Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

The Lure of Bad Publishers

by Mary K. Wilson
©2004, Mary K. Wilson


Many writers would do just about anything to see their novels in print.  I should know; I'm one of them.  I became an electronically published author in December 2002.  Now, before I go any further, I will say that there are some good non-traditional publishers out there.  I hope to expose the temptation that the poor ones offer and give new writers something to think about when they consider where to submit their well-traveled novels.

When it comes to getting a story or novel published, the advice to aim for the top certainly applies.  Obviously, if an author feels that her novel is ready for publication, she should submit it first to the best market for that work.  In science fiction or fantasy, this may be a major publisher such as DAW or Tor.  Once a novel has garnered rejection letters from the larger publishing houses, its author may start to look for alternate methods of publishing.  That's all right; however, there are a few telltale signs that a venture may not work out in the author's favor. Avoid any publishers, whether print or electronic, that display these signs.

An obvious sign that the company doesn't have the author's best interests at heart is a request for money at any time during the process.  Many businesses will publish novels electronically for free, but may charge a "setup fee" for print publishing.  If your goal is to make money, rather than produce a limited number of books as gifts, be aware that this defies the first rule of writing, which is that money should flow towards the author.  If the writer is sending money to publishing companies, agents, editors, etc. to be published, there is a good chance that the company or individual's first priority is not the success of the writer.  The job of a publisher, agent, or editor is to earn money by selling writing, not by charging fees to the writer. These fees may mislead novice writers, especially when they're worded as “setup fees.” 

However, the fees aren't the worst problem.  It's a fact that not all print books will be stocked by bookstores.  Print-on-Demand books are considered non-returnable by distributors.  This means that if a major bookstore buys five copies of the book and only two sell, the remaining three sit on the shelves until they are sold.  For books published by major publishers, those three copies could be returned for credit.  Bookstores are hesitant to stock such non-returnable titles due to the lack of guarantee that they will move.

Many bookstores won't -- or can't -- even order single Print-on-Demand titles.  If someone calls a bookstore with the ISBN number for a Print-on-Demand title, there is a good chance that the bookstore will not have it available to order.  This means that often, Print-on-Demand books are only available through the publisher directly, the author, or online outlets such as Amazon.com.  People who are hesitant or unable to purchase online will not be able to buy these books.  This limits the availability of the title as well as possible royalty income for the author.

Before signing a book contract with a smaller press, ask what distribution channels it uses.  A company that is distributed through Ingram's will find its books in more stores and available in more outlets.  If a company doesn't use a national distributor such as Ingram's, there is a very good chance that chain bookstores will not be able to order the book.  Lack of distribution is the primary reason why many Print-on-Demand novels fail to earn royalties for their authors.

A book from any non-traditional publisher may lack promotion.  When you do not want your book to have a large distribution, this does not matter, but if your goal is to reach a wide audience, it is a critical matter.  Quality of promotion varies from publisher to publisher, with even the big publishing houses granting very little funds to promote some books.  In the world of small and Print-on-Demand presses, the promotional support offered to authors ranges from nothing to sending out review copies to bustling fan communities.  It pays to ask other authors published with that house, or the company directly, how much promotion it does for their authors -- before signing a contract.

For Print-on-Demand publishers, the quality of the finished product varies as well.  Some use a lighter stock for the covers, and the book may not even be bound squarely.  When an author receives her author's copies in the mail, the book should stand up against any book on the market in terms of quality.  If it doesn't pass an author's inspection, the book will most likely stand out in the marketplace -- for all the wrong reasons.  Don't be fooled; not all print books are alike.

I've found Print-on-Demand publishers sometimes offer a higher royalty rate than traditional publishers.  This can mislead novice writers into thinking that they will make more money than with larger publishers.  However, royalties are only paid on books sold.  If a book can't or doesn't sell, then it won't pay royalties. 

What can novice writers do to protect themselves against some of the pitfalls of publishing? 

The first step is to research the publisher thoroughly.  Ask published authors for a reference.  If published authors are happy with their publisher, most likely they will let you know about their experience.  Likewise, if authors are unhappy with a publisher, they will let you know about their concerns. 

Secondly, ask publishers about fees, and if they charge them, avoid the company. 

Third, ask publishers about their distribution channels and how they sell books.  Remember that those with arrangements with national distribution companies, such as Ingram's, will get your book into more stores. 

The last thing an author can do is to check reports, such as Karen A. Fox's “Show Me the Money” report (available at http://www.karenafox.com/money.asp).  While this report covers mostly romance authors, many of the publishers listed publish more than one genre. 

If everything checks out, then there is no reason why the aspiring author cannot publish with a small press, electronic, or Print-on-Demand publisher.  Hopefully, this article will provide some tools to avoid the lure of publishers who will not help your career.