The Key Book Publishing Paths: 2017

Key Book Publishing Paths

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

Looking for earlier versions of this chart? Scroll to the bottom of this post.


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 varying 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. (See this interview with CJ Lyons.)

There is no one path or service that’s right for everyone; you must understand and study the changing landscape and make a choice 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 publishing and self-publishing.

  1. Traditional publishing: I define this primarily as not paying to publish. Authors must exercise the most 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. Such arrangements reduce the publisher’s risk, and this needs to be acknowledged if you’re choosing such deal—because you aren’t likely to get the same support and investment from the publisher on marketing and distribution.
  2. Alternatives to traditional publishing: I define this as paying to publish or publishing on your own. I’ve broken this down into hybrid publishing models, where a publisher is positioning itself as a hybrid approach between traditional publishing and self-publishing, and self-publishing. With either approach, there’s a risk of paying too much money for basic services, and also for 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 at Independent Publishing Magazine by Mick Rooney to make sure you choose the best option for you.

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 (Traditional Publishing)

Who they are

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

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 commercial fiction or genre fiction, such as romance, mystery/crime, thriller/suspense, science fiction and fantasy, young adult, children’s.
  • Nonfiction authors with a significant platform (visibility to a readership).

Value for author

  • Publisher shoulders financial risk.
  • Physical bookstore distribution nearly assured, in addition to other physical retail opportunities (big-box, specialty).
  • Best chance of mainstream 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

  • Author receives an advance against royalties, but most advances do not earn out. (Meaning: The advance is likely to be the only payment the author sees from the publisher; it does not have to be returned if the author does not earn out.)
  • Publisher typically holds onto all publishing rights for all formats for at least 5-10 years.
  • Many decisions are out of the author’s control, such as cover design and title.
  • Authors can find themselves unhappy with the level of marketing support received, and that their title “disappears” from store shelves within 3-6 months. However, the same is true for most publishers, regardless of size.

Mid-Size & Large (Traditional Publishing)

Who they are

  • Not part of the Big Five, but significant in size, usually with the same capabilities. Examples: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scholastic, Workman, Sourcebooks, John Wiley & Sons, W.W. Norton, Kensington, Chronicle, Tyndale, many university presses (Cambridge, Oxford).

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 fiction or genre fiction, such as romance, mystery/crime, thriller/suspense, science fiction and fantasy, young adult, children’s.
  • Nonfiction authors of all types.

Value for author

  • Identical to Big Five advantages.

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

  • Same as Big Five, but advances and royalties from mid-size publishers may be lower than Big Five, especially the more specialized or enthusiast publishing houses.
  • Some mid-size publishers may be more open to innovative or flexible agreements that feel more like a collaboration or partnership (with more author input or control).
  • University or scholarly presses typically pay low advances and have very small print runs, typically with a focus on libraries, classrooms, and academic markets.

Small Presses (Traditional Publishing)

Who they are

  • This category is the hardest to summarize because “small press” is a catch-all term for very well-known traditional publishers (e.g., Graywolf) as well as mom-and-pop operations that may not have any formal experience in publishing.
  • Given how easy it is in the digital age for anyone to start a press, authors must carefully evaluate a small press’s abilities before signing with one. Legitimate small presses do not ask authors to pay for publication.

Who they work with

  • Emerging, first-time authors, as well as established ones.
  • Often more friendly to experimental, literary, and less commercial types of 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

  • You may not receive an advance or you’ll receive a nominal one. Your royalty rate may be higher to make up for it. Diversity of players and changing landscape means contracts vary widely.
  • There may be no physical bookstore distribution and/or the press may rely on print-on-demand to fulfill orders. Potential for media or review coverage declines when there is no print run.
  • Be very protective of your rights if you’re shouldering most of the risk and effort.

Hybrid Publishing

Key characteristics

  • Author funds book publication in exchange for expertise and assistance of the publisher; cost is often thousands of dollars.
  • Author receives better royalties than a traditional publishing contract, but makes less than if self-publishing on their own.
  • Such books will rarely be distributed into physical retail bookstores, although in some rare cases, it may happen.
  • Each hybrid publisher has its own distinctive costs and business model; always secure a clear contract with all fees explained.

Value for author

  • Get a published book without having to figure out the service landscape or find professionals to help. Ideal for an author who has more money than time.
  • Some companies are run by former traditional publishing professionals, and offer high-quality results.

What to watch for

  • Some self-publishing (assisted publishing) services have started calling themselves “hybrid publishers” because it sounds more fashionable and savvy, but such companies may be nothing more than an assisted self-publishing service.
  • Not all hybrid publishers are created equal. Fees dramatically vary and quality dramatically varies. Research carefully.

Examples of hybrid publishers

  • Curated. These companies are selective or may have editorial guidelines to follow. Examples: SheWrites Press, Greenleaf.
  • Crowdfunding. Authors must raise money for the publisher to contract the work. Example: Inkshares, Unbound.

Self-Publishing: Assisted

Key characteristics

  • Similar to hybrid publishing: authors pay to publish. An older term for this would be “vanity publishing.”
  • Contractual arrangements vary, but the best services charge an upfront fee, take absolutely no rights to the work, and pass on 100% net royalties to the author. They make money on charging authors for the services provided (editorial, design, marketing, and so on), not on copies sold.
  • Such books will almost never be stocked in physical retail bookstores, although in some rare cases, it may happen.
  • Many assisted publishing services have different packages or tiers of service, while others offer customized quotes.

Value for author

  • Get a published book without having to figure out the service landscape or find professionals to help you. Ideal for an author who has more money than time.
  • The best and most expensive services offer a quality experience that is comparable to working with a traditional publisher.

What to watch for

  • Most marketing and publicity service packages, while they can be well-meaning, are not worth an author’s investment.
  • Avoid companies that take advantage of author inexperience and use high-pressure sales tactics, such as AuthorSolutions imprints (AuthorHouse, iUniverse, WestBow, Archway).

Examples of good assisted services

Self-Publishing: DIY

Key characteristics

  • Authors manage the publishing process and hire the right people/services to edit, design, publish, and distribute.
  • Each author has to decide which distributors or retailers they prefer to deal with.

Value for author

  • Author keeps complete and total control of all artistic and business decisions.
  • Author keeps all profits and rights.

What to watch for

  • Some authors don’t invest enough money to produce a quality product.
  • First-time authors may not have the knowledge or experience to know what quality help looks like or what it takes to produce a quality book in their genre.
  • Bricks-and-mortar retailers, professional reviewers, and mainstream media will rarely offer help or coverage.

DIY print and ebook services

  • Primary ebook retailers that offer direct access to authors: Amazon KDP, Nook Press, Apple iBookstore, Kobo. Primary ebook distributors for authors: Smashwords, Draft2Digital, Pronoun. These services offer little or no assistance.
  • Print-on-demand (POD) makes it affordable to sell and distribute print books via online retail. Most often used: CreateSpace, IngramSpark. If you have printer-ready PDF files, it costs little or nothing to start. If not, you’ll have to hire assistance.
  • These retailers and distributors operate primarily on a nonexclusive basis and take a cut of sales; you can leave them at will. ere is no contract.
  • Some authors may hire a printer and manage inventory, fulfillment, shipping, etc. and sell via Amazon Advantage.

For more information on getting published


Earlier versions of the chart

Click to view or download earlier versions.

Posted in Publishing Industry and tagged , , , , , , , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

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 co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

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. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

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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70 Comments on "The Key Book Publishing Paths: 2017"

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Crystal Thieringer

Thank you Jane. These are helpful indeed.

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

Marcy McKay

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?
Thanks,
Ginny Gielow

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[…] media strategist, tutor and publishing consultant Jane Friedman has just updated her Key Book Publishing Paths chart. Those who follow Jane’s excellent resource website for authors and publishers will know that […]

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[…] Updated: The Key Book Publishing Paths in 2015 [Chart] | Jane Friedman […]

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[…] today’s world, there are many paths to publishing. Jane Friedman updates her Publishing Paths infographic to help you decide which path (or paths) is right for […]

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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[…] you self publish your work or try to get a traditional publishing contract. Jane Friedman’s Updated Key Book Publishing Paths in 2015 will help a writer choose the best publishing path in […]

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[…] Jane Friedman’s blog. Jane Friedman keeps writers updated on all things publishing. Check out this amazing infographic about publishing paths. […]

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[…] I’ve used the two extreme ends of the publishing spectrum as examples but these days, there are many more options for authors. This downloadable chart by Jane Friedman gives a wider view of the options available. […]

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[…] I’ve used the two extreme ends of the publishing spectrum as examples but these days, there are many more options for authors. This downloadable chart by Jane Friedman gives a wider view of the options available. […]

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[…] Jane Friedman wrote in a recent blog post, […]

megandia

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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[…] Should you self-publish or traditionally publish? This infographic will help you determine the best choice for you and your project.  […]

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[…] the Key Book Publishing Paths, in my blog. You can find the original article on Jane’s blog, here. I had planned to have the graphic only, but it apparently is not of high enough resolution to read […]

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[…] The Key Book Publishing Paths in 2015 […]

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[…] Should you self-publish or traditionally publish? This infographic will help you determine the best choice for you and your project.  […]

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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[…] years ago Friedman published an infographic—Key Book Publishing Paths—and she updates it annually (this week, as it turns out). It answers one simple […]

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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[…] Empty description  […]

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[…] articol foarte bine structurat despre metodele de publicare a unei cărți, de la self-publishing la marile […]

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[…] is The Key Book Publishing Paths: 2016 by Jane Friedman. Which, if you don’t take links out of blog posts has a wonderful chart […]

Marlene Martzke

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

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[…] Should you self-publish or traditionally publish? This infographic will help you determine the best choice for you and your project.  […]

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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[…] Should you self-publish or traditionally publish? This infographic will help you determine the best choice for you and your project.  […]

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[…] Should you self-publish or traditionally publish? This infographic will help you determine the best choice for you and your project.  […]

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[…] The Key Book Publishing Paths: 2016 […]

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[…] The Key Book Publishing Paths: 2016 […]

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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[…] Should you self-publish or traditionally publish? This infographic will help you determine the best choice for you and your project.  […]

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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[…] (For even more options, click on this link.) […]

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[…] while back I told you about Jane Friedman’s infographic regarding available publishing paths, which obviously included […]

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[…] The Key Publishing Paths: 2016 […]

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[…] you’ve chosen which publishing path is the right one for you, you’ve weighed the pros and cons of each, and are now faced with […]

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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[…] publishing. I might also consider those, but I’m an either or type of gal. Consider this website for more indepth and probably more informative information regarding publishing. Jane […]

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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[…] Publishing is an evolving business. Kathryn Craft examines a publishing decade in review, while Jane Friedman looks at key publishing paths in 2017. […]

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