I have a friend who worked on a Civil War book for many years. In the early 1990s, he placed it with a well known press (which shall remain anonymous). The press made no demands, asked only a few questions, and that was it. There was no input on anything else of substance.
When the finished books arrived, he opened the box with eager anticipation. The first thing he saw, of course, was the dust jacket. It was, to use his adjective, "hideous." He skimmed through his labor of love and discovered the paper was heavy but cheap, and that the cloth was not cloth at all. The binding was also inexpensively done, and glue was visible everywhere. He stuck the book on his shelf and never opened it again. Five years of research, and the disappointing finished product was something he would have to live with forever.
But it did not have to be this way.
By this time, some of you are likely wondering why I am sharing a story like this. The answer might be posed as a question: Would you marry a girl you have never seen? Would you buy a car you have never seen or driven? For most of us, the answer is obvious. And yet, authors often jump at the first press that says "yes" to their manuscript.
The acceptance minuet performed prior to signing a contract should not simply consist of a press accepting your manuscript, but must include a thinking author willing to "accept" the press--and all that entails. It is a bilateral arrangement, one both sides should enter with their eyes wide open. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a partnership (at least, that is how we think of it at Savas Beatie.)
If you have a manuscript ready, before you submit it to a publisher I strongly suggest a trip to the local bookstore (or to your own local or home library). When you find a publisher that produces books in your genre, study as many as you can with deliberate care. Pick them up, read them, feel them, sleep with one under your pillow.
Is it well designed? Does it have a dust jacket? Is the jacket professionally designed? Look at the flap credits and try to determine if the designer is an outside professional. Is the interior formatting pleasing, readable, and cleanly presented? Is the paper appropriate and of good quality? How is the binding? Tight and square, or loose and inexpensively done? If applicable, does this press use maps, photos, footnotes, or end notes? If so, are they plentiful, well done, and helpfully displayed? Is the text well edited? Generally speaking, look to see if the books by this press are reviewed positively or negatively by readers. Is the company brand (think r-e-p-u-t-a-t-i-o-n) strong and well respected within its publishing niche? Will the company give you the names of 3-4 authors and allow you to contact them?
Books are not an exact science; human eyes and hands create them. However, a good sampling of a publisher's titles will give you a strong sense of what your finished manuscript will look like.
The submission process is, in many respects, caveat emptor--buyer beware. When you go onto a car lot and open your wallet, you know whether you will be driving away in a Mercedes or a Chevy. If your eyes and ears are wide open, you will have a pretty good idea what your final product will look like before you sign on the dotted line.