authors who did limited research and made bad decisions.

    Many authors who manage to sell a few dozen books are so excited by their ‘success’ that they either (1) write a book about publishing, (2) offer to publish books for other authors, (3) all of the above.

    Anyone can call herself a publisher, but there is much more to being a publisher than being published.

    With even major publishers cutting back on advances and marketing budgets, plus the low cost of producing ebooks and POD books, it’s easy for a one-person shop to seem like a ‘real’ publisher.

    Also, many printers masquerade as publishers. They’ll ship you cartons of books, but have no distribution to booksellers.

    The marketing programs of some ‘publishers’ is limited to selling authors overpriced bookmarks and postcards.

    Check carefully.

    I had two books published by traditional publishers and was unhappy with the books and the income. I formed my own little publishing company in 2008, planning to publish exactly one book. Publishing turned out to be addictive and I’ve published about 40 books — MY books. Other writers have asked me to publish their books, but I don’t have the time. However, I do provide advice. A lot of it is free.

    http://www.bookmakingblog.com
    http://www.createbetterbooks.com
    http://www.SilverSandsBooks.com
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BO8FODA

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    1. I’m really glad you stopped by! You have lots of experience and great advice. I’ve known other authors who were traditionally published, but decided to self-publish future works. And, of course, there are people who self-publish a few books and then choose a small press or traditional press later on. Any course you take is fine as long as you protect your rights and choose carefully.

      Thank you for sharing your experience and advice. It is very much appreciated.

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  9. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I’m still torn between pursuing traditional publishing and self-publishing, and these indie/ small publishers have been a big question mark for me; not really appealing, but this confirms a lot of my suspicions. I’m sure a lot of them mean well and some are good, but if I’m not sure they’ll do the best thing for my book, I don’t want to jump into that just to feel like I’ve been validated somehow by having a “real” publisher and a contract. I’d much rather control things myself and not have to pay a publisher for things I’m doing myself, anyway!

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  10. This is excellent advice and I think you’ve put it extremely well. A lot of us want a publisher, it’s that badge of honour, that endorsement that you’re not the only one who thinks your work is worth taking the time over. But you have to do what’s right for you and more to the point, your work. If, like me, you write the kind of stuff no mainstream publisher – of any size – is going to touch with a barge pole doing it yourself is a no brainer. I did and boy have I learned a lot.

    In fact, you know what, I reckon it’s worth it for every author to publish one book themselves, if only because that way, they’ll learn what a publisher actually does and then, if they do decide to try and find one, they will have a much better feel for which kind of publishers will do a professional job on the book and which won’t.

    Cheers

    MTM

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  11. The one key advice I’d give to ANY author if they go with one of these so-called publishers, is to make sure you keep ALL of your rights and ALL of your documents. When my independent publisher went out of business a few years ago, I re-published the ebooks myself with Smashwords and after creating a new cover for First Class Male, re-published the paperback with Createspace. At NO COST whatsoever!

    However, this method does not erase the “negative” label of “Self-published”. Instead of spending money on other publishers, the solution is to create your OWN publishing company. Read my blog at http://ravenwest.wordpress.com for more on this new phase of publishing!

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  12. I might as well be the douch of cold water, then Tricia.

    Too many people rush to extoll self publishing as the best option all around, bemused by the plethora of well-meaning advice and trendy rush to diss the small publishers. Self publishing may well be the best option for many writers, but in their enthusiasm it is all too easy to gloss over both the disadvantages and the pitfalls and problems.

    First of all comes the editing. You would not believe how many writers honestly believe that they are capable of copy editing and proof reading their own book. They aren’t. No one is. And how ever many well meaning and inexperienced publishers are out there, there an an equal number of inexperienced editors touting for business. No Pred & Ed website to help you select a decent editor yet, is there?

    I’ve got a self published book out as well as traditionally published works with small publishers. The formatting and preparation of a book for a proper paperback and ebook release is frankly not as straightforward as many like to imply. If you want to have a proper book as well as the electronic thing, getting the cover right for printing is a major task on its own. If, like me, you are not especially computer literate it is a daunting prospect. Do not be fooled into thinking it’s dead easy – it is emphatically not.

    Then there’s the distribution. I’m lucky, and some of my stuff is in proper bookshops across the UK. There’s a huge reward and satisfaction in that alone, which self publishing (including having your own little company, which is the same thing to the distributors) cannot provide.

    Next, let’s think about the money. How much will a proper editing service cost you? And cover design? Without that investment, self publishing makes you appear second rate, and adds to the awful impression around the industry a the moment.

    Finally, let’s think about sales. Yes, the sales with many small publishers are not very high. But nore are self published sales, either. Forget the free downloads, who cares about free give aways? The average novel these days on Amazon is only ever achieving around 400 paid sales. Is that enough to recoup the investment you need to make to produce a quality product of which you may be justly proud?

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not opposed to self publishing, I’ve done it myself. But I’m in the fortunate position of being able to contrast and compare the two routes from my own personal experience, and do not think the choices are as straightforward as many like to imply.

    Caveat scriptor, one might say…

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    1. Hi Will,

      Good to see you. You are never a bucket of cold water. Quite the opposite. An established small press with experienced editors is a good option for many authors. (I signed with a small press for my first book.) And, I would never discourage authors from going the traditional route of queries to agents either. I would just like to encourage authors to carefully research any contract that comes their way. And, let’s face it – not every author is going to work well with a publisher. And, not every publisher is going to be a good match for a particular book. Not all start-up presses are bad, but there is certainly more risk, both for the author and for the brand new company just starting out.

      You made another excellent point as well…. Should an author choose to self-publish, they do need to use extraordinary care when choosing an editor. Just like anyone can set up shop as a publisher, anyone can start a website and claim to be an editor as well. And, of course, there are different types of editing. (I should do a post about this later.) Same with choosing a cover artist. Or, with shopping around for someone to do your formatting. Get references. Use caution.

      Anywho, the point is, authors should be careful in ALL their decisions in regards to publishing options. There are risks and rewards whether you choose a small press, a traditional press, or self-publishing. What’s important is that the author is happy with his or her decision.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  13. Tricia, you make another excellent point: the fit between author and publisher. It really doesn’t matter who they are, or how big they are: unless you can forge a strong, friendly personal relationship with a publisher, you are going to end up with problems.

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  14. Honestly, I don’t see how, these days, publishing with a small publisher can have any advantages over publishing yourself. Having a publisher’s name on your book doesn’t mean squat if no one has ever heard of them. I am happy self-publishing, and a publisher would have to offer me a BIG advance for me to even consider using them. I would like to keep the biggest percentage possible of my royalties. 🙂

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  15. What a very interesting discussion. I must admit that it is a real satisfaction to have my books as perfect as I want them. I have seen a small publisher assert that ‘typos’ (usually errors) are unimportant as they do not affect sales. I think they are Very important. I needed a publisher as perfectionist as I am – and the only way to have that is to do it myself. No-one cares about a book like the author.

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  16. I’m so glad I can sit on the shoulders of people who’ve been through the process like you Tricia! I keep thinking I’ll never self-publish and only go traditional, then I get excited when I hear about the freedoms afforded to self-published authors, and then I hear about indie publishing and want to become a part of it, etc etc. Thanks for offering some straight-forward advice, I really think I’ll have to do more research before I make a decision. Great post!

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  17. I can’t believe I missed this post when it went up, but I did. I’m glad I found it now, though! I’m not sure I really have anything to add to the conversation, except to say thank you for not sitting on it any longer. You – and all the lovely commenters – made a lot of good points, especially about the fit between agent/publisher and client. There’s a lot here worth keeping in mind. 🙂

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  18. I’ve attended a local con, MidSouthCon, for four years. The dealers room always has a number of small publishers. A good way to gauge what kind of work they put out is by picking up the product and looking at it. I often buy one or two books from each one. If gotten to know local authors who’ve been in the business longer and they will tell you who to avoid and why. All of the small press people I’ve met had the best intentions. Some followed through better than others. I haven’t met any who didn’t have experience in writing, but being a writer doesn’t mean you can successfully be a publisher. Steer clear of any house whose main listings are all by the editor/owner. I look for houses that have been around for awhile and have more than a dozen authors listed. This isn’t to say someone just starting up should be avoided, but the risk is much, much greater.

    I’m pursuing small press b/c I think you get more creative control, and to be blunt, it’s an easier way to get published. Of course, easy is relative. I’ve shopped my novel for four years and JUST got an offer right as I was prepping to do it all myself. I lose a bit of control, but don’t have to fork over money for cover art and other extras.

    Bottom line: do your homework. 🙂

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  19. Actually, there is another advantage of a publisher, at least for some of us. Neither Amazon nor Createspace will pay royalties until you manage to reach 100 in any particular currency, ($100, 100 pounds, 100 Euros) and then they pay by cheque. You then lose another $8 or so just to have your bank convert the currency. But if a small publisher is based in the UK or US, that would not be a problem, and then they can pay sensibly into Paypal.
    (Actually, I think there should be some government intervention to stop Amazon keeping all those sums of $30 or $60 or $90. It must certainly add up.)

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  20. Reblogged this on yawattahosby and commented:
    An insightful post about researching publishing companies before signing a contract. Make sure you do your homework instead of just being excited that someone accepted your work. Being poorly published is worse than not being published at all.

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  21. Truly delighted after reading your post Tricia and will keep in mind the points before I sign any contract. However, I’m using http://presspadapp.com to get my book/magazine published to Ipad and it a great relieve as it takes hardly minutes get my content published to ipad without worrying about signing a contract or searching for a publisher.

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  22. I have come to the conclusion that no author is every pleased with the route he or she takes to being published because none of them really live up to expectation. Traditionally published authors feel abandoned and unsupported by their publishers, those who go with small indie publishers feel as though they do not have the resources or sometimes the professionalism to do the book justice and self-publishers talk a good game but are disappointed in how difficult it is to get anyone to buy their book. They usually sell about 20 copies to friends (who don’t read it).

    One thought on this line: “Any author can hire an editor, commission cover art, and outsource formatting…” In fact, commissioning cover art and paying for professional editing and design is expensive. Any author who has another well-paying full time job besides writing or a spouse who supports him can commission cover art etc, but if you are poor self-publishing actually has a very high barrier to entry if you want to do it to a professional level.

    I went with an indie publisher on my novel, instead of paying a minimum of $2,000 for editing (not to mention cover design and layout) I received a small advance. This allowed me to put out a book of professional quality, something I could not afford to do on my own.

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  23. The typical self-published book sells fewer than 100 copies. If you have better results, you are atypical. There are some who are highly proactive, who build audiences, and who do well, but they are a very small minority. Most self-published books do not sell. It doesn’t mean some don’t or that they don’t deserve to. I am citing actual industry stats, not making this up. I have traditionally published, self-published and gone with an indie publisher. I am no insulting anyone who goes any route. I am saying they are all difficult.

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    1. You certainly didn’t insult me. 🙂 I’m just saying the indies I know personally do much better than that. But, honestly, the market is kind of glutted with indie published books (like you said, some that shouldn’t be), so things have probably changed a lot. Most indies I know have been doing this longer than a year or two. Indies that just slap a book together and publish it won’t (and shouldn’t) do as well as those who are professional.

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  24. Is there a review site (like yelp) where people can rate their experiences with small publishers? I’d love to read that. I was recently approached by a small publisher about turning my blog into a book. I don’t even know where to begin with the research, but this is a good start. Thank you.

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  25. Reblogged this on Library of Erana and commented:
    Thanks, I am Self-Published but I’ve heard horror stories about some small publishers, That said there are some really great ones about as well. Do your research, see how others have got on, look at all the options. ‘Do what is best for your book’ that is good advice.

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    1. I signed with a small press for my first book. I’ve also self-published two books. I much prefer self-publishing. My opinion is based on my own experiences. There are some authors who love their publisher, but there are many others who regret signing with a small press. It’s different for everyone. Thanks for reblogging this!

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  26. In addition to P&E and a few other sites to check on a small press an author may be considering, simply taking a look at what the press has already published can be a good guide. Check covers, novel descriptions, look inside features, blurbs by other authors/reviewers. Look at sales rankings on Amazon or Nook of published titles. Check out websites and blogs of authors published by the press being considered. Has the author ever heard of the press, heard them or any of their works or authors mentioned online anywhere? If everything looks decent, before signing the contract (and a good contract is a whole different story), obtain at least one full copy of a novel (ebook and/or print) so that a full evaluation of editing, formatting, quality of story, etc. can be considered. It’ll hint at the likely success of not only the press, but possibly authors published by them.

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    1. That’s excellent advice! Let the publisher’s finished product be your guide. Is the cover hideous? Is the text riddled with errors? Is the formatting a mess? Those are all considerations. If you can’t find a wide range of published products to review, or if you can’t find authors who can tell you about their experience with the publisher, it is probably wise to avoid that particular small press. Thanks for your comment and advice!

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