This is a broad overview of the main types of publishers and what you can typically expect from them. Each has its own level of care, knowledge of the publishing industry, and approach to working with new titles. It is important to know that each of these types of publishers serves an important and truly valuable purpose to the more than one million authors who publish books each year.
The amount of work they do and contract terms vary greatly from publisher to publisher, even within a specific type. Self-published books from independent authors technically would not fall into any of these categories. Once you receive a publishing contract, it’s best to discuss the specific terms with your potential agent.
For even more information, read How to talk to book publishers.
Service publishers get your book on Amazon with an ISBN and take care of internal formatting, book printing, and even provide proofreading and marketing for extra fees. Because they can provide these services to any author and don’t need to worry about bookstore placement or earning an ROI on royalty payments, they are not as selective about which books they work with.
What to expect:
An upfront cost to print and publish your book that ranges from $3k–9k for a quality service publisher. Minimal to no editing support for your book, no distribution in bookstores, and no paid advances.
Value to authors:
You retain all rights to the book and receive 100% of all book sales in the book’s lifetime. You will also have a lot of control over deadlines and the final manuscript. Time to publish is shorter, usually within 6 months if you have the manuscript completed.
These publishers are very similar to self-publishing companies, as much of the publishing process is still left to the author. Oftentimes, service publishers will set the author up as the publisher, and only provide help on getting the book online, such as KDP select or Apple Books, and printed, usually print on demand since they don't want to invest in a first print run unless you have pre-orders already. You can still approach an indie bookstore on your own and still get in.
Hybrid publishers have a bit more stake in the success of your book and are more selective about who they work with. There can be a high level of care to authors on editorial and marketing, and oftentimes have experience in traditional book publishing.
What to expect:
An upfront or additional cost to publish the book which includes some extra services such as manuscript editing and marketing, varies widely between publishers. Sometimes, this comes in the form of a requirement to pre-purchase thousands of copies of your book at low printing cost, which ranges at $3–6 per copy. Royalties range between 20–60% to the author.
Value to authors:
Many hybrids can get your book into physical bookstores and there is high credibility if they have past success stories. Some may even give small paid advances. Time to publish is still quite short at within 6 months.
It's always beneficial to get a professional editor, and no rely on the publisher. But when publishers take part in the editing process, the book stands a higher chance of doing well in the market. Hybrid publishers like to do more than service publishers when it comes to the book title, book cover, book reviews, and other factors that make a difference to sales. This is because they are earning royalties and have a bit more invested.
Small presses vary widely, but they are usually highly credible publishers and more selective since they like to specialize in niche types of books and work hard to provide book distribution. They are very similar to hybrid publishers and some are even considered traditional publishers.
What to expect:
An upfront cost to publish the book which includes some extra services such as manuscript editing and marketing. This ranges in price from $10k–25k. You still have a high amount of control over the book. The marketing effort is also higher and they develop a plan with you as a partnership.
Value to authors.
Provides editing and high author support with a higher royalty, about 50–60%. They can also get you into bookstore shelves, although some still don’t have this capability. No paid advances are offered and still a short time to publish, within 6 months.
This is where you will start running into acquisitions editors and significant barriers to entry. Your proposal will need to be a bit more well-rounded, have a clear go-to-market strategy for a nonfiction book, and author platform (email list) is considered much more here. Type of book is also more important since a commissioning editor is more selective. Retail price is also a bigger factor since published books will start at $25 for paperback copies, or $15 for ebooks. Anything significantly lower speaks to the level of reader demand for the title.
Traditional publishers also can vary quite widely since there are so many but what holds true is that they are all highly selective, have credibility with many previous successful books, and will ensure your book has a viable strategy to sell lots of copies.
What to expect:
No upfront cost to publish the book and once you receive an offer you can expect high standards editorial process with deadlines. You lose a bit of control and give up royalties, which range between 6–20%. The marketing effort is also higher and they develop a plan with you as a partnership.
Value to authors:
Credibility is the big one and they get you into bookstores so you will sell more copies. Most will offer paid advances, but not all. Time to publish is quite long, at least 1 year out.
Oftentimes, you will need a literary agent in order to get a book deal offer from a traditional publishing house. This is because publishers trust agent recommendations about topics and authors and more accurately predict of the book will do well in the market, rather than relying solely on the book proposal. The publishing process is also much longer at this level since you're now in a lineup of other authors who all need priority in pushing book releases and careful planning.
The publishing industry is a giant machine and book publishing professionals each have their own place and workflow, offering different levels of creative control, marketing initiatives, book editing, book formats, and how they get your book out in the world.
It is very common to have multiple Service and Hybrids interested in your book, whereas credible small presses and traditional publishers will take more time and work. Growth as an author, your personal brand, and your message is a long-term game. It often takes several books and publishers to get to a nice traditional deal or higher-paid advance.
Their value is discovered in phone conversations with the publisher or editor, and in terms of their contracts. For more detail on what exactly is in those contracts, this blog post is helpful.
It is always beneficial to go with the publisher who:
- provides the best deal in terms of cost to output,
- will publish your book in a timely manner, and
- whom you feel confident cares about your book and can help you make a difference by publishing it.
Lastly, independent authors and writers often ask what's the difference between traditional and self-publishing, and there are some clear differences, as above. But it's more complicated than that, and there are thousands of options available to authors, which are usually much better than choosing to self-publish a book without any support or guidance. Every book should have a critique partner to help shape the idea into something that resonates with a niche market. It's also helpful to have beta readers, or people within your community who can pre-order or give feedback.
Justine Evirs, author of Girl, F*ck This, (coming fall ‘21), published by Ballast Books, a hybrid book publisher based in Virginia, shares her own thoughts:
"I want to work with a small team and a publisher that takes pride in this book just as much I do. The purpose of this book is to start a conversation, expand my network, build a community, and continue to build a platform for even more courageous conversations.
I know for a fact, that if I would not have worked with Publishizer I would not have had so many opportunities to work with different publishers and pre-sell copies of my book with my network. I was amazed by how many were interested in my book idea and it gave me the confidence and validation to move forward. I now know that people want this and I am not wasting my time or just putting noise into the world. Which is priceless in my opinion!"
PS View more author testimonials at publishizer.com/#testimonials
PSS We are writing an ebook called Sell More Copies about how to turn more of your community into loyal readers.