Eleven Topics Writers Should Consider When Evaluating Potential Publishers

For over a decade, the ever-evolving publishing industry has blossomed with publishing paths for writers. Now, in addition to traditional publishers who typically pay advances, we have small presses who tend to avoid advances, assisted and hybrid publishers where authors pay to publish, and Indie/Self-publishers who manage every part of the publication and distribution processes (see Jane Friedman’s chart for an in-depth analysis of the publication pathways).

As with any fast-growing industry, scams and pitfalls worm their way into the mix by people determined to make money off a writers’ hopes and dreams. If you want to avoid the less ethical publishers and publishing scams, then you’ll want to poke around three general areas of a publisher’s obligations to a writer and your book: production, marketing, and sales/distribution.

Here are eleven areas to consider when evaluating a potential publisher.

  1. The publisher’s reputation in the industry—You want a publisher who is a good fit for you and the genre of the book. Things to consider are:
    • How long has the publisher been in business?
    • What type of books do they publish?
    • What is their track record with publishing books?
    • How many books does the publisher publish each year?
    • What type of reviews are their books receiving and how many?
    • How many books does the publisher sell in a year?
    • How does the publisher rank against other publishers?
    • Has the publisher promised you certain successes and rewards? If so, this is a red flag, since such successes are nearly impossible to predict.
  2. Your editor—Some publishers have acquiring editors and book editors. Some publishers might hire freelance editors for the book.
    • Ask who will be your editor.
    • Find out more about the editor:
      • What’s the editor’s experience level?
      • What books has he/she edited?
      • What is the editor’s vision for the book?
      • What happens if the editor leaves the publisher?
      • Are they in-house or freelance?
  3. Creative control— One of many worrisome areas for writers is who has the final word when editing a manuscript for publication. Typically, that right goes to the publisher. They need the flexibility to prepare the manuscript for publication to their satisfaction. They have an editorial style to fit, a publication schedule to adhere to, and cannot be hamstrung by an author refusing to compromise. But for us writers, we worry the edits might shift our vision for the book, or are based on bad commercial decisions, or eviscerate the manuscript’s voice.
    • Ask who will do the development editing? Is it the editor or someone else?
    • Who will do the copywrite work?
    • Who will do the proofreading?
    • Who will do the cover design?
    • Is any of the above work contracted out or is it all in-house?
    • How much say do you have in the creative decisions in the manuscript?
    • How much say do you have in the cover design and title?
    • What’s the quality of other authors’ covers?
    • If need be, request contract language that will achieve a partnership between the interests of the publisher and the writer to give the writer more editorial control. It might be hard to obtain, but you won’t know unless you try.
  4. Book formats—Depending on the publisher, the book, the author, and the genre, publishers may only print eBooks, or they may produce print and audio too.
    • Ask the publisher what formats will be produced—eBooks, print, hard-cover, audio?
    • Will the publisher produce these in-house or hire freelancers? If freelancers, who does the publisher normally use? For example, who will the publisher hire to produce an audiobook?
  5. Money—This is always a big topic and involves advances and any cost charged to the author. Pay close attention to what is being offered to the author and required of the author in the contract. If you need more information on this topic see this post about the top deal points in a publishing contract.
    • What is your advance and how will payments be distributed?
    • Any cost to the author to publish? Are you required to pay for anything to produce and/or market the book?
    • What is your royalty percentage and how is it calculated?
    • Are there any bonuses when sales hit a set target?
    • When are royalties paid?
    • Is the publisher on time with royalty payments?
    • How many copies need to be sold before you recoup your advance and start earning royalties?
  6. Rights—The author initially owns the copyright to their book, which is the right to reproduce the work themselves or sell it to publishers, studios, theaters, or anyone else. The author under the grant of rights clause is granting the publisher certain rights to reproduce the work in certain formats (like hardcover, paper, digital, audio) and certain territories. The rights provisions in a publishing contract define what rights under the copyright the author transfers to the publisher to commercially exploit in exchange for payment. It is important to understand that the rights to the author’s copyright need not be transferred in a single lump. Rights to exploit an author’s copyright can be sold separately to different publishers. They can be exclusive or non-exclusive, although typically the grant of rights clause is exclusive.  So make sure you understand what rights are being transferred to the publisher (and hopefully you are transferring only the rights a publisher will use).
    • Which rights are being transferred to the publisher? Are the rights exclusive or non-exclusive? What formats are included in the rights transferred to the publisher? Print only? Print and eBooks? Who owns the subsidiary rights, like audio and movie rights? Who owns the foreign rights? Who owns the copyright (it should always be the author)? If you need more information on this topic see this post about the top deal points in a publishing contract.
    • Will the rights revert to the author if the book is out of print or the publisher goes out of business? Will you get copies of the print book and eBook files if the rights revert?
  7. Book production
    • What is the deadline for the final manuscript?
    • What is the production schedule for bringing the manuscript to publication?
    • What is the publication date or release date? And why this date? Does the publication date fit with the book? You don’t want a Christmas romance publishing in the summer, or vise-versa, a beach read published in the winter.
    • What is the process for communicating during the production phase of publication?
  8. Other authors
    • What other authors could you talk to about working with them?
    • Who does the publisher suggest you talk to about prior working relationships? Any other author not suggested by the publisher that you could talk to? Any word about the publisher’s reputation on the message boards, or social media platforms?
  9. Termination
    • What is the process for termination of a contract?
    • Is written notice required and how far in advance?
    • What triggers termination?
  10. Selling the book—There are plenty of things to consider regarding sales. Much of the effort put into sales depends on the type of publisher and the breadth of their distribution efforts—from brick-and-mortar bookstores and libraries to wholesalers and eBook distributors.
    • How will the publisher sell and distribute the book?
    • Do they have an internal sales team, or is that contracted out to a third-party distributor?
    • Where does the publisher normally distribute books and how are those books sold?
    • How many copies do they estimate selling in the first year?
  11. Marketing
    • What will the publisher do in terms of marketing the book?
    • How will the publisher position the book for readers?
    • What type of marketing copy will the publisher create? What marketing copy have they created for other authors?
    • Will the publisher invest in ARCs to market to the trade (. i.e. booksellers, librarians, reviewers)?
    • What about booksellers and librarians? Any conventions or events for either for you to attend?
    • What marketing strategies do they suggest post-COVID?
    • Will your publisher advertise? How much will they spend? And what outlets do they intend to target.?
    • What about tours? On-line or post-COVID in-person tours?
    • Will they help with submit your work for book awards?
    • Are book clubs a possibility? How do they intend to access those clubs?
    • What categories will the publisher market the book?
    • How much will the publisher spend on marketing?
    • Is the author required to spend money on marketing too? If so, how much?
    • What are the author’s obligations for marketing?
    • What is the marketing plan? Can you see it?
    • Is there an in-house or freelance publicist assigned to your book?
    • How does the publisher intend to create an advanced buzz about the book prior to publication? Pre-order campaigns or ARCs? Social media buzz? Email newsletter buzz?

If you are traditionally publishing, an agent will help you evaluate whether the publisher is a good fit for your book. If you publishing with a smaller press and not represented by an agent, then either do a deep dive into the above questions or hire an intellectual property attorney who can help you. The last thing you want is to be under contract with a publisher and have no control over your creative property.

Here are a few helpful resources for more information on the above subjects:

  1. Questions to Ask Your Publisher Before You Sign by Jane Friedman;
  2. 10 Questions To Ask Before You Accept A Traditional Publishing Deal by Susan Spann;
  3. Publisher Questions: What To Ask Before You Sign A Book Contract by Tim Grahl; and
  4. Should I Use A Publisher? Ten Questions To Ask A Publisher by Derek Haines.

Happy publisher hunting!


Photo Credit: Caitlinator | VisualHunt

Legal Disclaimer: This information is provided for educational purposes only. Use the resources above to find and consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation. See the disclaimer link in the footer of our website for more information.

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