Many authors dream of being ‘picked up’ by a big publisher. However, despite the potential rewards, big publishers are not the best option for every author.

In this article, you’ll discover how big publishers work, you’ll find out the pros and cons of being with a big publisher, and you’ll discover how to determine if a big publisher is right for you.

What is a Big Publisher?

Though you will find thousands of book publishers, of a large variety of shapes and sizes, only a small proportion of these can be considered ‘big publishers’.

In the US, about 60% of English-language books are published by one of five publishers. These are often called the ‘big five’ and include: Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan.

Though these big publishers have a number of characteristics in common, there are a few important elements that you must consider when assessing if a big publisher is right for you and your book.

These include:

  • They publish a large number of books.
  • Specialization.
  • Imprints.
  • You will require an agent.

Let’s consider these in turn.

Large Numbers of Books

A big publisher will publish in excess of 100 books per year, often many more. These books will come from many genres and cover a vast variety of topics. On the surface, the fact that publishers are looking for so many books appears to be a good thing. It means they are constantly on the lookout for new talent to fill their publishing schedule. The problem this presents is that not every book they publish is created equally.

It turns out that publishers are very bad at predicting which books will sell well and which will flop. Therefore, they take an approach of publishing many books, aware that only a small percentage of these will go on to be bestsellers. The small proportion that sell very well, will cover the costs (and more) of the other books.

Though publishers are bad at spotting a bestseller, they are very good at predicting a potential bestseller from early sales data. This means that once a book starts to sell well in the opening weeks, they will push all their resources behind this book and leave the other books to wither. If you are the author of a potential bestseller, you’ll see the full power of the publishing machine. If your book is deemed to not be a potential bestseller, then you’ll be left to fend for yourself.

Specialization

Big publishers work hard to find and train the best publishing professionals. They have large teams that focus on every aspect of the publishing process from editorial, to cover design to marketing. This means that books published by one of the big publishers will be the best they can possibly be.

Imprint

All big publishers operate the same model, when it comes to structuring their companies. They will have a main ‘mother’ company and a number of smaller companies, called imprints. It is common to see the mother company publishing books of a more general nature and the imprints focussing on just one or two genres.

It is important that authors don’t assume that being published by an imprint is a lesser form of publishing, this is simply not the case. It is true that many big publishers will ‘move’ thier biggest selling authors into the mother company, but this should not be a consideration for new authors.

Authors tend to find themselves at imprints for one of two reasons. The first is that the book they are publishing is from a less mainstream genre. Imprints often have excellent genre specific knowledge and are, therefore, the natural home for books on the genre in which they specialise. The second is that imprints are sometimes seen as ‘breeding grounds’ for new talent. It is not unusual for a new and unproven writer to start their career at a smaller imprint and be moved ‘up the ladder’ as they grow and develop.

Here’s a great infographic created by Ali Almossawi, where he shows the relationship of imprints to their mother companies.

Agents

One common element that binds all big publishers, and their imprints, is that they only work with authors that are represented by agents. The main reason for this is that agents act as gatekeepers, screening potential authors and working to find the types of books publishers need to fulfil their publishing catalogue.

One common mistake new authors make is to assume that an agent’s main job is to say no to rubbish books. It is true that most books, that an agent sees, are simply not up to a standard they require. However, if you have been rejected by an agent, it is not automatically because your book is badly written. Agents are looking for books that publishers will find attractive (often called ‘commercial’). In short, these are books that agents and publishers feel have the potential to sell many thousands of copies. Many a well written book has been rejected simply because an agent feels that it is not ‘commercial’ enough.

Money Talks

The final piece of the jigsaw for writers considering a big publisher, is to follow the money. No big publisher will ever ask an author to pay anything towards the publication of their book. That’s just not the deal.

When you sign a deal with a publisher you are giving them the right to publish your book. In return, they are agreeing to give you a cut of each sale. The publisher will provide all the cash needed for editorial support, printing, marketing and anything else that is required. In return, they’ll give you a cut of about 15% of the price that they sell each book (of which you’ll give about 15% to your agent). This is known as a royalty.

There’s two other things to consider in the money equation: advances and other rights.

An advance is the upfront payment the publisher will make for your book. This is not a free gift, but is, instead, an advance on the royalties that they feel they will be paying you in the coming years. Therefore, if you received an advance of $10,000, you’d need to earn $10,000 worth of royalties before you started getting any more cash. Advances are seen as a gamble by the publisher and the bigger the advance the more ‘skin’ they have in the game and the bigger their desire will be to make your book a success. If a book fails to sell enough copies to ‘earn back’ your royalty you don’t have to pay anything back. However, the chances of getting another book deal are reduced.

The final thing to consider is ‘other rights’. When you sign a deal with your publisher, you’ll give them the rights to sell your book in your country (called territory). You’ll also give them the right to reproduce your story in book form (paper and digital). However, there are other rights associated with your book. These include the rights to publish in other countries, audio rights and film rights. If your book is a success, these rights can be ‘sold’ to interested parties. This will earn you additional income. Some rights, especially foreign rights, can be very lucrative for an author.

The Advantages of Going with a Big Publisher

There are many advantages of being published by a big publisher, many of which are personal. However, below are three key benefits:

Potential Rewards Huge

IF your book becomes a bestseller, and that’s a massive IF, then a big publisher is the best place to be. A big book publisher will ensure that your book gets everything that is needed to make it a success. They will work with you and your agent to really fulfil the potential for your book.

You Don’t Have to do Anything, Other Than Write

A big publisher will work hard to ensure that you have time to focus on the most important task, which is writing. During the editorial process you will be required to carry out work on your book, but once the book is published this stops. You will also be required to carry out some marketing activities, but these are often limited.

Legitimacy

This is not an advantage to be under estimated. Many authors want to be published by a big publisher. They want the legitimacy this brings; they want to be a ‘published author’. This is fine, just be aware that if this is a driving motivation, then seeking a big publisher is probably the only way you’ll scratch that itch.

The Disadvantages of Going with a Big Publisher

A big publisher is not right for every author. Here’s a few of the key reasons you need to consider when making a choice.

Screwed If You Are Not a Bestseller

Big publishers work on a model of publishing many books and then focussing on the few that appear to be bestsellers. This is great if you are one of the 20% that are successful, however, if you are not then things are not so rosy. A big publisher will not push cash into marketing a book they don’t feel has potential. This means that many authors with big publishers, find their book being ignored after the first month of publication.

Mid-list Is Death

There was a time when mid-list authors could make a decent living at a big publisher. This is simply no longer the case. A mid-list author is one who sells enough books to keep getting new deals, but not enough to be a bestseller. A big publisher sees the potential but will not invest the time and money that may be needed to push this author into the bestseller category. The result is that the author is left with mediocre sales and a poor income from writing.

It Takes Years

If you have written your book and want it to be in print within the next six months, then a big publisher is not the correct option for you. It can take months to secure an agent and then, even with an agent, you can be looking at up to a year for that agent to secure a publishing deal. Then, even with a publisher, they make be looking at a twelve month lead time until the book is published. It is not at all unusual for a book to take up to two years from the time the author completes to the book being on the shelf. The publishing industry is slow!

Is a Big Publisher Right for Me?

There are so many factors to consider when deciding on a publishing route, and the choice is so personal, that only you can make that choice.

This said, I think there’s three things to consider.

The first to is how you see your publishing career. If you are prepared to take your publishing journey one book at a time, then a big publisher might be a logical choice. It is common for authors to write a book that fits a big publisher perfectly, but for their next book to struggle to find a home. The key is to go into the process with just one book in mind.

The second is to consider just how ‘commercial’ you feel your book would be for publishers. They are looking for books that will sell at least a couple of thousand copies in the first year. It might be that your book is just too ‘niche’ for their ambitions. A good way to test the commercial potential for your book is to submit it to a few agents and see what they say. If they feel it has commercial potential, they will ask for the full manuscript.

The final aspect to consider whether you intend to leverage a potential book deal. Being published with a big publisher will open certain doors. If you plan to go into teaching creative writing, or a similar field, then being published will help you achieve these goals. Most writers, even those with big publishers, struggle to make a full time living. You might find that securing a big publisher book deal opens a few career doors that would have otherwise been closed.

In conclusion, being published by a big publisher can be an exciting journey. I have had more than twenty books published by a range of publishers, big and small. I also have a literary agent. At times, I was even able to earn a full time living as a writer. However, I started my journey about ten years ago and today the publishing landscape is very different. Big publishers still have an important role to play in a writer’s career but I’d urge you to consider the potential ups and downs before committing to that elusive book deal.