1. Think before signing a publishing contract (or anything really). Take your time, read the entire contract, and seek advice if you don't understand the lingo or feel comfortable in what you're reading. I did corporate contract law for 8 years and I still hired an attorney to review it before I signed with a publisher. It's your only shot of getting things in there you want or things you don't want to agree to. If you have a lawyer friend (or even a friend of a friend), ask them to review the contract. You could also join a society of authors who often have their own contract vetting service. If it costs money, and most attorneys will charge; pay it!
2. I chanced it on a smaller publisher, and I did my homework on them. But things didn't work out with us. So I made the decision to self-publish. It might not be what you should do. Each of us has to choose for ourselves. The take away is: RESEARCH!!!
a) Are their previous and current authors happy?
b) Are their books well-edited, presented, professional looking? Readers will immediately be put off by poor quality books riddled with mistakes, formatting errors, and grammar errors.
c) How do they handle themselves on social media? Are they professional? Are they even on social media?
d) Where are their books for sale?
e) Google is your bestie! What comes up?
f) Are their books priced competitively? How do you know? Look online for a comparable or visit your local bookstore and see what the going rate is for that genre of book.
g) How are they actually earning their share of the profits?
h) Do they have plans for growth? What’s in their future?
Put some time and effort into your decision BEFORE you sign.
3. Decide what you want, and how you interpret success. If you want your book in all the big bookstores around the world and to make thousands of dollars, a small publisher isn’t the way to go. Even a medium-sized publisher might be difficult with this. You’re may be expecting a little high if you’re a first time author. Small publishers will do their best to stock you in bookstores (well, some do), but print runs can often be VERY expensive. Being a Print-on-Demand book may be enough to get into some bookstores.
4. What can this publisher do that you can’t do yourself? It may be that you need deadlines, other authors who can rally around you, or just want to be with a Publisher. Have realistic expectations and ideas. Research, mull it over, and decide.
5. Do you have to pay anything to the Publishers? If so, then they probably are a vanity publisher. If this is something you’re okay with, ask yourself what this company can do for you that you can’t do yourself. Will sourcing your own team of reputable editors, cover/interior designers, formatters, publicists be cheaper and be a far more personal, hands-on, and ultimately more rewarding experience for you?
6. Most publishers, big and small, expect authors to be their own marketers and publicists these days. Sure you might get a budget from a big publisher, but my guess (this is my own opinion; no stats available) is you'll be doing 95% of your own marketing. You need to build your own social media and peddle your books. If you’re doing this yourself, why not self publish? See #5. Being an author is a business, and if you’re giving some of your profits (anywhere between 40-60%) to a publisher you may have been able to pay for a service. It’s great that they might have produced a great book, but if it’s not reaching the hands of any readers, then what is the point?
Whatever you decide, make sure your expectations are realistic and do your research. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. No question is ever dumb, silly or stupid! You need to be with someone that loves your book (remember all the blood, sweat, & tears; all the time away from your friends/family; it's your baby), someone understands this industry and who is willing to try new things to reach new readers.