In part two of this series, I’ll discuss the path of traditional publishing. Please keep in mind that the following is a combination of research and opinion, as well as comments or statements made directly by literary agents and authors who have published through traditional publishing houses.
As Bob Dylan told us way back in the early sixties, “the times they are a-changin’” and boy are they ever. We’re in the 21st century now, a time when millions of people are purchasing such things as shoes without first trying them on. I mean, how freakin’ miserable are you after wearing ill-fitting shoes all day? In an age where we can connect with someone on the other side of the world in a matter of a split second, and in a variety of ways, I simply don’t understand how anyone could still believe traditional publishing is the be-all-end-all. That said, I’m a true believer in the saying to each his own, and what path is right for you may not be the same road the next person wishes to travel on.
The point is, in today’s world, we have more choices than ever before, and that’s only going to continue. But let’s back up here a minute. Over the last, oh, ten years or so, I’ve heard whispers and rumors that books are dying out. People just aren’t reading as much as they used to, some say. To that, I say just as I said in Part One of this series (although on a different subject), poppycock!
It’s believed that the oldest extant printed book dates back to 868 AD, during the Tang Dynasty. In 1455, Johann Gutenberg, who invented the movable-type printing press, is said to have produced the first book ever printed. The first mass-market paperback is purported to date back to 1938, however, in truth, paperbacks have been around since the 17th century. And did you know that serial novels were the craze in the 19th century? Newspapers and magazines used to print a chapter in each edition which had people reading their publications the way we watch a television series today. In 1932 the first audiobook was produced by The American Foundation for the Blind. And Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg (see Johann Gutenberg above) and inventor of the electronic book (e-book) first came out with this invention in 1971. That’s right, 1971! However, the World Wide Web as we know it didn’t become available to the public until August 6, 1991, and Amazon, the largest online bookseller by far, first started selling books in 1994.
So what does that little history lesson tell us? It says books aren’t going anywhere. The book industry has remained and still is today a massive influence in the global consumer market. In 2018, 675 million print books were sold in the U.S. alone, and both e-books and audiobooks (relatively new book formats by comparison) are bringing in billions of U.S. dollars in revenue each year. With such a growing and vastly reliable global market, you can bet that everyone from authors to publishers to booksellers is cashing in.
Of the Big-5 traditional publishers, each has a vast number of imprints. For example, Penguin Random House has over 200, and Harper Collins over 120. However, very few (and I do mean very few) of these imprints will accept unsolicited submittals, meaning submittals that do not come directly through a literary agent. This leaves the author with a relatively tiny window of opportunity to garner a contract with a Big-5 publisher unless they can first secure a literary agent to represent them.
Now, according to the latest statistics, the odds of landing an agent are about one in six thousand (1 in 6000). If you’re thinking in terms of winning the lottery, that’s not too shabby. But keep in mind that securing that agent is much akin to playing the lottery as you’ll need a lot of luck on your side as well as savvy and a quality product. Not to mention a great query letter and/or book proposal, but that’s an entirely different subject we won’t get into here.
A few years back, a well-known literary agent told us she received an average of one hundred (100) queries a day! I would imagine that statistic has increased since then, but I could be wrong as the self-publishing market has also vastly increased over these past years.
That same agent told us that she took on an average of one (yes, that’s 1) new author a year. I will say, however, that the recent statistics I found say that today’s literary agents are accepting somewhere between three to ten (3 to 10) new authors per year on average.
So, what does a literary agent do for you for their fifteen percent (15%) commission of your total income? Well, for starters, the agent is your doorway to these publishing houses. It’s up to them to sell both you and your book to the publisher, which means you first have to sell yourself and your book to the agent.
You do this by first making sure you follow that individual agent’s submittal rules, and they all have them, believe me. Whether they are accepting submittals or not, and if so, where and how to send them. And please, pay attention to the literary agent’s genre preference! For instance, don’t waste their time or your own by sending a query on a fantasy novel to a literary agent who handles only non-fiction. Some will instruct you to send a query letter with a short synopsis. Some may ask for a full synopsis or your first chapter or first ten pages. Read their requirements carefully and follow them explicitly.
Often, the publishing houses have put out the word as to what they are looking for—what they see the market trending to. This week or this month, it might be vampires or werewolves, and the next, it could be cowboys or first responders. This is largely where the element of luck will play into whether or not your query letter strikes the agent’s interest on the given day you’ve submitted it.
Once you’ve secured an agent, be sure you understand what to expect next. More than likely, that agent will start by critiquing your book and suggesting changes, but it will be up to you to incorporate those changes; they won’t do line-by-line edits but will expect and demand that your manuscript be edited to the last comma before trying to sell it to a publisher.
Then, once your book is in top shape (according to your agent, that is), the agent will begin soliciting your book. Recent statistics say agents sell approximately two out of every three (2 out of 3) books they auction.
The agent is auctioning or attempting to sell you and your book to an editor at one of these publishing houses, and these editors have limited budgets. It’s said that today’s big publishing houses receive about six hundred (600) submittals a year from new authors through these literary agents, and accept an average of three to four (3 to 4) new authors a year.
The bottom line is it takes equal parts of time, luck, and perseverance. And let’s not forgot what comes before all of this because before you can (or should) begin looking at agents and/or publishers, you need to do the work.
1. Write an outstanding book;
2. Write an awesome query letter;
3. Write a fabulous synopsis (both a short and full one so you’ll be prepared);
4. Make a list of literary agents accepting submittals and ones who specialize in your
specific genre; and
5. Send your material out to ten to twelve (10 to 12 agents) at a time.
Oh, and also, don’t forget about the less prestigious or smaller publishing houses. Below are twenty of the top publishing houses that every author desiring to go down this path should be familiar with. Check them out, do your research, and refer back to numbers one through five (1 through 5) above.
THE BIG-FIVE PUBLISHERS
Penguin Random House: Their most notable imprints are Knopf Doubleday, Crown Publishing, and Viking Press. Penguin Random House currently has 200 divisions and imprints.
Hatchette Livre: Hatchette Livre is the largest publishing house in France and one of the most prominent publishers in all of Europe. It’s owned by the Lagardère Group and encompasses over 150 imprints.
HarperCollins: HarperCollins houses over 120 individual imprints, the most well-known of which are possibly Avon Romance, Harlequin Enterprises, Harper, and William Morrow.
Macmillan Publishers: Macmillan’s most notable imprints are said to be Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Picador, Thomas Dunne Books.
Simon & Schuster: This Big-5 publisher is home to notable imprints such as Howard Books, Scribner, and Touchstone. They currently release over 2,000 new titles a year.
TOP EDUCATION-RELATED PUBLISHERS
McGraw-Hill Education: Textbooks and other curriculum materials for the K-12 set.
Houghton Mifflin Harcour: Like McGraw-Hill and Cengage below, HMH serves the K-12 education market. However, they also cater to general interests such as the culinary set and children’s titles.
Cengage Learning: An educational publisher on the rise, similar to McGraw-Hill.
Pearson Education: You might already know that Pearson PLC owns Penguin Random House as well, but its Pearson Education division is limited to academic texts.
Springer Nature: Springer mostly publishes academic journals, but as with many educational publishers, it’s still closely linked to traditional publishing.
Wiley (John Wiley & Sons): Another academic and instructional publisher.
Oxford University Press: The largest and by far the oldest (on this list) university press in the world, OUP origins began in the sixteen-century when the print trade was just getting off the ground. It’s best known for its dictionaries, historical guides, and literary fiction, such as those that come out of its Oxford World's Classics imprint.
Grupo Santillana: Although Grupo Santillana sold all of its trade publishing business to Penguin Random House in 2014, it’s still a big name in educational texts. Their focus is on Spanish educational textbooks.
MORE TOP AND VERY NOTABLE PUBLISHERS
Scholastic: You might think of this publisher as just another major publisher of educational texts but take note: Scholastic is the largest publisher and distributor of children’s books in the world, with perpetual rights to many of the most famous children’s and YA series of all time, such as Harry Potter (recently acquired from Bloomsbury) and The Hunger Games. Its annual revenue has averaged around $2 billion over the past couple of years, and it consistently publishes some of the most popular titles in children’s literature.
Kodansha: Kodansha is the largest publisher in Japan, with a primary focus on their manga-based imprints. However, besides manga, Kodansha does occasionally publish traditionally formatted books and a few literary magazines as well.
Shueisha: This is another top Japanese publisher. Shueisha and its sibling publisher Shogakukan produce more literature and nonfiction than Kodansha, though they also have a focus on manga (and many other forms of media) as well.
Bonnier Books: Bonnier Books is based in Sweden and part of the larger Bonnier Media Group. Not only has it been in operation since 1804, but Bonnier is also entirely family owned! Its imprints in Finland, Norway, and the United Kingdom have a primarily strong presence in children’s books.
Editis: This publisher is the second-largest French publisher (after Hachette Livre, mentioned above). It’s a major division of Grupo Planeta, a Spanish media group based in Madrid. Although many of Grupo Planeta’s other companies focus on magazine and newspaper publishing, Editis caters to book publishing in all forms.
Klett: Nearing the end of our list is a Germany-based publisher originating from the nineteenth-century. Its current focus is largely in education, however, Klett also publishes literary fiction and nonfiction.
Egmont Books: The final mention on this list goes to a subsidiary of Egmont Group. Egmont Books primarily publishes fiction for children from YA and picture books to sticker and activity books. This company holds a strong presence in the UK and is especially well-known as the current publisher of the Mr. Men and Little Misses series, which has been in print for over two decades.
If you’ve decided traditional publishing is the route for you, I hope this information helps you get started on your publishing journey, and I wish you the best of luck!