Five Ways to Spot a Sketchy Publisher

Everyone right now is talking about some sketchy things publishers do when putting out calls for submissions for short fiction and poetry, and trying to advise inexperienced writers against those things. I’ve seen a handful of good twitter threads about not paying authors, especially – here, and here. I ran a literary magazine for two years and have done quite a bit of submitting of my own work.

If you are new and worried, here are some ways to spot a sketchy publisher, when looking through a call for submissions, or reading over a market’s site.

1.  A discussion of what rights they will have over your work are not listed.

A common model for an anthology or literary journal is to purchase “first publication rights,” either exclusively or not, in the English language, in America, etc. If exclusive, they will hold the rights to your piece for a number of months/years, and then at the end of that period, those rights revert back to you. Which means, say, a year after your poem appears in a magazine, you are free to submit it to another magazine, or to an anthology. If the publication holds your rights in the United States, you could submit it to a publication in Australia who could hold your first publication rights in Australia.

This will be discussed, in a brief line or two, on the call for subs, just to give you a heads up to what the upcoming contract will entail once they accept your piece.

How they will handle your rights should be clearly outlined in either the call for submissions, or on a separate page. If these rights are not publicly stated, contact the publisher on social media (so there is a public record of their answer) and ask what rights they are asking for.

After they accept your piece, you will of course be provided a contract with in-depth explanation of exactly what rights you are giving them, but if they are not willing to discuss your rights in broad terms, answer your questions, or post them publicly, they are not a good market to work with.

NOTE: Whatever you do, when submitting a piece of your creative work to a contest, publisher, or anywhere, and there is a terms/conditions listed – READ THEM. There have been cases of illustration/graphics contest where the terms and conditions included a clause that gave the company the right to distribute and profit from the artist’s work *just for submitting* regardless of whether or not they win the contest or are given a contract. Read everything when it involves handing your work to a larger entity. 

2. Information on the editors is not listed.

A reputable publisher will either list the editor(s) on the call for subs, or will have an “about us” page where their team is listed with names, profiles, social media pages, etc. While you might not be sure which of that team you are talking to at any point (since they all work together on it), they should very obviously be real people, with links to their other work, descriptions of what kinds of work/styles they are interested in, or even just links to their own pages.

You should be able to easily find out who exactly you are working with here and what their background is, even with a small press. Most publishers are proud of their team and want to show them off. Their team members, even if they are just starting out, are very clearly involved in the book/writing world, or the topic of the magazine’s world.

You should feel confident that these editors know what they’re doing and are the best representatives for your work. If you don’t, do not submit.

3. You are asked to pay to submit your work.

A literary magazine, anthology, etc. should never ask you to pay them just to consider your work. They should not ask you to pay them to “see your work in print!” It’s 2017 and I’m not sure if vanity presses still exist, or if they have all reinvented themselves as respectable self-publishing venues, but the idea that for a low-low cost you will ~*become published*~ is bullshit and should be treated as such.

But beyond those obvious scenarios, beware of markets that ask for even a small application fee. You are not applying for college. You are presenting yourself for consideration so that you both may profit off of your work. 

This does not apply to contests. There is a valid contest model where each person submitting will pay a small entry fee ($3-15, usually), and the winners of the contest will receive monetary prizes. That is a totally separate thing, and will very clearly be described as a contest, often with a “all entries will be published at the end of the contest” component.

4. They don’t seem to know what they’re looking for.

Most calls for submission will state plainly what they are looking for, in a section often titled just “What We’re Looking For.” The anthology might be called “a dark fantasy LGBT anthology” or “a blend of paranormal and dystopian genres.” The literary magazine may talk about how they value edgy work that pushes limits, or that their editors are looking for fiction that touches on current politics.

What you don’t want to see is something like “We’re looking for the best writing.” or “We publish quality fiction.” Those are very vague and don’t actually communicate anything. What do they consider the best? Will they accept genre fiction, or just contemporary? Etc.

Sometimes calls for subs can be vague, and it’s okay to ask for clarification (again, I highly recommend social media for this, due to the public record). But they should be able to communicate to you exactly what they are looking for. If they don’t know what they want, how will you know what to submit?

5. They are making money on your writing, but you are not.

There are markets that don’t pay, and there are a million opinions on them. You will have to decide if you will or will not submit your work to a non-paying market. Some markets do not pay because they are a 100% volunteer operation and readers do not pay for access to their work. However, the mark of a very sketchy publisher is when they are going to charge someone to read your work but not pass any of that onto you.

NOTE: A common/valid reason is that the money will be going to charity. The intended charity should be clearly listed on the call for subs, and there should be links/information on that charity. If it’s not clear what charity it’s for, ask in a public forum before moving forward.

If the publisher is going to actually gain from your work and make a profit, though, and they are not offering you even a small, one-time payment, then they are asking you to work for free for their gain. If you were applying for any other job, that would be unacceptable, and it is unacceptable when you are presenting yourself for creative work as well. 

If you do not see any mention of payment, this means you are not going to be paid. Many non-paying markets quietly do not make this clear, which in my personal opinion is unprofessional, but many reputable markets follow this practice. It’s a good idea to ask for clarification in a public forum, especially if payment is mention but rates are not specified.

When your piece is accepted, make sure payment is mentioned in your contract and that specific details are clear. If they are not, insist on these details being made clear before you sign anything.

There are many amazing publishers who would treat you and your work with respect and consideration. Unfortunately, there are also those that do not.

Remember to trust your instincts, and if you feel like something is off, ask around or do a google search to see if anyone has worked with this publisher before. Take care of yourselves, stay safe, and keep writing. 🙂

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