What Defines "Traditional" Publishing? What You Don't Know CAN Hurt You.

by Anne R. Allen

The blogosphere has been full of debate about "traditional" vs. "indie" publishing since the dawn of the E-Age.

We've also seen lively discussions about the definition of the terms.

"Indie" once meant small independent publishers, but since the introduction of the ebook (and Kindle Direct Publishing) it has evolved to mean self-publishing as well.

Or maybe instead. The line is blurry these days. The word "indie" can change meaning depending on who you're talking to.

The traditional small independent press is now often called a "boutique publisher" or a "micropress" to avoid confusion. But I admit that I have often called myself "indie" since I'm with a boutique press, and I've been included in two "indie" anthologies.

Last month I joined the actual self-publishers for the first time when I re-published HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE all by my ownself (well, with co-author Catherine Ryan Hyde and some generous aid from the blokes at EBUK and the helpful Jason Anderson at Polgarus Studios, after our agent left the agency that published us in February.) So I guess I can say I'm truly "indie" now.

Meanwhile, some writers prefer to define the non-self-published model as "legacy" publishing rather than "traditional," because the tradition of self-publishing has been around at least since Benjamin Franklin.

But recently I've seen some odd statements on blogs and forums like, "only the Big Five are legitimate traditional publishers," and "you're just an indie unless you're with the Big Five."

So what's "traditional" publishing?

Of course the definition of "traditional" is going to be different depending on whose traditions you're talking about.

There may be people who believe only something printed on Johannes Gutenberg's actual printing press can be truly "traditional," and others might favor the papyrus scroll, the clay tablet, or the wall of a cave.

But most people in today's publishing industry—on both sides of the self-publishing fence—agree on the definition of traditional/legacy publishing.

Here's a version of that definition from Writer's Digest: "Traditional book publishing is when a publisher offers the author a contract and, in turn, prints, publishes, and sells your book through booksellers and other retailers. The publisher essentially buys the right to publish your book and pays you royalties from the sales."

And a here's a handy infographic from Writer's Digest Books' former head honcho Jane Friedman that lays out all our publishing options out in a colorful easy-to-read format.

Many thanks to the always-reliable Alex J. Cavanaugh and the good people at the Insecure Writers Support Group for those links and the tip about this new wrinkle in the indie vs. trad debate.

So is there any truth to this new claim that only a handful of multinational mega-corporations can be called "traditional"?

In a word, no.

Even if we all agree that multi-national media mega-conglomerates have been one of the world's most treasured traditions since 1998—when Bertelsmann swallowed Random House—traditional publishing is still defined the way it has always been defined, um, traditionally.

In fact, the whole argument is silly. By this new definition, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books were not traditionally published, because they were issued by Scholastic in the US and Bloomsbury in the UK—neither of which are members of the Big Five.

And most Harlequin authors would have to be called "indie"—since Harlequin was not part of the Big Five until May of this year when it was bought by HarperCollins (owned by NewsCorp, aka Rupert Murdoch's evil empire)

Ditto all Kensington authors, although now that they've made a deal with Random Penguin to use the Penguin distribution channels, maybe they can now wear the "traditional" tiara too.

Ruth Harris, former editor and publisher at Kensington, will be fascinated to hear she wasn't working in traditional publishing all those years.

I do understand that it may seem that the French, Germans and Aussie Rupert Murdoch control 100% of publishing on the planet, but that's slightly exaggerated.

The truth is, we have a tradition of publishing right here in the little old U. S. of A. And not all of it is owned by Carly Simon's family.

Here are a few non-Big Five publishers who are as traditional as Bertlesman, Hachette and NewsCorp: Scholastic, Kensington, Hay House, W.W. Norton, Rodale, Llewellyn, Chronicle Books, Workman (includes Algonquin), Sourcebooks, Sunset, F + W Media/Writer’s Digest Books...and hundreds more, including all academic presses from the University of Alabama to Yale University Press. (Although I can't guarantee some of them won't have been gobbled up by the Big Five before I hit "publish" on this post.)

Many prestigious smaller presses like Beacon Press, GrayWolf, and Copper Canyon Press have been around longer than the mega-monopolies of the Big Five, too. You can find whole books listing all the well-respected small presses in Writers Market, the Literary Marketplace, and the Poets and Writers Guide to Small Presses.

These are all considered "traditional presses" by the publishing industry. Some use digital technology (POD) these days and some still use offset printing. What makes them traditional publishers is the economic process (contract, royalties etc) rather than the printing technology.

Also defined as "traditional" are the more recent ebook-first presses like Ellora's Cave and Samhain. They have traditional contracts and pay royalties just like paper-first presses.

And Amazon itself has become a traditional publisher, with imprints like: 47 North, Montlake, Thomas and Mercer, New Harvest, Encore—with new imprints added all the time. They pay advances and royalties and generally you need an agent to sign with them, just like the Big Five and most mid-sized presses.

So why do new writers need to know this stuff?

Because I fear new writers may be duped into staying away from all these legitimate mid-sized, smaller and digital-first publishers and steered toward the subsidy or vanity presses now owned by the Big Five, thinking anything with a Big Five label is somehow more "traditional" or "legitimate".

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In the last decade, most of the vanity presses in North America were bought out by AuthorHouse and brought under an umbrella called "Author Solutions". In 2012, Penguin acquired Author Solutions. Then Penguin merged with Random House.

That means that technically Author Solutions is part of the new Penguin-Random House group owned by German mega-corp Bertelsmann and therefore part of the Big Five.

But it's just that—a technicality. Their self-publishing packages do nothing with the Big Five except fill their coffers. All the editing, production, promotion, etc, is done strictly in-house by Author Solutions.

Ditto Simon and Schuster's vanity wing Archway, Thomas and Nelson's Westbow Press, Hay House's Balboa Press, and Guidepost's Inspiring Voices. These are vanity presses, all owned and operated by Author Solutions. (Writer's Digest has recently—and I think wisely—severed connections with their Author Solutions affiliate, Abbott Press.)

What's the problem with vanity presses (sometimes called subsidy publishing)?

They are not always a bad choice and not necessarily scams. There are good reasons why some people prefer to use a vanity press. If you want to print a book of poems, a memoir, club recipes, or a family history—and you want something special to give as gifts or promote your community group or organization, a vanity press can be just what you're looking for. Some use old-school offset printing and can provide a lovely, beautifully bound product.

But for a career writer they can be a disaster. This is because:

Or to quote one of the many lawsuits against Author Solutions (from Writer Beware), "It is a printing service that fails to maintain even the most rudimentary standards of book publishing, profiting not for its authors but from them." For more, here is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association on why not to use a vanity press.

So what does this have to do with the people claiming the Big Five are the only "traditional" publishers?

I'm not sure. But when I heard from the IWSG about the bizarre "Big Five are the only traditionals" pronouncements, I remembered something.

Planting shills in writers' forums is something Author Solutions has done in the past, with sock puppets like the infamous "Fake Jared," and his friends.

And it seems Author Solutions has been paying kickbacks to bloggers who will steer newbie writers to their deceptive websites, according to April Hamilton of Publitariat.

I don't mean to say that all the people making these weird claims are working for Author Solutions. It's quite possible they may simply be contrarians or gadflies who enjoy stirring up a discussion with claims to know silly "facts". 

There are always people like Cliff the Postman from the TV show Cheers, who loved to regale the bar crowd with his "little known facts" like "the harp is a predecessor of the modern day guitar. Early minstrels were much larger people. In fact, they had hands the size of small dogs."

Or they could be newbies who've been taken in by the hype of the vanity presses. That's more worrying, because that means the hype is working.

Why does it matter what you call your publisher?

Personally, I don't care if people want to call their publishers "traditional", "indie", "legacy", or "snookums."

But what I do care about is newbie writers getting steered away from solid publishing deals with a small or midsized press and into the arms of a vanity press because they believe a vanity press is a road to the big bux of the Big Five. (Although as I said last week, you should always run any publishing contract by somebody knowledgeable in contract law before you sign.)

I am in no way discouraging anybody from real self-publishing. Self-publication is an excellent road to a solid writing career. In fact it may be the best way in these days of shrinking advances and draconian contracts.

As I said, I've recently self-published myself. You can read some great reasons for self-publishing from David Henry Sterry in last Tuesday's Huffington Post. He also gives good reasons to publish with a small or mid-sized press. (Which are actually the MOST traditional. Media mega-corporations are a phenomenon of the last few decades)

Self-publishing is a good path to a writing career, but it's not the best road to publication with the Big Five, unless you're the one-in-a-million breakout superstar like Hugh Howey.

Self-publish because you want to control your own career, not because you eventually want a Big Five contract.

Yes, three or four years ago we were told "the ebook is the new query", but that was back when a lot of indies were making huge sales and it was easier to make that leap. In those days, Amazon's algorithms gave cheap indie books the same weight in calculating the bestseller lists as they did the big-name, expensive Big Five titles. And in those early days of ebooks, Big Five publishers weren't selling their backlists for 99c apiece through Bookbub.

So if you think you want a traditional or "hybrid" career, you should start by querying, not by self-publishing—or query with a different book from the one you self-published. For more this, here's a post on the subject from agent Pamela Van Hylckama Vlieg.

Most agents won't look at a previously published book unless it is steadily selling 10,000 or more units a month. And very few vanity published books get picked up by anybody. (Although I realize Author Solutions makes a huge deal of the handful who do.)

What if you DO want to publish non-traditionally?

If you want to self-publish—and go truly "non-traditional"—there are several excellent companies you can use.

There are aggregators like Smashwords, BookBaby, and Direct 2 Digital, who help you format and publish your ebooks and then distribute them to dozens of retailers all over the world.

Ditto Amazon itself, with CreateSpace for paper and KDP for ebooks. And you can publish direct to Nook, iTunes, GooglePlay and Kobo by yourself as well.

For paper books, Lightning Source (owned by major US book distributor Ingram) and Lulu, as well as CreateSpace and BookBaby, are great choices (and I hear D2D can now shepherd your book through CreateSpace.) They all use POD technology and offer distribution as well as printing.

Distribution is the key here. If a company feels their job is over when they give you a box of books, your book hasn't been published, it's been printed.

All of the above companies take a percentage of what YOU make, so if you're not making money, they're not making money.

But a vanity press makes money off you, not your book.

You can get great info on how to self-publish profitably from David Gaughran's blog and his two books Let's Get Digital and Let's Get Visible. You can buy both for under ten dollars. (And no, I have no connection with Mr. Gaughran except that I've read his books and follow his blog.)

You can also learn a lot of the basics of how the publishing industry works and how to avoid getting scammed in the book I've written with Catherine Ryan Hyde, How to be a Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide.

To me, paying ten or fifteen bucks for a few guidebooks beats paying a vanity outfit $25,000 for a "premium package" which comes complete with your own personal spambots to "market" your book to unwilling victims...and an empty promise that you'll be "considered" by one of the Big Five.

As I have said before, making a living writing books is hard, and there are no shortcuts. You need to do it because you love it. If you have delusions of instant fame and fortune, you're going to be a prime target for the armies of scammers out there.

What about you, Scriveners? Do you define your publishing path as "traditional" or "indie"? Have you run into people who say small and mid-sized publishers are not traditional? How do you define "indie"? Do you have more faith in multi-national mega-corporations than mid-sized companies? What other books do you recommend for self-publishers?


A book and a video that both poke fun at the scams that plague starry-eyed new writers


Murder, mischief, and a little romance at a writers conference in the wine-and-cowboy town of Santa Ynez, California. When a ghostwriter’s plot to blackmail celebrities with faked evidence leads to murder, our oh-so-polite sleuth Camilla Randall must team up with a cross-dressing dominatrix to stop the killer from striking again. Meanwhile a wannabe writer who happens to be a hot L.A. cop may or may not help Camilla recover from her recent divorce.

Ghostwriters in the Sky is now only $2.99 in e-book at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA iTunes, Kobo, Inktera, and at Barnes and Noble for NOOK.

Ghost Writers is set in a writers' conference in Santa Ynez Valley, where I've lived for twenty years.... This book is hysterically funny AND accurately depicts the Valley. Anne Allen gets it right, down to the dollar bills stuck on the ceiling of the Maverick Saloon. It was so fun to read as she called out one Valley landmark after another. Allen got the local denizens right, too, the crazy characters that roam our streets...Sandy Nathan, award-winning author of The Bloodsong Series


NOW IN DVD: only 9.99 at Amazon.com also available at iTunes. Every writer who has been in a critique group has to see this one...

AUTHORS ANONYMOUS: An ensemble comedy about a weekly critique group of unpublished writers whose fabric is threatened when one member scores an agent, a book deal, and a movie deal in quick succession. Starring Kaley Cuoco of the Big Bang Theory and the late Dennis Farina. (And written by SLO's own Dave Congalton)


CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

Barthelme Prize for experimental flash fiction. $17 Entry Fee 500-word limit. $1000 first prize, $250 hon. mention prizes. Online submission form. Deadline August 31.

Want to Appear in Writer's Digest? Here's how. Have you ever tried to write a book in a month-as part of NaNoWriMo, with a writing group, or just on your own? What was your experience? WD wants to hear from you. Tell them about your write-a-thon! Send your story-along with your full name, city and state to writersdigest@fwmedia.com with "BIAM" in the subject line. Responses may appear in Writer's Digest publications and/or on WritersDigest.com.

Short Romance stories with holiday themes: Crimson Romance Ebooks (A division of F & W, publisher of Writer's Digest Books) is looking for holiday themed shorts (10K-20K words) Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa 2014, New Year's Eve 2015, Deadline: August 15th

BLUE EARTH REVIEW FLASH FICTION CONTEST $2 ENTRY FEE. 750 words or less. Limit two stories per entry. First place $500. Second place $250. Third place $100. Winners will be published in the Blue Earth Review, the literary magazine of Minnesota State University. Deadline August 1.

A ROOM OF HER OWN FOUNDATION ORLANDO PRIZES $15 ENTRY FEE. Four Orlando prizes of $1,000 each and publication in The Los Angeles Review are awarded twice yearly for a poem, a short story, a short short story, and an essay by women writers. Deadline July 31.

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