Publishing Journeys: Introduction to Publishing

Introduction to publishing

This year I started to get serious about my writing career. In order to do that, I’ve had to gain an understanding of the publishing process. In the past, I only would have seriously considered traditional publishing. However, the more I researched, I started to consider other options.

This post was originally going to be about the pros and cons of the different methods of publishing. But as I was writing this article, I realized that although I have done a lot of research, I have not made my final decision nor have I published in any of these routes. Instead I decided it would be more interesting for you to hear from some people who have actually been through the process.

So, over the next few weeks you will hear from a couple different authors on their publishing journeys, decisions, and experience. I know that many of you may not know much book about publishing. Let’s go through an introduction to publishing to go over some of the concepts and terms that you may hear about in these interviews.

Ways to Publish 

Traditional (Trad)/Big Five:

One of the big five publishing companies (HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan) chooses to publish the author’s book. These traditionally published books account for most print books you see for sale in bookstores. The big five have the most influence in the traditional literary world. One of the big five or one of their imprints publishes most famous authors and award winners.

An imprint is a  brand owned by a publishing house. You may see the imprint name on the spine of the book instead of the name of the big five company. This is used to market or group books. For Instance Del Ray Books, is an imprint of Penguin Random House that specializes in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Most of the big five own many imprints. Wikipedia: Imprint

Here is a link to all the imprints (250) owned by Penguin Random House to give you an idea of the scope of these imprints.

Small Press:

The author works with a small publishing house like Unnamed Press or GrayWolf press that is not associated with the big name publishers. Small presses tend to specialize and target smaller, often less commercial, niches.

Self-publishing/Independent (Indie) Publishing:

The author publishes themselves and handles all business and creative decisions. Often times a self-published author will hire the services of other professionals (cover designer, editor, etc.) who are paid by the author before publication. Those other professionals are paid for their work, but normally do not share in profits or loss.

Assisted self-publishing/pay to publish:

The author pays a service company to publish them. This service company handles editing, cover design etc. and makes the book available for distributors. I’m not going to talk more about this method because I don’t know much about it. There are a lot of cautionary tales about disreputable services. If you are interested in this method, you can check out this Listing and Rating of Self-Publishing Services by the Alliance of Independent Authors to see whether a service is respected or has had complaints

Conceptual difference

When an author is trying to decide how a book is going to be published they are making a business decision about how their product is going to be sold and produced. A book at this stage is very similar to any other product where the research and design have been completed and you have a prototype ready to be produced. Either you make the investment in production and operating costs of running a business and selling the book, or another company does.


When another company makes the investment, then they control how the book is produced and make product decisions. If you make the investment, then you are in control.

Risk and Reward

If you make the investment and the book is a failure, then you suffer the loss. However, if you make the investment and the book is a success, you get most of the profit. The flip side of this is that if another company makes the investment and the book is a failure, the author will still get a set amount of money (the advance) and not lose any money. However, if the book is successful, the author will only get a small percentage of the profits.


If you decide to self-publish then you are making the decisions about how much to invest in the production, marketing, and distribution of the product. Alternatively, if you work with a small press or the traditional publishing houses, then they are making those decisions. When a publishing house picks you up, it means that they believe they can sell a certain number of copies of your book. That company is making a bet that profits will exceed the expenses put into the book.

Publishing Terms, Concepts, and Vocabulary


  • Intellectual Property (IP): IP is what an artist has rights to when he or she creates something. In the case of books, this would be things like characters, worlds, settings, and story. World Intellectual Property Organization 
  • Format: The same intellectual property can be produced in multiple formats, Print (physical) book, eBook, audiobook, movie, radio show, TV show, toys, video games etc.
  • Copyright: A legal and exclusive right of use and distribution of a particular work for a limited period of time. Filing for copyright in the US is a way of legally and formally establishing your right to a certain fixed medium of your intellectual property, like a print edition of a book. Wikipedia: Copyright, FAQs:


  • Advance: An amount of money that a publisher pays an author up front. Usually paid out in installments. The amount is based on the publisher’s estimate of how many copies they think they will sell. The advance is the author’s cut of that estimate, which the author receives before any books are actually sold. Once an advance is earned out, the author begins to earn a royalty percentage.* Brandon Sanderson – 318R – #6 (The Business of Writing)
  • Earn Out an Advance: When an author earns out an advance it means that the amount of copies a publishing company predicted would be sold, have been sold ( author’s cut of each book    X copies  actually sold  >  advance ) . At this point the author begins to earn royalties on all future copies sold.  Brandon Sanderson – 318R – #6 (The Business of Writing)
  • Royalty Rate: Percentage of profits earned per book sold. The profits from a book are usually split between retailer, distributor, publisher, agent, and author. There are standardized percentage splits for these different roles. Self-published authors make a higher royalty rate because they can cut out several of the people sharing in the royalty (publisher, agent, distributor). 


  • Print-on-demand (POD): A service that prints copies of books when they have been requested or sold. Traditionally you would need to do a print run of a large number of copies to justify printing costs. Print on demand means you can cheaply print only a single copy of your book at a time. Wikipedia: Print on Demand 
  • Print Run: Traditional method of printing, where publisher or individual receives a discounted price for printing books in bulk (usually in the thousands). The more copies printed the cheaper each copy of the book is. Collins Dictionary: Print RunBrandon Sanderson – 318R – #6 (The Business of Writing)

Publishing and Distributing

  • Direct vs. Distributor: Some retailers allow an individual or a publishing company to provide content to them directly. Others do not have individual portals and require that you use an official distributor. Many publishers may choose to use a distributor even if they have access to a direct portal because it simplifies the management process. You sign up with a distributor and they take care of making your book available to wide array of retailers and provide consolidated reporting on sales.
  • Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP): Amazon service that allows authors to upload books directly for sale on Amazon. KDP allows you to upload your work directly without using a distributor. Because amazon is such a big player in the book retail space, KDP has been one of the key factors in the self-publishing boom.
  • E-reader: A device that allows you to download and read electronic books, examples include Kindle, Nook, Kobo Touch, Pocketbook Touch, Tolino Shine,  iPad, and iPhone.



  • Author: person or people who wrote the book.
  • Developmental Editor: A developmental editor is an editor who focuses on big picture items related to a particular story. This editor helps to shape the plot, characters, themes, and pacing. A developmental editor can be an employee of a publishing company or a freelancer who is hired per project. Jane Friedman: Developmental Editor
  • Copy Editor: Helps to improve clarity and quality of sentences and make note of inconsistencies. Can be in-house or freelance. Wikipedia: Copy Editor
  • Proofreader: A proofreader verifies that everything is spelled correctly and that all punctuation is in place and correct. The proofreader checks the book last, after all other content changes are complete. Can be in-house or freelance. Society for Editors and Proofreaders: FAQ
  • Cover Designer: A cover designer creates the cover for a book. This can sometimes be multiple people if, for instance, the primary designer acquires art from an illustrator or another source. The other cover designer in this case would focus on typography, marketability, and making sure the cover fits the genre. Can be in-house or freelance.
  • Interior Designer/ Formatter: An interior designer or formatter, formats the text inside of a book and creates the files that are printed or distributed electronically. This includes handling things like font, spacing, chapter headings, and page numbers. Ebooks use a different file format than print books and have their own considerations. Can be in-house or freelance
  • Copy Writer: Someone who writes advertisement copy, or the text that helps to market a book and drive sales. This could be the description on the back of the book, blurbs, or text on a website or advertisement. Can be in-house or freelance. Wikipedia: Copy Writer


  • Publisher: Company or person who owns the license to a product. The publisher usually pays for production and sets the price.
  • Acquiring Editor: Editor who reads and selects submissions they want to publish. Usually they are looking through submissions from a literary agent, though sometimes they will pursue a writer directly. Works in-house at a publishing company. Inside Jobs: Careers: Acquisitions Editor
  • Literary Agent: a person who negotiates deals on IP and represents the author in contract negotiations. A literary agent will normally submit the manuscript to acquiring editors. Authors do not pay agents; agents take a percentage of author’s earnings once a deal is made, usually around 15%. Wikipedia: Literary Agent, Quora: What are standard Terms for a Literary agent
  • Distributor: A company that distributes books (ebook or print) to retailers. Examples include  Smashwords, Draft2Digital, IngramSpark, Smashwords, Draft2Digital, IngramSpark, Ingram. Wikipedia: List of Book Distributors 
  • Retailers: A retailer is a place that sells books or other products. Examples include independent bookstores, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and author websites.
  • Marketer/ Publicist: These are different roles but essentially they are people who help to promote, publicize, market, and spread the word about an author and/or a work

Additional Resources

For understanding the traditional process from an author’s point of view, I highly recommend watching Brandon Sanderson YouTube video: “The Business of Writing.”

To understand the traditional process from inside the publishing company, I highly recommend the Storygrid episodes: “Trade vs. Indie Publishing and Backstory,” and “Finding an Agent and Selling Your Book.”

If you want to learn more about how to self publish, I recommend checking out Joanna Penn’s website the Creative Penn. Or if you want to dig deeper into the concepts here I also recommend Joanna Penn’s book Business for Authors .

Hopefully this introduction to publishing has been helpful. Let me know if you have any questions. We will be diving into more of these topics over the next couple weeks.

Stay tuned for an interview with the one and only Debbie Graber!

Thanks for reading!


 * Amendment: Previously stated that Royalty Rate was on the cover price, but this can vary depending on the particular contract. Thanks to Tim Erickson for pointing out the error

Feature Photo by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash

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