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Are there any specific signs (singular or groups of) that I should pay attention to when it comes to publishers?

I have read about publishing houses that charge their authors quite large amounts of money, while not providing much in the way of return for the money.

Are there any other signs I should be aware of?

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up vote 23 down vote accepted

On evaluating a good publisher:

  • Your publisher shouldn't charge you anything, period.
  • Your publisher should explain exactly what your contract terms are, then give them to you in writing for your lawyer / best friend / psychic / mom / whomever-you-like to review before you sign.
  • Your publisher should have a verifiable list of successful titles with a similar market to yours. (This isn't to say that new publishers are bad, but they are outside my risk tolerance unless there was an introduction by someone I trust).
  • Your publisher should be able to lay out for you exactly what they will be doing to earn their keep, and it should be included in the contract just as your obligations are.
  • Your publisher should respond courteously to questions about the process, especially since you've told them you are new at this. If they are defensive or give you the brush-off, they are hiding something.
  • Your publisher should be offering a deal that both of you feel is fair.

Extras that make for an amazing publisher:

  • Experience in digital publishing, examples of great ebook production.
  • Willingness to consider releasing work under a Creative Commons license, either at publication time or a set number of years afterward.
  • Shares my aversion to DRM, and will sell DRM-free ebooks from day-1 as well as pressure DRM-addicted outlets to let my titles be sold DRM-free if at all possible.
  • Gives me a single, easy-to-reach point person regarding my project.
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You publisher should also be willing to negotiate a contract. If the only option they give you makes you give up every right they can think of just move on. – Fox Cutter Nov 19 '10 at 19:21
Good addition, Fox. – HedgeMage Nov 19 '10 at 21:06

In addition to HedgeMage's answer, which provides a nice summary of the issues:

There are a number of online resources and discussion places on the topic of dodgy publishers, such as Writer Beware, Preditors and Editors and Absolute Write. You can search these for general tips or to check on specific publishers.

This article by Victoira Strauss provides a good summary of things to look for (agents as well as publishers) and links to other resources.

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Both of these were good answers, but on the balance, I had to accept the more complete. I was thinking of "Writer Beware" when I asked the question (my example in the question is far-too-frequently mentioned there), but thought it to be a good question to have in the open. – Vatine Nov 22 '10 at 7:40

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