Who Are the Big Six? What Does “Indie” Really Mean? Answers to Not-So-Dumb Questions You Were Afraid to Ask

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.)
Here’s a quick guide:
The Big Six

These are the six multi-national corporations that control most of the Western world’s publishing.
1.     Simon and Schuster
2.     HarperCollins
3.     Random House
4.     Macmillan
5.     The Penguin Group
6.     Hachette 
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 (Penguin) is British
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 Doherty—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.)

Mid-Sized 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 (which has branches in London, New York, Berlin, and Sydney.)  
When mid-sizers are successful, they tend to be bought up by the Big Six. (Thomas Nelson, 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
Most mid-sized publishers want agented submissions, but not all. Kensington still accepts unagented queries for all their lines (snail mail only.) Check websites for submission guidelines. Midnight Ink no longer accepts unagented queries, but some Harlequin lines do. Right now, they include Harlequin HeartwarmingKimani PressHarlequin Historical Undone, and Nocturne Cravings .
Here’s a database of midsized and small publishers compiled by Canadian thriller author Jack King .
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:
·       Amazon Encore: Reprints of self-published and out of print books
·       Amazon Crossing: Books in translation
·       Thomas and Mercer:  Thrillers
·       Montlake: Romance
·       47 North: SciFi
·       New Harvest: 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 alive.

Independent Ebook Publishers

These are new publishers like Ellora’s Cave and Samhain Press (with 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 satisfied clients.

Small Presses

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 decades.
Some are regional and publish books specific to one area--like guidebooks and local history.
Others address niche genres, like Canada’s SciFi publisher Edge , and noir mystery publisher BleakHouseBooks, or New England Cozy specialist Mainly Murder Press.
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 pressesFor 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 their websites.)
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 hobby.
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 this type.
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.

Vanity Presses

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 Prophecy made it to mainstream readers.
Two of the best known of the traditional vanity presses are Vantage and Dorrance.
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
·       PublishAmerica (aka Independence Books)
·       Tate Publishing
·       AuthorHouse (which has many imprints)
·       XLibris
·       iUniverse
·       Ivy House
·       Trafford Publishing
·       Poetry.com

Indie Publishing

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 or BookBaby, 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 glitch.
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 Providers

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:

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 welcome. 

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