I spend a lot of time on an awesome writers' forum, Absolute Write. (AW.) For those of you who have busy lives, which I most certainly do not, here is how the Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check forum works, and some warning signs fledgling writers should look out for.
1. Poster asks innocent, reasonable question about a particular publisher. Perhaps this publisher is new, or doesn't have much information on their website. Sometimes their website is riddled with basic spelling and grammatical errors. Now, if a publisher is offering services to writers, I'd expect them to know how to construct at least two error-free sentences in English, or learn the difference between it's and its. I is a purblisher! Send all you're workings too me!
2. Regular AWers discuss the merits, or not, of a particular publisher. They point out the website errors, or the vast array of genres the publisher accepts. This is not a good sign - legitimate small publishers usually start with one or two genres. It's also not a good sign if they boast about how many books they're publishing. Small presses only take on what they can handle, both in terms of editing and promotion. This is a sign that they make their money selling books to readers, not writers. They may not offer advances, or very small ones, or they may be e-publishers. Small does not in any way equal scam. Usually a trip to a publisher's website can sort a lot of it out. Do they feature their books front and centre, and include links to buy them? Are the submission guidelines there, but not immediately obvious? Is there a testimonials page? You're looking for yes, yes, no here.
Think about it. Do you have any idea who published the book that's in your bag, by your bed, or on your Kindle right now? With the exception of romance and erotica, few people buy books by publisher. They buy them by writer, or by seeing it in a bookshop, or by recommendation. Have you ever gone to a bookshop to buy the latest Random House? Neither have I. Publishers should be almost anonymous to readers. The fact it's in a bookshop tells the reader someone has read the manuscript (MS), loved it, bought it, edited it and sent it out into the world all shiny. If in fact a reader even considers the mechanics of how the book got in front of them; I know I never thought about it much before I started writing. But a website aimed at writers is all about selling to writers not readers. Sure, the writer can sell the book to readers (mum, dad and Auntie Edna), and I'm not suggesting writers should do no promotion whatsoever, but the fact is a writer is one person versus publicity teams, catalogues and salespeople.
3. The publisher's website proudly proclaims "We don't edit!" This may be a controversial statement, but writers who don't think they need edited aren't writers - they're hobbyists. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being a hobbyist, as long as they don't fall into the trap some vanity publishers set and then proclaim they're published authors, complete with a book full of spelling mistakes and dreadful grammar. I'm about to "publish" my family history via CreateSpace, and I've had several of my amazing writer friends look over the MS. Now, this is a book that is of interest to precisely seven people, and two of them aren't old enough to read yet. But I still want it to be the best book it can be. There was no need for me to let anyone see it, but I don't want it to be confusing dreck. (Everyone was called Patrick.) Being able to accept criticism is vital to a serious writer. This isn't to say vanity or self-publishing isn't valid - it has a place. There's no need to spend thousands of pounds or dollars to a vanity publisher when Lulu or CreateSpace can do the same thing they will for a very small outlay, if any. CreateSpace will even give you a free ISBN. They don't edit either, but neither do they claim to be legitimate publishers.
4. Owner of publisher swoops in to AW and posts a vitriolic rebuttal of all the "negativity" going on, and how nobody cares about writers except them and big publishers are teh evuls and nobody takes on new writers anymore. This just isn't true. For big and small legitimate publishers, you have to write well. If you think you have a great MS and nobody understands your genius, and rejections don't make you think "Maybe I need to work a bit harder here" then you're a prime candidate for a vanity publisher. And they know it. Now, some people with genuinely great books can't get agents or publishers to take them on. Like it or not, publishing is a business and despite aspirations to high art, we can't get away from that. But if someone has the acumen and wherewithal to promote a vanity-published book, then they can self-publish just as effectively. Would you like to go with a publisher who thinks so little of you and your work they can't engage with writers without being abusive? Not everyone on AW is a writer - some are editors, publishers, cover artists, graphic designers or agents. Their opinions count, but often the owner will discount what they think, or ask a multiple-published writer "Who are you? What have you published?" when 60 seconds on Google would sort that out. Why would a vanity publisher try to disguise it? If they're genuinely proud of and confident in their business model, and releasing a great product and making a name for themselves, why would they get upset? It's an especially bad sign if they then rush to their website, blog, Facebook page or Twitter feed to castigate everyone involved.
5. Not every clueless publisher is a scam, and not every scammer is clueless. Some of them are well-intentioned but don't know what they're doing. Some know exactly what to say to make a writer feel good. The result for the writer is the same, though. Lost or tied-up books, mess, and stress. If you can't get a legitimate publisher to look at your work, it's time to start again, or write something else. Writers are often sensitive souls and we love what we write, but sometimes we have to accept it's just not working. Just keep going. What's the worst that can happen?