The Key Book Publishing Paths: 2023–2024

2023-2024 key book publishing paths chart

Since 2013, I have been regularly 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. 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 or self-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—even six figures). There is a risk of paying too much money for basic services or purchasing services you don’t need. 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. It is paramount that any author closely research and study these companies before investing. Scams abound.
  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. I’ve also included serialization platforms here, some which have a social or community component, like Wattpad.

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 often invest in marketing and promotion.

How they sell

  • The publisher has a sales team that meets with major retailers, wholesalers, libraries, etc. Most books are sold months in advance and shipped for a specific release date. Nearly every book has a print run; print- on-demand is used when stock runs low or sales dwindle.

Who they work with

  • Authors who write works with mainstream appeal, that merit nationwide print 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 (or agent) pursues all possible subsidiary rights and licensing deals.
  • Physical bookstore distribution nearly assured, in addition to other 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

Other Traditional Publishers

Who they are

  • Not part of the Big Five, but work in a similar manner (similar business model).
  • Examples: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scholastic, Wiley, Sourcebooks, W.W. Norton, Kensington, Chronicle, Tyndale, university presses. Sometimes smaller publishers outside the Big Five call themselves “indie publishers” (not to be confused with self-publishing authors).

How the money works

  • Same as Big Five.

How they sell

  • The largest houses work the same as the Big Five, but some may use a distributor (or larger publisher) to sell.

Who they work with

  • Mainstream authors, as well as those with a more niche or special-interest appeal.
  • Small presses & university presses welcome literary work, poetry, short stories, and other categories that don’t typically sell well enough for the Big Five.
  • Celebrity-status or brand-name authors.
  • Writers of commercial/genre fiction.
  • 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.

What to watch for

  • Smaller advances—but possibly a more flexible contract.
  • University presses may focus on libraries, classrooms, and academic markets.
  • Rare: the publisher may ask the author to buy books or cover costs. Avoid.

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 chart, it’s used to describe publishers that avoid both advances and print runs. 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 or niche efforts, as well as the author’s 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

  • The quality of work may be low.
  • Don’t expect print/bookstore distribution if the press uses print-on-demand. (Ask!)
  • Such presses may rely on authors to sell or blame authors for poor sales.
  • Avoid rights grabs; reserve your subrights.
  • Learn to evaluate small publishers.

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 & assisted publishers: She Writes, Collective Book Studio, Scribe Media, Matador (UK).

How the money works

  • Authors fund book publication in exchange for assistance; cost varies.
  • Hybrids pay royalties; assisted services may pay royalties or up to 100 percent of net sales.
  • Regardless of promises made, few books ever get stocked in physical retail outlets.
  • Each service has its own distinctive costs and business model; 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 books distributed, but it’s uncommon that books are pitched to retailers without a very significant investment from the author, who must pay for a print run to even have a chance at in-store distribution.

Value for author

  • Get a published book without having to figure out the service landscape or find professionals to help. Ideal for authors with more money than time, but not a sustain- able business model for career authors.
  • Some companies are run by former traditional publishing professionals and offer high-quality results.

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, West- Bow, Archway, and others).

Indie or DIY Self-Publishing

What it is

  • The author manages the publishing process and hires the right people/services to edit, design, publish, and distribute. The author remains 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 (Draft2Digital).
  • 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 authors are confident about sales, they 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. Authors upload their work for sale at major retailers for free.
  • Most ebook retailers pay approx. 70% of retail for ebook sales if you price within their prescribed window (for Amazon, this is $2.99–$9.99). Ebook royalties drop as low as 35% if pricing is 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

  • Authors may not invest enough money or time to produce a quality book or market it.
  • Authors may not have the experience to know what quality help looks like or what it takes to produce a quality book.
  • It is nearly impossible for first-time authors 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

  • Write, publish, and distribute 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 writers to develop an audience for their work early on, even while learning how to write.
  • Popular writers at community sites may go on to traditional book deals.
  • Many popular platforms include monetization methods, such as tipping/donations, ad revenue sharing, and premium content options for paying readers.

Most distinctive categories

  • Serialization: Readers consume content in chunks or installments and offer feedback that may help writers revise. Establishes a fan base, or a direct connection to readers. Serialization may be used as a marketing tool for completed works. Examples: Vella, Wattpad, Webtoon.
  • Fan fiction: When you write work based on other authors’ books and characters. It can be difficult to monetize fan fiction since it may constitute copyright infringement. Examples: Fanfiction.net, Archive Of Our Own, Wattpad.
  • Social media, newsletters, and blogs: All types of authors use popular platforms to share work and establish a readership. Examples: Substack, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube.
  • Patronage: Readers pay regularly for access to you and your content. Popular platforms include Patreon and Substack.

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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