Advice for Writers — Avoiding Shady Publishers

Posted on: May 14, 2012

Ok, I realize some of you might at first wonder what in the Hell a post about writing is doing on a website that seems devoted to all manner of disaster readiness information. Well, there are a few reasons I put this post here.

1) I didn’t want to start a brand new blog just for a few posts about writing. I own this site already so figured I’d take advantage of the space available to me.

2) A fair number of my regular readers are working on their own books or magazine articles and the information I hope to impart here may be of some use to them.

3) I’ve been fortunate in my writing career to have many close friends who have made most of the common mistakes and have shared their wisdom and guidance with me in hopes of me avoiding those same pitfalls. This is my way of paying it forward.

On a fairly regular basis, I see posts on message boards or entries on blogs written by relatively new writers who have been burned by shady publishers. When I say “new,” I don’t mean they’ve just started putting words down on a screen or in a notebook. Rather, I’m referring to these folks who are just starting out with trying to get their writing published. They may have been writing for years but have finally decided to make a go of getting their words in print somewhere, hopefully garnering them a nickel or two for their trouble.

When starting out with submitting material to publishers, one normally expects many more rejections than acceptances. These rejections don’t always mean the writer isn’t “good” enough. Often, it is a case of the submitted story or article not being a good fit for the publication, the publisher not having room in the schedule for it, or something else along those lines. Of course, sometimes it IS the writing that causes the rejection. Hopefully, the writer takes the time to learn something from every rejection letter, improves their craft, and keeps submitting quality material. The point to be taken here is that it is totally and completely normal to have stories and articles rejected.

On occasion though, the writer is contacted by a publisher, usually as the result of a submission but occasionally it seems to come out of the blue. The publisher thinks the writing is great and wants to put it in an anthology or some other project. Sadly, the publisher isn’t in a position to pay for the material (or if they are, it is nothing more than a pittance) but the writer is encouraged to purchase a goodly number of the books at a discount to sell to family and friends. The writer, stars in their eyes at the prospect of finally seeing their name in print, gives the go ahead on whatever the publisher wants to do.

That’s when things sometimes get ugly.

The publisher might never actually get around to putting out the book or magazine. During the months or years the writer waits, that article or story is locked up and cannot be sold elsewhere, potentially costing the writer money.

The publisher might finally publish the story or article, but has edited it to the point it is unrecognizable to the writer. They’ve added sentences or even complete paragraphs. They’ve cut some characters out of the story completely while adding others. The writer is disappointed (at best) that the story they worked so hard to produce has been rendered a piece of garbage.

The publisher might put out the story without many if any changes, but never seems to get around to sending out the token payment that may have been promised. Sadly, more people have bad luck trying to collect $10 than they do trying to collect $100. In other words, a publisher who is willing to pay $100 for an article is much more likely to actually send out the check than the one who promises a ten spot.

The good news is, much of this unpleasantness can be avoided by taking your time and actually researching your potential publisher. This should be done prior to signing any sort of contract, ideally before even submitting to a potential market.

Let your fingers do the walking and hit Google or another major search engine. Search the name of the publication and “complaints.” Do the same with the name of the editor. Check to see what else the publisher has put out in the last couple years. Do they look like professionally edited projects? When checking out the editor, see if they are pretty much the only employee of the publication. If that’s the case, see what else they have written and had published. If their only publishing credits are for projects they themselves edited and self-pubbed, that’s a red flag right there.

Ask around on your various social networking sites. Has anyone you know worked with them before? Have they even heard of them before?

How long has the publisher been in business? If they’ve been around less than a couple years, tread carefully. Like restaurants, many publishers don’t stand the test of time and fold fairly soon. Those that survive do so because they (generally) know what the Hell they are doing and are good at their jobs.

The take away from this blog post is this — do your homework BEFORE signing away the rights to your story or article. You can bitch and complain all you want after you get stiffed or screwed over but most of the time, that isn’t going to really help your situation.

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