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.

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