This is it. You’re ready. You know who you are: the author who’s written ‘The End’ on that first draft of a novel—high five!—and then dutifully set that manuscript aside to rest before tearing into edits. Trusted readers have critiqued it until you’ve lost count of how many drafts you’ve written. This story is as polished as you can get it. You’ve studied every article on writing query letters and now yours rocks! You’re ready for the next step: querying.

If your eye is set on big publishing houses with equally large distribution and marketing, you’ll be querying an agent. But what if having more creative control is important to you? You’d like to dip your toes into the process of publishing, but don’t want to dive in and tackle every single nut and bolt of it alone. Perhaps some help with editing, marketing, and individualized author support is what you need most? Many small publishing houses excel at this and are open to unagented submissions.

If you don’t have an agent to vet your potential small publishers, here are five tips to save you some headaches—and heartaches—along the way.

1. Unsolicited Offers in Sheep’s Clothing

You’re a writer, a creator, a daydreamer. Me too. Picture me: an undiscovered author feverishly typing at her laptop, swept into glittering fame by a publisher/editor/agent who approached me in my local coffee house because they recognized my work as a diamond in the rough. Now picture what didn’t fit in that image—besides me out in public and working feverishly. Someone supposedly reputable in the industry approached me with an offer?

Big Red Flag.

Any publisher, editor, or agent worth their salt is BUSY because, if they’re good at their job, they have an inbox swamped with hundreds of submissions 24/7. They don’t have to hunt down a good author because there are plenty of us querying them daily. If an industry pro comes to you with an unsolicited offer, it’s for one of two reasons:

If a small publisher isn’t allowing you the time you need—at least a week, preferably two—to review their contract, that’s a red flag.

1) You’ve already successfully self-published or traditionally published and have sold tens of thousands of copies of your books. They want in on the market you’ve worked hard to build, and are willing to proposition you with a sweeter deal, usually larger distribution than you currently have. If this is you, fantastic! Expect many unsolicited offers, some of which may be me offering to buy an autographed copy of your book. If this is not you, there are several online sources to vet unsolicited propositions. Check out Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware to make sure the offer is legitimate.

2) This supposed ‘industry pro’ is preying on inexperienced authors who will likely be so caught up in the excitement of being approached by an actual publisher/agent/editor with an offer to represent their work that they won’t realize they’re being roped into a bad deal. Often such vanity-publishers-in-disguise will charge far more for services like marketing, editing, and publishing than a self-publishing author would pay if they hired reputable freelancers for those jobs.

2. Thou Shall Not Pass… Without Paying

If a publisher is asking an author to pay any sort of fee as a part of the process of publishing, that’s another big red flag. Reputable publishers don’t do this because, if they believe in your manuscript enough that they think it will sell, they will recoup the costs of editing, marketing, and distributing as a percentage of the sales of that book.

If a publisher is asking you to pay for anything up front, how much faith do they have that your book will sell? How much skin do they have in this game? Will they work hard to edit and market your book if they already have cash-in-hand, regardless? Don’t fork out your hard-earned money to publishers who prey on authors. 

If you are willing to pay for a quality end product, self-publishing is more accessible than it’s ever been. An author can successfully self-publish, edit, market, and distribute a book as widely as most small publishers, and keep the majority of the profit. Paying for a reputable freelance editor/marketer/cover designer yourself costs less than paying inflated fees for a vanity publisher to do these jobs.3. 

3. Website Warning Signs

Websites. Boy, oh boy, I could write a whole blog on what to watch for on websites because they are a great resource to get a feel for potential publishing houses. I’ll try to keep it short here.

Once you’ve curated a list of small publishers that are open to submissions in your genre—websites like The Submission Grinder and Authors Publish are fantastic resources for this—check out the publisher’s website before you query them.

Their homepage should look professional, and should cater toward readers. You want to see books front and centre because this is a business that, first and foremost, sells books. If the website caters more toward writers than readers, that can be a red flag. Why? Well, if a publisher’s main product is services for authors, they’re mostly making money off writers. If their main product is books, they’re making money for writers. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate publishers who offer authors resources to hone their craft, because I do. That said, your publisher’s main focus should be selling books.

If a publisher is asking an author to pay any sort of fee as a part of the process of publishing, that’s another big red flag.

Look at the ‘About Us’ page like it’s a resume, because it is. You want to find a roster of staff at this publishing house with their previous industry experience listed. If all you find is a generic mission statement, a list of the staff’s favourite reads, and what their cat’s name is, it probably means that no one working there has any real industry experience because they’d list it if they did. Be wary of that—no matter how nice the cat seems.

Be nosy and look through their book section. This is what the publisher is selling! Are they doing it well? How many books are they offering? If there are only one or two books in their catalogue, this publisher is likely new. Most new small publishing houses don’t survive past their first couple of years, so it can be risky signing with a newer, unproven publisher. That’s okay, as long as you are aware of the risk, and are fine with taking it. It can be a nasty, heartbreaking shock to be accepted for publication only to have the house fold before your book ever sees a shelf.

Is the author list the same as the staff list, or is this publishing house actively acquiring outside authors? Do the covers look good? Are there one-click links to buy the books? Check out the titles of the books on GoodReads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and NetGalley. Use the ‘look inside’ option. Read the reviews. You should be impressed by what you find. This is the quality of work you can expect if your manuscript is published at this house.

4. Books As Far as The Eye Can See

Let’s say you’re perusing the book section of the publisher’s website and they have plenty of books, hundreds even. In fact, they seem to represent every genre out there, fiction and nonfiction. Sometimes this can be a red flag too, especially if the publisher has a small staff in the ‘About Us’ section of their website. Who exactly is editing, designing and marketing this vast catalogue of books in multiple genres? Selling romance is a whole different ball game than selling non-fiction. Would you prefer a publisher who specializes in your genre? If that plethora of books comes with badly-designed covers, poor reviews and typos aplenty in the ‘look inside’ pages of Amazon, you may be dealing with an ‘Author Mill’, a term coined by Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware. Author mills make money by producing as many books as fast as they can without much effort spent on quality writing, editing or cover design. Once the book is released, they don’t tend to do much marketing for it. They often leave a trail of unanswered emails from frustrated authors with unresolved issues.

5. What’s The Rush?

So, you’ve made it. You’ve avoided all the red flags so far and—try to breathe now—received an actual offer on your manuscript. Firstly, Cheers! Secondly, breathe, and thirdly, don’t sign it… yet.

You want a published author you trust or a lawyer who specializes in Publishing Agreements to review it first. If you can’t find either, at minimum, The Writer’s Union of Canada and the American-based Author’s Guild offer some resources on reviewing contracts. Check with your local Writer’s Guild. Some of them offer contract reviews as well.

If a small publisher isn’t allowing you the time you need—at least a week, preferably two—to review their contract, that’s a red flag. If they are pushing you to accept terms they are offering verbally or over email before they’ll send the contract, another red flag. If they say up front that they will refuse to negotiate anything on the contract because it’s their boilerplate standard, and you’ve only got a day or two to sign or the offer is off the table … you’ve got it, red flag.

What’s the rush? Yes, some publishers will be eager to secure the offer to your manuscript if they know you have offers elsewhere, but if anybody, in any walk of life is pushing you to sign a form without having proper time to review or negotiate it, it’s because it’s to their advantage, not yours. 

Many writers have lamented signing agreements that they didn’t fully understand. It’s a legal document. Only sign over the rights the publisher needs to effectively publish your book, nothing more. Since small publishers are more likely to fold than larger ones, make sure your contract contains a rights reversion clause that automatically reverts your rights back to you in the event your publisher goes out of business, and take the time you need to understand the rest of the contract before signing your name.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to do some research. There’s a wonderful, open and caring writing community out there that is more than willing to share their past experiences and sage advice with you, if you’re willing to ask. I’ve leaned on many wonderful mentors in my journey and will continue to do so. I hope my five little flags will help you avoid some potholes on your journey. Keep feeding that imagination!