Traditional publishing refers to the traditional model of publishing books through an established publishing house. In this model, authors submit book proposals or finished manuscripts to publishers, who then select, edit, produce, market, and distribute the books.
This contrasts with self-publishing, where the author handles all aspects of publication themselves or pays for services like editing and design. With self-publishing, the author retains full control and rights over their work.
The main advantages of traditional publishing are increased distribution, marketing support, professional editing and design, and the potential for advances and royalties. However, it can be highly competitive to get published traditionally. Self-publishing offers faster publication with full creative control, but requires more work from the author or upfront costs to produce the book independently.
Following is an in-depth look at traditional publishing from an author’s perspective, including the history, process, challenges, and tips for getting published traditionally. It will examine the evolving publishing landscape and why traditional publishing still plays an important role amidst new models like self-publishing.
The History and Evolution of Traditional Publishing
Traditional publishing has a long and rich history, playing a pivotal role in the production and dissemination of literature. While self-publishing and independent publishing have existed for centuries, the origins of today’s major traditional publishing houses trace back to the 15th century with the introduction of the printing press in Europe.
Prior to this, book publishing was limited and required extensive manual copying. The printing press allowed books to be mass-produced for the first time, marking a revolution in publishing. Many early printers like William Caxton in England and Aldus Manutius in Italy became the first modern publishers.
Over the next centuries, publishing gradually professionalized and coalesced around major hubs like London and New York. Publishers were instrumental in bringing the writings of Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, and other literary giants to the public. They helped establish the commercial viability of literature and shaped literary tastes.
While challenged by new technologies like e-books today, traditional publishing continues to play a critical role in discovering new talent, nurturing authors, curating literature, and promoting books to national and global audiences. The legacy and high standards of traditional publishing lend credibility to the books they publish.
The Traditional Publishing Process
The path from manuscript to published book through traditional publishing contains multiple steps:
Overview: The process begins with an author writing a manuscript. The author then seeks out a literary agent to represent them. The agent pitches the manuscript to publishers to solicit interest. With acceptance from a publisher, a contract is signed between the author and publisher. The publisher undertakes editorial development, production, marketing, and distribution to transform the manuscript into a polished, finished book available in stores.
- Writing the manuscript – The author writes and edits their full manuscript to prepare it for submission.
- Seeking literary agents – The author researches and queries agents to find representation.
- Submission to publishers – The agent pitches and submits the manuscript to interested publishers.
- Acceptance and signing the contract – If a publisher shows interest, contract negotiations occur leading to a signed publishing deal.
- Editorial process – The publisher’s editorial team provides suggestions and edits to refine the manuscript.
- Production and design – The manuscript is designed and laid out, copy edited, and printed.
- Marketing and promotion – The publisher markets the book through advertising, events, media coverage, etc.
- Distribution and sales – The publisher ensures wide distribution through retail channels to get the book to readers.
- This extensive process allows traditionally published books to achieve wide exposure and availability, though it can take many months or years.
How book royalties work in traditional publishing:
- Royalties are the percentage of revenue an author earns from each sale of their book.
- The royalty rate is usually between 10-15% of the publisher’s net revenue on a book sale. Net revenue is the money left after the retailer’s cut and returns.
- Royalties are lower on paperback editions, typically around 7.5-10%. Royalties on hardcovers are higher at around 15%.
- Ebook royalties were once at 25% of net but have increased toward parity with print royalties in many contracts.
- Royalties are paid out to the author after the initial advance has been earned back in sales.
- Royalty statements are issued twice a year detailing sales, returns and royalties owed. Payments may be issued monthly or quarterly once owed.
- If an advance is never fully earned back, the author does not receive additional royalties but also does not have to return the remainder.
- Higher royalties may be paid for foreign rights sales, book club editions, etc. based on negotiated contracts.
The royalty system rewards authors whose books sell well over a long period. But it involves complex accounting requiring diligence to ensure proper royalty payments.
Book advances in traditional publishing:
- An advance is an upfront payment made by the publisher to the author upon signing a book contract.
- It is paid against the future royalties the author will earn from book sales.
- Advances are typically paid out in installments, like 1/3 upon signing, 1/3 upon manuscript delivery, 1/3 upon publication.
- The amount of the advance is influenced by factors like the author’s track record, comparable deals, and the publisher’s expectations for sales.
- For first-time authors, advances can range from $1,000-$15,000. Established authors may see six-figure advances.
- The author does not receive any royalty payments until the book earns back the full amount of the advance in sales.
- If the advance is never fully recouped, the author keeps the remainder but cannot earn additional royalties.
- Large advances are mainly offered to authors with proven sales potential. Many books never earn out their advances.
- An appropriate advance amount allows the publisher to recoup their investment in acquiring, editing and marketing a book.
Advances provide authors with early lump sum payments but must be justified by eventual strong book sales.
Net sales in publishing:
- Net sales refers to the amount of revenue left from a book’s sales after certain deductions are accounted for.
- It starts with the book’s gross sales – the total number of copies sold x the list price.
- From gross sales, discounts, returns, and other deductions are subtracted to reach net sales.
- Booksellers/retailers get a discount off the list price as their cut, usually around 40-50% of list price. This is deducted from gross sales.
- Returns are books sent back unsold by retailers and get deducted. Return rates average around 20-25% typically.
- Other potential deductions include shipping costs and warehouse charges.
- All these deductions are subtracted from the book’s gross sales revenue to reach the net sales figure.
- Net sales is the number used to calculate author royalties. Royalties are a percentage (10-15% usually) of net sales.
- So the author’s income is affected by how much gets deducted between gross and net sales. Higher discounts and returns mean lower net sales to base royalties on.
Calculating net sales involves complex retail accounting but is essential for determining author royalties accurately.
The Role of Literary Agents
Literary agents play an intermediary role in traditional publishing.
Literary agents act as indispensable intermediaries in the traditional book publishing process. They provide authors key guidance and access to publishers, who rarely accept manuscript submissions directly from unagented writers.
Agents screen and evaluate countless query letters and manuscripts to identify potential new works and clients with promise. For writers they take on, they offer editorial feedback to help refine and polish manuscripts. Agents leverage their industry connections to pitch books to the right editors and publishers where there is fit and interest. They negotiate licensing deals and contract terms on the author’s behalf, securing advances and favorable royalty rates when possible. Ongoing, they advise authors on career moves, ensure proper payment, and handle time-consuming business matters related to publication.
Having an experienced literary agent in your corner is invaluable for navigating the complex publishing landscape. Their expertise on submitting to publishers, negotiating deals, and marketing books saves authors countless hours. Agents open doors and advocate tirelessly for the authors they represent. While not easy to obtain, signing with the right literary agent is a huge step forward for authors pursuing traditional publication of their work.
What they do:
- Screen potential new works and authors
- Provide editorial feedback to authors
- Pitch manuscripts to publishers to generate interest
- Negotiate contracts and licensing deals with publishers
- Manage publicity and marketing efforts
- Collect any payments and distribute to authors
Why they are important:
- Provide access to publishers who rarely accept unagented submissions
- Offer expert guidance on revising works for publication
- Leverage industry connections and insights
- Negotiate better deals and protect author’s interests
- Handle time-consuming business details so author can focus on writing
Seeking and signing with an agent:
- Research agents accepting new clients in your genre
- Craft a compelling query letter with writing sample
- If interest is expressed, provide more material
- Sign a representation agreement outlining terms
How they represent authors:
- Advise on refining manuscripts and career moves
- Leverage relationships to get manuscripts in front of the right editors
- Negotiate publication deals, advances, and royalty rates
- Ensure authors receive payments owed on time
- Support authors throughout the publishing process
Literary Agent Compensation
Literary agents are compensated through taking a percentage commission on earnings they negotiate on behalf of their author clients. The standard commission rate is 15% for book publications and dramatic rights, and 10-20% for film rights. Agents deduct their agreed upon commission percentage from any advances, royalties, and subsidiary rights sales before passing on payments to the author.
For example, if an agent negotiates a $10,000 book advance, they would take 15% or $1,500 as their fee and the author would receive the remaining $8,500. Out of quarterly royalty checks the agent’s commission is deducted first as well. This commission provides the agent’s primary form of compensation rather than charging upfront fees to authors. It incentivizes them to negotiate the highest possible deals and payments. The flipside is it requires agents take on authors with strong commercial potential. By representing authors with successful books and leveraging their industry relationships, literary agents can earn substantial incomes over time through commission-based compensation.
How To Find An Agent
Finding and signing with the right literary agent is crucial yet challenging for authors pursuing traditional publication. It starts with extensively researching agents who are open to new clients within your genre. Look for those who have successfully sold books similar to your own. Be sure to closely follow each agent’s submission guidelines. Craft a compelling 1-page query letter that captures the essence of your story and writing strengths. Polish the first few chapters or your proposal to join the query as a writing sample.
Query widely to give yourself the best chances of generating interest. If an agent requests more materials or expresses interest, respond promptly to provide anything further they need to make a decision. Be professional throughout the process. Should an agent offer representation, thoroughly review the agreement terms before signing to ensure they are legitimate and you feel fully comfortable with the relationship.
Finally, be persistent and don’t get discouraged by rejection. Securing a literary agent is very competitive, but the right one can catapult an author’s career. Do your homework, follow protocols, and keep improving your pitch and materials until you find the publishing partner who is excited to champion your work.
Here are some good websites for authors to utilize when starting their search for a literary agent:
- Publishers Marketplace (publishersmarketplace.com) – Database of agents and posts on deals they’ve made. Can search by genre and client needs.
- Agent Query (agentquery.com) – Searchable agent directory with submission details and genres represented.
- Manuscript Wish List (manuscriptwishlist.com) – Agents post genres and topics they are seeking. Great for targeted queries.
- Absolute Write Forums (absolutewrite.com) – Discussions provide insights on reputable agents and query experiences.
- QueryTracker (querytracker.net) – Track agent submissions and research details on agents. Free limited version.
- Writer’s Digest (writersdigest.com) – Articles on the agent search process and curated agent directories.
- Agents & Editors (aande.publishersmarketplace.com) – Listings of literary agencies, editors and their areas of interest.
- Social media – Follow agents on Twitter/Instagram for engagement opportunities.
Take time to thoroughly explore these resources to create a list of potential agents well-suited for your work and submission needs. Consulting multiple sources helps ensure you approach the right agents for your book.
Challenges of Diversity, Representation, and Bias
For much of publishing history, traditional publishing catered predominantly to affluent white audiences. The books that got published, reviewed, promoted, and awarded acclaim were overwhelmingly by white authors and targeted towards white readers. There was little attempt by the publishing industry to reach or represent readers outside of this dominant demographic.
At the same time, stories and voices from marginalized communities were generally not seen as commercially viable or appropriate for publication. Manuscripts by authors of color, LGBTQ+ writers, working-class authors, and other marginalized identities were routinely rejected by mainstream publishers. There was an underlying belief that their narratives would not sell or resonate with audiences.
In addition, editors and publishers tended to rely on established conventions for storytelling and literature. They discouraged challenges to the status quo or new perspectives that deviated too far from accepted narratives and norms. There was a narrow conception within publishing of what kinds of books would appeal to their target audiences. This led to resistance around taking risks on authors and stories that represented more diverse viewpoints or unconventional literary voices.
Legacy biases within traditional publishing meant there was little imagination for the broader range of human stories and experiences that could be reflected through literature. The industry was shaped by insular standards and assumptions when it came to choosing which authors to publish.
There is an ongoing fight to make traditional publishing more representative and inclusive of marginalized voices. Activists and consumers are calling for more authentic stories and perspectives from diverse authors, rather than works filtered through a narrow mainstream lens. There is a pushback against damaging literary tropes or stereotypical portrayals of marginalized groups. Readers and authors are challenging racist, homophobic, and otherwise harmful representations that have made it into print.
At an industry level, there are demands for systemic changes to traditional publishing’s business practices. Activists urge publishers to diversify their staff and deliberately solicit more manuscripts by authors of color, LGBTQ+ writers, and other marginalized backgrounds. There is a call for more imagination and proactive efforts around seeking out diverse voices. Some authors are working with sensitivity readers from impacted communities to review manuscripts and provide feedback on harmful stereotyping or inaccurate cultural portrayals before publication.
However, despite progress, barriers persist. Alice Walker faced resistance early in her career to centering Black protagonists and experiences in her novels. Early LGBTQ+ fiction containing explicit queer characters and themes was rejected as obscene. The literary canon and major awards have also historically elevated male authors, while overlooking deserving women writers. Traditional publishing still has work to do in addressing legacies of bias and expanding which voices are empowered to tell their stories.
Publishing Controversial Ideas
Traditional book publishers often face challenging decisions when it comes to taking on controversial or boundary-pushing content. On one hand, there is a commitment to defending free speech and not overly limiting creative expression. However, publishers must also weigh principles of social responsibility, as they act as gatekeepers for what ideas and perspectives reach wide audiences through their books.
Several landmark novels that faced scandal or even bans when first released, like Lolita, American Psycho or Huckleberry Finn, are now considered literary classics despite their challenging themes around sexuality, violence or racism. This demonstrates how the definition of “controversial” evolves over time as social mores change. Topics related to LGBTQ+ identities or racial justice that were once viewed as too taboo to discuss openly are now more commonly explored.
When deciding whether to publish material that may be perceived as controversial, publishers consider factors like artistic merit, listening to concerns internally, getting input from sensitivity readers, assessing potential backlash or propagation of negative stereotypes, and looking at the context and purpose behind the provocative content. There are rarely easy clear-cut answers, and decisions must weigh principles of free expression against a publisher’s responsibility to limit tangible harms their books could enable. It is an ever-evolving process, but upholding diversity and careful consideration of impact should remain priorities.
Advantages of Traditional Publishing
Despite the growth of self-publishing, traditional publishing still offers significant advantages to authors. The credibility and reputation that come with being published under an established imprint lends an air of legitimacy. Traditional publishers have existing distribution frameworks that allow books to be sold through major retail channels and reach wide audiences across geographic regions. They also provide professional in-house teams to handle editing, design, production, and marketing for books on their roster, saving authors from having to coordinate or outsource those services themselves.
For successful books from recognized authors, traditional publishers may offer advance payments against future royalties. While self-publishing offers higher per-copy royalty rates in some cases, the marketing muscle and sales volumes of a traditional publisher can result in greater overall earnings. The combination of reputational benefits, wider distribution and visibility, built-in teams to polish the final product, and financial incentives make traditional publishing attractive for authors seeking the broadest readership and impact for their work. However, the trade-off is less control over the process and end product compared to independent publishing.
The path to publication through traditional publishing houses is extensive, requiring perseverance and patience from authors. But for those able to navigate the complex steps from manuscript to printed book, traditional publishing offers the backing of an institution with credibility, distribution know-how, and marketing resources.
There is still much progress needed to make traditional publishing more inclusive and reduce systemic barriers that have marginalized authors from underrepresented backgrounds. All those who participate in the traditional publishing ecosystem, from aspiring authors to seasoned editors, can contribute to expanding the diversity of voices and stories that are amplified. There is a collective responsibility across the industry to keep challenging norms, seek out fresh perspectives, and provide platforms for authentic experiences that have too often been erased in literature. By championing equity and inclusion,