Attention Writers: 6 Ways to Spot a 5-Star Publisher

By Sara-Jayne Slack

As the owner of an independent publishing house, reading about the shenanigans of iUniverse on this very site made me feel as though I needed to apologise for the sheer number of bad practices that people within the publishing industry seem to be piling up on authors these days. Whilst I could write at length about what publishers need to do to pull themselves out of the rut they’re in, instead I’d like to offer some advice to you, as writers.

There are a number of different ways you can check that the publishing house you’re looking into isn’t going to leave you high and dry. Of course, these aren’t foolproof, but they will act as a good screening method for when you’re researching who to send your manuscript to.

1.     Quality of past work

Take a look at their catalogue. Do you cringe at the cover art they use? Are all of their eBooks 99p on Amazon Kindle? Download the best looking one to assess writing and editing quality. If these books don’t live up to the standard you’d expect, don’t think that your novel would be treated any differently. Sloppy work is the front-view of a sloppy business. The ONLY caveat I would suggest here, is if their later titles look better in quality to their older ones. Seen in this light, the positive development is actually quite a good thing. It shows a willingness to progress and grow…but if they’re all the same, turn heel and run. (This includes all of the titles having the same sort of cover feel to them. the same font over the same part of a stock-image photograph is a precursor for a distinct lack of imagination on the part of the publisher, not to mention an inability to treat each work individually).

2.     Other authors web presence

Do you recognise any of their authors?  If the names don’t speak for themselves, go and take a look at personal websites and blogs. What sort of Twitter-er are they? Do they come across well? Poor social media presence or personality can be taken as an indicator that the publisher doesn’t spend much/any time helping them to develop their platform. Remember what I said earlier about publishers needing to prove that they add value? Well, this is one of the many ways, and if this development is something you want help with and the publisher isn’t delivering to their other authors, you need to consider just how important it really is, if you want to still sign on their dotted line.

 3.     Good website

There are only so many times I can look at a blog with dodgy graphics and poorly-chosen static pages and wring my hands. If the business doesn’t even have their own domain name, I would be very cautious. For many businesses, websites ought to be seen as a ‘shop window’. Ask yourself the question; “If this was an actual shop window, would I go inside to browse what they had to offer?” If the answer is ‘no’ for whatever reason, simply walk on by.

 4.     Clear information & easy to contact

So their ‘shop window’ looks pretty good, but do they have a clear means to contact them? Is the information on their site clear and concise? Transparency is a huge issue for publishing houses these days (just look at how badly iUniverse failed at this!) If the only way to contact them is via their submission form, then be wary that they hold the reins of contact-ability. This might play against you in the future if you need to call them to find out exactly where your royalty cheque is…

5.     Interactive – they’ll answer your questions and be transparent

I guess this should really be 4.5, since it fits in nicely from my last point. Send the publishers a couple of easy questions about their ethos and project management and see how they respond. If they don’t reply at all, just imagine how good they’d be at communicating with authors who have difficult questions for them. If they do respond in good time (anywhere up to a month, although the less time the better), consider their tone of voice. Do they end with thanking you for your enquiry and to get back to them with any more questions? How transparent are they with their answers?

 6.     They match your values

This isn’t an aspect of finding a publisher that I’ve seen people speaking about all that often. of course, it’s incredibly important to find a publisher who actually deals with your genre, but what about the other, important things? Where do they stand on the eBook evolution? Do they host or attend any special events? Are they affiliated with any charities or other businesses? Heck, are their printed books FSC stamped? It’s important to know who you’re aligning yourself with, and to make sure your values are a good fit. Don’t be afraid to ask these sorts of questions, either! If you’re passionate about literacy in school, send your potential publisher an email, asking about initiatives and their stance on that sort of thing.

Now, I could go on for a while longer with this list, and each of these points could quite easily make its own post…but I did promise to keep it to 6 (short!) items.

I hope I’ve managed to give you all something to think about past the regular ‘look up their testimonials’, because as we’ve unfortunately seen with companies such as iUniverse, that doesn’t always cut the mustard.

Remember: do your homework now, to save later headaches.

Sara-Jayne Slack is the owner of Inspired Quill, an ecologically-friendly, people-orientated publishing house. She loves the theatre, huge cups of tea, and telling people her theory that ‘to-do’ lists breed when you’re not looking. Follow @inspiredquill on Twitter.

Self-Publishing Fundamentals

By Kim Bookless

Self-publishing can transform the lives of authors and their readers. The concept has been around for hundreds of years but recent technological advances, along with increasing turmoil in the traditional publishing industry, have made self-publishing a popular and easy way to bring a book to life. Aspiring authors are no longer dependent on the whims of editors at the few remaining traditional publishers. With self-publishing, authors now have complete control over when and how their books are published.

Self-publishing authors have to invest time and money, and be willing to push through a learning curve, to bring their books to life. Successful authors avoid self-publishing pitfalls by taking the time to educate themselves before jumping in. When planning to self-publish, an aspiring author should give considerable thought to goals (the purpose of the book and the desired outcome), budget (how much money there is to work with), and method (which parts of the self-publishing work the author will perform and which parts will be hired out).


Most self-publishing authors fit into one of three categories:

  • Personal – Some self-publishing authors write for strictly personal reasons, such as creating a memoir to give to family members. These authors usually have little interest in selling their books to the public so marketing, distribution, ebook formatting, and building an author platform are unnecessary.
  • Prestige – Other self-publishing authors write books for prestige reasons or to position themselves as experts in their field. For these authors, using their books to boost their credibility is more important than making money from book sales. Professional editing and design, and building an author platform, are crucial.
  • Profit – Most self-publishing authors write to make a profit from selling their books. For these authors, every step of the publishing process is critical, including professional editing and design, multiple formats, marketing, distribution, and platform building.


In traditional publishing, the publishing company covers the costs of producing a book, including editing, design, printing, and marketing costs. Few authors who wish to self-publish can perform all the book production tasks without help, and hiring professional service providers can total several thousand dollars or more. There is no guarantee the book will sell enough copies to break even, let alone make a profit, so self-publishing authors should be prepared for the possibility that they won’t recoup their investment.


Self-publishing authors can purchase publishing services a la carte or hire a self-publishing company to handle everything. Authors who choose the a la carte method have to find all of the necessary publishing service providers and manage the entire publishing process. This option is often less expensive than hiring self-publishing companies, but authors will need to invest a bit of time and effort to make it work.

Hiring a self-publishing company usually costs more than going the DIY route but it can make the publishing process much easier for authors. The challenge with this option is to separate the reputable and reasonably priced self-publishing companies from the unethical and overpriced ones. Mark Levine’s book The Fine Print of Self Publishing and his website Book Publishers Compared are excellent resources for choosing and working with self-publishing companies.

Some authors hire a publishing consultant (also called a book consultant or book coach) to manage the process. The consultant educates the author on self-publishing, helps make the necessary decisions, and works to develop a publishing plan. The consultant works with the service providers, oversees the book’s production, and serves as a single point of contact for the author throughout the publishing process.

The Basics of Self-Publishing

Most authors want to make money from selling their books, and profit-oriented authors follow ten basic steps to bring their books to life:


There are many resources to help authors with their manuscripts, including writing coaches and developmental editors. Software programs like Scrivener can help organize manuscripts and make the writing process a little easier. Other writers and trusted colleagues can serve as beta readers and give suggestions for improving a manuscript. Working out manuscript kinks during the writing process will save money on editing later.


It is critical to have a manuscript professionally edited. Industry associations like the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) maintain directories of excellent book editors.

Cover design

Book design is an art and a cover is, among other things, an advertisement for the book. Unless the author is a graphic designer with experience in creating book covers, it’s best to hire a professional to create the front, back, and spine cover design.

Interior layout

Authors should hire book designers to format their books’ interiors so that fonts, margins, page numbers, headers, etc., look professional.

Ebook formatting

A good ebook formatter will typically charge a few hundred dollars or less to convert a manuscript into various ebook formats.


Authors who plan to sell their books online or in stores need ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers), which must be purchased from Bowker. A single ISBN costs $125 and a block of ten ISBNs costs $250. It’s a good idea to purchase a block of ten because each format of a book (paperback, hardcover, Kindle, epub, PDF, audiobook, etc.) needs its own ISBN. Print books also need a barcode, which is a scannable ISBN that is available from Bowker.


An author’s printing needs will depend on the goals for the book. Print on Demand (POD) has eliminated the necessity for authors to order thousands of books just to get a good printing price. Dan Poynter’s book and his website offer information on printing options, as well as warnings on how to avoid unscrupulous POD companies.


Dan Poynter’s book and website give a great overview of book distribution options available to self-publishing authors.

Author platform

Building an author platform is a vital part of book marketing and selling. Just like a real platform, an author platform is a foundation – it’s what an author “stands on” to deliver his message. Jane Friedman’s author platform article is an excellent resource for author platform building.


Self-publishing authors either handle their own marketing or hire people to do it for them. There are many ways to market a book that are free but require the author’s time, such as an author blog, writing guest posts for other blogs, and requesting reviews from book bloggers. Hiring a book marketing company or consultant can help an author reach a wider audience.

Authors who educate themselves have an advantage over those who don’t. These sites are some of the best places to learn about self-publishing: ParaPublishing, The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, The Creative Penn, and The Book Designer. Armed with knowledge from these and other industry experts, authors can bring their books to life via self-publishing in their own timeframe and on their own terms.

Kim Bookless is a Chicago-based publishing consultant, writer, and editor. She co-founded the Chicago Self-Publishing Meetup Group to help educate aspiring authors on the joys of self-publishing, and she is the Publicity Chair for Chicago Women in Publishing. Connect with Kim at and on Twitter at @kimbookless.

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