When Writer Beware was founded in 1998, the main stars in the market of literary scammers were literary brokers (or people contacting themselves literary brokers). The rise of digital publishing has changed all that. Digital technology, which makes it easy and inexpensive to set up a publishing operation, has generated a tidal influx of micro and publishers–small, POD, and digital.

These web publishers don’t work with agents (nor, since they pay no developments and generate few sales typically, would a reputable agent to be interested in dealing with them). The result has been a reduction in authors’ conception of the need for a literary agent, and thus, a decrease in the ability of false literary agents to make a killing–er, a full-time income. That’s not to say there aren’t still literary agent scams (there are), or amateur “agents” wanting to break into the business with no vestige of submitting industry knowledge or connections (sadly, there are still plenty of these).

But new ones aren’t showing up every little while, just how they once do. Nowadays, Writer Beware receives far more reports and complaints about questionable publishers. Or Is it possible to send me a list of publishers you’d recommend for my kind of book? Or, from frustrated writers really, You only talk about bad publishers, the trend is to ever discuss the nice ones and help us writers out? We think we are assisting out by determining questionable web publishers and questionable publishing practices. But the main reason we don’t provide “good publisher” lists, or recommend specific publishers, is that even the best publisher is only “best” for some writers.

There are numerous, many excellent web publishers, small and large, digital and non-digital–but their concentrates vary so widely that any one publisher won’t necessarily be right for any particular author. For instance, Tor is one of the very best US science fantasy and fiction web publishers, but if you’ve just completed a memoir or a romance, it’s not a proper choice.

It’s really best, therefore, for writers themselves to choose which publishers to approach, rather than relying on recommendations from others. In searching for a good publisher, it’s very important to know the warning signs of a negative one. One of the most obvious warning signs is fees of any type.

I’m not discussing the fees billed by submitting services such as iUniverse and its ilk but about procedures that identify themselves as “publishers” yet want their writers to pay something or buy something as a disorder of publication. This includes (but isn’t limited by) publishing fees, editing, and enhancing fees, design fees, publicity fees, or a requirement that you get your own publication or find an “investor” to fund it.

Something else to avoid: brand new publishers. There’s a very high attrition rate for new small publishers, so unless you’re sure the people involved have real posting experience–not to say a small business plan–it’s best to have a wait-and-see attitude. Okay, that’s how to prevent questionable publishers. So, how to find reputable ones?

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One of the most apparent ways is to visit the bookstore, and spend some time in the area where books much like yours (in subject, genre, and/or concentrate) are shelved. The ability to get books into physical stores is one of the key characteristics that separates commercial web publishers from other types. You can identify books you prefer also, or writers you admire, and discover who publishes them. A print market guide that includes publisher listings can also be helpful. Why a print guide?

Because you can run into a lot of trouble if you begin your publisher search on the Internet. Writer’s Market, from Writer’s Digest Books, and Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, are just two examples. For larger commercial publishers, you will likely need an agent–most of the bigger houses are closed to unagented submissions. But there’s also many reputable independent publishers that are willing to work directly with authors. I’ve saved till last the most important bit of advice: Know something about the posting industry Before you begin submitting your manuscript.

Not only will this help you focus on your submissions properly, it’ll make you a much better researcher and help to keep you out of the hands of scammers and amateurs. If you understand how the publishing process should work, you will be more likely to spot a problem publisher before you waste your energy querying it. This investment in education takes time first, but it’s one of the most worthwhile assets in your future writing career that you’ll ever make.