The Key Book Publishing Paths: 2019-2020

2019-2020 Key Publishing Paths FRIEDMAN

Since 2013, I have been annually updating this informational chart about the key book publishing paths. It is available as a PDF download—ideal for photocopying and distributing for workshops and classrooms—plus the full text is also below.

One of the biggest questions I hear from authors today: Should I traditionally publish or self-publish?

This is an increasingly complicated question to answer because:

  1. There are now many varieties of traditional publishing and self-publishing, with evolving models and diverse contracts.
  2. You won’t find a universal, agreed-upon definition of what it means to traditionally publish or self-publish.
  3. It’s not an either/or proposition; you can do both. Many successful authors, including myself, decide which path is best based on our goals and career level.

Thus, there is no one path or service that’s right for everyone all the time; you should take time to understand the landscape and make a decision based on long-term career goals, as well as the unique qualities of your work. Your choice should also be guided by your own personality (are you an entrepreneurial sort?) and experience as an author (do you have the slightest idea what you’re doing?).

My chart divides the field into traditional (advance-based) publishing, small presses, assisted publishing, indie publishing, and social publishing.

  1. Traditional publishing (the big guys and the little guys): I define traditional publishing primarily as receiving payment from a publisher in the form of an advance. Whether they’re a Big Five publisher or a smaller house, the traditional publisher assumes all financial risk and typically invests in a print run for the book. The author may see no other income from the book aside from the advance; in today’s industry, it’s commonly accepted that most book advances don’t earn out. However, authors do not have to pay back the advance; that’s the risk the publisher takes.
  2. Small presses. This is the category most open to interpretation among authors; for the purposes of this chart, I’m defining small presses as publishers who take on less financial risk because they pay no advance and avoid print runs. Authors must exercise caution when signing with small presses; some mom-and-pop operations offer little advantage over self-publishing, especially when it comes to distribution and sales muscle. Also, think carefully before signing a no-advance deal or digital-only deal, which are sometimes offered even by the big traditional houses; you may not receive the same support and investment from the publisher on marketing and distribution. The less financial risk the publisher accepts, the more flexible your contract should be—and ideally they’ll also offer higher royalty rates.
  3. Assisted and hybrid publishing. This is where you pay to publish and enter into an agreement or contract with a publishing service or a hybrid publisher. Once upon a time, this was called “vanity” publishing, but I don’t like that term. Costs vary widely (low four figures to well into the five figures). There is a risk of paying too much money for basic services or purchasing services you don’t need. If you can afford to pay a publisher or service to help you, then use the very detailed reviews and ratings at Independent Publishing Magazine by Mick Rooney to make sure you choose the best option for you. Some people ask me about the difference between a hybrid publisher and other publishing services. Usually there isn’t a difference, but here’s a more detailed answer. The Independent Book Publishers Association also offers a set of criteria for evaluating hybrid publishers.
  4. Indie or DIY self-publishing. I define this as publishing on your own, where you essentially start your own publishing company, and directly hire and manage all help needed. Here’s an in-depth discussion of self-publishing.
  5. Social publishing. Social efforts will always be an important and meaningful way that writers build a readership and gain attention, and it’s not necessary to publish and distribute a book to say that you’re an active and published writer. Plus, these social forms of publishing increasingly have monetization built in, such as Patreon.

Feel free to download, print, and share this chart however you like; no permission is required. It’s formatted to print perfectly on 11″ x 17″ or tabloid-size paper. Below I’ve pasted the full text from the chart.

Big Five Houses (Traditional Publishing)

Who they are

  • Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan (each has dozens of imprints).

How the money works

  • Big Five publishers take on all financial risk and pay the author upfront (an advance); royalties are paid if the advance earns out. Authors don’t pay to publish but may need to invest in marketing and promotion.

How they sell

  • The Big Five have an in-house sales team and meet with major retailers and wholesalers. Most books are sold months in advance and shipped to stores for a specific release date. Nearly every book has a print run; print-on-demand may be used when stock is low or demand is dwindling.

Who they work with

  • Authors who write works with mainstream appeal, deserving of nationwide print retail distribution in bookstores and other outlets.
  • Celebrity-status or brand-name authors.
  • Writers of genre fiction, women’s fiction, YA fiction, and other commercial fiction.
  • Nonfiction authors with a significant platform (visibility to a readership).

Value for author

  • Publisher pursues all possible subsidiary rights and licensing deals.
  • Physical bookstore distribution nearly assured, in addition to other physical retail opportunities (big-box, specialty).
  • Best chance of media coverage and reviews.

How to approach

  • Almost always requires an agent. Novelists should have a finished manuscript. Nonfiction authors should have a book proposal.

What to watch for

  • The majority of advances do not earn out.
  • Publisher holds onto all publishing rights for all major formats for at least 5+ years.
  • You don’t control title or cover design.
  • You may be unhappy with marketing support. However, no publisher guarantees such support.

Other Traditional Publishers

Who they are

  • Not part of the Big Five, but work in a similar manner (similar business model).
  • Examples of larger houses: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scholastic, Workman, Sourcebooks, John Wiley & Sons, W.W. Norton, Kensington, Chronicle, Tyndale, many university presses (Cambridge, Univ of Chicago Press). Smaller house examples: Graywolf, Forest Avenue Press, Belt Publishing.

How the money works

  • Same as Big Five. Author receives an advance against royalties.

How they sell

  • The largest houses work the same as the Big Five, but smaller houses often use a distributor to sell to the trade. Ask your agent or editor if you’re unsure. Nearly every book will have a print run.

Who they work with

  • Authors who write mainstream works, as well as those that have a more niche or special-interest appeal.
  • Celebrity-status or brand-name authors.
  • Writers of commercial/genre fiction.
  • Nonfiction authors of all types.

Value for author

  • Identical to Big Five advantages.
  • Sometimes acquisitions may be ideals driven or mission focused. (h/t Todd Besant)

How to approach

  • Doesn’t always require an agent; see submission guidelines for each publisher. Novelists should have a finished manuscript. Nonfiction authors should have a book proposal.

What to watch for

  • Smaller houses offer smaller advances (and possibly a more flexible contract).

Small Presses

Who they are

  • This category is the hardest to define because the term “small press” means different things to different people. For the purposes of this comparison chart, it’s used to describe publishers that avoid paying advances and avoid investing in print runs. Thus, they take on less financial risk than a traditional publisher.

How the money works

  • Author receives no advance or possibly a token advance (less than $500). Royalty rates may look the same as a traditional publisher or be more favorable since the publisher has less financial risk upfront.

How they sell

  • They rely on sales and discovery through Amazon and possibly through their own direct-to-consumer efforts, as well as the author’s marketing efforts.

Who they work with

  • All types of authors. Often friendly to less commercial work.

Value for author

  • Possibly a more personalized and collaborative relationship with the publisher.
  • With well-established small presses: editorial, design, and marketing support that equals that of a larger house.

How to approach

  • Rarely requires an agent. See the submission guidelines of each press.

What to watch for

  • Diversity of players and changing landscape means contracts vary widely.
  • Don’t expect bricks-and-mortar bookstore distribution if the press relies on print-on-demand printing and distribution.
  • Potential for media or review coverage declines without a print run.
  • Carefully evaluate a small press’s abilities before signing with one. Protect your rights if you’re shouldering most of the risk and effort.

Assisted and Hybrid Publishing (Self-Publishing)

Who they are

  • Companies that require you to pay to publish or raise funds to do so (typically thousands of dollars). Hybrid publishers have the same business model as assisted services; the author pays to publish.
  • Examples of hybrid publisher: SheWrites, InkShares; examples of assisted service: Gatekeeper Press, Matador

How the money works

  • You fund book publication in exchange for assistance; cost varies
  • Hybrid publishers pay royalties; other services may pay royalties or up to 100 percent of net sales. You receive a better cut than a traditional publishing contract, but usually make less than DIY self-pub.
  • Regardless of promises made, books will rarely be stocked in physical retail outlets.
  • Each service has its own distinctive costs and business model; always secure a clear contract with all fees explained. Such services stay in business because of author-paid fees, not book sales.

How they sell

  • Most don’t sell at all. The selling is up to the author. Some offer paid marketing packages, assist with the book launch, or offer paid promotional opportunities. They can get your book distributed, but it’s rare that your book is pitched to retailers.

Value for author

  • Get a published book without having to figure out the service landscape or find professionals to help. Ideal if you have more money than time, but not a sustainable business model for a career author.
  • Some companies are run by former traditional publishing professionals and offer high-quality results (with the potential for bookstore placement, but this is rare).

What to watch for

  • Some services call themselves “hybrid” because it sounds fashionable and savvy.
  • Avoid companies that take advantage of author inexperience and use high-pressure sales tactics, such as AuthorSolutions imprints (AuthorHouse, iUniverse, WestBow, Archway, and others).

Indie or DIY Self-Publishing

What it is

  • You, the author, manage the publishing process and hire the right people/services to edit, design, publish, and distribute. You are in complete control of all artistic and business decisions.

Key retailers and services to use

  • Primary ebook retailers offer direct access to authors (Amazon KDP, Nook Press, Apple Books, Kobo), or authors can use ebook distributors (Smashwords, Draft2Digital, StreetLib).
  • Print-on-demand (POD) makes it affordable to sell and distribute print books via online retail. Most often used: Amazon KDP, IngramSpark. With printer-ready PDF files, it costs little or nothing to start.
  • If you’re confident about sales, you may hire a printer, invest in a print run, manage inventory, fulfillment, shipping, etc.

How the money works

  • Author sets the price of the work; retailers/distributors pay you based on the price of the work. You can upload your work for sale at major retailers for free.
  • Most ebook retailers pay around 70% of retail for ebook sales if you price within their proscribed window (for Amazon, this is $2.99–$9.99). Ebook royalties drop as low as 35% if you price outside the norm.
  • Amazon KDP pays 60% of list price for print sales, after deducting the unit cost of printing the book.

What to watch for

  • You may not invest enough money or time to produce a quality book or market it.
  • You may not have the experience to know what quality help looks like or what it takes to produce a quality book.
  • It is difficult to get mainstream reviews, media attention or sales through conventional channels (bookstores, libraries).

When to prefer DIY over assisted

  • You intend to publish many books and make money via sales over a long period.
  • You are invested in marketing, promotion, platform building, and developing an audience for your books over many years.

Social Publishing

What it is

  • You write, publish, and distribute your work in a public or semi-public forum, directly for readers.
  • Publication is self-directed and continues on an at-will and almost always nonexclusive basis.
  • Emphasis is on feedback and growth; sales or income can be rare.

Value for author

  • Allows you to develop an audience for your work early on, even while you’re learning how to write.
  • Popular writers at community sites may go on to traditional book deals.

Most distinctive categories

  • Serialization: Readers consume content in chunks or installments; you receive feedback that may help you to revise. Establishes a fan base, or a direct connection to readers. Serialization may be used as a marketing tool for completed works. Examples: Wattpad, Tapas, LeanPub.
  • Fan fiction: Similar to serialization, only the work is based on other authors’ books and characters. For this reason, it can be difficult to monetize fan fiction since it may constitute copyright infringement. Examples:, Archive Of Our Own, Wattpad.
  • Social media and blogs: Both new and established authors alike use their blog and/or social media accounts to share their work and establish a readership. Examples: Instagram (Instapoets), Tumblr, Facebook (groups especially), YouTube.
  • Patreon/patronage: Similar to a serialization model, except your patrons pay a recurring amount to have access to your content.

Special cases

Amazon Publishing

With more than a dozen imprints, Amazon has a sizable publishing operation (1,000+ titles per year) that is mainly approachable only by agents. Amazon titles are sold primarily on Amazon, since most bookstores are unwilling to carry their titles.

Digital-only or digital-first

All publishers, regardless of size, sometimes operate digital-only or digital-first imprints that offer no advance and little or no print retail distribution. Sometimes such efforts are indistinguishable from self-publishing.

For more information on getting published

Earlier versions of the chart

Click to view or download earlier versions.

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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Crystal Thieringer

Thank you Jane. These are helpful indeed.

[…] IMPORTANT: I’ve updated this chart for 2015. Please visit the new version. […]


As always, your post is packed with awesome info, Jane. I can’t wait to study it closer. On another note, yesterday’s Tim Grahl webinar was AMAZING. Thank you for always helping a writer out.

Virginia Gielow

my printer will not print the entire Key Publishing Paths chart because of its width and when I tried shrinking it, etc. I continued to have no luck getting the last column. Any suggestions? I am frustrated I had to miss the seminar because my handyman came aty the same time for repairs. Any suggestions?
Ginny Gielow

Michelle Mullen

Hi Jane, and Virginia, I used legal paper and set to 76% of size to get the full black borders to print…you can go to 79% for a bit larger type, and get most of it with out the borders, but Jane’s name and the title of the inf graph are cut off…so giving credit where it is due I opted for the 76% full enchilada version. Jane, it’s a wonderful chart, particularly for comparison but also so thorough. Your site rocks! Thank you.

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Kristen Steele

This is a wonderful chart. I especially like that you point out that it isn’t just one or the other and that there are different types of each. It’s a lot to consider.

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I went to download or print this but it takes me to an error page each time. I really would like to have a version of this to look at offline since I have a limited amount of data. Is there a version available for download again? I’ve tried each link you’ve provided, including the two in the comments. Still having the same issue. 🙁

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Carol Pearson

Fantastic, Jane. I’m presenting a workshop for aspiring authors tomorrow, and you bet this will be a big item of discussion. Perfect timing…many thanks!

Elaine Burnes

I don’t know if other small presses operate this way, but lesbian or LGBT presses (think Bold Strokes Books, Bella) offer another hybrid of Traditional Publishing: Key characteristics Selective (how much so is subjective) No advance Pay royalties No agent needed Traditional printing or POD (print on demand) as well as ebook Value for author Publisher assumes risk No cost to author Contract time limited (but read carefully for no-compete) Important to Understand Minimal marketing provided Little chance of mainstream recognition Not limited to literary, but most is romance Editing quality might be iffy Physical bookstore distribution possible This is… Read more »

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Molly Fennig

It’s wonderful to see a post that focuses on more than just “traditional vs self-publishing”. Thanks for describing each type so well and for providing (unbiased) comparisons!

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Jane – you’re simply the best. Thanks for providing such valuable information!

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James Osborne

Hi Jane. I’m just discovering this very helpful discussion about the industry. Thank you for taking the time to research and write it. I’ve been wondering about something. Given your experience, is it possible that we are experiencing a third aspect evolving in the publishing industry? In the past, the industry has divided into traditional publishing and self-publishers (including vanity publishing). In the past decade or so, we’ve witnessed vigorous growth by an element of the industry that seems to belong to neither. These are the independent publishers who accept un-agented manuscripts but adjudicate them (most do), and subject the… Read more »

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Alicia Buster

Jane that was a spectacular breakdown of the different publishings paths. Social/Community publishing is very intriguing and is becoming a popular way to gain a fan base before authors publish for money. I’m surprised at how many books were fanfiction before they were published. (I remember reading “50 Shades of Grey” when it was still “Master of the Universe.”) I think it’s a brilliant strategy before self or traditionally publishing. It’s almost like guaranteed money in your pockets for the publisher and the author.

Lillian Moore

I thought it was interesting that with hybrid publishing you help fund the publication of your book in exchange for the expertise and assistance of the publisher. For my recent stories I would love to use this method. Though, I don’t have much money to put into the publication at the moment. I will be working hard to find a way to publish my book and hopefully have my following book published as well. Thank you for the tips! I really appreciate the help.

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Valerie Stasik

Jane, I found this blog so important (not that all of your blogs aren’t pithy), that I referenced it and your blog site in the May/June 2016 issue of Libro, the New Mexico Book Association bi-monthly newsletter, which I design and edit. I would love to email you a copy, but I can’t find your email address on your site. I don’t use MS Outlook, so the link on the site doesn’t work for me. Thank you so much for all the information you give us. Many of our members are newbie authors.

Christopher Matson

Jane, under Alternatives: Social/Community Publishing, Community categories, Fan fiction, you might mention Kindle Worlds. It is essentially “Contract Writing,” but if you approach it with a professional attitude, you can get great exposure to a targeted audience. Bonus: you also get paid!

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shirley vinson

I purchased your course from “The Great Courses” and I wish I had discovered it before I experienced the horrors of publishing my first book. I am in the midst of revising and republishing my work with a new publisher. I just wanted to thank you for the course and for ALL the information that you share with new authors.
I am a minister and I want this to be my platform for teaching God’s people. I am praying for your continued success.

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Dawn Lajeunesse

Excellent resource! I found this very helpful last year and am thrilled to have an update. Thank you!

Ani Tuzman

Since publishing my novel this past December, many people with manuscripts have contacted me to talk about the path to publication. I have referred every one of them to this chart, to your Publishing 101, and to this blog Each one has found value here. What a treasure trove can be found here; you offer an immense and invaluable service, Jane!

I have also heartily recommended your consulting services, which helped to ground and orient me in such needed ways. Thank you, thank you!

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