I'm interested an a small-press. They managed to impress me, and I'm hard to impress. I know they don't pay a good advance, but they put out a nice product. How do I check on them further without actually submitting to them?
I'm interested, but i'm not totally stupid. Or, at least I strongly deny being that stupid. Ok, so maybe I'm an inch away from being stupid. I still want to check them out before I send them anything. How do I do it?
When you say check them out do you mean find out if they will break your heart by taking your book out of print if it doesn't sell 2000 hardcover copies in three months? Do you mean will they not pay royalties till a year after the money is earned? Do you mean even then they won't pay you if the distributor or wholesaler goes broke?
Cause if the answer is yes to any of those questions you're in a world of hurt cause that is standard industry practice.
If you mean, will they put out a book that looks good and you'd be proud to give your mom, feed to the goat, show off at your high school reunion, the best way is to actually buy the books they publish and read them. Or, if you don't have a couple hundred lying around to do that, get them from the library.
One of the very best ways to know anything about a publisher is read the books they publish AND see if the library system owns them. Librarians, those finicky beasts, tend not to waste their precious dollars on vanity press items. They are almost as flinty eyed as Miss Snark when it comes to sniffing out publishers who should be alphabetized as C not P.
And if you want to know what they are like to deal with, email their authors. Particularly the ones who aren't on the front list. Authors will give you the scoop, particularly if you ask "would you go with these guys again".
Small publishers are good people as a rule. The good ones love books and want to create good and lasting ones. The realities of the marketplace make that very very hard to pull off, but there are some good successful small presses.
If you are writing in a genre, check out the list of acceptable publishers for membership in MWA, SFFWA and the Romance folks. If this publisher isn't on that list, tread warily.