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My Tips for Researching a Small Publisher

I work at a community college and we get calls from folks in the community from time to time wondering if we have resources on different things. Last week, someone called wanting to know if we had any resources on self-publishing.

Our college doesn't have anything like that, but the person who took the call asked if I’d reach out to them. While I’m not self-published I did have a bit of a flashback to spring of 2016 when I was offered a publishing deal from a small, indie pub called BookFish Books (who ended up publishing Meet Me Under the Stars). I remember doing some digging to find out all I could.

While there weren't any red flags against them, there were several nightmare stories about other small pubs. When you read those, you can't help but wonder if it's worth it? Is it worth going with a small publisher when so many people have had terrible experiences?

It got me thinking about the process I took to research BookFish to make sure it's a good fit for me. Because let’s be real….no publishing deal is better than a shitty publishing deal. And getting out of a shitty deal isn’t always easy.

A few ground rules...

1. Remember that there are several paths to publishing. Self-publishing, agents, small publisher. My path may not be your path.

2. Not all small pubs are created equal. With more and more news lately of small pubs closing up shop, it is absolutely important that you ask questions. These questions are just the tip of the iceberg and are in no way a guarantee that you'll be free and clear.

3. With that said, the best indicator of if a publisher is--or isn't--right for you? Your gut. Trust your gut.

The Big List of Questions

The following list was created based on my conversations with other authors who went the small publishing route.


Take a look at it and the URL (the web address).

  • Does the website look outdated in design and feel?

  • Does the URL have things like “…” or “…” or “”

  • When was the last book published?

  • Make note of the staff/employee list and compare it to the published author list—how many staff members are published with them?

  • Do they require fees for reading your submission? Or to publish your book? Or do they have clauses on their site that if you query them with your manuscript that you cannot query anyone else?

  • Look at the editors listed on their site. Normally they’re freelance editors who split their time between several indie publishers. Google them—find out what books they’ve worked on and purchase a copy or two if the books fall into your genre. While the book is written by the author, the editor plays a large role in getting that puppy into shape.


  • URL listings of “blogspot” “wordress” or “wix” means the publisher is using a free platform.Why would a publisher need a “free” platform?

  • Look at the number of books published by staff members.If there are more books published by employees than published by authors, which could be a problem.

  • If a publisher is requiring fees of any kind—they are not a publisher.They are a service (aka Vanity Publisher) to help you get your book published. These publishing sites are actually a great option for those who are self-publishing because they offer a ‘one stop shop’ for things like editing, cover design, etc.


  • The number of books that are put out each year could be an issue. If they publish hundreds of books a year, how are they ensuring quality edits, cover design, marketing, etc.? If they publish only a handful of books a year—why so few?


Reach out to the authors who are not employees. Ask them:

  • Why did they choose the publisher?

  • Were the emails from the publisher professional? Did they answer questions you may have? Did they answer those questions in a timely manner (standard practice is usually within 48-72 business hours).

  • How was your editing experience? Did you get edits in a timely fashion? Were the notes thorough? Was the editing process a team effort (where the authors has say) or were you overruled?

  • Did you feel supported every step of the way?If not, what support were you missing?

  • How many editing passes did you have?What was the typical turn around for those passes?

  • Do you feel your book is a stronger, better product?

  • Are you proud of the book that is out on the shelves?

  • Did you receive royalty payments in a timely fashion? (NOTE:It is not appropriate to ask (a) what their royalty payments were and (b) what is the percentage noted in their contract)

  • Did you have a say in the cover design? Are you pleased with the end product?

  • What was the publicity like for your book? What publicity were authors expected to do?

  • Is there anything you wish you would’ve done different?

  • Are you publishing another book with this publisher? If no, why not?

  • Overall, are you glad you went with this publisher?


  • If the publisher gets upset that you’ve reached out to authors, that’s a HUGE red flag.

  • Tone of the email—while tone can be hard to filter in an email, you can tell if someone is unhappy with their experience but putting on a brave face.

  • If several authors share a common theme that is concerning—royalty payments not being sent, unsupportive environment, etc.--this could be a reason to decline the offer.


  • If an author isn’t publishing with this publisher again—that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Their next book may not be a genre that is in that publisher’s genre list.

  • Don’t discount a bad experience, but don’t let one author's so-so experience be the reason you say “no thank you”.

  • If an author says that they had to do "all" the publicity themselves--clarify "all" (sometimes people say they did everything when really, they chose to do it because they didn't feel comfortable letting others do it). Keep in mind that more and more publishers (even the Big 6) require authors to do some publicity. Check with the publisher to see what their expectations are around publicity for your book.


While authors are a good source of contact to get the inside scoop, it’s also good to ask questions of your publisher. Ask them:

  • What is the typical turnaround time from accepting the contract for publication and books hitting the shelves? (common turnaround time is usually 10-12 months, with some publishers taking longer) Is that date negotiable?

  • What is the publicity/marketing plan for my book? What am I expected to do regarding publicity/marketing? Am I permitted to hire an outside PR firm to help with release day promo and reviews?

  • If I have concerns with my editor, who do I speak with?

  • When are the ARC’s generally available for read/review opportunities? Will you get copies that you can pass out to author friends and people you trust?

  • What is their policy for piracy sites?

  • Are there opportunities for me to work with book promo/sales sites like BookBub, Instafreebie, etc.?

  • With the number of stories of small pubs closing—how is the stability?

  • What format are books sold?

  • Are books sold on multiple websites (Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iTunes, Smashwords, etc)

  • Have you had to return book rights to any authors in the last 12 months.


  • If the publisher skirts your questions or replies with things like, “Don’t worry…trust us…we’ll take care of it…”

  • If the publisher promises that you’ll make best seller lists. No publisher can promise that.And if they do, they’re cheating the system—that’s not good.

  • Publishers may paint a rosy outlook on their company’s stability. The biggest sign of things not going well are (a) authors not getting their royalty checks in a timely fashion and (b) authors being let out of their contracts/having the rights returned.

Let’s talk about the common searches that people do when researching a small publisher and discuss the pros and cons of each.


Absolute Write is a great community that allows you to talk and share insight on publishing, querying, etc. You can often look at threads on the message boards by not logging in, but sometimes a login is required.


  • It is anonymous, so authors who have had problems in the past with a publisher can keep their identity protected.


  • Not everyone uses Absolute Write. So an author who had a bad experience may not choose to out the experience publically.

  • Usually people don’t stumble upon Absolute Write unless they’re doing a search for the publisher.As such, the information is usually outdated.

  • Everyone is a critic—people who have never published with small presses are quick to chime in and tell others to run like the wind.


Amazon has become a bit of an author mecca. Self-published authors and small presses love Amazon because of the reach, but also because printed versions can be done POD (Print on Demand), meaning that a bookstore doesn’t have to buy stock that may never be sold.


  • Reviews are a great barometer to see a book’s success—look to see when the last review was posted.Was it recent? Or around the date of launch?

  • Rankings give you an idea of how the book is doing overall.


  • Amazon is notorious for pulling reviews if they feel there is a personal connection between reviewer and author. While this is commendable so that books aren’t being reviewed by mom, grandma, siblings and everyone else….a low review count can give the impression that the book isn’t doing well.

  • Rankings can fluctuate like crazy from one day to the next. I had a book ranking at 450,000 and then overnight it jumped to 75,000. So just because a person’s ranking is 850,000 in ALL of amazon, doesn’t mean their book is bad.


If you follow any author on social media, they will often post a screen shot of their blurb in Publisher’s Marketplace announcing the deal. There is a fee to access the marketplace.


  • Using this service keeps the publisher in front of the public, showing that they’re making active deals.


  • If an author is working with the publisher for book two or three in a series—books that weren’t part of the original deal—they may not get published in the marketplace.

  • On the rare occasion, some authors don’t want their deal made public.

Again, this list is not all inclusive. So, I’ve turned on the comments. If you’ve published with a small, indie publisher—what did you look for? Let’s help others make the research process easier so that they can make informed decisions.

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