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Which Publishing Model Is Right for You: Traditional Big 5, Traditional Indie Press, Self-Publishing, or Hybrid/Partner?

Cristen Iris

Choosing which type of publisher or publishing path to pursue is one of the most confusing parts of an author's publishing journey, and choosing the wrong path costs time, money, and emotional energy.

  • Should you try to get a deal with one of the major trade book publishers, often referred to as the Big 5?
  • Should you pursue one of the many independent publishers?
  • Should you maintain total control of your book's production and go the self-publishing route?
  • Or is a hybrid/partner publisher the best fit?
  • And where do literary agents fit into all this?

In this post, I will attempt to demystify the system and help you determine which publishing path is the best fit for you or at least eliminate a few options to get you closer to your goal.

While I've embedded within the body of this post several links for recommended reading, you will also find a list of recommended follow-up reading at the bottom of this page to help you develop an even broader perspective of the publishing industry and how you and your book(s) fit in it.

 

The Big 5 Trade Book Publishers

When aspiring authors come to me and say they'd prefer to be traditionally published, they're almost always referring to one of the following:

  • Simon and Schuster
  • HarperCollins
  • Hachette Book Group
  • Macmillan Publishers
  • Penguin Random House

Each of these publishers have many imprints. An imprint represents a subset of books on a publisher's list. You can think of imprints as sections in a bookstore.

When I visit my local bookstore, I can find the type of book I'm looking for by going to that section of the store. I may buy books from the business, literature, and memoir/biography sections of the story, but all my purchases are from Rediscovered Books.

Here are a few examples:

  • Simon & Schuster --> Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing --> Signal Press
  • HarperCollins --> HarperCollins Christian --> Thomas Nelson --> Grupo Nelson
  • Hachette Book Group --> Little, Brown and Company --> Back Bay Books
  • Macmillan Publishers --> Farrar, Straus and Giroux --> Sarah Crichton
  • Penguin Random House --> Random House --> Crown Business

These publishers operate under the traditional publishing business model. They make speculative investments by buying rights to publish an authors' creative works. They often pay advances and always cover the cost of producing books. They also to varying degrees cover promotional costs to increase book sales, and these publishers have access to and success with far more book distribution channels than self-published books.

These benefits make traditional publishers attractive to many authors, but the risk involved for the publisher means that they set a high bar for authors who aspire to be published by them. To mitigate financial and brand risk, traditional publishers exercise editorial discretion by doing deep sales and marketing research before acquiring (purchasing rights to) a title and by vetting manuscripts for writing quality.

Most nonfiction book project proposals and fiction manuscripts are presented by an author's literary agent to publishing companies' acquisition editors. Qualified literary agents have relationships with acquisition editors within the different publishing companies and submit proposals and writing samples and negotiate publishing deals on behalf of their clients.

It's important to understand that only about 4% of authors seeking representation by a literary agent will earn agent representation. (1) Fewer will go on to "land" a publishing contract with one of the Big 5, and the process can take years.

Related: A Freelance Editor's Take on Gatekeepers, Literary Snobs, and Naysayers

If the timing and subject or themes and author platform are a good fit for a publisher and they do offer a publishing contract, the publisher will pay the author an often small advance and set the author royalty rate. After an author earns out their advance, the publisher passes along a percentage of the profits (royalties) to the author.

Recommended Reading: Ask an Agent: What Does an Average First Book Pay?

Recommended Reading: The Author's Guild's Model Trade Book Contract

The Big 5 have become synonymous with "traditional publishing," but that's not the full story. Over the past several decades many traditional model publishing companies have sprung up outside the Big 5.

 

Independent Presses

Publishers not affiliated with the publishers listed above are often called "small presses" or "indie publishers" as a way to distinguish them from the traditional Big 5.

Some hybrid/partner publisher and even self-publishing service providers describe themselves as small presses or independent publishers, so it's important for aspiring authors to pay more attention to a publisher's business model than what they call themselves.

Some of these "small" publishers might be considered quite large until compared to any of the Big 5. Small presses are independent in that they are not part of a corporate conglomerate like the Big 5. For example, Simon & Schuster is a subsidiary of ViacomCBS.

For the purposes of this discussion, When I say "independent presses," I'm referring to small and independent publishers that operate under the traditional business model.

Because these publishers also assume the financial risk associated with publishing a book, they too have high editorial standards and clearly identified needs related to an author's platform.

Independent publishers accept agented submissions. Many also accept unsolicited submissions, which means an author need not be represented by a literary agent to query the publisher. However, authors must still have well-crafted query letters and in most cases a professional book proposal for nonfiction projects.

Each publisher has its own preferences and practices, but authors who prepare themselves for these traditional publishers in the same way they'd prepare themselves for a literary agent and one of the Big 5 will stand out from their competition.

Independent publishers operate on leaner budgets than Big 5 publishers, but they are also agile and tend to be niche focused in ways imprints of Big 5 publishers aren't. Independent publishers curate their author/book lists based on internal goals rather than those imposed on them by disconnected shareholders and boardrooms.  So, when authors find a fit, it can be a tight fit. Independent publishers also have access to the same distribution channels that the Big 5 do, so authors published by these publishers aren't limited by reach in the same way many self-published authors are.

All this is attractive to authors who are growing their platform and looking for a long-term strategic partnership with a publisher that can give them more support and who may have stronger motivations to help each author succeed. The trade-off is that many independent publishers pay small advances or none at all. However, the royalty percentages paid to authors tends to be higher than those paid by Big 5 publishers.

Recommended Reading: Quick-Reference Publishing Stats You Need to Know!

There are risks and rewards associated with every publishing model. Big 5 publishers may decide to pull a book from print but retain the rights, which limits the authors ability to profit from their intellectual property. Independent publishers may do the same. And for authors who are attracted to the independent publishing route, it's also worth considering the size of the publisher and their financial viability (which you likely will have no way of assessing). If the publisher is very small, what is their business continuation plan should the owner/publisher retire or become unable to manage the business for any reason? What assurances do you have that you will quickly and easily regain your rights and access to book-related files if the publisher folds?

While there are many benefits to being published by a traditional publisher, Big 5 or independent, many authors want more control over the timing, process, and their book-related earnings. Self-publishing offers all that.

 

Self-Publishing

Self-publishing authors are just that; they are their own publisher. So, no literary agent is required. If you self-publish, you either do all the work to produce the book yourself (writing, editing, interior book layout, book cover design, ebook formatting, distribution placement, etc.) or hire freelancers or contract with a company that offers publishing services.

The DIY Approach to Self-Publishing

Aspiring authors opt to self-publish for many reasons. Some have written a book meant for a small circle of family and friends (legacy memoir for example). Others only plan to write one book to use to promote their products and services. Book sales aren't the goal for these authors. They understand that their book will likely be a loss leader. Still others consider themselves "authorpreneurs." These authors (often romance or fantasy writers) plan to publish multiple books (often series) and build a writing career book by book, reader by reader.

Gaining proficiency in each skill necessary to produce perennially reader-pleasing books pays dividends for DIY self-publishing authors because it increases their earning potential over time. These authors tend to be business savvy and committed to their craft.

While some do it all and succeed, most DIY authors find and hire freelance editors or proofreaders for quality control and risk management. Regardless of how many or how few book production tasks DIY authors assume, they select the software and vendors they use, negotiate all contracts, and take responsibility for managing the process from writing to sales.

In the past, self-publishing was synonymous with the DIY approach. However, an assisted approach has emerged and is attractive to non-fiction authors in particular.

The Publishing Services Approach to Self-Publishing

There are countless publishing package service providers out there. These companies or individuals serve as project managers and either do all the book production work themselves or have a team of specialists who do it. This process is often called vanity publishing and the businesses that do it vanity publishers. These are pejorative terms that lack nuance.

Yes, there absolutely are companies that take any manuscript in any state and make it available in book form to consumers. Many of the "authors" who are attracted to them are motivated by ego, so their projects could rightly be classified as vanity projects that benefit them far more than they benefit readers. But many of publishing services customers are people who don't understand the publishing industry and buy into the sales pitch due to lack of knowledge. While legitimate information about the publishing industry is readily available online, it may be hard to find if the searcher doesn't know what keywords and phrases to search for. These "publishers" often take advantage of consumer ignorance and rely on half-truths, emotional appeals, and manufactured urgency to make the sale.

There are also companies and individuals who adhere to strict editorial and design standards who for a fee take the burden of book production from their clients and produce high-quality books. These are work for hire arrangements in which the author pays for services and retains all rights and royalties.

Authors attracted to the self-publishing model must understand that their book's distribution and accolade potential may be limited. For example, many bookstores will not stock self-published books. And some bestseller lists--the New York Times bestseller list being the most notable--do not acknowledge self-published books. Many literary awards are also only awarded to traditionally published authors. With that understanding, this publishing route is attractive to authors who want creative control but appreciate the skills and time required to produce a book that meets industry standards and can attract and delight readers.

Whether they take the DIY or publishing services approach, self-publishing authors bet on themselves upfront and, therefore, bear 100% of the risk and reap 100% of the rewards.

 

Hybrid/Partner Publishing

"Hybrid" or "Partner" publishers as they often call themselves operate under a shared risk model. That is, authors sell publishing rights to the publishers and pay fees for project management and publishing services. After publication, the author and publisher share royalties often at a much more even split than that of the author-traditional publisher royalty split.

Like traditional Big 5 and traditional independent publishers, respectable hybrid/partner publishers exercise editorial discretion. If this option seems to be a great fit, you'll need to pitch your project to them like you would a traditional publisher to see if you and your book are a good fit for their client and book list.

But in all things, buyer beware.

Publishers using these labels vary so widely in both quality and process that it's often difficult for those new to the industry to recognize red flags. Know what questions to ask and paying attention to what is not being said can be far more enlightening than the pitch you're hearing.

Authors who choose the hybrid/partner publishing route negotiate directly with hybrid/partner publishers, so no literary agent is required nor would most literary agents be interested in working with authors who plan to take this route. Although you won't have the benefit of an agent to negotiate your contract, you can mitigate risk by hiring a qualified intellectual property (IP) or entertainment attorney to review all contracts that have the potential of involving large sums of money and long-term relationships.

With the exception of those writing a book intended for a small audience, platform is always going to be a limited factor for authors. For nonfiction authors who aspire to be traditionally published having what's considered a small platform is often the thing standing between them and a contract with a literary agent or publisher.

 

What's an Author Platform and How Big Does It Need to Be?

"Author platform" is a fuzzy term. It's most often used as shorthand for the number of social media followers you have combined with the number of people on your email list. The total helps literary agents and publishers (and you) estimate your organic reach and how it might translate into book sales (because agents and publishers earn their livings from book sales).

It's critical for authors to understand that only a small fraction of this group will actually purchase their book.

But aspiring authors who may have no social media accounts may still be considered to have a noteworthy platform if their writing has been published by academic journals, literary magazines, and magazines and journalistic websites.

It might be more valuable to think of platform as your author resume.

Your platform, like a resume or CV, is a document that demonstrates your qualifications for a specific job. And while authors are not employed by publishers, publishers aren't inclined to engage with authors who don't add to the bottom line by bringing in more money than they're paid or enhancing the publisher's brand by earning high-level awards such as the Nobel Prize for Literature, Pulitzer, Pen America, Booker Prize and a select few others.

How wide (follow numbers) and deep (literary excellence) your platform needs to be is different for every literary agent and publisher. Generally speaking, the bigger your platform, the better your chances of getting signed by a high-level literary agent and picked up by one of the Big 5.

Independent publishers each have their own needs and expectations but often consider authors with smaller platforms but who have something of great value to add to conversations and are exceptional writers.

Recommended Reading: Who's Your Ideal Reader, and Why Does Your Book Matter to Them? (exercise with companion PDF available)

Recommended Reading: The Magic Number

 

How to Determine Which Publishing Option Is Right for You

Hopefully by now you're well on your way to making an informed decision about which publishing option is right for you, but let's talk about a few more things to solidify things.

If you want 100% control or 100% of the profits, self-publishing is the only option.

The other options require a bit more thought

Here are five things you need to consider and have authentic answers for:

  1. your experience (education, work and personal history, etc.)
  2. the size of your platform (email list, social media followers, ongoing media attention, etc.)
  3. your vision or professional goals
  4. your personality and lifestyle goals
  5. your constraints

We covered numbers 1 and 2 above, so let's focus on the last three things now. But I want to start with the last consideration on the list because it's the most often overlooked part of business planning.

Each of us have different constraints. Our age and energy levels, health and physical abilities, responsibilities to children or being a caretaker of a parent or partner or other adult, level of debt and saving. The list goes on.

My life as a 48-year-old business owning introvert with a spouse and 2 grown children, four siblings, two living parents, ten nieces and nephews, 9 aunts and uncles, and scores of cousins is far different from my 20- and 30-something extrovert friends and associates who work 9-to-5 jobs and are from smaller families. The demands on our time are different. What drains and recharges our energy is different. How and why we spend our money is different as are our financial needs.

The reality is that life is complicated. There is no one-size fits all way to balance our time, energy, and financial resources.

Every author must have a basic understanding of the role of players within the publishing industry, a clear vision for their writing career, deep knowledge of their ideal reader and how to reach them, and the ability to objectively assess their strengths and weaknesses and acknowledge and embrace their constraints. We must do this because it's the only way to balance aspiration with reality and establish realistic expectations.

Perhaps most important, every author needs people around them who understand their constraints and preferences, believe in their project, can see their potential for long-term success, and who are committed to being long-term strategic partners.

The right publishing fit is the one that helps you reach your goals within your constraints while you help them reach their goal within their constraints. If that's self-publishing, wonderful. If that's a hybrid/partner publisher, great. If that means going the literary agent and Big 5 route, super. If that's a traditional indie press, fantastic.

Whatever you do, do it for the right reasons. Do it for you. Do it for your readers.

 

Related Post and Further Recommended Reading

5 Tips an Aspiring Author Can Use to Move Up and Get Noticed

How to Know When Your Writing Is Good Enough

 

Sources

Why Agents Reject 96% of Author Submissions

 

Feature Image by Megan Markham on Unsplash

 

Cristen Iris

CI Communication Strategies

2021

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