There’s much talk on the Interwebz about “Big Six, “small presses” and
“indie publishing.” But a lot of newer writers aren’t quite sure what these terms really mean.
None of us wants to sound dumb, so we usually don’t ask.
So I’ll pretend you did. (And thanks, Yumi, for asking about the word
“indie” in the comments last week.)
These are the
six multi-national corporations that control most of the Western world’s
Two are American: Simon and Schuster and HarperCollins, (although Harper
is a division of Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, so it’s pretty international.)
Two are German: Random House is owned by Bertelsmann and Macmillan is
owned by Holzbrinck.
One (Hachette) is French.
Some people include the Canadian Romance giant Harlequin when they’re
talking about “big publishing” (which I guess would make them the “Big Seven.”)
Most books you see in stores come from the Big Six/Seven. They have hundreds of imprints with familiar names like Little Brown, Knopf, Viking, NAL, Pocket, Scribner, St. Martins, Dutton, Avon, William Morrow, Crown, Tor, Zondervan, Grand Central, Dell, etc. but they’re all owned by one of those six corporations.
In almost all cases, you need an agent to query the Big Six. There are a
few exceptions, like Tor/Forge/Tom
—which is a division of MacMillan—and some children’s divisions of
the big houses.
Five of the Big Six—all but Random House—have recently run afoul of the
US Department of Justice because of their attempts to keep the price of ebooks
artificially high. A lot of people think this means the Big Six are doomed.
I’m not so sure about that. Multinational conglomerates tend to be
rather good at hanging onto their trousers in a crisis.
But there’s no doubt the ebook revolution is changing the face of publishing.
Most of the changes the Big Six has come up with recently have NOT been
author-friendly, but maybe they’ll learn from their mistakes. (We can hope.)
publishers (sometimes called “small” just to confuse you)
This covers a lot of territory, from university presses to big international
operations like Canada’s Harlequin
(see above) and the UK’s Bloomsbury
has branches in London, New York, Berlin, and Sydney.)
When mid-sizers are successful, they tend to be bought up by the Big Six.
, the largest
independent Christian publisher, was bought by HarperCollins in 2011.)
There are many dozens of mid-sized houses. They often address particular niche
markets. Here’s a sample list—by no means comprehensive
- Kensington: Most genres except sci-fi and fantasy
- Llewellyn: New Age nonfiction and mysteries (under their Midnight Ink imprint)
- Chronicle Books: Art, food, pop culture (and some illustrated fiction like Griffin and Sabine.)
- Perseus Books: Travel and other nonfiction genres.
- Workman Publishing: Tends toward the literary. Imprints are Algonquin, Black Dog & Leventhal, Storey Publishing, Timber Press, Artisan Books, HighBridge Audio, Fearless Critic.
- Sourcebooks: Formerly a publisher of financial guidebooks, it’s grown to include fiction in all genres in the last decade.
- Sunset: Gardening, cookbooks and how-to
- Poisoned Pen: (Maybe on the cusp of small and mid-sized.) One of the largest mystery publishers.
- F + W Media/Writer’s Digest Books: How-to
- Dorchester: Genre fiction. Now in bankruptcy. It was the premier mid-sized independent publisher of mass market paperbacks until 2010, when it suspended most paper operations and went to ebooks only (see below.) Its financial difficulties have given it a “not recommended” stamp from most writers’ organization.
- Titan Books: UK publisher of movie and TV tie-ins as well as graphic novels. Took on Dorchester’s crime fiction imprint, Hard Case Crime
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Textbook publishers (merged with the Irish company Riverdeep in 2008)
NOTE: Mid-sizers tend to pay smaller advances and lower
royalties (that includes Harlequin.) They also tend to be the most financially
precarious. So expect some of these to go the way of Dorchester if they don’t
keep up with the times.
Amazon is a bookstore that has become a book publisher. It has a number
of lines in different genres:
: Reprints of self-published and out of print books
: Books in translation
General Fiction—which will be published in conjunction with Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt (see how convoluted this all gets?)
You need great sales as a self-pubber to be approached by Amazon’s
publishing wing, but agents are also selling directly to Amazon.
Amazon has some of the most author-friendly deals around, BUT other
bookstores are reluctant to carry their products because of the obvious
conflict of interest.
Other online retailers like iTunes/Apple may follow suit.
Brick and mortar bookstores are also producing their own books. This isn’t
new. City Lights in San Francisco has had its own publishing wing since 1955,
but with POD technology, this may become a trend that will help bookstores stay
Independent Ebook Publishers
These are new publishers like Ellora’s Cave
more start-ups all the time.) They publish primarily ebooks and usually appeal to
a particular niche.
Expect to see more and more of these.
Because ebooks have low overhead, they can be more author friendly and
often provide some marketing help for their authors. (Samhain is branching into
print, although the bulk of their titles are ebooks.)
These generally do not require an agent for submissions. But because this
is a new industry, check them out thoroughly and try to get referrals from
These are sometimes called “indie presses.” (Ten years ago, this is what
people meant by “indie” publishing, but now self-pubbers have kind of taken
over the word.)
There are thousands of them. It’s hard to find useful listings because
the number is never stable. They spring up and get knocked down like a literary
version of Whac-A-Mole.
Some, like Beacon Press, GrayWolf,
and Copper Canyon Press
are prestigious and have been around for
Some are regional and publish books specific to one area--like guidebooks and local history.
They tend to focus on poetry and literary fiction, so if you're a literary writer, you may find your home here. Poets and Writers
has a great database of literary small presses
. For more general list of small publishers, check the Writer's Resource Directory, curated by author (& friend of this blog) T.K. Richardson. It's a great resource for publishing info in general.
Small presses are usually labors of love and nobody gets rich, but they’re often a
good way to break in to print and lots of authors are very happy to stay with a
small press where there is a more personal interaction with editors.
Authors are responsible for their own marketing and there’s generally no
advance, but higher royalties.
These publishers generally don’t want to deal with agents—writers should
query the editors directly. (Remember to check for submission guidelines on
But beware: Check them out thoroughly with sites like Writer Beware
and Preditors and Editors
and if they’re not well-established,
contact other clients before you sign. And always have a lawyer or publishing
professional look at the contract before you sign.
These are a tiny version of the small press—usually one or two-person
operations, generally oriented toward the literary. They often publish
chapbooks of poetry. They operate on a shoestring, and are usually run as a
Often these are run by authors who are essentially
self-publishers who also take on a few colleagues and friends. A micropress can be a friendly, supportive place for a writer to start out. But beware: they can also be clueless and unprofessional. There’s
a horror story at Writer Beware
this week about a writer who had her book
rewritten without her permission by a “publisher” of
Some of these can be a great first step into publishing, but look for red flags. Grandiosity, unrealistic promises, negativity about the industry, and bad
spelling/grammar on the website are tell-tale signs.
These are publishers who make their money from services to authors rather
from sales of books.
Before ebooks and POD (print on demand) technology, vanity presses were
mostly pricey self-indulgences—although every so often a vanity-published book
like 1990s phenomenon The Celestine
made it to mainstream readers.
Two of the best known of the traditional vanity presses are Vantage
But as prices came down and self-publishing took off, the line between real
publishers, printing services, and vanity presses has blurred. A lot of authors are taken in by vanity publishers posing as real publishers.
But others successfully use vanity presses as printers for self-publishing and--with a lot of promotion--make the bestseller lists with books like The Christmas Box and Legally Blonde.
The problem is, most vanity publishers overcharge for services so their books are too pricey to be profitable for the author. And there can be other problems. For instance, PublishAmerica ties up the author’s copyright for seven years.
But vanity publishers are not all scammers, and they can be useful for books that aren't produced to be profitable, like family histories and recipes, memoirs and poetry collections.
Here are some of the best known vanity publishers
(aka Independence Books)
(which has many imprints)
True DIY publishing. You do everything yourself or hire somebody to do it
for you. You can do this several ways:
Get help from a publishing facilitator like Smashwords
, who for a flat fee will code your
ebook and upload to different retail platforms and keep track of royalties.
They also offer inexpensive cover design and other services.
Get shepherded through the process by an agent.
A number of agents are actually helping authors become indie publishers these
days—usually existing clients. Some industry purists consider this a conflict
of interest, but the agented authors I know who have published through their
agents have nothing but good things to say about this.
Hire your own private editor, cover designer,
and coder and keep complete control.
NOTE: “Complete control” does not extend to Amazon. Author-friendly as it
is, the ’Zon has glitches that can’t be controlled by anybody, apparently. Ruth
Harris has been trying to get Amazon to post the correct book cover art on her
Amazon author page for six months now, to no avail, and Saffina Desforges had
her bestselling thriller Sugar and Spice
disappear from Amazon.co.uk for over a month with no explanation—when you’re
selling an average of 10,000 books a month, that’s a hefty price for some
If you’re an indie publisher who wants your books printed in hard copy as
well as electronic form, you’ll need the services of—
P.O. D. Publishing Service
These are printer/distributors who use print on demand technology. This
means that instead of having a huge print run for your book that has to be
stored in a warehouse, the book is only printed when it is ordered.
Most small presses use these providers, too.
The primary POD providers are:
- CreateSpace: Owned by Amazon.
Printing with them gets you on Amazon, which owns a huge share of the book
- LightningSource: Owned by Ingram,
the biggest book distributor in the US. Ingram supplies bookstores, so if
you want to see your book in your local bookstore window, LS has the
- Lulu.com: The only printer I know
of that doesn’t charge upfront fees. So even though they keep 20%, I’m
putting them in the service provider category rather than with vanity presses. They'll sell your books on their own site (not terribly customer-friendly)
and post them to Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other online retailers worldwide.
For a great comparison between Lightning Source and CreateSpace, small
press owner Robin Sullivan has a great analysis on her blog Write to Publish
The ebook revolution is rapidly shifting the old publishing paradigm, and
nobody’s quite sure what’s coming next. Much of what I’ve written here will probably be obsolete by next year.
But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the old guard. They
may have life in them yet.
. I think educating yourself about the industry as it is now will help you
make decisions about what path might work best for you in the future. One of
the best ways to learn about the industry is to subscribe to Publishers
Lunch, a free newsletter from Publishers Marketplace.
Yes, publishing companies do seem to merge and change partners like square
dancers on speed, but they’re still very much with us. And they're learning to adapt
with the changing times. (Some are learning faster than others, and I have no
doubt some will fall to the e-revolution.)
As I said last week
, learn everything you can and don’t let anybody bully
you into making a choice you’re not comfortable with.
We live in an age when authors have more choices than ever before, and if
you don’t like the choices you’re being offered right now, wait a few weeks and
something new is bound to pop up!
What about you, scriveners?
Did you know the names of the Big Six? How many mid-sized publishers can you
name? (Let’s add some to my list. I hardly scratched the surface here.) And if
you know of a great small publisher or ebook publisher, do leave that name, as well. If you’ve had experience with them, good or bad, we'd like to hear about it. Any additions, subtractions or caveats
Labels: Amazon publishing imprints, Big Six, DoJ lawsuit, indie publishing, Jack King, Micropresses, Mid-Sized Publishers, PublishAmerica, Publishing scams, Robin Sullivan, Small Presses, Vanity Publishing, Writer Beware