Publishing Today: Traditional Publishers

While I’m preparing for my annual trip between houses I thought you might enjoy a brief trip through publishing today. We’ll start with traditional publishers.

Traditional Publishers

Harlequin Offices in Toronto Canada, romance novels through the decades.

With all the talk about independent publishing are you confused about what these changes mean for you as a reader? Do you wonder what’s going on when another author is listed right along with your old favorite? Do you wish you had an easier way to find your favorite types of books? For the next several Wednesdays, we’ll explore together.

Let’s begin by talking about traditional U.S. publishers–and at least one Canadian one, my own.

If you live in the U.S., traditional publishers are the folks who’ve brought you the books you love since 1638, when a printing press was imported to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from England. (If you’re reading this from another country? Perhaps you have some insights to share about publishing there. We’d welcome those.)

Remember when we knew exactly what publishers did?

Publishing companies existed all over the world, but in the United States, beginning in 1850, New York became the capital, and that has continued all the way into the twenty-first century.

In its earliest days publishing flourished with a large assortment of publishing houses, a number of whom specialized in specific types of books.

Through the years the industry changed as

  1. Copyrights were enforced in the U.S. and later internationally
  2. Censorship flourished then disappeared,
  3. Paperbacks came into being,
  4. Mail order book clubs came (and most often went,)
  5. The Depression convinced publishers to allow booksellers to return unsold merchandise for credit to encourage more orders.

Beginning in the 1960s, a new trend developed. Smaller publishers began to merge with larger ones. You can read more details in this excellent summary, but while you’re doing that, the rest of us will skip ahead to present day.

While small houses continue to exist–we’ll discuss those next time–four traditional publishers, known as the Big Four, are now the biggest English language publishers in the industry.

Those houses are:

  • Penguin Random House including nearly 250 imprints and publishing houses. Some of the most well-known are Random House Publishing Group, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; Crown Publishing Group; Penguin Group U.S.
  • Simon & Schuster including Atria, Folger Shakespeare Library, Free Press, Gallery Books, Howard Books, Pocket Books, Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Threshold Editions and Touchstone.
  • HarperCollins Publishers including HarperCollins; William Morrow; Avon Books; Broadside Books and many more including my own publisher, Harlequin.
  • Hachette Book Group including Grand Central Publishing; Little, Brown and Company; Faith Words; Center Street; Orbit; Yen Press.

Another house, Macmillian U.S., which includes Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Henry Holt and Company; Picador; St. Martin’s Press; and Tor/Forge is often added to make this list the Big Five.

You don’t think that book on your bed table is from one of these large traditional publishers? You might be right, but look closer at the copyright page. Within each of these houses are many imprints, which are smaller groups that publish certain genres or types of books. For instance Harper-Collins is now my publishing house, but Harlequin works inside Harper-Collins to do what it does best and Mira, the Harlequin imprint I write for, specializes in mainstream fiction, not in romance, for which Harlequin is best known.

When it comes to publishing a book, traditional publishing has had more than a century to learn what works and what doesn’t.

Big publishers are equipped to buy and then professionally publish any book with which they are sure to make a profit. The mechanisms are already in place, as is, most important, distribution. Every big publisher has a sales forces that who can get thousands of books into stores worldwide and then into the hands of readers.

There’s a downside though.

Like all businesses, traditional publishers are cautious. They take few chances. They look at sales figures, at surveys, at focus groups. They’re fully prepared to ax authors, imprints, series, and their own departments if numbers aren’t crunching to their satisfaction. They also take the lion’s share of profits. And yes, much of that “profit” pays for the publication process itself, or for expansion into new markets, etc. Authors trade larger royalties per book for many more sales. (The average author royalty payment is between 4-10% of the sale of each book, the larger number for hardcovers or for particularly important authors.)

Do you remember where Steve Jobs and Bill Gates got their starts?

Not by climbing somebody else’s job ladders after graduation from Ivy League colleges. Both men quit school to work in their garages–or so the story goes–as they figured out entirely new ways to do the things established businesses didn’t even want to think about. (Other famous companies and world famous entrepreneurs like Walt Disney started in garages, too. You may need to clean out your own and get busy.)

As you might expect, with the advent of technology, authors, too, decided to take publishing into their own hands and create an entirely different business model. And yes, they had help from people like Jeff Bezos at Amazon–a garage rec-room alum–who asked what would happen if the middle-man was cut out for many authors–or more accurately, let Amazon become the middle-man.

Next time we’ll look at the rise of independent publishing, the nuts and bolts for authors, and what it means for an author to go hybrid. See you then, and meantime, if you have questions, I look at every comment.


  1. Merlene on September 7, 2016 at 2:20 am

    I know all too well how publishing has changed but my experience has been as a librarian. I could depend on books published by McMillan, Simon, and Schuster, Gale, etc. Also we had reputable representatives from the companies come to show the books. Now the companies have merged so one never knows just who published a book. This was most informative.

  2. Nancy Lepri on September 7, 2016 at 3:50 pm

    Interesting info!

  3. Debbie Haupt on September 10, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    Hmm, Great post Emilie. I remember when Amazon and B&N first created a “free” self publishing platform for authors, and for just a small fee for “handling” anyone could publish a book. Who would have thought that from that revolutionary idea the multi-million dollar Indie Publishing craze began. I now know established authors who’ve had quite enough thank you of the big five and have even gone so far as created their own publishing platforms and some like Marie Force is even releasing other author’s works with her new Jack’s House Publishing. Can’t wait to tune in next Wednesday!

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