types of publishing

A guide to various types of publishing companies.

Publishing used to be simple. An author wrote a proposal or a manuscript and then found an agent who was willing to represent the book. The agent shopped it around and sold it to a publisher. The writer received an advance and then the agent, publisher, and writer worked together until the book appeared in book stores about a year later.

That model hasn’t gone away. You can still find an agent to help you get published, and you can still aim for selling your book to a publishing house, but technology has opened more doors for writers.

Terms get thrown around, like traditional publishing, legacy publishing, self-publishing, vanity publishing, and indie publishing. But what does it all mean? What’s the difference between self-publishing and indie publishing? Is there a difference? Why should we care?

Types of Publishing Companies

Most writers hope to eventually publish a book. While many writers already have their hearts set on traditional publishing or have their minds made up to self-publish, it’s helpful to take a close look at all available options before making a final decision.

As a writer, the sooner you start studying the publishing process, the better, because the type of publishing you choose can affect how you write and what you do while writing. For example, if you decide to self-publish, you might want to start building your marketing platform months before your book is finished.

To get started, it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with the types of publishing companies that you can choose from. This isn’t an definitive guide; it’s meant as an overview to introduce various types of publishing companies and the options that are available to you as a writer.

Traditional Publishing

Traditional publishing is exactly what it sounds like: the traditional way to publish books. Nonfiction writers submit a proposal (which often includes a few sample chapters) and fiction writers submit a manuscript to agents until they find one who is willing to represent them. The agent then tries to sell the proposal or book to a publisher. Once the book is sold, the author receives an advance (sum of money). At this point, nonfiction authors write the rest of the book. Writers work through revisions with editors at the publishing house. The publisher handles the book cover, printing and formatting, and distribution. The publisher may also handle some marketing. Traditional publishers are also called commercial publishers.

Traditional publishing is sometimes called legacy publishing, a term that is slightly controversial because it has conflicting connotations. I’ve heard people describe legacy publishing as literary or highbrow, outdated and inefficient, or dignified and respectable. I’d say the jury is still out on what legacy publishing implies, so my recommendation is to stick with the term traditional publishing for this model.

Vanity Publishing

Vanity publishing has a fairly bad reputation in the literary world. In this model, the writer pays to have a book published. Whereas traditional publishers pick and choose which books they send to market, vanity publishers don’t require an approval or editorial process. Whereas traditional publishers are in the business of selling books, vanity presses are in the business of printing books.

Some vanity presses may offer services in the areas of editing, formatting, and cover design. Vanity presses can be used for self-publishing; in this sense, the vanity press provides printing and binding. The author is responsible for all editing, design, distribution, and marketing. The bad rap comes from vanity presses presenting themselves in a somewhat misleading way, often making authors feel like their books are being published traditionally. Writers who are not knowledgeable about publishing have felt scammed by vanity presses. However, these publishers do have a role in our society. For example, many people use vanity presses to publish books of a personal nature, such as family trees and family bibles, works that would not be publicly distributed and would only have a small print run.

Further reading: Where Publishing Gets Practical

Subsidy Publishing

Subsidy publishing falls somewhere between traditional and vanity publishers. Subsidy publishers enter a partnership with authors. Under this model, authors keep most (or all) rights and ownership of the work. Whereas traditional publishers pay authors an advance, in subsidy publishing, authors must make a financial investment in the cost of publishing. The publisher handles production and distribution and provides funding for sales and marketing. Authors start earning royalties immediately since the books don’t have to earn out an advance. It’s easier to get a subsidy publishing deal since these types of publishing companies aren’t as selective as traditional publishers. Whereas vanity presses earn profits from printing books, subsidy publishers (like traditional publishers) earn profits from book sales.

Further reading: Subsidy Publishing vs. Self-Publishing


With self-publishing, the publishing company is the writer. Self-published authors are solely responsible for writing, editing, proofreading, cover design, formatting, distribution, and marketing. That’s not to say self-published writers do it alone. Self-published authors with business savvy know their own limitations and hire out different aspects of the production process. They may work with freelance editors and cover designers and will usually publish their books on platforms that include distribution. For example, Amazon provides print-on-demand publishing through Create Space and distributes e-books online. Authors are solely responsible for all publishing costs but also retain full creative control and all ownership and rights to the work.

A Few More Terms You Should Know

There are a few other types of publishing companies and publishing-related terms that all writers should know:

Print-on-Demand Publishing: Once a book is completed, copies are printed as they are ordered.

Indie Publishing: Indie publishing has taken on two meanings. It can refer to a small press publisher or it can refer to self-publishing. I imagine that in the coming years, it will settle into one definition or the other, depending on how we all use it.

Small Presses: Most commercial publishers are big businesses or are owned by larger, corporate conglomerates. Small presses are small businesses that usually specialize in certain genres or topics and produce and distribute in smaller quantities than big publishing houses. Many small presses work directly with authors and don’t include agents in the process.

University Presses: These presses are nonprofit, usually print academic works, and are run by universities and colleges. They often publish literary magazines and journals as well as textbooks and creative works.

Publishing is an Evolving Business

The world of publishing is currently undergoing dramatic changes. The companies are changing and new models are emerging. There’s no telling what publishing will look like when the dust settles. In the meantime, we writers must do our best to stay informed about standards and trends so we can make the best decisions when the time comes to publish our own work.

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