Red Flags and Publishers

It isn't unusual for my (editorial) clients to come to me for advice on agents and publishers. Over the years, I have forged many connections with a variety of industry professionals as I considered pursing traditional publication. If I can't find information on a publisher, I likely know someone who does know something about the group (or individual) I'm researching.

I was asked about J Ellington Ashton Press, as my client was approached by them regarding an unfinished book she is working on–a project I'm in progress of helping her develop and edit. I encourage my clients to try to push the boundaries and look for opportunities. Sometimes good things happen; an author meets another author and gets a connection to a publisher. Sometimes an author takes a project and approaches a publisher with promising results.

Sometimes my clients are simply curious and want more information.

While my job is to help them strengthen their manuscript, if I can provide a factual answer to their questions regarding other facets of the industry, I will. I want my clients to be able to make sound decisions for themselves and their novels.

My client met an author from this press who tried to recruit her for the press after discussing the book. (This, honestly, triggered a bit of a red flag for me. That's a personal red flag, so I filed it away as a note and went about my vetting process as normal.)

As a side trip, let me explain why this is a red flag for me: Publishing houses are looking for authors all of the time. However, most of them use an agent model or a submissions call model; authors and agents go to them. However, this tends to change at places like conventions and after certain relationships have been built. There are exceptions to every rule and stereotype, but mostly authors and agents approach publishers.

Legitimate agents will approach authors, though–and sometimes from startling prestigious agencies. Once upon a time, I was approached by an agent from a very notable house in London. As I did with my client, I vetted the existence of the agent and that they were authentically a part of the agency. I was gobsmacked. It didn't work out for us as a author/agent pairing, but such approaches do happen.

Back to the main subject.

When I'm checking out a publisher (or literary agent) for myself (or for others) there are a few criteria I look for. I check the cover quality. I click through most of the publisher's catalog and check for sales rankings, reviews, and read samples. Depending on what I find, I'll check for business reviews and complaints. (I did not do this last step for this publisher.)

I asked my client some questions, and here is what I found out.

Editorial: The publishing house utilizes two editors. (This is typically good.) Authors are not charged for editorial. (Also good.)

Here's my personal issue with this press: Authors who sign with this house are, apparently, asked not to make use of beta readers or hired editors to improve their stories. (Bad. This means a writer can't follow their process to create better books. Hiring an editor is flat-out banned, and the house grudgingly permits betas. Keyword, grudgingly.) I'm biased because I'm an editor, but I'm also biased because hiring editors is a critical part of my progress. Even if I wasn't a self publisher, I'd probably hire before submitting to an agent. Hiring an editor who works well with me and my writing style is an integral part of how I produce a book. I need someone to ask advice, brainstorm ideas with, and run issues by as I'm working on a book.

Not all folks are like this, of course.

Cover Art: Ouch, my eyes. There were one or two decent covers, but most of them were… not. Authors are given the option to provide their own covers if they can get the artist to sign over all rights to the cover. (This is typically a good thing, as many authors can't afford cover artists. However, I found the covers to be lacking in appeal. See more about this in the Sales section.)

Sales: Here is the real kicker. Does a publisher provide marketing and ways to improve an author's sales? So, here is where the most research happens. I clicked a lot of their books, including ones from their top author.

Most titles ranked between 500,000 to 1,300,000 in sales ranking with Amazon. Their best author had quite a few books, but only one of his titles had 10 reviews. (The rest had fewer.) While I expect new releases to have less than 10 reviews, I have higher expectations for novels released by a publisher. The publisher should be making efforts to contact reviewers and making certain their books have good visibility. That is important for sales; it's also important for their authors.

So, after looking at the press, I really recommended that my client decline their invitation. I have nothing against small presses; I think they open a lot of doors to authors… but I do feel authors shouldn't be so desperate as to lose control of their novels and writing process without a high chance of it paying forward in sales and visibility with major ebook vendors.

Be aware. Don't just jump at an offer because someone is interested in you. (It feels great having someone interested in you, I know! But make the best choice for your novel. That choice may ultimately be self publish with your own skills, but don't just dive in because you perceive an open door.)

It could slam you in the ass–or worse, in your royalty check.

In conclusion: Could this press be viable for some people? Sure, it's possible. However, it's a very risky gamble, and considering that the publisher doesn't encourage authors to improve themselves outside of their contracts, it's a very risky proposition indeed.

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