Before you decide to approach a traditional publisher and ask to receive backing your proposed book project, you need an understanding not only of what publishers seek in a publishing partner but also how each type of publishing house differs. You want to familiarize your self with how to contact small independent publishers, mid-sized publishers and large publishers and why. That way you will be sure to approach each publisher correctly, and you’ll know which type of publishing house is right for you. You won’t just assume you want or need a big New York publishing house.
Large Publishing Houses
The publishing industry used to talk about the Big Six or the Six Sisters when referring to the number of large conglomerate publishing companies in the United States. These days, it’s the Big 5 or the Five Sisters since Penguin and Random House merged in early 2013. That made Penguin Random House the world’s largest publisher, moving it ahead of the other four publishers: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster. Now the Big Five Publishers are:
- Penguin Random House
- Simon & Schuster
Each of these publishing houses operates many imprints. The large publishing houses have also created smaller book lines that have broken off into profit centers of their own—small and mid-sized publishing houses owned by the larger ones. In some cases, they purchased independent publishers. For example, in its adult publishing line (it also has a children’s line) Simon & Schuster’s imprints include:
- Folger Shakespeare Library
- Free Press
- Gallery Books
- Howard Books
The conglomerates are actually bigger than they first appear when you look at who owns each of the Big Six companies. MacMillan is owned by German company Holtzbrinck, Hachette is owned by French company Hachette Livre, and HarperCollins is owned by Australian Media Corp owner Rupert Murdoch. Random House and Penguin were divisions of German conglomerate Bertelsmann; Bertelsmann own 53 percent of the new Penguin Random House, while Pearson owns the remaining 47 percent.
To approach a large publishing company you need a literary agent. Literary agents serve as the gatekeepers to acquisitions editors, who are the people within a publishing company who review book proposals and purchase new book projects. Acquisitions editors at large publishing companies do not accept “unagented” book proposals or query letters.
Large publishing houses can be impersonal to work with. You will be one among many authors because these houses produce many books per year. You will be a small fish in a big pond if you are a first time author—or even a second time author.
Small to Mid-sized Dependent Publishers
Small and mid-sized dependent publishers are those (mostly) not associated with or owned by the Big Five. They might be owned by an organization, university or some other mid-sized publisher and thus not “independent” but “dependent” upon some outside agency, association, or company. A few examples include Andrews McMeel (associated with Universal Press Syndicate), Chronicle Books (affiliated with the San Francisco Chronicle), Graywolf Press (a non-profit publisher), AMACOM Books (affiliated with the American Management Association), and Beacon Press (a division of the Unitarian Universalist Association).
Other such publishers include:
- F&W Publishing
- Adams Media
- Globe Pequot Press
- Health Communications
- Quest Books
- That Patchwork Place
- Running Press
- Ten-Speed Press
Sometimes you will find imprints of larger houses amongst the names of mid-sized publishers as well.
In most cases, mid-sized publishing houses only take agents submissions from aspiring authors. Some acquisitions editors, however, will look at a query or book proposal from an unagented author.
Working with a small or mid-sized dependent publisher can prove a more personal experience. You may still feel as if you are one among many authors since these houses do produce a good number of books per year, but you won’t be quite as small a fish in the pond. You also stand a better chance of becoming a big fish in that pond.
Independent publishers, also called small publishing houses, are independently owned. They are not part of the huge conglomerates nor are they dependent on any other agency. These are different than the “indie publishers” who have sprung up left and right—individual self-publishers who have started their own imprints, or self-publishing companies, to produce their own work. Most of these publishing companies have been around a long time, such as:
- Career Press
- Chelsea Green Publishing
- New World Library
- Chronicle Books
- Hampton Roads
- Jewish Lights
- Hay House
- Newmarket Press
- Prometheus Books
Almost all independent publishing companies accept unagented query letters and book proposals from aspiring authors. They all have submission guidelines on their websites. I will cover query letters, book proposals and agents in forthcoming post.
If you want a personal publishing experience with a traditional publisher, this is your best bet. These house often produce less books per year—but not always—and have a bit more time and energy to spend on their authors. You may be treated like a big fish in a small pond if your book does really well or if you show up with a big platform or a track record for previously published books.