I’m sure you have one of those relatives who forwards scary emails to you. Sometimes it’s about how you should always check the back seat of your car when you get in, in case a rapist or murderer is hiding there. Sometimes it’s about how some Internet virus is going to wipe your hard drive and steal your identity and all your hubcaps. It’s frustrating because the warnings are nearly always bogus, and the person who sent the email would have known that if he or she had just bothered to go to Snopes.com before hitting “send.” Which you know because you checked it out at Snopes.com yourself, didn’t you?
You could call what you did “fact checking” (although your relative might have had another name for it, when you told him or her). Companies do something similar when they’re deciding whether to buy another company; their name for it is “due diligence.” Basically, they delve into the books of their acquisition target to make sure the target is representing its financial situation accurately.
If you’re ready to publish your book, it’s smart to do your own due diligence. Plenty of so-called publishing companies aren’t, and even as venerable an institution as the New York Times can’t seem to tell the difference between companies that truly want to help us publish our own work and companies that are in business solely to part us from our cash.
Since the media aren’t going to help us find the best people to do business with, it’s up to us to ferret them out. Luckily, this is not hard. In fact, there are several quick and easy methods for determining whether the company to which you’re about to entrust your book is on the up-and-up.
1. Take a critical look at the company’s website. The New York Times article lumps Lulu and CreateSpace together with imprints owned by Author Solutions and calls them all “assisted self-publishing.” But they are emphatically not all the same. Both Lulu and CreateSpace will take a paperback manuscript you have edited and formatted yourself, and publish it for you at no cost. The Author Solutions properties don’t give you that option; instead, they require you to buy a pricey publishing package, which includes questionable editing help and marketing assistance that doesn’t amount to much.
2. Do an internet search. Look specifically for the company’s name in conjunction with the words “complaints” or “lawsuit.” The hits you get back will tell you a lot about the company’s business practices, as well as about the way it treats unhappy authors. (Hint: If it charges authors to correct mistakes introduced by its own editing process, run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.) The Better Business Bureau also has a database of complaints about specific companies. Still another great resource is Writer Beware, which is geared toward authors seeking a traditional publishing contract, but which has a terrific page about how tell if a particular publisher is a vanity press.
3. Ask around. Indie authors are famous for helping each other out. Join a Facebook author group or two and ask questions. Join a local writers’ group and ask your fellow members. And of course (here comes the shameless plug!), Indies Unlimited is a terrific resource for advice on all aspects of indie publishing.
Signing up with a publisher without checking its claims first is a lot like forwarding that scary email from your aunt without fact-checking it. Except that your aunt will just make you sit at the kids’ table for Thanksgiving dinner, whereas picking the wrong publisher will cost you money and aggravation, and do nothing for your career. Always do your due diligence.