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How to Tell if a New or Small Children’s Book Publisher is Legitimate

It seems like every day you can open up a trade journal and read about new children's book publishers entering the scene. While most of these publishers are well-funded and have some sort of background in the industry, a few may be bad risks for an author or illustrator. Here are some ways you can check out a publisher before signing a contract:

    • See if the publisher is listed in Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market. This won't apply if the publisher is brand new, but if the company is at least a year old it could be listed in CWIM, or similar trade directories. CWIM checks out publishers before listing them, and if the directory receives three or more complaints about a company, the listing is removed the following year. Was the publisher listed last year but not in the current edition?
    • Look at the publisher's catalog. Is the catalog designed in a professional manner? Not all catalogs have to be glossy, four-color publications, but they should include pictures of each book cover with information about the book and how to order it. Make sure the publisher can fulfill orders in four weeks or less.
    • Look at other books the publisher has produced. Are the paper and binding of good quality? Do you like the design? Do you feel the book is priced comparably to other similar books on the market?
    • Ask about the publisher's distribution system. Are the publisher's books distributed by a well-known wholesaler or distributor, or is the publisher relying mainly on direct mail to sell books? Many small presses sell most of their books through mail order and do quite well. It's important, however, that the publisher has good mailing lists that will be relevant to your book. (General fiction doesn't do as well with direct mail as nonfiction, for which a very specific market can be targeted.)
    • Go to a large bookstore and ask to order one of the publisher's books. If that bookstore can't find either the publisher or the distributor in its computer, it will have trouble ordering your title when it's published.
    • Ask the publisher how your book will be marketed. Does the publisher have a solid marketing plan, or will you be relied upon to do most of the marketing yourself?
    • Google them.  You'll find forum discussions, warnings (if any exist) and lots of other third party feedback through a simple search.
    • Talk to the person who will be editing your book. Is your editor enthusiastic about your work, and does he or she have specific, in-depth ideas about needed changes in the text? Very few manuscripts arrive at a publisher's office in perfect shape. If your editor has no changes in mind, question him or her about areas in the manuscript you may feel are weak. See if the editor has constructive ideas for revisions. If you're an illustrator, speak with the art director. Find out how much guidance you will be given while illustrating the book, or if you will be working with no direction. Are the editor and art director accessible? Do they return your phone calls? Once an offer has been made on a book, they should call you back within a reasonable time period.
    • Read the contract carefully. Make sure it contains a projected publication date, the author or illustrator retains copyright to the work, and that money is accounted for properly. Many smaller presses don't pay advances, but they give higher royalties or pay more often (every month or every 60 days). Be sure you don't have to pay the publisher any money to produce your book.

    It's not possible to follow all these steps, of course, if the publisher is new and hasn't produced its first list. In that case you could ask to contact some other authors or illustrators the publisher is working with, and get their impressions of the company. By and large, most new publishers are legitimate, sincere and dedicated professionals, and are not a bad risk for the author or illustrator. These people will not object to your researching the company. Those who do should be approached with caution.

    Laura Backes

    Laura is the founder and publisher of Children's Book Insider, and co-founder of Her work has appeared in Writer's Digest and The Writer magazines, as well as on numerous writing blogs. She's the technical editor of "Writing Children's Books for Dummies", and her book "Best Books for Kids Who (Think They) Hate to Read" is published by Random House. Through webinars, workshops, and online courses, Laura has taught thousands of children's book writers how to improve their craft .