Jane Friedman

The Key Book Publishing Paths: 2017

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.