Updated: Dec 6, 2019
When you open up a book and see a logo for Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Livre, Harper Collins, or Macmillan, these are all referred to as traditional publishers. The five names listed above represent the "Big 5" of traditional publishing, combining for around $9 billion of revenue in 2018.
The biggest name authors and top-selling books are generally represented by one of these five publishers.
Penguin Random House - Becoming by Michelle Obama. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Clive Cussler. Mike Maden (Tom Clancy books). And shoutout to Roald Dahl who was my favorite author back in elementary school.
One somewhat confusing note - Game of Thrones is published by Bantam Spectra. Bantam Spectra is the science fiction division of Bantam Books. Penguin Random House owns Bantam Books. So, basically, Penguin Random House owns the Game of Thrones books.
Simon & Schuster - Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward. Stephen King. Susan Orlean. Dan Brown. Fun fact, Simon & Schuster was the original publisher for Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Hachette Livre - James Patterson. David Sedaris.
Harper Collins - Lord of the Rings. Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee). Pretty Little Liars.
Macmillan - Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff. Melissa Albert. C.S. Lewis.
Once you get outside of The Big 5, there are plenty of traditional publishers out there, all varying in terms of size, revenue, what kind of books they publish. I won't go too in-depth here, but I found these three lists to be pretty helpful. Definitely worth bookmarking.
Keeping track of all these different names can be confusing. But the biggest thing to remember about traditional publishing is this - The publisher is always paying you to publish your book. Always.
Traditional publishers pay their authors in the form of an advance. Which looks like this:
1. Author writes a book, submits to a literary agent
2. Agent sells to a publisher
3. Publisher likes the book, signs a contract, writes a check to the author (the advance)
4. Publisher publishes the book, gives the author a certain amount of each sale (royalty) which goes toward the advance
So, for example, you sell your book to Penguin Random House. They pay you a $100,000 advance. Your book goes to market and each time a copy is sold you get, let's say, $2. Sell 50,000 books and you've met the original $100,000 advance. After 50,000, the royalties continue.
In that scenario, both the publisher and author are extremely happy. If you sell 50,000 copies of a book, you are in the top 0.0001% (I'm probably missing a few zeroes there) of all writers.
Just like having Harvard and Yale on a resume, or getting your show on HBO, or a Broadway actress being able to list Hamilton as a previous credit, landing a Big 5 publishing contract is a very big deal inside and outside of the literary world.
Rapid-fire reasons why:
Larger advances - better chance to make a living doing this full-time
More prominence - in bookstores, airports, placements on Amazon.com
Ego trip - Let's be real, saying that you're published by the same place that published Michelle Obama or Ernest Hemingway is a nice little ego trip at a party
Teaching - Publishing credentials help secure professor jobs. I feel like that's the ultimate life, writing books and teaching creative writing
And even if it's not a Big 5 publisher, landing a traditional publishing contract is still a great route for anyone looking to make a career out of writing.
Becoming a bestseller, being up for major literary awards, or even just having that little staff notecard next to your book in a local bookstore, these all are much easier to achieve for writers who land traditional publishing deals vs. writers who have self-published or used a hybrid publisher. Traditional publishing remains a very good route to go for aspiring authors.
But it's not the only route.
One of the problems with traditional publishing is it can feel like this strange "kiss the ring" scene from The Godfather. There's a lot standing in the writer's way in the traditional publishing model.
Publishers rarely take unsolicited manuscripts, meaning the writer can't just email/mail them a copy of their novel. Has to come from a literary agent.
The literary agent has to say yes and most of the time they say no. And writers normally don't receive a reason why, it's just the generic: Thank you for submitting your work. Unfortunately, at this time we...
Should you ask why not? I researched this and almost every article out there made it feel like "career suicide" if you even dare to ask why they turned your book down.
If the literary agent says yes, they still have to get the green light from a publisher. Once you get a yes from the publisher, it may be years before the edits are done. They may say things like: "450 pages? Let's get this down to 300." "What if the main character was a vampire instead of a regular guy?" "Can you make this a trilogy?" "Can you NOT make this a trilogy?"
In the famous words of Billy Joel:
It was a beautiful song, But it ran too longIf you're gonna have a hit, You gotta make it fit, So they cut it down to 305
It's a lot to go through... but so is med school. So is law school. So is waiting in line for a sandwich at Arthur Bryant's the Sunday of a Kansas City Chiefs home game. All the time and energy could 100% be worth it. Especially if there's a $100,000 advance waiting for you, or New York Times Bestseller lists, or a teaching position at Northwestern University.
But here are some tough stats to share. And I promise, I'm not trying to make things depressing in here, just want to share the tough reality writers face in the current market. You won't see these stats in any attention-grabbing headlines like, "Make millions as a writer" or "I made $5,000 a month self-publishing, here's how."
Advances aren't normally six figures
Once you get outside of The Big 5 publishing houses, the range for first-time authors is more in the $5,000 to $15,000 range. Many of the smaller publishing houses will pay $1,000 to $5,000 to first-time authors. Why? They just don't have the revenue of a Penguin Random House or Harper Collins which prevents them from taking as many high advance chances. According to a massive survey conducted by the Authors Guild in 2018, median author income is $6,080. Down from $10,500 a decade earlier (2009). Average earnings from book sales alone are just $3,100
And keep in mind, the literary agent usually gets 10%. And royalties per book often fall in the $1.25 to $2 range.
So remember my example earlier about the $100,000 advance and 50,000 sold copies? It really is the 0.000001 percent scenario. The reality that a lot of traditional published authors face is a $1,000 advance and 500 copies sold. Even more common are books that sell less than 500 copies, maybe less than 100.
So there is a legitimate question for certain authors of: "Is it worth it?" It's a lot of time and commitment for a $3,100 paycheck.
And that's one of the better case scenarios. Worst case you spend years receiving rejection after rejection from agents who don't offer any feedback for how to get better or how to improve the book. Too many writers will interpret this as, "Well, it's not any good. Time to move on" when maybe it's a book that will sell 90 copies and find a small niche audience. Or maybe it does need another rewrite. Maybe the opening chapter needs to pack more of a punch.
Or, honestly, maybe that specific literary agent had 100 other emails, they just came out of a bad meeting with their boss, and the sandwich shop down the street put shredded lettuce on their sandwich, again, even though they specifically asked them not to. That could've been a factor too!
There's a long list of books and authors who were rejected by 10+ agents and publishers. It's a badge of honor and could be a whole other post itself. But in 2019, you don't need a literary agent's permission to get your book out there.
So what's the main takeaway of this post?
Here's how I think about it, if I were making a TV show, I'd want it to be on Netflix. Or NBC. Or another major channel.
The same goes for publishing a book. It would be awesome to land a deal with Simon & Schuster. Especially if you are pursuing a writing career, I think you should totally test the waters with traditional publishing. Do research on how to write a great query letter. Seek out help. Ask other published authors for tips. Network with editors and agents. Do everything you can to get in the door. Go after it the same way it's worth a shot sending your script to Disney or Netflix.
Hey, the worst thing they can say is no...
But if writing is a hobby, or a side project, or just something you love doing in your spare time, I would assess what the goals are for your book.
Am I trying to write a bestseller or am I trying to get my ideas out there in a way that's not on Facebook?
Am I aiming for 1,000 copies sold or do I want to have my book available to friends, family, and maybe some stranger in Florida who is equally into novels about cross country biking trips.
Do I want to go after an advance or am I ok spending $1,000 - $5,000 to have someone help me with editing and putting the book together, even if I won't make much more than $100 in book sales.
Do I even want someone editing it, reviewing it?
Why not just publish as is?
Depending on the answers to these questions, it might make sense to traditionally publish, but it could also make sense to use a hybrid publisher, self-publish on Amazon, or, in some cases, it could be best to work with an online or local printer, make 10 awesome hardcover books and give them out at Christmas. How cool would it be to have a great-grandkid find your book 60 years later on a shelf?
I'm not a big fan of articles that end in, "Well, there's no one right answer," but I can't avoid the same ending here. The truth is there is no one right way to publish a book, because every author, every book, every goal for a book is different. My hope is this article at least cleared some things up and brought a little more clarity to your own publishing pursuits. We will have upcoming posts about self-publishing, hybrid publishing, and one that will ask, "What is vanity publishing?"
And if you're looking for more clarity, or would like to talk specifically about one of your own projects, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Would love to hear from you!
This chapter is from a new project called "Unpublished." The goal of this work is to help authors navigate the often confusing world of publishing and determine if a traditional, hybrid, or going the self-publishing route is best for their work.