Are you a writer caught in a situation or about to make a decision on agency or publication, but beset by an uncomfortable feeling that things are not quite right? I speak to a lot of people and so I have collated these thoughts on things that could go wrong if you do not do due diligence. Or, perhaps, warning signs that you need to do your best to extricate yourself and find someone who values you and your work more, as part of a professional outfit, thriving because of mutual respect. I am thinking of agents and indie presses (or those bigger presses you may still query independently), but perhaps these thoughts may help you at other stages, too.
Here are some red flags:
1. When there is no dialogue offered or you try to open dialogue and find it’s impossible, beware. Someone I know had a publication date change three times without their being informed. Someone else has never met or even spoken to their publisher, surely a baseline requirement. If it runs like a covert operation, then pause. Raise your sights. You are not the last turkey in the shop.
2. If you cannot get answers to key questions, that is of concern. It is reasonable to talk about publicity, editing or where your book might be sold. This is art, but it is also commerce, so know, for example, whether your travel costs are covered for a book event and how you ALL work to maximize sales.
3. Do some looking about. Is there little parity between the publisher's or agent's authors /clients when you look at social media and elsewhere? Probe if some authors are invisible. Caveat: bear in mind that no two people have the same experience with press, publisher, agent, and editor, so if it feels to you as if it will work, then be wary of making too many comparisons because you are unique. There are areas of subjectivity and always variables.
4. With a publisher, check that at least some of their back catalogue is available. If it is not, try to find out why. At some point you will be back catalogue. Your work has value; moreover, it ought to have some longevity in its availability and visibility.
5. This might be contentious. I think referring to a business relationship in terms of your being part of a cohort or a family can be problematic because, while you are united by your love of books, it suggests a blurring of lines somewhere and that might not be to your advantage in terms of commerce: also, it might be a highway to exploitative behaviour.
6. If the person or publisher you have been offered a contract with is frequently and openly critical of other parts of the publishing industry, beware. I DO NOT mean those champions aiming to improve diversity; I mean those who verbally attack agents, big publishers, other publishers, genres of literature. Who say that publishing is a dangerous place, without supporting contextual data. This could mean fewer options for you as avenues are closed off. Also, the person who cries danger to you is sometimes the danger in plain sight. I have had a lot of therapy. You’re welcome.
7. With an agent or a publisher, make sure there is a good contract and that it is explained to you. If it is not or any concerns are waved away, big red flag. Get any contract vetted by The Society of Authors. Also, if you have given someone a contracted second book and two years later you have no answer, then reconsider. That is unreasonable. Publishing moves slowly, but there is slow and ...just not into you, slow. (See point 1 on turkeys.)
8. There are some independent publishers who ask for contributions towards publication: while this is upfront, are ALL the figures? Opacity is a red flag. I know of authors who were told they would also have to pay for changes to any late-stage typos they had made. This had been nowhere in writing. Such things make you feel powerless.
9. If you feel uncomfortable. Huge red flag. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, I urge you to trust your gut. If you feel intimidated, put down, mocked or - God forbid - frightened, get out. Yes, even if it seems okay for everyone else.
10. Finally, if someone tells you they are your only chance of being published, RUN. Because this is power mongering; gaslighting. Publishing is a series of gains and losses. Of life-changers and bad track; of having to deal with carping, walking egos, but also finding yourself lifted up by kind and brilliant people. We need one another to help us through the losses. Let us make sure that happens.
Anna Vaught is a novelist, short story writer, editor, mentor, English teacher and mental health campaigner. Her third and fourth books, Saving Lucia (Bluemoose) and Famished (Influx) were published in 2020.