Let’s take a 30,000-foot look at the main types of publishers, what they’re good at, and what they might not be so good at.
Yes, there are different types of publishers. As if the process weren’t complicated and daunting enough.
When I started out on my own literary journey, I figured I’d walk right up to Penguin Random House with my shiny, brand-new manuscript, knock on the door, then wait for an answer at which time I’d deliver the fantastic news that I’d just penned the Next Great American Novel.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite how publishing works. Traditional publishing, anyway. And even more unfortunately, publishing is a pretty closed industry. You don’t know what you don’t know until you get into the weeds.
What I wish I would have known when I was a young, bright-eyed author is that there are many different types of publishers that suit vastly different markets and author needs.
It’s not about finding a good publisher. (Trust me, there are plenty out there.) It’s about finding a publisher that’s good for YOU.
The good news is you literally have hundreds of options. The bad news is… Well, you literally have hundreds of options. Even for a seasoned professional, it can be hard to determine which path to take.
This will be the subject of many more blog posts, but for now, let’s take a 30,000-foot look at the main categories of publishers, what they’re good at, and what they might not be so good at.
This is the kind of publishing you probably know a little bit about, the kind that publishes legendary names like Steven King and Agatha Christie. The “Big Five Publishers” (and I use the number five very loosely) include names you probably recognize: Scholastic, HarperCollins, and Random House.
But traditional publishing is less about a list than it is about the way things work. Essentially, you sell your manuscript to the publishing house. In exchange for a hefty chunk of your royalties as well as creative control and copyright, they’ll publish your story.
For many authors, a traditional publishing deal is the Golden Ticket—the dream come true, the ULTIMATE GOAL.
What it’s great at
Doing what it’s done for hundreds of years: printing books and getting them into people’s hands.
Chances are, a major publishing house is going to have a much smoother time getting your books into brick-and-mortar stores, libraries, and even airport kiosks. Why? Because they’ve been doing it for decades! They know their trade, and they know a thing or two about book marketing.
For the most part, big publishers are going to have the staff, connections, and experience to take your books to big places—places like best-seller lists, Barnes & Noble window displays, and even Netflix.
What might not be so great
Like many major, monolith industries, traditional publishing isn’t without its issues—especially with the advent of field-leveling platforms like Amazon KDP and Wattpad. From what I’ve observed, the publishing industry has changed more in the last twenty years than the past 200, and that’s come with significant growth pains in sales, marketing, politics, and labor sustainability.
Does this mean this route is a no-go? Absolutely not. Just understand that if your name isn’t Michelle Obama or Neil Gaiman, the “golden dream” of fame and fortune might not be completely straightforward.
If you want to sell your manuscript to a big house, you’re probably going to have to broker that sale through a literary agent, which means you have to go out and find a literary agent to represent you. Then it’s on to pitching to publishing houses, and even then, there’s no guarantee you’ll find an editor willing to spend the time and money on your project. The competition is steep, and there are thousands of authors out there looking to do the exact same thing you are.
In addition, a traditional deal doesn’t necessarily equal a one-way ticket to stardom. Publishing is a business, and there’s going to be an exchange, whether that’s time, money in the form of royalties, creative control, or marketing effort. Make no mistake, publishers are out to make a profit. That’s how they stay in business. For the most part, authors who are paid an advance don’t start earning royalties until they’ve made up that advance in sales, and if your book isn’t selling as projected, you’re less likely to be picked up for a second project.
Also keep in mind that these major publishers are churning out hundreds of books per year. Just because you sign with a big name doesn’t mean you, a debut author, are going to be their main priority when it comes to the marketing budget.
I’ll go more into the pros and cons of traditional publishing in a later blog. (Trust me, it’s going to take a whole blog. I have a LOT of thoughts about this.)
Indie publishing is exactly what the name implies. You do it yourself, independent from a company acting as a publisher in the traditional sense.
Twenty years ago, this option was unthinkable for most authors. But then, in all its glory, came the internet. With the advent of Amazon, Ingram, print on demand (POD), and built-in communities like Smashwords, online sales and e-reading has skyrocketed. All of a sudden, you don’t have to go through gatekeepers to reach a reading audience. The power is now in the hands of the people, for better or for worse.
What it’s great at
Indie publishing is great at churning out LOTS, FAST. Brilliant authors like Elise Kova and Mark Dawson have soared onto the scene with scintillating projects and marketing savvy, using tools like mailing lists, sales funnels, and online ads to build their own empire of readers. Heck, I once met a doctor who quit her job because she was making more money churning out period romance novels. You know. The kind with abs on the cover.
If you know what you’re doing, self-publishing is the perfect option. You have complete creative/financial control, and there’s no limit to what you can do. Game guides, romance novels, murder mystery party scripts… It all happens with the click of a button.
Self-publishing is also a great option if you just want to get something out there for fun. You can upload a story to Wattpad in about thirty seconds, and publishing a book on Amazon is totally free. This is a fantastic way to get your work out there, cut your teeth, and learn more about the industry.
When it comes to self-publishing, YOU are the only limiting factor. You can post your RPG fanfiction just for the satisfaction of doing so. You can also choose to buckle down and use your aforementioned fanfiction to build a super-nerd publishing empire.
What might not be so great
The downside to doing everything yourself is…well, doing everything yourself. Sure, you can hire out things like formatting and cover design, but when it comes to launching, sales, and distribution, you’re also responsible for knowing how the process works. Do you know the difference between Kindle and hardback formatting? How about getting your book on Goodreads? How many reviews does it take before Amazon starts suggesting your title to browsers, and how do you report sales tax on books sold in person?
Essentially, you’re running your own small business—everything from product development to marketing to bookkeeping. If you do it right, it’s great. And if you don’t…
Well, let’s just say there’s no lack of less-than-stellar, low-quality titles on the market. Think of it like YouTube. For every hilarious cat video, you’re going to find ten vapid, narcissistic rants from a political extremist. Everyone being able to publish whatever they want means everyone can publish whatever they want, and even when you get past the quality stigma, you’re going to have to figure out how to stand out in an oversaturated market.
For authors who want to focus on writing or use their books to invest in other ventures, the steep learning curve and work required may rule out this option.
I know I’m a wee bit biased because I operate my house by this model, but at it’s best, hybrid is the sweet spot between the traditional and self-publishing worlds. Keep in mind that there’s no hard-and-fast rules about what constitutes a publisher as “hybrid.” Not every hybrid house operates the same way, nor does every hybrid publisher provide the same opportunities. Some hybrids publish everyone. Some are exclusive and based on submission.
In most cases, hybrid publishing poses an upfront cost in exchange for traditional publishing services. In theory, this can take pressure off book sales, which makes sense if your book acts as a sales funnel for another product or service. (I.e., you sell two books at $6.00 per copy, but the two people who read the book each sign up for $10k coaching packages.)
The reason I love hybrid publishing and think it’s the most ethical model out there (yes, I’ll be blogging about this later) is because this model sees bookselling as more than just a product-to-profit game. At LoftHouse, our authors receive 100% of their profits and keep their creative control as well as subsidiary rights for things like book clubs, movies, and merchandising. Our people get paid to operate by the highest industry standards (as they should because they’re absolute GOATs), and our authors keep what THEY earn.
For us, it’s a win-win. But again, every hybrid house does things a tad bit differently. Remember, this industry is buyer beware…
NEVER sign ANY literary contract without fully reviewing and understanding the terms with a legal professional.
What it’s great at
Theoretically, the hybrid model allows you to have more freedom and control over your product. In exchange for an upfront fee, you should be getting SOMETHING, whether that be creative rights, creative freedoms, higher royalties, etc. Ideally, you’re paying for the “production” of a professional project (edited, formatted, and produced to the highest industry standards) that you can control.
Where I’ve seen the hybrid model shine is for professionals who want the benefits of being a published author, but don’t want to be beholden to the confines of a traditional press. Essentially, authors who don’t necessarily have the time (or the patience, for that matter) to take up a part-time career as professional writers. These are authors who see their book as an investment rather than a product, and while they don’t want to surrender anywhere from 50-95% of their profits, they don’t want to spend countless hours in the weeds doing all the technical work themselves.
Remember, the term “hybrid” only means a combination of traditional and self-publishing. There is no concrete definition for what constitutes a hybrid publisher, so investigate every house, every model, and every contract carefully. You should never be afraid to ask a publisher to explain their processes.
And if they won’t, RUN. Ruuuuuuuuuun far away.
What might not be so great
This is where we get into scams like vanity presses, houses that churn out subpar, half-baked books on an assembly-line process in exchange for a flat fee. Because there are no real quality standards for hybrid publishers, there’s nothing, in theory, to stop a company from publishing anything at any time.
Since hybrid is technically an amalgamation of traditional and indie publishing models, it can also come with hybrid issues, including distribution, quality, and a loss of creative control. Notice, I said “can come with,” not “will come with.” Hybrid publishing is the wild west, baby, and no two houses do it the same.
The long and short of it is to make sure if you’re paying a publisher, you’re paying for what YOU want.
Is that quality editing and production that will make your book indistinguishable from traditional publishers?
Is that simply getting the book done so you have something to share with your grandkids?
Is that distribution? Marketing? Sales or speaking opportunities?
No matter what your goals and visions may be, you should know what you’re paying for and get what you paid for.
A wise woman once taught me that there can be no expectations without agreements. That is, don’t expect someone to give you something or do something for you unless they specifically agree to do so—or, in the case of publishers, put it in their contract.
Navigating different types of publishers is a quagmire of industry knowledge and nuance, but whether you opt for traditional, independent, or hybrid publishing, it’s up to YOU to know what you’re getting into.
There’s no “right answer.” There’s no “better or worse” model—only a model that fits your vision and your needs. Finding a publisher isn’t so much about an answer as it is an honest discussion about your own goals and visions for your book.
Once you know what you want, it will be that much easier to find the house that can help you reach your goals.
Like I said, this is only an overview, and I’ll be writing much more in-depth about each of these subjects later. But for now, take a deep breath. All of this is overwhelming (my mind is spinning as I write this), but maybe that’s a good thing.
A multifaceted circus of publishing models means an ever-expanding list of options for authors.
And remember: it’s not about finding a good publisher. It’s about finding a publisher that’s good for you.
I’m sure you have them. Confusion? Don’t worry, I’ve got that too.
If you like the sound of LoftHouse but want to open a discussion about whether our publishing model is right for you, let’s schedule a chat.
Photo credit to Bruno Martins.