10 Publisher Red Flags

No two publishers are the same. What works for you, might not work for others. If you’re happy with an eBook only, then you can go for an eBook publisher. People who want nothing more than to hold a print copy of their book in their hands, are perhaps better off looking for a print and eBook publisher. If your work is written for a small nice market or if it’s written for a large, general public will also greatly determine what kind of publisher fits your needs.

In this article, I’m not going to tell you what publisher is ideal for you and your book. Ultimately, that’s up to you to decide. And even if you have figured out the ten perfect publishers to publish your book – chances are you may have to rethink your options in case they reject your work, or are currently closed to submissions.

The purpose of this article is to show you some general red flags, regardless of what type of publisher you’re looking for. In other words, if you’re looking for suitable publishers to send your manuscript to and you come across one with multiple of these red flags on their website, then my advice would be to stay away from them.

If a publisher has one or two red flags on their website, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re bad publishers. In the end, it’s up to you to decide which red flags you can live with, and which ones you can’t.

1. The publisher requires you, the author, to pay something

If a publisher states, openly on their website, or privately through email that you will have to pay a certain amount of money to get published, then that’s the largest red flag there is. I don’t care if they can somehow justify this money (“it’s for editing services”, “publishing isn’t what it’s used to be”, “publishers and authors have to share the risks”, etc.). Don’t believe it. Don’t buy it, even if just for a second.

Real publishers do not ask for your money. They don’t do it up-front, and they don’t do it secretively by asking you to buy x amount of copies of your books. On the contrary, it’s more likely that a genuine publisher will send you free copies of your book than that they will need you to pay for them.

As soon as a publishing website mentions that you, as the author, have to pay something, stay away from them. If they state you have to buy 50 copies of your book, stay away from them. Chances are high you’re not looking at a publishing company in the traditional sense of the word, but at a vanity publishing company. These companies usually run on money paid to them by the authors they pubish – not on money paid by readers to read said author’s books. They basically make a living off the number of books an author buys. The author himself does all the marketing and promotion.

Always keep in mind Yog’s Law: Money Flows To The Author. Not the other way around. Never the other way around.

2. The publisher’s website is geared towards authors, not readers

If you come across a publishing website talking primarily about their good publisher/author relationship, or how you will find a home with them for the manuscript everyone else have rejected, then it’s time to put on your skepticism head. Why would a publisher brag about accepting manuscripts no one else cares about? Why would they brag about how good their relationship is with their authors?

If you visit a publishing website, you want to see books. The more, the merrier. Take a look at the big publishing houses: Random House, Harlequin, HarperCollins, and more. They don’t mention their good relationship with their authors, or how they accept every manuscript no one else wants to touch with a ten-foot-long pole. Their website features books, books and…did I mention books?

They don’t beg for authors because they have a slushpile the size of the Mount Everest. If a publisher’s website focuses primarily on authors, that’s because they don’t have enough authors submitting to them. One of the reasons could be because they’re new, or because they fall under the category of publishers we talked about above: the ones who make a living off books sold to their own authors, not to readers.

3. The publisher has no credentials

Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just wake up one day and think: “Hey! I know what I’ll do with my life. I’ll become a publisher!”, build a publishing company from the bottom up and expect to be successful at it. Like every other business out there, publishing is difficult. It’s not something you learn overnight. You don’t learn to be a scientist overnight, you don’t learn how to be a doctor overnight, so why the heck would anyone think they can become a publisher overnight?

Also, being a good author doesn’t make someone a good publisher. There’s no magic connection here between authors and publishers. Even if you’ve self-published twenty books successfully, that doesn’t mean you will become a successful publisher.

Most publishers have experience in the business. They’ve worked as an intern in larger publishing houses, and learned the ropes there. They usually have at least two or three years as an internet behind them before they even start thinking about starting their own company. If a publisher offers no credentials, or stays secretive about them, then beware. That’s definitely a red flag to think about.

4. The identity of people working for the publisher is kept a secret

Sometimes small press publishers want to keep the identities of the people working for them a secret, providing us with blank ‘about us’ pages. When asked about it, they continuously refer to the privacy of their employees.

Excuse me? Why would anyone want to keep it a secret that they work for a publishing company? If anything, it would look good on their resumé. There’s no reason why people would hide this. (There’s one possible exception to this rule, and that’s when the publishing company in question is an erotica publisher.) When a publisher insists on protecting the privacy of the people working for them, that’s a huge red flag.

Chances are very likely that, in fact, no one is working for the publisher. No one but the publisher himself that is. If a publishing business is a one-man operation, then that’s very, very bad. All that needs to happen is for the person in charge to grow ill, and the business goes downhill at rapid speed. Publication dates will be missed, books will never get published, etc. This would’ve never happened if there were other people who could offer their support and take over the ill person’s work. On top of that, no one can be good at everything. There’s simply not enough time in the day to and be a publisher, and be an editor, and be a cover artist, and be a publicist. Self-publishers may succeed in this for their own books, but there is no way that one person can do this, not only for their own books, but for other people’s books as well. It’s bound to go wrong somewhere.

Don’t put your faith in a one-man operation. There are too many risks.

5. The publisher’s staff has excellent credentials…But googling them turns up no results.

If the people working for the publisher you’re interested in have ever worked with a noteworthy publishing company, and they mention it in their profile, then you’re doomed to find proof of that on the internet. The internet never forgets. Google their name and you should come up with a ton of results. Everyone who’s been online for a while and active as a publisher’s staff member, will be found. Unless of course the credentials are faked, or the person in question doesn’t even exist.

But take it from me: if the credentials are real, you will find proof of them somewhere. If you search a person’s name, and your search turns up blank…Well, that’s another red flag for me.

6. The publisher accepts all genres you can possibly think of

Now, bare with me. If your desired publisher is RandomHouse, or similar big publishing houses, then it’s very well possible that they accept all genres, be it fiction or non-fiction and can publish them successfully. However, if you’re looking at a small to midsize publishing company, and they accept all genres, then you can hoist the red flag again.

Each genre has a specific niche market publishers and publicists have to try to target. For instance, the young adult market is a completely different market than the adult market. People who enjoy reading horror will likely not enjoy reading romance, and visa versa. Of course, these markets overlap sometimes, but those are the exceptions to the rule.

For a small press, it’s simply impossible to establish themselves as a decent publisher in all markets. If they really want to make an impression on a market, they will likely limit themselves to one, two or maybe even three target markets, but not more. As they grow, they might expand, but always be cautious about this.

For instance, a small press can be specialized in romance and fantasy novels, but not in romance, fantasy, mystery, thrillers, humor, literary fiction and historical fiction. Be wary of publishers who accept too many genres.

7. The publisher releases a large number of books per month

I know that ‘large’ can be interpreted differently based on the size of the publisher. A larger publisher can set out a higher number of books per month. A small publisher can perhaps launch two or three books per month successfully. The key here is to look for discrepancies between the size of the publishing company and the number of books they launch monthly.

If ten people or less work for the company, including editors, publicists, cover artists and more, and they publish ten or more titles per month, then you’ve been warned. Chances are high that once your book is out there, they will spend little or no time promoting it, simply because the one or two publicists they have can’t possibly promote ten books per month. Your editing might be sloppy because the three editors can’t edit this many books either, and your covers might not have a high quality because the cover artist is making them a dime a dozen.

This phenomenon is called the author mill. Publishers release ten or more titles a month and make money, not because a large amount of these books sell, but because they have so many books out. Stay clear of the author mill. Go for a publisher who spends more time focusing on your book.

8. They reply to your submission at lightning speed

While it’s always possible that a submission is so outstanding or incredible that the acquisition editors reads it right away, chances of this happening are extremely rare. You’d have more luck turning a frog into a prince, so to speak. If you’ve send your submission (and with this, I mean your entire manuscript) today, and you receive a response on the same day, take a step back and think if that’s even possible.

You might not believe it, but some small publishers – usually the same ones who want authors to buy copies of their own books, rather than just getting the books where they belong: in the readers’ hands – actually accept manuscripts without having read them. Remember the author mill I was talking about? Well, that’s what’s going on here. They’re not actually interested in your manuscript, but they’re interested in having you on board. In you buying copies of your own book.

9. The amount of time between acceptance and publication is very short

It usually takes a year or more between when a manuscript is accepted and when it will actually be published. At least, that’s the case with large publishers. In midsize or small publishing companies, it’s usually a bit faster, but still, there are limits.

If you want an effective promotion for a book, then understand that for magazines like Publishers Weekly, The Library Journal or The New York Times, ARCs have to be sent at least four months before publication to even be considered for review. Bookstores and libraries usually order their books before the release date. This vital part of book promotion will not happen if the time from acceptance of your manuscript to its publication is four months or less.

Editing itself usually takes more than four months, back and forth. If you only have one round of editing, then it might get tricky. Usually not all typos are errors are cleaned up in the first round. Plus, editing is hardly all that has to happen. Sending out ARCs, hosting pre-release promo events,…all of that is threatened.

If you’re looking at an eBook publishing business only, then the time between acceptance and publication can be shorter. However, even if that’s the case, no one can publish a book properly in two months. Editing an entire novel, making a book cover, setting up promotion, even for an eBook-only book, that takes time. Are you willing to sacrifice these vital parts of the publication process only to be published sooner?

10. The publishing company is less than two years old

There are always people ready to jump on the bandwagon of new companies. It’s also a necessity, because else those publishing houses wouldn’t stand a chance. However, be cautious. With the bad economy as of late, publishing isn’t what it used to be. The internet makes starting and stopping a publishing house a lot easier than it was twenty, or even ten, years ago. The general guideline is to wait if a publishing house is still around two years from now. Even then, be cautious. If there have been rumors about the publishing company in question not paying their staff or their authors, stay away from them.


I’m pretty sure these aren’t the only publisher red flags out there. There are probably more, but these are the most prominent ones, and the ones you will come across the most. It’s a good idea to look for all the flags if you visit a publisher’s website, and tick off the ones you can spot.

And always, always check the AbsoluteWrite forums before you sign with a publisher. They have threads on all publishers there, listing the good and the bad and the latest news. If you can’t find a thread for the publisher you stumbled upon, then open a new thread.

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