Publishing 101: Part 1 – The Roots of Traditional Publishing

This is the first of a multi-part series about the pros and cons of different types of publishing options (traditional, small press, and self-publishing), and the things aspiring authors can do to make their work ready for each one. These will be distillations of what I have learned on my own, as well as attending seminars through the Writer’s Symposium at Gen Con 2016.


You’ve written your masterpiece (and revised it, and had it edited and beta-read, right?), now it’s time to decide how you want to publish it.

Let’s nip that idea in the bud early, shall we? Chances are, what you wrote and how you wrote it are going to be a much bigger predictor of if/when/how you are published than your personal preference for a certain type of publishing. They each have their own histories, practicalities, and pitfalls, as well market-driven or philosophical inclinations when it comes to which types of books these entities are willing to take a chance on. There are some things you can do at different points in your project that will make your manuscript more or less appealing to different types of publishers, so knowing what your goal is early can help you along the way, but this is still no guarantee that you’ll get to publish your “favorite” way (or at all).

For many authors, the goal is to sell their story to a traditional publishing house such as Penguin or a subsidiary, so let’s start with what the term “traditional” even means.

Not So “Traditional” After All…

Funnily enough, what we call “traditional” publishing is actually a relatively new phenomenon. Books, as in something of length written down in order to be shared, have been around for thousands of years. They were pain-stakingly copied and bound by hand, but if you equate “tradition” with the original way of doing things, there is nothing at all “traditional” about mass-produced, paperback books at all.

Even centuries after the invention of the printing press, the only things being printed on a large were religious in nature. Vernacular Bibles and letters of indulgence were the bread and butter of printing press operators until well into the 18th century. Newspapers arrived on the scene in the 1600’s, and periodicals rose in popularity soon after, but longer pieces like books were rare because it was so expensive and labor-intensive. Every single letter on every single page had to be laid out by hand, so it isn’t surprising the average Joe couldn’t afford to see his name in print.

If you want to read a detailed history of publishing you can find it here, but for our purposes let’s skip the minutiae and stick to books written by individual authors and how they used to get published. If you were lucky, you could find financial backing through organizations such as The Royal Geographical Society or convince some rich person to invest in your work, but there was no such thing as a “publishing house” until the advancements of the Industrial Revolution made mass-production cheaper and the standards of education higher. More people who could read meant more of a market for books, and where there is demand, someone will step in to supply.

What Does a “Traditional Publisher” Mean For Me?

You live in the here and now, so let’s look at what gives a publisher the title of “traditional” at the present. The Big 5 houses and their myriad subsidiaries are in the business of buying and selling stories. If they decide your book is worth their investment, they offer the author an advance, which can vary hugely depending on the name recognition of the author. So if you are a first-timer, don’t expect a lot of money up front. The advance is yours to keep even if your book never sells a single copy, but you won’t start making additional royalties until your book sells enough to recoup the cost of the advance.

Based on the statistics compiled by Maxwell Alexander Drake and shared at Gen Con 2016, 40% of books that are published by a traditional publisher lose money. These authors will never see another penny after their advance because their book didn’t make enough money to generate more royalties. A whopping 51% of traditionally published books basically break even, which means a total of 91% of authors never see more money than the advance they got when they signed the contract. Only the remaining 9% of books actually make the company, and the author, any additional money. No wonder they are so damn picky and exclusive! You and your book have got over a 90% chance of being a bad investment.

We’ll dive deeper into the financial side of traditional publishing and what it has to offer to authors in next week’s post, Part 2: Money Talks.



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