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Publishing

Big Five Publishers and Imprints

Let’s talk about publishers today. Self-publishing keeps getting bigger and bigger, but traditional publishers still control a large share of the market. They’ve been around a long time. They have the knowledge and the finances to do things that most individuals just can’t. I’m not saying they’re perfect, just that it doesn’t hurt to know more about them, even if you’re not planning on publishing traditionally.

I also want to talk about why they’re not all that important. They matter, but they also don’t matter. It’s an interesting place to be, isn’t it?

First off, who are they?

There actually used to be six major publishing houses, but Penguin and Random House merged, so now we’re down to five. (Some people consider Scholastic to be the sixth now, but mostly I keep hearing big five, so that’s what we’re going with today.)

It’s hard to give a concise history of each group because they’re all made up of various imprints and sub-imprints, which have changed owners and even names more times than I think any of you would care to read about. Some of their earliest iterations have been around since the early 19th century. Rather than try to get into that tangled web, I’m just giving you their names.

Penguin Random House

Hachette Book Group

Harper Collins

Simon and Schuster

Macmillan

Okay, so what are imprints?

Imprints are like sub-publishers that are owned by the big five. They’re sometimes used for marketing purposes, to allow publishers to group certain kinds of books together as a brand, or to market to certain demographics. Some imprints even have imprints under them, aka sub-imprints.

Also, even though the major publishers themselves don’t accept unagented manuscripts, sometimes their imprints do. You can read more about that here. (Unfortunately, it seems some of these programs have been suspended due to Covid 19. Maybe put a pin in this and check back when things calm down a bit.)

Why does this matter?

As far as readers are concerned, it doesn’t matter at all. Think about the last book you read. Do you know who published it off the top of your head? Or what bigger publisher owned the imprint that published it? Most people don’t keep track of those details.

From a writer’s point of view, there’s a little more to consider.

Legitimacy

It’s pretty easy to look up a publisher’s name and see if they’re a big five imprint and not a vanity press. No, really, do this. It might save you from getting scammed.

Something to talk about

Let’s call it clout, or maybe bragging rights. Like, some writers would be really happy if the same company that published their favorite author is now publishing them, too. It doesn’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a fun thought, you know?

On sort of a related note, some publishers might nominate your work for certain literary awards. Winning an award might boost your sales a bit. Some awards also come with trophies or other prizes. Again, maybe not a big deal, but it’s something fun to consider.

Financials

Big publishers have bigger budgets than small ones usually do. You might get a better advance or larger royalty payments, or a contract to write multiple books rather than just one. You might get a better marketing campaign than a smaller publisher could provide. (The opposite of this can also be true: sometimes big publishers have more clients, and therefore less to go around.)

Unfortunately, though, you don’t always get a choice in your publisher. The big five publishers and their imprints rarely accept unsolicited manuscripts so you can’t just shoot an email over to the acquisitions editor at, say, Little, Brown, and Co., and expect an offer.

As a general rule, you need an agent if you want to publish through a traditional publisher. Even if you get accepted at an indie publisher (aka a publisher that’s not affiliated with the big five) or a smaller imprint that accepts unagented submissions, an agent can help you negotiate a better contract than you probably could on your own. If your manuscript is accepted without an agent, go ahead and contact a few. There’s a good chance you’ll find one willing to represent you.

The big five publishers are great, but they’re not your only option.

One of my goals for this website is to try and demystify traditional publishing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to self-publish, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there about traditional publishing. I think a lot of writers get intimidated by the traditional process and jump into self-publishing because they don’t think they have a chance in the traditional world, or because they think they have to have a lot of money and connections before they’ll be taken seriously. None of that is true.

Whichever way you go, you’re going to have to make choices and put in work. I think it’s important to do the research up front and come up with a publishing strategy that works for you. If you liked this post, or if you have any questions, please leave me a comment and let me know. Thanks!

Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about vanity presses. Please come back and read that one, because it might save you from getting scammed!

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