T is for Traditional Publishing

Posted by on June 3, 2016 in author's alphabet, recent | 2 comments

T is for traditional publishing.


Prior to around the year 2000, the adjective “traditional” wouldn’t have been necessary—publishing was publishing. There were large presses, sure, and small presses, and various publishers were known for their work in specific genres. But one major model existed: an author wrote a book and sent it to a company that published the book, creating physical copies and distributing those books to various points of sale.

Despite the massive changes brought about by self-publishing, the traditional model still exists.  Through consolidation, publishers have consolidated into five major players:

•    Hachette
•    HarperCollins
•    Macmillan
•    Penguin Random House
•    Simon & Schuster

Each publisher is comprised of many imprints, each of which specializes in a genre or sub-genre, releasing books with appeal to a specific market segment.  (Much smaller traditional publishers also continue to exist.)

What are the functions of a traditional publisher?

An author’s first contact with a traditional publisher is likely to be with an editor, after their agent has sold a work to the publisher.  (None of the major traditional publishers accepts unsolicited manuscripts across the board. A handful of imprints do accept unsolicited manuscripts; however, the review time for those submissions may amount to years. The “gatekeeping” function of traditional publishing continues to foster the impression among many readers that traditionally published books are superior to self-published books.)

Editors are responsible for developing an author’s work. Specific actions will depend on an editor’s work habits, as well as the state of the submitted manuscript.  Typically, an editor reads a manuscript and prepares an edit letter, describing a variety of changes the editor believes will make the manuscript better.  The letter is sent to the author, along with a deadline by which the changes must be completed.  (Editors may make multiple rounds of edits, gradually moving from broad, developmental notes to more specific comments on individual sentences or words. In some genres—such as young adult or middle grade—it’s more common to receive sequential edit letters than in others—such as romance.)  Once the manuscript is finalized, it is reviewed by a copy editor, to polish continuity, grammar, and spelling.

While the editors are working with the author to create the strongest content possible, an art department concentrates on a book cover.  Someone on the publisher’s staff—often the developmental editor—drafts back cover copy, describing the book.  A title is selected, often one that is different from the author’s original name for the book. Ultimately, the work is placed into a final publication format (ebook or print) and all of the text (the book, the cover copy, etc.) is reviewed by proofreaders for typographic errors.

All of those professionals—developmental editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, formatters, typesetters, artists, printers, etc.—are hired by the traditional publisher.  Each is expected to conform to various “house rules” ranging from acceptable subject matter to common cover design to spelling conventions. The author is never out-of-pocket for any of those expenses.

Once the book is finalized, the publisher is responsible for getting it to sales venues.  For online stores, this means determining metadata (which are generally protected as trade secrets) and uploading the books. For bricks-and-mortar stores, publishers maintain a staff of salespeople who approach the buyers for the few remaining large chain stores. They prepare a catalog to support those salespeople (although the print catalogs of old have almost entirely given way to online catalogs.)  Once again, the author does not pay for these services.

Even before the book is available for sale, the traditional publisher develops a marketing plan.  (Indeed, at most publishers, the marketing department is engaged with the book from the instant it is acquired. At most publishers, the marketing department has the ability to “blackball” any prospective acquisition, on the basis that it will not readily find a market niche.)  The marketing plan might include (increasingly rare) author tours, press releases, physical swag, etc.  While special sales pricing is occasionally used, most traditionally published books are sold at a fixed price.  Marketing dollars are generally allocated to books the publisher believes will be bestsellers.  Books by new authors or authors who are not selling particularly well will generally not be promoted extensively, if at all. As before, though, authors do not pay for marketing efforts arranged by publishers. (But they might well pay for their own marketing efforts.)

What does all this cost?

In the realm of traditional publishing, authors should not put out any money for the publication of their books. Rather, traditional publishers pay money to the writer. (Note that the rules are different in self publishing.)

Publishers’ payments come in two forms: advances and royalties.  Not all publishers pay advances; however, for decades, the payment of an advance was the hallmark of a legitimate publisher. An advance is a payment made as an advance against royalties.  The author receives the money and never needs to repay it, even if the book fails to sell well.  While arrangements vary from publisher to publisher, many advances are paid in installments:  1/3 upon signing a contract, 1/3 upon delivering an accepted outline, and 1/3 upon delivering an accepted manuscript.  (Some publishers include a fourth payment point, upon publication of the finished book. That arrangement works against an author’s best interest, because the author can’t control when a book is actually published.)

In addition to an advance, most publishers pay royalties.  Royalties are a percentage of the sales price of the book.  Depending on the contract, different percentages might be paid based on format, market, etc. Those percentages might be calculated on the cover price or an actual sales price or some other number.

Compared to self publishing, traditional publishers’ royalty percentages are low.  While a self-published author might receive 70% of a book’s sale price when they sell on Amazon, a traditionally published author might receive only 10% (or less, if the book is a mass market paperback or sold in a small market following translation.)
Nevertheless, traditionally published books often sell many more copies than self-published books.  Generally, traditional publishers have greater success placing their books in bricks-and-mortar bookstores, and they have much greater reach in library sales and international sales.  Therefore, an author might make more money with a traditional publisher, despite the relatively low amount received on each individual book.

So? How do you feel about traditional publishing? Do you have or aspire to a traditional publishing contract? Do you think this business model can persist in today’s world?


  1. This is a great outline of how traditional publishing is SUPPOSED to work. It’s a model. It does your readers a disservice not to point out that traditional publishers seldom follow the model anymore. Unless you are an established author above the midlist, they will likely cut corners, especially in copy editing and marketing.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! I tried to address your comment in the body of my text, when I said: “Marketing dollars are generally allocated to books the publisher believes will be bestsellers. Books by new authors or authors who are not selling particularly well will generally not be promoted extensively, if at all. As before, though, authors do not pay for marketing efforts arranged by publishers. (But they might well pay for their own marketing efforts.)”

      (So far, I haven’t experienced a cut in copyediting for midlist authors — in my experience, that’s been part of the package at Simon & Schuster, Random House Penguin, and HarperCollins, but other traditional publishers might well cut those corners!)