I always encourage writers to verify the credibility of people they’re working with, whether it be agents or publishers, designers or printers. It can be tricky, I know, but there are some excellent resources to help authors feel a bit more confident about their decisions as they seek to publish their books.
I decided to create this list after I got a tweet from a company that makes book trailers for authors, then promotes those trailers. Sounds like a good thing. But it turns out that their “marketing strategy” was to tweetspam dozens of publishing professionals and reviewers.
ERRRRR! Wrong answer. You lose.
After tweeting the author to let her know on the off chance she hadn’t heard about it yet, she responded with an apology. Turns out, she had nothing to do with the company and didn’t know anything about the spam. Her publisher, one of the Big 6, had hired the company to make the video. I seriously doubt they asked the company to then promote it by spamming readers. They have savvy, expert publicists on staff, and don’t need inexperienced help.
That brings me to the purpose of this post. There are a lot of pitfalls for authors on the road to publication. There are plenty of scams and unsavory “professionals,” but just as bad are the “experts” who are basically incompetent or so green they don’t know what they’re doing.
Below are a variety of resources for verifying the legitimacy and credibility of various companies and individuals. Then I’ve added a list of questions to ask or things to consider before hiring someone to edit/print/promote your book.
Are they legit?
Victoria Strauss does an amazing job ferreting out scams, unfair business practices, and other traps for authors. If something doesn’t seem right about a professional or company, search the archives to see if problems with them have come up before. If you don’t find anything there or at the other resources below, email her with your concern about a company’s practices and she’ll look into it. But hold off contacting her until you’ve exhausted your search in other places. She gets a lot of email from writers.
Update: Victoria actually posted about this topic on her blog, referring specifically to PR companies. You can read that here.
This database is a godsend when it comes to quickly checking whether a company has a spotty past. Entries are listed alphabetically by the first word in the name or title (so individuals are arranged by first name instead of last). The entries mainly involve agents, editors, and publishers, but there are other companies listed as well. Some of the info is outdated, but it’s sometimes the back history that is hardest to check.
The forums at Absolute Write have so much information on pretty much all aspects of publishing that it’s an invaluable resource. You have to join (for free) to search the forum, as I understand it, but once you do, you’ll probably find more information than you need. Writers share their experiences with various publishing professionals, as well as horror stories. Plus, on occasion some agents and editors will jump in and answer questions or clarify information. There are also threads where they do Q&A with writers.
To quote Harold: “This is a general guide to agents, and at the top of it you’ll find three “case studies” of agent websites: one large, one small, and one to be avoided. They are intended to help writers evaluate unfamiliar or new agencies by their websites. One should check on Preditors and Editors too, of course, but that may not even be necessary if someone can learn to recognize the difference between a legit. agency and a disreputable one.”
I would like to note that much of the advice directed toward children’s authors in the guide applies mainly to picture book and early readers. Middle grade and young adult agents are a different game altogether.
Do they know their stuff?
Not only are there scams to watch out for, there is also the eternal problem of finding someone competent to do the job you’re paying for. If you’re spending quite a bit for a service—more than, say, $50 or $100—do a little digging to make sure your money is well spent. Talk to previous clients and see what work they’ve done via a Google search. That way, you’re not seeing only their best work, but a bigger sample of the overall quality.
I get a lot of my editing and writing work from referrals, or writers who know me from Twitter. One thing I try to do is provide ways potential clients can verify my credentials. I have a Previous Work section that shows published books I’ve edited, most of which are still in print and generally easy to find at a bookstore. They can browse through those books for hard(bound) proof of the quality of my work.
Then there is my Testimonials page. While testimonials aren’t always an ironclad way to verify credibility or competency, it’s often fairly easy to track down those authors via their website, on Twitter, or on Facebook so you can ask them privately what they really thought about their experience with that professional.
If someone doesn’t have these or similar credentials listed on their site, don’t assume it’s for a bad reason. I’d just suggest doing a quick Google to see what you’re getting for your money.
Also, note that a company or professional’s Twitter, Facebook, or blog following has nothing to do with the quality of their work. Some of the most prestigious agencies still don’t have (functioning) websites.
More things to look for
Freelance editor or (ghost)writer
- What is the quality of their work?
- Are they good at meeting deadlines?
- Are they easy to work with?
- Do they have experience in the genre you write? (Some genres have specific nuances and “rules” that a professional working in that area should know.)
- Are there previous clients you can speak with about the editor’s work?
- What is their editing style? (i.e. Are they bluntly honest? Do they offer occasional suggestions or do they go more in depth?) Does it match what you’re looking for?
Book designer or formatter
- Do their covers look like they’re self-published? Or is it hard to tell if a traditional or self-publisher released the book?
- Do they know how to work with books? (Designing books is different than other media because you have to adjust for the spine; flaps, if hardcover; endsheets, if hardcover; gutter; page count, as books are printed in signatures of 16 pages; etc.)
- Are they purchasing images to use for the cover? Which kind of license did they buy? Will you have to pay for a bigger license later if you print a lot of books?
- How are they with meeting deadlines?
- Is your cover a priority or will they shoot out a quick cover and call it good?
- Are you allowed to request changes? If yes, is there a limit on how many revisions are allowed? (Some do cap rounds of revisions because some clients are forever changing their minds.)
- How many sample covers will they provide? (i.e. Will you have a selection of 3 to choose from? Or will they only do one concept?)
Publisher (for indie presses) or printer (for self-publishing)
- How many books have they published? (Some newer presses don’t have enough work out to verify quality or consistency of their books.)
- How is their record on paying authors? How frequently do they pay royalties?
- Do you have to get your own ISBNs or file for copyright?
- What is their distribution model?
- Do they work with the main distributers (Ingram, Baker & Taylor)?
- Do they get books into not only large bookstores and on Amazon, but smaller stores & boutiques?
- How are their books received by readers and reviewers? (Amazon isn’t a very good indicator because so many authors get friends/family/sock puppets to post glowing reviews.)
- How much publicity and marketing will they do? What is expected of you?
Publicist or marketer
- What books have they worked on? Have any of them hit bestseller or best-of lists (including less well-known ones like Indie Next)?
- Did previous clients think the publicist worked hard enough on their book?
- Do they know and understand the “rules” and etiquette of social media?
- Do they use a variety of methods, including print, television/radio, as well as social media?
- Do they only promote via social media? (run, run as fast as you can…)
- Do they call themselves social media gurus or experts? Do they claim to be an expert at SEO? (keep running)
- Do they understand what constitutes spam? More importantly, do they avoid it?
- Do you like how they promoted other books? Do you agree with their tactics?
- Do they know your target audience and know how to reach them?
- Are they easy to work with?
- Have they committed any major social media/internet “sins”? (Think of the Ocean Strategy PR fail that recently played itself out online.)
- Do they write well and know basic grammar and spelling?
- Can they express themselves with coherent thoughts or arguments?
- Do they come across as professional? Do they present themselves and their clients well?
Anything else writers should consider? Leave your suggestions in the comments.