Sussing Out Legitimate Publishers

Hello Rachelle,
I received a formal letter from [Name Deleted] Publishing stating that they want to publish my book. The company looks solid. However, I self published my first book and really want to work hard until I can land an industry recognized publisher this time around. How do you find out if a publisher is legit? What are the first steps new writers should take once someone says they want to publish their book? What questions they should be asking?
Excited But Nervous


Dear Excited,

I’ve never heard of that publishing company, but that might not mean much – there are hundreds of small niche publishers who are legit and whose names I wouldn’t recognize.

But you really should check them out before you decide to work with them. Research the way you would anything else: Do a thorough Google search to start with, and ask around through your own contacts to see if anyone has had dealings with them.

Check Amazon for all the books they’ve published, paying attention to titles, authors and rankings. See if you can find any of their books actually on the shelves at Borders or Barnes & Noble. You may even want to get in touch with a couple of their authors if you feel comfortable doing so, “checking references” so to speak, and ask them about their experience.

Look at the language on their website: emphasis on words like “partnership” and “entrepreneurial” might be clues that they’re a vanity publisher.

Check all the publishing watchdog sites: Absolute Write Water Cooler, P&E (Preditors and Editors), and Writer Beware.

After doing all the research, have a conversation with them. Ask a lot of questions about the details of their offer. They should pay you royalties, and hopefully an advance even if it’s small. Lack of an advance is not a definite sign they’re not legit; however, if they don’t pay an advance, you may want to hold off on making a deal until you’ve tried every single advance-paying publisher you can think of.

There should be no requirement whatsoever that you pay them for anything, or that you purchase a certain number of copies, or contribute dollars for “marketing” or editorial services, or design, or anything else. If they say anything about charging money for any part of the process, beware. We’re seeing these houses get very creative in the way they get money from authors, including one that is requiring authors to pay thousands for a writing course! If they require any money from you, at any time for any reason, they’re some kind of vanity or subsidy press. If you’re not looking for a vanity or self-publishing deal, this is not for you.

You’ll also want to ask questions about their distribution. Do they sell beyond Ingram and Amazon? What chain stores are they in? Big box stores? Do they have a sales rep team that goes out and sells to independents, or are they only online? Are they also available in a Kindle edition as well as the other digital formats for Sony Reader, iPad, etc?

Ask them how many copies of your book they expect to sell in the first year. Ask how many copies of most books similar to yours they sell in the first year. See it you can get them to give you numbers.

You need to determine if working with them would be any better than self-publishing. If they are not bringing any distribution to the table, you have to think really carefully about it. It may be better to go the self-publishing route and keep all your proceeds rather than a small royalty.

Hope that helps!

The Voice of Reason


Note to readers: This author’s further research revealed that the publisher who made the “offer” was indeed a vanity press who charges the author $5000 yet still only pays a 20% royalty. Not a good deal!

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  15. Jeppe on June 25, 2011 at 12:35 PM

    I like the way they put it: “Break even”
    It’s like it was no big deal haha. 10 thousand books!

    • Mike J on August 1, 2011 at 7:19 PM

      Haha I couldn’t agree more. It’s like, how is that NOT a big deal? =) Like they only break even.

  16. Tahlia on June 14, 2010 at 8:19 PM

    >A really helpful post, thanks

  17. Mary Hawkins on June 14, 2010 at 7:38 PM

    >This is excellent advice and I have just sent an email to Australian writers' groups directing them to your blog. I also very much appreciate the comments so far. Thank you, Rachelle, and was great meeting you at ACFW in Denver!

  18. Stephanie Shott on June 11, 2010 at 9:41 AM

    >Great post, Rachelle!

    While I was waiting to hear from the publisher I had sent my manscript to, I received a couple of letters of interest in my book.

    Both of them turned out to be self-publishing houses that charge a hefty fee.

    Thanks for the words of wisdom.

  19. Jen J. on June 11, 2010 at 8:27 AM

    >Rachelle, thank you so much for sharing this letter and your response on the blog. Sometimes publishing seems like an insurmountable goal, but taking the short route clearly has its pitfalls. For those of us that are relatively new to the industry and are trying to soak up all the information that we can so that we can make educated decisions, cautionary advice like this is pure gold. Thank you…

  20. Jane Wells on June 11, 2010 at 6:49 AM

    >This would have helped me a few months ago when I stumbled across a publishing house online with a submissions page. I was elated by the eas-of-use, clueless that it was a flytrap… After much flattery and encouraging feedback, the hook was set and they asked for thousands of dollars. Thank God for a well grounded husband otherwise I might have taken the bait. The sense of betrayal I felt was worse than the sting of any legitimate agent rejection I've received so far.
    Apparently, even "Christian" vanity publishers are wolves in sheeps' clothing.

  21. Anonymous on June 10, 2010 at 7:18 PM

    >Tim, it's true there aren't *many* publishers that don't ask for money, compared to the numbers that do.

    My publisher, Random House, has never asked me to spend money. I would not work with a publisher that did.

    Sure, it's hard work getting taken on by a big publisher, but the hard work is done on improving your writing. A lot of writers would think that's a worthwhile goal.

  22. Ronda Laveen on June 10, 2010 at 6:35 PM

    >It gets more and more complicated, doesn't it?

  23. T. Anne on June 10, 2010 at 4:39 PM

    >*First* (per twitter) Congrats on waking up to a three book deal Rachelle! I'm sure the author is pretty happy about that too!

    This post is a great wake up call for those entertaining different publishing venues. I have an aunt who's main purpose of her children's books was to give them to her grandchildren. A vanity press worked for her. I can't think of another situation that could possibly support the use of a vanity press.

    Small presses are great, but distribution is key. It's all about doing your homework.

  24. Timothy Fish on June 10, 2010 at 4:05 PM

    >I mean no offence to James D. Macdonald, but Yog’s Law is broken. If we were to apply it as an axiom by which to determine which publishers are legit, most traditional publishers would have to be lumped with the self-publishers. There aren’t many publishers out there that don’t expect their authors to get out and promote their own books at their own expense, often doing things that will not generate enough sales to cover the cost of the activity.

  25. Sharon A. Lavy on June 10, 2010 at 2:56 PM

    >You continually find new ways to educate writers. Thank you Rachelle!

  26. Anonymous on June 10, 2010 at 1:54 PM

    >If any publisher site has a "testimonials" page, RUN away. That's the first sign it may cost you money.

    Obey YOG'S LAW: Money flows to the writer.

    If they want to charge you ANY kind of fee, RUN away.

    Google the name of the publisher + "scam" or "ripoff." If they've been bad, people will have left complaints. Listen to them.

    To find a legit publisher, GO TO A BOOKSTORE. They will not shelve POD, vanity, or self-published books, else they'd have no room for pro-pubbed books.

    Look inside the front page of books similar to yours. Those will likely be legit houses. Check their submission guidelines.

    You do similar stuff for finding an agent. Write authors with books similar to yours and ask if they can recommend an agent. Most pros don't mind "paying back". Just don't ask them to critique your work! 😉

    Seconding going to Absolute Write, Writer Beware, and P&E.

    Any "publisher" who advertises will probably be a vanity house.

    Legit publishing houses don't have to advertise on the Net or in the backs of writing magazines. The first thing I ever learned was that vanity house always advertise.

    Go to the 808 section of your library and read every book you can find about writing and the publishing industry. It's not rocket science.

    The more you know, the less chance you will be cheated by that smiling stranger with candy who tells you you're a fantastic writer, just sign here…

  27. Terri on June 10, 2010 at 1:50 PM

    >Just a couple of things to add:

    1. Google the name of the company plus the word "scam" and see if anything pops. Try it with Publish America sometime.

    2. Don't pay the publisher anything! (EVER) Not for a cover design or for editing or anything.

    If you do that, you are better off self-pubbing. If you go with self-pubbing and can't do your own design or editing, get online and find a freelancer for a fraction of what the so-called publisher will charge.

    I am wrapping up a barter arrangement with an incredible artist for a picture book I am self-pubbing for a niche collectible market. It was mutually beneficial for both of us. I got fantastic art and he got an excellent portfolio addition along with a royalty agreement. Out of pocket cost was less than $300 for 25 drawings and a cover painting.

    If this project works out, I am going to basically set up a small press to cater to this market exclusively. I am learning how to do layouts, editing, bleeds, you name it, I gotta learn it to get this off the ground.

    It won't stop me from pursuing commercial publication for my novel, it is a sideline where I have realistic expectations and an established platform.

    Unfortunately, there is no 'EASY' button for publication, self or commercial.


  28. patriciazell on June 10, 2010 at 1:44 PM

    >This is why I am going to actively seek an agent first. Thanks for the information, Rachelle!

  29. Lenore Buth at on June 10, 2010 at 1:33 PM

    >Thanks for the great rundown. I have a casual friend who emigrated from Poland years ago and wanted to tell his story. What mattered most to him was having his story in a form he could hand on to his family. He never showed me the contract and gave me only sketchy details.

    After reading your post, I wish I had urged him to let me read the fine print before he signed. At this point all I can do is hope it's as he told me. Then he'll accomplish what he set out to do and he'll be satisfied.

    I appreciate being informed on what to look for, Rachelle.

  30. Michael K. Reynolds on June 10, 2010 at 1:29 PM

    >When I was quite young and actively (and naively) pursuing songwriting opportunities, I was thrilled to receive a publishing offer for three of my songs from Hollywood. I had a celebration dinner with my family and there were high fives all around. I was going big time, baby.

    The following week I called and found out the person who offered the contracts was fired, but they were still interested. When time passed, I finally made a trip up there only to find out that the address didn't exist. We should never be too anxious to sign a contract.

    Thank you for your excellent insight.

  31. stacy on June 10, 2010 at 12:07 PM

    >I don't know. As a writer, I wouldn't want to just "break even" after selling 10,000 books.

  32. Roxane B. Salonen on June 10, 2010 at 11:22 AM

    >Rachelle, not long ago I had a young writer (high school student) approach me over his excitement of receiving a publication offer. I am fairly certain, based on what he told me through email, that it was a vanity press; they expected money upfront. I gave him the best advice I could but never did hear back from him. If it sounds too good to be true…well then…

    That said, I got burned once myself, not through money but false hopes. I had a contract with a small, new press that I really thought was sound. They ended up folding before the book was published, and not even telling me. I had to find out through online research that they'd gone belly up. That dream floated away into the air and was a frustrating disappointment, but it taught me something about the business, how to be more vigilant, and to be especially cautious about publishers who have yet to establish themselves. I think they had good intentions but obviously bit off more than they could chew. In the end, I didn't mind that as much as the fact that they just dumped me and the other authors cold without any notification. There are good and bad eggs in the publishing world, as in any circle, and it's up to us to smell out the rotten ones. This warning is well heeded here and important for eager, hopeful authors to hear.

  33. Samantha on June 10, 2010 at 11:14 AM

    >I tell you what, I managed to get hooked up with one of these thinking it was the real deal because it was in one of the Writer's Market books. I'm now in way over my head 🙁 $2900 over to be exact, with another $2900 "due". It's hell and absolutly miserable as a new writer who just wanted to get their book out there. Now it's likely going to end in a contract suit and my book being taken off shelves. 🙁 Research is key here folks take it from me I thought I did enough and, well, guess not, I think I got too excited to fast.

  34. Timothy Fish on June 10, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    >While I probably wouldn’t go for a vanity press that charges $5,000 and pays a 20% royalty, I would be hesitant to call it a bad deal. In comparison to a traditional publishing contract it doesn’t look great, but if it includes some degree of editing and the publisher is working from a manuscript rather than a print ready PDF then I don’t see that it is unfair. The $5,000 would pay for the time required to design the cover, do the editing and typeset the book block. Depending on which POD printer they are using and how they decide to set the price of the book, 20% may be the highest possible rate they can give the author. Compared to a traditional contract with the author receiving a $5,000 advance and a 10% royality, the breakeven point is 5,000 books. If the author sells 10,000 books, he would actually be head of the traditional publishing contract by $5,000.

  35. Beth on June 10, 2010 at 8:54 AM

    >It used to be that putting a book together was a tough process, requiring physical paste up, etc. Now with the ease of desktop publishing and the lower rates tempting authors to self-publish, I think we're going to see more and more vanity publishers.

    Glad that you gave her such good info that saved her from a potential unhappy situation.

  36. Kathryn Magendie on June 10, 2010 at 8:47 AM

    >I've heard "horror stories" of writers who signed up with publishers who turned out to be vanity publishers, and then the nickle and diming began. Ugh.

    I'm sorry to the writer where it turned out to be a vanity publisher – 🙁

  37. Cliff Graham on June 10, 2010 at 8:33 AM

    >Thanks for the even-handed commentary. Not all publishers who have investment models are bad, depending on what the author is looking for, but it certainly needs to be pointed out how different they are from traditional publishers. I've gone both routes, and each one has served it's purpose when the time required it.

  38. Kelly Freestone on June 10, 2010 at 7:17 AM

    >Thanks so much, Rachelle. 😀
    I hope the writer finds the best deal for him/herself.

  39. Anonymous on June 10, 2010 at 6:32 AM

    >Rachelle, that's all excellent advice. May I add two more things to the pile?

    According to Victoria over at Writer Beware Blogs, a new trick is companies that don't ask for money upfront but have contracts that state, far along in the fine print, that if the book doesn't sell a minimum number of copies you'll pay a hefty fee. Watch for that; ask about it.

    Second, having sold to legitimate publishers my experience has been that they never, ever contact you and say they want to publish your book. They contact you and ask to see changes. Rewrites. Re-rewrites. They ask you questions. They sniff around. The offer comes only after a great deal of sniffing around.


  40. Creepy Query Girl on June 10, 2010 at 6:07 AM

    >Wow, thanks for all of that information and I'm glad the author found out ahead of time what the publisher was really all about!