1. Ask to see the boilerplate contract.
A. Lloyd Jassin has a list of things that should be in a contract.
B. Morse, Barnes-Brown, Pendleton also has one
There are lots of places to find lists of red flags in contracts.
C. EPIC has one here
D. The Authors Guild has one here
E. The amazing and invaluable Victoria Strauss has a great resource here.
2. Ask if the terms are negotiable
That means the publisher will negotiate with you or an agent or a contract review specialist to change the terms of the contract either by deleting clauses, amending clauses, adding clauses and/or changing royalty rates.
If a publisher says s/he doesn't negotiate, you've got a big red flag.
3. Look at the books they're publishing
Do they look professional? Trust your instincts here. You've read books, you've held books in your hands, you can recognize when one looks cheap and poorly designed. What they are publishing now is probably what your book will look like too. I will freely confess I am a book snob. Maybe you aren't.
4. Is the only way to buy books through the publisher's website?
Most readers don't like giving their credit card information to a site they don't know or use often. If the only way to buy books from this publisher is on their own website, that's a problem.
A. Are books for sale on Amazon and BN. com?
Verify. And check the prices. The LIST price, not this discounted price.
B. Are the books listed at Ingram and Baker & Taylor?If they're not, your chance to get into bookstores and libraries other than as a special order is close to zero.
5. Look for the price of the books.
Are hardcovers more than $25.00
Are trade paperbacks more than $15.00
Are Ebooks more than 9.99
If the books are overpriced (I didn't say over valued so lets not open that tin of gummy bears ok?) you've got a problem.
6. How long has the publisher been in business?
One of my ironclad rules is not to be first. Let the new publisher learn those first hard lessons on someone else's client. I like to be third. Or tenth.
Has the publisher been in business less than five years? That's a brand new publisher since publishing is a very long lead industry.
You know who discovered that the hard way? Amazon. They knew a lot about selling books, but selling books and publishing books are two VERY different things. They had a lot of money and some very smart people but they still had a bumpy road the first few years.
7. Is the focus of their website writers or readers?
If it's writers, they're not using their website to promote their product. A publisher should be focused on their product: books. If the website is largely about how to become one of their authors, how to query etc, that's a problem.
A lot of small publishers do very well. They know their business and they work very hard.
I've sold books to a goodly number of them.
Make sure you can tell the difference.