Demystifying Publishing: Defining Different Types of Publishing Houses
Being a writer requires knowledge of a lot of surprising fields! Whether we’re studying the weather patterns in coastal deserts, or medieval Irish soup recipes, most of us live in a constant state of research. One topic many writers struggle with, however, is ironically close to home. I’m talking about the ins-and-outs of the publishing world. While I can’t promise to make you a certified expert, I like to use the blog to expand your pool of professional knowledge.
So, today we’re talking about the different kinds of publishing houses. That’s a pretty broad topic, but luckily, we only have to talk about companies that publish fiction. I mean, I’m not saying my blog is useless to textbook writers. Still, I think it’s pretty obvious that’s not my core audience. Hopefully, this will give you a jumping off point for your own research when it’s time to find a home for your novel!
The “Big Five”
Penguin Random House, Hachette Livre, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan. The five biggest names in publishing form an unofficial “top tier” in terms of earnings, impact, and reach. However, as prestigious as these companies are, they’re not the best fit for every author, or every manuscript. The perks of publishing BIG can include a truckload of extra publicity, more press, a bigger advance, better networking opportunities, and easier entry into foreign markets. However, competition for these companies’ attention is intense. This is literary agent territory. None of the Big Five accept unsolicited submissions. All of them expect an author to have a pre-existing platform: a big online following, for instance, or the more traditional portfolio of previous publications. And once the manuscript has landed, the level of personal attention that a publishing juggernaut like these can (or will) throw an author is inconsistent at best. You often have less leverage in negotiating your contract - if you’ve got your eye on holding on to your whole list of secondary rights, you’re going to find yourself disappointed. In the end, publishing is like any industry. The bigger they get, the more “corporate” the company is likely to be.
A Word (Okay, a LOT of Words) About Imprints
An imprint is basically a sub-department of a larger publishing company. They might be founded by an editor with a vision, or they might be formed when a big publisher buys up a smaller company, but doesn’t want to disrupt its reputation or relationship with existing readers. Imprints have particular missions, themes, or visions around which their sales (and their purchases!) are shaped. They are, essentially, a marketing tool: like genre labels, imprints exist to curate content in ways that appeal to specific audiences. They build brand recognition with, and pitch their aesthetics and marketing decisions directly to certain readers. Some imprints are small and targeted, printing a highly specialized brand of content, others are so big that they have their own imprints. The critical aspect of imprints for the debut writer is that they all have their own policies on unsolicited and un-agented manuscripts. This can seem like the best of both worlds, but remember, a huge imprint like Tor/Forge (Macmillan’s sci fi/fantasy imprint, and one of the most recognizable names in the spec fic world) receives thousands of manuscripts a month. Not only is it a challenge to make your pitch stand out from the crowd, but turnaround times for submissions are slow. It can take a year just to receive a rejection!
Spec. Fic imprints of the Big Five: Bantam (Penguin Random House), Del Rey (Penguin Random House), DAW* (Not exactly an imprint, but near enough. Penguin Random House), Ace and Roc (Penguin Random House. Though published under two separate names, Ace and Roc still function as one imprint for your purposes. Don’t double submit!), Tor/Forge (Macmillan), Tor Teen (Macmillan. YA!), Orbit (Hachette), HarperVoyager (Harper Collins), Saga (Simon & Schuster)
Medium-Sized Publishing Houses
This is a broad category, with a lot of different publishing houses who excel at or focus on different aspects of the business lumped in together. Medium-sized houses may provide some of the security and reach offered by the Big 5, and they may also offer some of the TLC and personal attention of smaller companies… Or they may not. One thing is sure, the publishing industry is competitive, and the Big Five gobble up markets and competitors like empires gobble up border states. If a mid-sized publisher has survived in this environment, they must have some kind of edge. Many mid-range publishers function a lot like imprints - they have a particular vision, or mission, that allows them to shape their content to capture a specific audience. Some rely on savvy editors who can spot big debuts from a mile away. Some can offer authors a faster timeline between signing the contract and publishing the book than bigger outfits. Some are almost as big as the Big 5 and throw in the added complexities of imprints and corporate umbrellas. When considering any publisher, research is key, but this middle range requires some extra attention. A word of caution: Un-agented authors may still struggle at this level.
Small and Indie Presses
We’re at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Big Five, at last. Like medium-sized presses, the Indie field is defined by a diversity of interests and specialties. Small presses tend to have a distinctive catalogue, defined by a specific ethos, aesthetic, or perspective. Since their catalogues are small, individual projects receive a lot of personal attention. The emphasis is often on the “relationship” half of a business relationship. Many small presses accept unsolicited submissions. Authors with a particular interest in their secondary rights will often find they have more success in contract negotiations. Hard-to-sell books, especially queer fiction, can benefit immensely from specialist presses. If your vision for your work aligns well with the preferences of the press, selling a book to an Indie publisher often feels like coming home. The downsides can be daunting for some authors, however. Small presses can struggle to place their books in brick and mortar shops. Like many small businesses, their profits are often marginal and their existence can be in danger quarter-to-quarter.
A Word (This Time I Mean It) About Vanity (Pay-To-Publish) Presses
So, uh, don’t pay a company money to publish your book. It’s a scam. I know that the drive to publish is powerful. So is the fear of failure. But if you can’t find a traditional publisher, you can self-publish at a fraction of the cost extracted by a vanity press. They’re trying to make money off of your passion and your publishing anxiety. Do your research, take care of yourself, and only trust your book to people who care if it succeeds.