Readers do not give one wet goddamn about the reputation of the publishing house that published the book they're buying. Odds are they'll never even check to see who the publisher even was. Which is all very well and good for the democratization of publishing. It means that whoever you are, wherever you are, if you're producing a quality product, in the minds of readers you can compete with the Big 5.
But for a brand new author, it means you're swimming in an ocean bobbing with fins, and only a few of those are friendly bottlenoses. So if you've received an offer on your manuscript here are a few things I recommend you research to determine whether the small press is a shark or not. (You should probably run through the first few steps when you're even considering submitting to them to avoid wasting everyone's time, but it's probably a little labor intensive to go through the whole list until you have an actual offer in hand.)
1.) Are they overtly and rather obviously scammers? By this I mean, have you done your rather basic and, I would think, fucking obvious research? Have you googled the name of the publisher? Do they come up on the bad boy list on either "Writer Beware" or "Preditors and Editors?" Worse, do they come up as pending litigation or on Better Business Bureau websites? After you've checked "WB" and "P&E," which, I assure you, are absolutely indispensable for this purpose, if you like you can also drill down into the "Absolute Write" forums, where I guarantee you will able to find more information. However, I have to caveat that "AW" is very...um...let's say personality-driven. I mean, you can imagine a forum where jilted writers all gather to complain about the people who rejected them. So there can be a metric fuckton of information there - down to even dates and times of rejections - but remember to take it all with a grain of salt. Some people will just be complaining to complain, so there may be some spirited differences of opinions, but if a publisher seems universally reviled on "AW," that should set off the warning klaxons for you.
2.) Is there ominous silence? The flip side of doing your research is that you may just come up with nothing. If the publisher is not even listed on the three sites I've mentioned above, the odds are they're brand spanking new. Now brand spanking new is not necessarily a bad thing, but common wisdom states that most small presses fold within a year, and your book will fold up and disappear with it if you weren't careful at contract time. So it's best to wait until a publisher has been around for at least a year before submitting to them. Now, I know, that's not going to stop a lot of you from striking while the iron's hot or getting in out the ground floor or whatever. (It sure as shit didn't stop me from signing with Red Adept in 2013.) Just at least remember that you're basically signing up with an unknown quantity, so make sure you get a serious warm and fuzzy from the publisher before signing with them. (Which, yes, I did.) Don't just go with them because they're the first (or only) people who accepted your manuscript.
3.) Is their web presence professional? Look, I use Blogger. I like Blogger. I've never felt a need to shell out the ducats to get my own domain. Maybe I should; I dunno. But I'm not really asking people to trust me with their business. My blog is just one moving part of my greater social media presence. It's a place where I write shit that doesn't fit into 140 characters. And I know my blog isn't even the nicest in terms of how it's set up. But it's kind of like I put some effort into it, isn't it? There's a toolbar up top. There's a masthead. Now, when you're looking at a small press, knowing that they are, in fact, a business, are they using Blogger/Wordpress? Or did they actually get a website? Is their website nice and professional and easy to navigate? Does their Twitter account similarly look professional? Does it have followers? What about Facebook? No, social media metrics do not necessarily equate to quality or sales. But look, the main thing a small press brings you is a cover, editing, and marketing. So if they look like a chimpanzee could market them better than they can market themselves, how well do you think your book is going to sell in their simian little hands?
4.) Are their covers high quality? There's an old saying never to judge a book by its cover. Cool, cool, and yay for ugly swans and all that lovely hippie shit. But you, as an aspiring author, had goddamned well better judge a publisher by its covers. If their covers are ugly, pug ugly, fugly, pug fugly, or even ugly ugly, then guess what? That's the kind of cover you're going to get. And you don't want that. Because covers sell books. Sorry, dudes, but nobody listens to that nice old saying in its most germane context. The last time you went browsing a bookstore I guarantee you the books you picked up to even look at the back cover were the ones whose covers caught your eye. Same thing online. Same thing with every reader. A quality manuscript will have real trouble overcoming an ugly-ass cover. Now what if the small press doesn't have any covers? Well, go back and treat them as though they're brand new as in #2 above.
5.) Are their books getting sales? (Bullet points 5, 6, and 7 are best executed simultaneously, so if you're the sort of person who is following this list point-by-point, make sure you read all three first before proceeding.)
If you've gotten this far, you're seriously considering going with this small press. There are no obvious red flags. They look and feel and talk like an actual publisher, and not some fly-by-night Mickey Mouse hokum. So now the rubber meets the road. Go to Amazon and search for the exact name of the press as it appears in the "Product Details" section of one of their published books. (Hopefully it's not something like "French Press," because, ugh, then it's going to be all books about coffee.) Don't know what I mean? Here:
6.) Are their books getting reviews? Reviews can be an indicator of sales and vice versa. Or they can not. It's hard to say. But remember what I said about small presses having to bear some responsibility for marketing? Any good small press should have at least a few trusted reviewers who review all of their books. They may even have a blog tour company or a publicist of some sort on retainer. That'll help ease the burden off of you a little bit. So you want to check and see if their books have reviews. So how many reviews are good? Well, EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED has been out for about ten months and has fourteen reviews. BRAINEATER JONES has been out for three years and has 93. I can't tell you what "good" necessarily is, or what level of success you're willing to accept. But if a book's been out for five years and it has two reviews, yeah, that's shit. If it's been out for six weeks and has two hundred, that's sizzling. And because sales and reviews vary by author, you want to look at a couple of books from a couple of different authors in the small press's stable. Maybe some are shitty but others are good. Are you overall getting a warm and fuzzy? Or are you overall thinking these people may look professional but they can't move books for shit?
7.) Is the writing in their books high quality? As long as you're perusing the books on Amazon, make sure to click on the "Look Inside" feature on a few of them that catch your interest. The thing is, small presses do pick up a lot of good authors who are simply squeezed out of traditional publishing by the vagaries of fate and a cluttered industry. One thing I can say unreservedly about Red Adept is that I've never read a bad novel from their house, not even in genres that I normally avoid. They're genuinely seeking quality writers who have been overlooked, as the best small presses do. But small presses can also be paper mills that pick up as many crumbums as possible, hoping that by sheer volume one of them will pay out. I mean, a single bestseller can underwrite a dozen crapfests. So the question is: are you all right with your publisher treating you as a commodity? Or do you want them to consider you a partner? Because if they're a paper mill, and all of their books are garbage, they're going to treat you more like a robot arm making a product than a creator making art. If you're opening up all of their books and they're all utter dreck, you can probably guess that they either have a terrible eye for manuscripts (in which case do you want to be working with them anyway?) or they're just throwing all the spaghetti against the wall and hoping it sticks. Another element of this is that the fellow authors in your stable are going to become an important resource to you. You're going to be doing favors for them and they're going to be doing favors for you. So do you want to be promoting some drivel? Or do you want to be working with other authors you genuinely respect?
8.) Do their authors speak positively about them? In the social media age it's not hard to tell what authors think of their publishers. I talk about all of mine routinely on this blog. So you can probably do some googling and see if people are complaining about their publishers. But this is a little indirect, and most authors are not so indiscreet as to air their dirty laundry in public. So you should reach out to some of the authors in the small press's stable and ask them directly what they think. A reputable small press will even encourage you to do so, and give you the names of a few of their authors. My recommendation? Don't ask the authors the small press names. Because the small press is probably going to give you the names of their most successful and/or most satisfied authors. The ones who've already drunk the Kool-Aid. You've already done your research. You know who writes for them. Reach out to some of the low men on the totem pole. If you're scared or nervous about doing this, don't be. Cheryl Guerriero, who I don't know from Adam and who lives in California, reached out to me when she was considering signing with Red Adept and I immediately called her and we had a nice, 45 minute conversation about it. I've even reached out to some big names in the industry with these sorts of question and not a one of them has blown me off. Part of being an author is paying forward the good stuff people have done for your career. So just remember this in a few years when some n00b comes knocking on your door, asking about your publisher.
9.) Have you asked your friends in the industry? And, yes, I count as a friend in the industry. Okay, so you've done your dummy research and you've done some deeper research. You've reached out to a bunch of authors in the stable who you were shocked to learn were not as intimidating as you thought. You've got warm fuzzies right up and down the line. Now the last thing to do is ask advice from your friends in the industry. Why would you do this? Well, because you can rely on their experience. They may be familiar with the small press you're looking into. Even if they're not, you can at least rely on them to be slightly removed from the situation. You're all excited because you've had a nibble on your manuscript. But your friends are going to be able to ground you. Okay, so what if you don't have any friends in the industry? Well, guess what? If you're reading this blog, you have at least one. All my contact info's in the "About Me" page up there. Reach out to me. Please. I mean it. I make this offer every single time I do a panel on this subject, and my blog readers are at least as deserving of my time as my panel audiences. I would much rather that you ask for five minutes of my time now than regret your choices for years and years to come. Trust me, it's just part of me paying back all the good folks who did this for me.