What Makes for a Good Publishing House?

When you’re on the quest to publication, it can be hard to know what makes a publishing house good or bad. Whether you want to go indie or join the Big 5 (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster), you may feel like you don’t even know what to put on your pro and con list.

Even if you’re lucky enough to have gotten a book deal offer, it’s still a good idea to check out who you’re partnering with. Here’s what you want to find in a good publishing house:

  • Experience and success in the publishing realm.
  • A good reputation with authors and literary agents.
  • People who play by the rules (look out for these predatory practices!).
  • A good track record in your genre.
  • A dedicated team including (at minimum) an editor, a marketer/PR rep, and a cover/interior design resource.

Now, getting all that info may be easier said than done. The publishing industry is notoriously mysterious (because we are secretly book ninjas trying to save the world, of course). So mysterious, in fact, that you might not even have recognized the names some of the publishers among the Big 5. I know I often get blank stares from folks when I tell them where I work, at least until I mention a bestseller or two. So if you want to get behind the scenes and learn about a publisher, how do you do it?

Try these six tips to learn more about the publishing house in question and to decide if it is a good place for you to call home. Just as I recommended making sure you choose the right agent and editor, I’ll tell you not to say an automatic YES to any publisher that comes a-courting. Not all deals are good deals, and you (and your agent, if you have one) need to put in some legwork before making the final decision.

1. Use the magic of the internet. There are lots of websites, blogs, and forums out there where people talk about their publishing experiences. Pair some search terms with the publisher you are interested in and see if any reviews or responses come up. I would particularly recommend AbsoluteWrite.com’s “Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check” forum where you can see what other folks have to say about publishers, agents, and editors.

2. Find out what they publish. Do you like other books on the publisher’s list? Do you like those authors? If you know you would be working with a specific editor, drill down into the titles that editor has acquired recently. You can check out sites like Publishers Weekly’s Book Deals or Publishers Marketplace.

3. Socialize. Go to a publisher’s social media, website, and/or blog to see how they promote their authors and how they like to interact with readers. This will give you a brief glimpse into what their marketing is like. YouTube is another place to look to find book trailers and other promotional materials.

4. Seek the signs of success. Look at the bestseller lists or awards in your genre. Does the publisher you are considering make the cut? Not every book is going to be a blockbuster, but you want to know if the publisher is capable of producing strong literary or commercial works before agreeing to a deal. You can also go to sites like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Goodreads to see what kinds of industry and consumer reviews a publisher’s books get.

5. Request a phone call. If you have a book deal on the table, ask to speak to the acquiring editor. Make a list of questions you have about the publisher and ask away. The editor may not be able to answer everything, but it’s always worth asking rather than waiting to be blindsided later in the process.

6. Use your best judgment. Ultimately, you have to feel like the house is right for you. If your gut is saying no, walk away. That’s hard advice to live by, especially when book deals are few and far between. But saying no to an iffy deal now will only benefit you in the future.

The good news is, most publishers want the same thing authors want: to create great books. The evil, sneaky publishing houses are rare, and thankfully word of mouth in the writing community helps us all stay conscious of what to avoid. Trust in your fellow authors and do your research, and with just a little luck you’ll end up publishing happily ever after.

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