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The Different Types of Traditional Publishing

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

It used to be that there was only one type of publishing (traditional) known to man. If authors wanted a chance at getting their books published, they went through this type of publisher. Things are different now, and traditional publishing is no longer the end-all-be-all that it once was. There are other options now - hybrid publishing, small press, indie publishing, vanity press, traditional publishing, and self-publishing.

What is Traditional Publishing? Traditional publishing is what existed before the birth of the internet. This mode of publication was limited to a successful few and its 'integrity' was heavily guarded by what's popularly known in the publishing industry as literary gatekeepers. To give you an idea of how old traditional publishing is, the oldest publishing company still around today, Cambridge University Press, was established in 1534 by royal charter, during the reign of King Henry VIII. The internet granted the general population wider access to publishing resources, which led to the current publishing landscape we see today.

When we think of traditional publishing today, we tend to think of the “big 5,” also known as trade publishers. These are mostly large book publishing companies responsible for most of the books you see on bookshelves in major bookstores like Barnes and Noble, on the New York Times Bestseller’s List, and whose authors you see on major late-night shows or hear of on major radio stations and in major news outlets. In short, traditional publishers have access. However, there are smaller presses that operate as traditional presses and hold as much weight in the industry.

Types of Traditional Publishers: I’ll I’ll group the three main types of traditional publishers into large, mid-sized, and small presses.

Large Traditional Publishers: Outside of the major university presses, there are five main publishers we all know of and sometimes dream of having our books published by (the “big five”). They are MacMillan, Hatchet Book Group, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins Publishers. These large companies usually finance large advances to authors and pay them royalties from the sales of the books they publish.

Oxford, Cambridge, Routledge, Princeton, and Palgrave MacMillan are the biggest known university presses. The main difference between university presses and the “big five” is that while university presses publish scholarly works and books for students, the “big five” publish books for the public.

Large traditional publishers may also have several mid-sized to smaller publishers known as imprints. To get published by traditional publishers, or one of their several imprints, an author must go through a rigorous submission process that can take years and several rejections. This submission process often involves sending inquiry letters and using an agent. It can be a frustrating process, and this is part of what led to the birth of indie publishing and self-publishing.

Mid-Sized Traditional Publishers: Many mid-sized publishers have all the characteristics of large publishing houses (authors need agents, publishers pay advances and royalties) but produce books on a much smaller scale and have smaller budgets than large traditional publishers. While many mid-sized publishers are profit-driven, some are mission-driven and supported by university presses, organizations, and media groups. Traditional mission-driven publishers often accept books with content that aligns with the mission of the organizations that sponsor them.

Some of the more known mid-sized publishers are Quest Books, University Press Syndicate (affiliated with Andrews McMeel), Chronicle Books (of the San Francisco Chronicle), Graywolf Press (a non-profit publisher), and Beacon Press (another non-profit publisher).

Small Press: Authors have a better chance of being published by a small press than they do with the other two types of traditional publishers. This is simply because small presses are open to direct submission by authors and don’t always need an agent. One of our authors was recently accepted by a small press in New York City. Her book, Aquarian Dawn, was published in October 2022.

Although some small presses are independently owned, they are listed under traditional publishing because they offer all the benefits of traditional publishing – advance payments, royalties, exposure, and validation – except on a much smaller scale and with limited budgets. Some are owned by organizations and media groups. Their marketing budgets are often so limited that marketing and publicity are left in the hands of the author. This is not a bad deal if an author can take the validation of a traditional publishing book deal, advance, and royalties, and use it as fuel to market themselves.

A few of the more well-known small presses are Tiny Fox Press, Red Hen Press, Tupelo Press, Unnamed Press, and C & R Press. Most of these small presses publish fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, but authors need to research which publisher is most likely to align with the theme of their book.

This is traditional publishing in a nutshell. I will attempt to cover non-traditional publishing in a future post.

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