Types of Publishers
Traditional publishers can be divided into four main categories: major conglomerates, mid-sized houses, small presses, and university presses. (Self-publishers and e-publishing are discussed in Chapter 15.) All told, there are an estimated 80,000 publishers in the United States, and between 8,000 and 11,000 new publishing houses are established in an average year.
The six largest publishers all are headquartered in New York City: HarperCollins, Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings, Penguin Putnam, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Time Warner. Of these, Random House is the largest. Together, the conglomerates account for about half of all book sales in the United States. These houses are the most difficult for new writers to break into, in part because they tend to be more interested in commercial titles — that is, titles that are likely to sell 100,000 copies or more. The big publishers also prefer to work with agents rather than unagented writers; four out of five titles they purchase are represented by an agent.
Whenever you read of a seven-figure advance, the publisher involved is almost certainly one of the so-called Big Six. But a huge advance doesn't necessarily mean a book will become a blockbuster. According to the trade journal Bookselling This Week, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin Putnam accounted for some $100 million in unearned advances in 1996.
Each of the conglomerates has a number of separate divisions, and, in many cases, these divisions act as independent publishing houses. Random House, for example, has at least eleven divisions, and each of these divisions has its own list of imprints. The Ballantine Publishing Group falls under the Random House umbrella, and Ballantine in turn publishes at least eight imprints, among them Fawcett, Ivy, Columbine, and, of course, Ballan-tine Books.
Divisions and imprints usually have their own unique specialties, and they are typically listed independently in market directories. Doubleday, another Random House imprint, has four listings in Writer's Market — one for the Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, which publishes both nonfiction and fiction (it published The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown); one for Doubleday Religious Publishing, which focuses on spiritual and religious fiction and nonfiction; one for Doubleday/Image, a strictly nonfiction religious/spiritual house; and one for Doubleday Books for Young Readers, which publishes picture books for preschoolers to eight-year-olds.
There are several hundred medium-sized publishers in the United States, and these tend to be more open than the conglomerates to new writers. You can thank the growth of major booksellers for the proliferation of mid-sized and small publishers: The rapid expansion of shelf space that must be filled has given new opportunities to these smaller outfits to get their titles into the hands of the reading public.
A study by the Authors Guild, an advocacy group for writers, defines a successful fiction book as one that sells 5,000 copies. A successful nonfiction book sells 7,500 copies. In general, the major publishers have to sell 10,000 copies of a given title to break even. According to some estimates, only three books in ten sell enough copies to earn back the advance.
Like the major houses, most medium-sized publishers prefer to work with agents, although they generally are not closed to unagented writers. Agents serve several important functions for editors. They act as prescreeners, winnowing the masses of submissions to those that are marketable; an agent puts her own reputation on the line every time she submits a proposal to an editor, so she is unlikely to submit material that isn't appropriate. Agents also are familiar with the publishing process; they know which contract items are negotiable and which aren't, how the approval process works in the publishing house, and the industry standards for such things as advances, royalty rates, rights for sale, and so on.
Royalty rates at the mid-sized publishers are similar to those at the conglomerates, but the advances are significantly smaller. These houses simply don't have the financial resources to offer huge advances, and they can't afford to lose the millions of dollars the big houses routinely write off every year. Like the big houses, mid-sized publishers always are on the alert for potential break-out books, but their bread and butter is the broad midlist — books that will sell reasonably well and make a profit, but that are unlikely to hit the bestseller lists.
Small presses often are the easiest markets for new writers to approach. Most of them do not require authors to have agents. You won't be able to quit your day job with a contract from a small press; in fact, in many cases you'll be fortunate if a small press offers even a tiny advance. Initial press runs often are smaller with these houses, too. The average first run is 5,000 copies. With a small press, the initial print run might be as few as 1,000 copies.
That said, novice writers should give full consideration to working with small presses. As with any other publishing credit, a book with a small press can be the first rung of the ladder to larger publishers, who will want to see a book credit among your credentials. Larger houses also routinely review the lists of the smaller presses, looking for promising titles to add to their own catalogs.
There was a time when university presses were strictly limited to academic works. However, in recent years, and in response to shrinking financial support from their parent universities, many of them have expanded their lists to include fiction and nonfiction with a broader appeal. University presses rarely offer advances, but they do pay royalties and, like the small presses, they often prefer to work directly with writers rather than with agents. If you can make the right match between your work and a university press, you may have found the launching point for your career as an author.