Finding a good publisher can feel like a hit-and-miss operation, but it doesn’t have to be. While you can’t know everything there is to know about a publisher before you ask them to look at your work, the internet and author networks offer access to details that can help you make an informed choice.
In this week’s Pen to Pen guest column, author M Pepper Langlinais guides you in sorting the wheat from the chaff. Remember, a publisher isn’t doing you any favors if they sign you on but don’t treat your book well. So do your due diligence and work on landing a publisher you can feel good about. —Dale
What to Look for in a Small Publisher
by M Pepper Langlinais
So you’ve decided to query small publishers. Maybe the search for an agent didn’t pan out, or maybe you just want to skip the middle(wo)man. Maybe you’re really close to self-publishing but feel you need the support of a publisher—you just don’t want to go it alone.
I’ve both self-published and been published by small publishers, and I’m here to give you some insight into what I’ve learned about working with small publishers.
1. Know what you want and why you want it.
Why do you want to work with a small publisher? Is it for any of the reasons I listed above? It’s important to know and to have expectations. If you want a publisher because you want someone to do the cover art and edit your book, that’s going to dictate how you approach these publishers. If you want someone to market and distribute your book for you, that’s also going to be key.
2. Do your research.
There are plenty of places to find lists of publishers, such as Query Tracker and Absolute Write. Any Google search will pull up a ton of ads and blog posts. It can be overwhelming. And then, even with the list in hand, you have to dig. Look at the publishers’ websites. Look at their covers, their Amazon rankings. Get samples of the books and see if they’ve been well edited. If you look at a printed copy, what’s the quality like? Here’s some of what you want to see:
- A website dedicated to getting readers, not writers. If the publisher you’re looking at has a site that’s designed to get writers to submit, run away. They’re putting their efforts into the wrong thing. A good publisher has readers and is focused on getting more readers. Their site talks about the latest release and has clear links to purchase books. In many cases, on a good publisher’s site, a writer will have to hunt for the submission guidelines.
- Professional-looking covers. Duh. If the publisher has crap covers that look like bad Photoshop jobs, then your book isn’t going to magically be beautiful if published by them. And sorry, but people really do judge books by their covers.
- Amazon rankings and reviews. Publishers whose books get sold and read have books with many (hopefully good) reviews and relatively low rankings. Yes, that’s right, on Amazon you want lower numbers—ranking as #1 is definitely better than ranking as number one million. Sure, older books might have higher rankings, but the newest stuff by the publisher should be fairly low. If not, it means the publisher didn’t do anything to push the book. (Caveat: sometimes the publisher doesn’t do anything even if the ranking IS low—it’s that the author did all the work. More on that later.)
- Editing. No good publisher hides its work, so if the publisher you’re considering doesn’t use the Look Inside feature on Amazon, run away. You should be able to get a glimpse of the content, and you should absolutely check several titles by different authors. Are there errors? Inconsistencies? Is the writing confusing, or even just plain bad? Then you don’t want that publisher. They either did nothing to fix the problems, or maybe they accept every submission and have no standards. Worst-case scenario, they introduced problems into the text (yes, it happens). Remember that your book will stand alongside the others published by this imprint. You want to be proud of the company you and your book are keeping.
- Formatting. Check both digital and in print. (Obviously this doesn’t apply to digital-only publishers, which is another thing you seriously need to consider—how important is it to you to have physical books? More on that in a moment.) Is the book laid out in an appealing fashion? Are the typefaces readable? One of my books has a lovely digital format, but when I received the printed version, I was disappointed. The cover is gorgeous, but I don’t think they formatted for print; they just dumped the digital file into a print-on-demand. You don’t want that. So be sure to look at both versions of a book to be sure the formatting is nice and correct for each.
2½. Do more research
Okay, so you’ve found a publisher you think has wonderful, beautiful books. I want you to consider one more thing before pushing “Send” on your query: Do they have brand recognition? If this is some small, little outfit … Has anyone heard of them? Are they a known name in certain genres at least? Are their books in any actual stores or libraries? Maybe this doesn’t deter you, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Also see if you can contact any of the publisher’s authors. A good publisher has nothing to hide, so if this one is discouraging you from talking to anyone who has worked with or for them, there’s something wrong. (Keep in mind that sometimes authors in a bad situation are hesitant to say anything bad about their publisher, even if they’ve had a bad experience—use your gut and ask for specific things the publisher has done well … or not.)
You’ve submitted and been accepted! Now what? Sign on the dotted line, right? All your dreams are about to come true?
Yes, sorry, but you need to wait. Not all small publishers are created equal, and there are a few flags you should look for in the contract. Check out the second part of this two-part series to learn all about them!
About M Pepper Langlinais
M Pepper Langlinais is an award-winning screenwriter, produced playwright, and published author.
M holds a master of arts in writing, literature and publishing and a bachelor of science in radio-television-film. She has a love of Shakespeare, having both performed and taught his work, and has also interned on Hollywood film sets. M worked for Houghton Mifflin and Pearson before deciding to devote her full time to her own writing (and occasionally parenting). She lives in Livermore, California, with her family, cats, and hamster. Find out more about her and her books at http://PepperWords.com.