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The Four Types of Book Publishers

Book publishing hit a major milestone in 2017. It was the first time that 1 million new titles were self-published in a calendar year. This number went up in 2018 and will continue to go up in 2019 and 2020. I wouldn't be surprised to see us cross the 2 million threshold sometime in the next five years.

But here's another truth: The vast majority of these titles sell less than 100 copies.

So, there are millions of books being released, but not a million (or even a thousand) buyers for each one.

These two realities - the number of published books vs. purchased books - leads to four different publishing models.


"The way it's always been." Traditional publishers rely on a network of literary agents to sort through all of the manuscript submissions. Agents are looking for the next big thing and sort out the ones they don't believe will sell many copies.

This system is very much still in play, even with the rise of self-publishing. In the academic world, university or graduate school programs will usually push their writers to go this route.

Most of these agent/publisher interactions take place in New York City. The publishers and agents all know each other and, as Seth Godin would say, "If you get picked," you can make a pretty good living as a traditionally published author. This also makes the next book easier to publish and opens doors for becoming a professor.

But it's a long journey. It's really hard to get the green light (similar to landing an agent as an actor or musician), especially as a new writer without an existing fan base.


There are other self-publishing tools like IngramSpark, Lulu, or even Wattpad, but Amazon owns the lion's share of this market. Most of the million new titles each year are being self-published through Amazon KDP.

Amazon has a similar approach to YouTube. Get rid of the agents. No gatekeepers. No more barriers. Let anyone post their work. Will there be a ton of books that sell five copies? Absolutely. But there will also be a few surprises that go viral. And every book points back to their site, meaning the books are like little advertisements for

And let's say there are five million books that only sell five copies apiece. And Amazon makes, let's go low and say just $1 per sale.

5 million books x 5 sales a piece x $1 a sale = $25 million

Change that number to 50 sales apiece, $5 per sale, the number jumps real fast to $1.25 billion.

For Amazon, it's a high volume play. Each book doesn't have to be a bestseller.

Amazon KDP allows authors to publish a paperback or Kindle version (or both). The push for moving things to the Kindle, makes sense from a revenue perspective. By eliminating print and shipping costs, there is more profit per sale.

The Self-Publishing Eco-System of Editors & Designers

Amazon KDP offers a few built-in tools to help authors out in terms of design, but what's happened is an entire freelancer ecosystem has emerged to assist with individual parts of the projects. Writers can find editors, book formatting experts, cover designers, download an app for checking grammar. Costs money, sure, but it saves the time of doing everything DIY.

Amazon doesn't mind this at all. The self-publishing eco-system improves the quality of the books and Amazon didn't have to hire a team of editors to make this happen.

Hybrid Publishers

Let's say you started a business and wanted to make a one-minute video advertising who you are, what you do, etc.

There's no reason, in 2019, why you couldn't do this all on your own. Use your iPhone as a camera. YouTube a few videos about lighting. Buy a microphone. Use an editing software. Upload to social media. That's it.

Except, at least if I did this approach, it would look like something a regular guy shot on his iPhone. It wouldn't be of professional quality. That's why it's worth the extra money to go to the little 1-2 person studio who produces videos professionally.

This is the same thing that happened in the world of book publishing. Some of the editors and designers I mentioned above said to each other, "Wait, why not just become a publisher? We're already working on the books anyways."

What Hybrid Publishers do is they charge the authors a fee, the bulk of which is based on editing costs and cover design. Those are the two biggest budget items. The final price is usually between $2,000 - $5,000.

But Hybrid Publishers are putting their name on the book so quality is important. They are trying to build a loyal reader base and the trust of local bookstores, so, similar to the literary agents, they will have restrictions on what they choose to publish. There's also some pressure when you're charging someone $2,000 - $5,000 to then deliver on number of book sales.

Since authors are footing the bill for the production costs, most Hybrid Publishing arrangements will have a very generous royalty structure for the author. In terms of the amount earned per book sale, the ranking goes like this:

1. Self-published authors

2. Hybrid

3. Traditional*

*But note, traditionally published authors normally receive an advance when they sign their deal, somewhere in the $2,000 - $5,000 range (or higher for the bigger publishers), so even though it's less money per book sale, the traditionally published author (usually) ends up making more than the Self-published or Hybrid author.

Vanity Publishers

Their commercials usually come on after midnight. Their websites look like they were built in 1994. And everything is just a little bit shady.

Vanity publishers like to say things like, "Write the next bestseller!" "Make a living as a writer!" But unlike the literary agents or Hybrid Publishers, Vanity Publishers have no selection criteria. They will publish any book, as is. The editing process doesn't matter to them. They hide the truth that most books sell less than 100 copies. And they will charge a whole lot to do this service. I'm talking north of $2,500, sometimes north of $5,000.

They will often require their authors to purchase an absurd amount of their own books. 100 copies at $10-15 apiece.

The Vanity Publishing model in a nutshell: See if you can get 1,000 people to do this for $3,000 per sale. That's a $3 million business. And there's hardly any time or effort put in because they aren't concerned with quality. So it's a high profit vs. time ratio.

We're passionate about guiding writers away from these types of places. There are just too many better options out there for your book. We have previous articles on what is a vanity press, how to spot a rotten publishing deal, and how vanity publishers set things back 30 years.

More chapters to come diving deeper into each of these four, but if you ever have questions or feeling unsure which route to go with your book, feel free to send a note to

Read more chapters from Unpublished by searching "Unpublished" under the Chapters section on Long Overdue Books.

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