When publishers go south

Booktrope, Samhain, Elora's Cave, Month9...

The collective writing community has been inundated lately with news of publishers closing shop, refusing royalties, or restructuring in ways that mean the end of the road for many authors.

As both an author and an agent, every new announcement sends a shiver up my spine. And it usually sends authors to my inbox asking what they can do to keep from being the next poor soul to find themselves with a book and no publisher.

Honestly, there's no surefire method for avoiding this. But here are a few tips to try to avoid the dangers.

Public forums aren't the answer
I know many an author that runs to the public forums whenever a publisher or agent shows interest in their work. They send out that "Hey, has anyone had any experience dealing with X" message out hoping to hear about how amazing X is.

But here's the problem. You generally aren't going to hear about any negative aspects of X in a public forum until it's too late. When your name is tied to your income (as it is for an author), it's reasonable to be hesitant to speak out. No one wants to be labeled as the author that causes trouble, and because we generally don't speak about what's going wrong, most authors think it's just them. Public forums are great, but they generally aren't going to tell you when you should be worried.

An agent is not a foolproof system
Sometimes I know about a sinking ship before it happens. Yes, we have a list of publishers that are still in operation that we don't submit to. No, I'm not telling you who they are. But for every questionable publisher out there that I know about, there's probably another I know nothing about.

Unless I've had a client there, our agency has had a client there, or I've gotten the dish from another agent, I have no idea if a publisher is going to fold up six months from now. This is one of those times I wish I had a crystal ball. But I don't. An agent can help steer you away from danger, but only the danger she/he knows about.

Talk to authors at all the stages
Talking to authors at a prospective house is a great idea, but don't just talk to their headliner who is doing well and getting all the press. Talk to someone who is a few months from their pub date. Talk to an author six months after their pub date.

Did they release on time? Do they feel the edits were thorough? Was everything delivered as promised when it comes to marketing and promotional help? Are the royalty statements on time? Do they make sense? Ask the hard questions. So long as you aren't asking how much another author is making, they shouldn't have any reason not to help you.

Look for the clean-up
With so many of these situations, I hear authors say the warning signs were there, but they didn't add them up. Mistakes happen in all avenues of publishing. A royalty statement can have errors, the wrong file is sent to you for proofing, etc. The people working in publishing are human and therefore, they aren't immune to mistakes. Ask about how mistakes were corrected?

Did the publisher correct the mistake immediately? Did they take months to acknowledge a mistake? This is where the differences come out. A mistake that is rectified is just a mistake. A mistake that is not acknowledged is a warning sign.

Remember, it's business
Publishing is a small world and we like to think of ourselves as a little family. But at the end of the day, this is still a business that we are a part of so we can keep the lights on and food on the table. I heard a podcast today where an author admitted she saw the writing on the wall months ago, but continued to give her publisher books because of the personal relationship they had. I wanted to hug her and shake her at the same time.

Getting along well with the people who help bring your books to readers is important and if you can become friends, that's great. But if your head starts telling you everything isn't rainbows and unicorns, you can't let your heart convince you to stay.

This isn't the end
Publishing is a landscape that changes almost daily. These types of announcements will probably continue. The same way that new companies will continue to form in the quest to find new and better ways to bring books to readers. Some of these companies will succeed and others will inevitably fail. This is the natural course of business in almost every industry out there.

As an author, just remember that your books are your books. And that means doing what's best for you. Ask for help, seek out guidance from those who have been there, and keep writing. Because no matter what the business landscape looks like, readers are still out there clamoring for more words to devour.