How to Vet a Publisher
Two decades ago, many aspiring authors would have found it inconceivable to produce, distribute and market their own books. As a result, the self-publishing movement faced much initial resistance, both from authors who saw it as a vain, second-best option, and from traditional publishers protecting their business model. Today, though, that has all changed. Many authors choose the indie route first because it makes good business sense. Doing so often gives them a higher royalty rate per sale and allows them to retain creative control. Plus, it gives them the freedom to manage their own commercial destiny.
As a community, we’ve learned that self-publishing is the best route for most authors. But are traditional publishers redundant as a result? It might seem that way at first glance, with outlier indies earning seven-figure incomes without them, but they can still provide value to our businesses once we’ve established ourselves.
Say you’ve already experienced success. You’ve pushed hard for years and become an adept writer, publisher and marketer. You’ve exploited all your readily available intellectual property rights and plateaued. There are only so many hours in a day and you’ve become the bottleneck in your business. In that case, you know you need to offload work to take your platform to the next level without hitting burnout. You also know a competent, ethical publisher could help by taking on some of the work. Yet when one contacts you with an unsolicited offer, it sets off alarm bells.
After a long stretch of being fiercely indie, publishers make you wary. You’ve heard horror stories. So, what do you do next? You don’t want to miss a genuine opportunity but you also don’t want to fall victim to a predator. How do you gauge their legitimacy? Today we will explore a series of questions you can ask yourself. Together, they will help you vet a publisher and distinguish the wolves in the herd from the cash cows that can genuinely elevate your author business.
Is This Publisher Real?
Your first goal should be to identify whether the message you’ve received has come from a real publisher. In this case, Google is your friend. Look at the email or social media account that sent you the direct message and you’ll often find clues that speak to their authenticity. If the sender claims to represent a Big 4 publisher imprint, for example, does their company logo appear in the footer of their email? Is their social media account branded appropriately? Does the account have a verified tick? What does their bio say? If you don’t recognise the company, can you find their website on Google to offer any background information?
Once you’ve established whether there is a real company with that name, next you should check whether the individual contacting you is really associated with it or just impersonating an employee. One way to do this is to check their email address. Many legitimate ones will be structured like this:
Similarly, the handle of their social media profile might reference the company as a whole if it’s large, like this:
If their email address or handle doesn’t follow these rules, that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. Some small publishers allow employees to use generic email addresses and personal social media profiles to conduct business. However, consider these informal accounts a cause for caution, especially if your contact has sent their message from a country that doesn’t match the location of the publisher. If you’re in any doubt, LinkedIn can help you identify the individual and verify their professional association with the publisher.
Is the Publisher Shady?
After you’ve identified the publisher and your contact as a genuine employee, next you should investigate the company’s reputation. While a company might publish books, it’s possible they do so in a way that abuses the spirit of a healthy publisher-author relationship. Horror stories abound in this industry. Feeling scammed and helpless, authors often post about disreputable publishers online. According to their anecdotes, some are just greedy; they grab as many publishing and subsidiary rights as they can, even if they don’t plan to use them, in case an author has a breakout hit. Others, meanwhile, are downright criminal, and get reported for embezzlement and failing to pay royalties.
It’s impossible to expose all shady publisher practices, especially if they manage a shiny public image or are new and untested. As a result, it often isn’t until you sign a deal that you see the rot under their paint. However, many of the biggest operators have made enough enemies for diligent authors to uncover them before it’s too late. Searching your publisher for a history of scamming with industry watchdogs like Writer Beware or the Alliance of Independent Authors Watchdog Desk can often provide clarity. And if that yields no results, try asking about the publisher in a popular author Facebook group like the SPF Community, 20BooksTo50K or Wide for the Win. Generally, someone will endorse the publisher you ask about or have a damning a story to tell.
Will They Add Value?
Once you’ve established that the company has a good reputation, it’s time to shift your focus from seeing the company as a threat to looking for positives. For example, what can they give you that you can’t already give yourself? A good way to do this is to look at their website and the books they already publish. How successful are they? Do their books look good? Do they sell well on retailer websites? Do they have a lot of positive reviews? What price point do they sell at on Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo and Barnes & Noble? Are they doing well in territories where you can’t gain traction?
Their Amazon presence and sales ranks will often offer enough of an indicator. If you want to look deeper into the stats of the authors on their roster, consider using software like KDSpy and Publisher Rocket. They can crawl the internet for extra information retailers don’t show on sales pages, like roughly how much revenue an author is generating on their platform. Generally, what you’re trying to find out is whether the publisher can sell books at least as well as you can in markets you already reach. A good traditional publisher should excel beyond this target. However, this check should be your minimum benchmark to consider them as a viable option before licensing any rights.
Can They Reach Where I Can’t?
With enough time, resources and knowhow, most indie authors can sell well on retailer websites. A few experienced ones even manage to distribute outside indie-dominated ecosystems, running direct sales to readers and bulk sales to companies. However, physical bookstore chains are one place most of us struggle to reach as we face fierce competition for shelf space from trade publishers. Due to their existing distribution links and relationships with bookstore buyers, this is where they excel. Hence, any good publisher should be able to get you stocked in bricks-and-mortar establishments like bookstore and libraries as a way of enticing you.
There is no standard way to find out if your potential publisher can help you reach new frontiers like these ones, but it’s possible to find out what they offer. One way is to investigate in person. If, for example, they claim they can offer you national bookstore chain distribution in your home country, you could enter a branch yourself and see if they’re already doing it for other authors. Likewise, if they’re interested in giving you a translation deal in another territory, you could look at websites and social media profiles of other publishers they partner with to see if they have the influence they claim. If they’ve broken that barrier once, they could do it for you, too.
Do They Fully Exploit Rights?
A publisher might be big and have an impressive bookselling track record, but does their prowess extend to licensing? You can typically find out by picking the most successful titles from their website and looking into what they’ve done to exploit that intellectual property. For instance, have their most successful books garnered translation deals? Have they been adapted into graphic novels? Has the publisher negotiated TV and movie deals? What you’re trying to figure out here is what rights you’ll want to sign over to them. They might be able to get you a Japanese translation deal, for example, but there’s no point giving them TV rights if they’re only going to sit on them and stop you from getting an option offer elsewhere.
There are several ways to uncover their track record. Industry magazines like The Bookseller and Publishers Weekly routinely report notable rights deals that take place at conventions, and their websites have search functions that make investigating a publisher easy. Alternatively, you could pay to access the database at PubMatch, a rights licensing marketplace for publishers, agents and authors. It reports the previous licensing deals and negotiation history of books in its system. Using these websites, you can quickly ascertain the nature of any deals a publisher you’re interested in has handled.
The steps outlined in this article should indicate whether a contact and their publisher are safe, reputable and deliver on the types of deals that could benefit your business. Remember, though, that every author experience is unique. Just because a publisher has swindled one author, or launched another’s income into the stratosphere, that doesn’t mean they will do that for every author they sign. Managers leave, staff get replaced, opportunities arise, and luck enters the equation. Be cautious but proceed knowing that, having done the groundwork, you are equipped to vet a publisher and get a great deal.
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