5 models for today’s book publishing

I can’t help but smile when I see a first-time author post in a forum or group, “Should I go with a traditional publisher or self-publish my book?”

In today’s book publishing environment, it’s not that simple. It is harder and harder to get a contract with a traditional publisher now, so while that might have been an option for that author five, six, or seven years ago, it probably isn’t today.

The question now is: “Should I self-publish or use a hybrid publishing model, and if I go the hybrid route, what are my options?”

Sounds confusing, doesn’t it? It has been . . . until recently, when publishing pundit Jane Friedman shared this incredibly clear and helpful infographic on her blog with relevant commentary.

5 Key Book Publishing Paths

This clearly outlines the risks and rewards of working with each of today’s five book publishing models.

While this infographic makes it appear as if authors have five choices, in reality, most don’t. Some authors can still opt for the traditional publishing route, although it might not make the most long-term financial sense for them anymore. Some will be able to get a contract with a “partner” publisher that won’t charge them for books, but those contracts are harder to secure, too, because of quality requirements.

Most authors will be choosing from the fully-assisted, DIY+distributor, and DIY direct option.

Let the specifics in this chart help guide your decision. Explore publishers and categorize them according to this chart. Do some online and peer-to-peer research to learn as much as you can about publisher reputations. Too many authors sign contracts with companies that don’t deliver as promised.

And remember, no matter which publishing option is the best fit for you and your book, you still have to promote it yourself. Take the time to learn how to do that. My free Build Book Buzz newsletter will help; subscribe here.

Does Friedman’s infographic ring true with you? Does it reflect what you’ve seen in today’s book publishing environment?

Like what you’re reading? Get it delivered to your inbox every week by subscribing to the free Build Book Buzz newsletter. You’ll also get my free “Top 5 Free Book Promotion Resources” cheat sheet immediately!


  1. Jane’s infographic is a nice overview. Mick Rooney picked it apart and quibbled over her definitions, but I think it does the job Jane meant it to accomplish.

    Saying traditional publishing is probably not an option for first-time authors today is pretty bold. Most people in the industry tread cautiously around that subject because too many hopeful hearts are still set on attaining the near-impossible prize of seeing their book in stores with a major imprint logo on the cover. However, I agree with you.

    We’ve been hearing for a while now about trade-published authors who go “hybrid” and self-publishing some of their titles. But we are also starting to hear about a new breed of hybrid: authors who successfully self-publish a novel and then get pitched by agents and publishers. These authors have effectively skipped ahead of their aspiring peers and completely bypassed the publisher slush piles. Some day it may be that your odds of getting a traditional contract are better if you self-publish first!

    If you think about it, for publishers to use Amazon KDP as the new slush pile makes marvelous business sense. Publishers can watch the bestseller lists for titles that have proven commercial success and authors who have a proven marketing track record. Sure, publishers have to give more to these authors to get them to sign on, but they are willing to do this because the are taking virtually no risk on the title or the author. By comparison, taking on an unknown author and a book with unknown market potential is a *huge* financial risk.

    Among Rooney’s quibbles was his contention that the Partnership route represents an insignificant percentage of the total number of books published. While that may be true, it is still an option for authors who are interested in that approach. I’ve run into several small publishers who started as self-published authors and have leveraged their hard-won publishing education to help other authors publish books. Susan and I have even done this ourselves with our 57 Secrets series. We produced and published books from two other authors who wanted to focus on writing and not deal with the production or business aspects of publishing. I think we’ll see more of this kind of thing over time because most authors don’t really want to fight through all the confusing changes and misinformation surrounding the publishing industry.

    That said, Jane’s infographic is a good place to start for those who want to dive in.

    1. I agree with you completely on publishers using Amazon as the slush pile, Jim. It’s pretty smart.

      As for partnership options, it goes beyond self-published authors applying what they learned to the books of others. There are some decent-sized publishing operations using this model. Because the publisher is sharing the risk, the book buyer or reader has some assurance that there’s a quality control system in place. When the publisher does nothing but take money from the author to manufacture the book, the reader can’t help but be less certain about the quality.


      1. The self-pub-to-publisher examples are actually outliers at the small end of the partnership spectrum. My example was more meant to show that a lot more is going on “under the radar” than people realize, and I believe more examples will appear and evolve.

        As for buyer assurance, I’m not sure I agree. For one thing, I’m not aware of too many readers who shop by imprint. For another, quality control seems to be a matter of individual company policy rather than a characteristic of a class of publishers. Random House appears to have bought and released “50 Shades of Grey” pretty much as-is, warts and all. Meanwhile, I know of small presses (Indie and Self-pub) that agonize over the quality of the titles they release.

        I don’t believe the Partnership model includes publishers who “take money from an author to manufacture a book.” That is the province of “Fully Assisted” path (i.e. vanity presses.)

        In the partnership model, the publisher adds genuine value to the partnership. They do NOT take money up-front from the author, although they do take a percentage (often 50%) of the profit. The publisher earns nothing if the book doesn’t sell, so it behooves the publisher to take great care with the quality of the finished product. That may (and should) include editing, proofing, digital formatting, layout, and book cover design. The author usually has a lot of creative input on these things as well.

        Done right, a publishing partnership combines the creativity and market knowledge of an author with the production and distribution resources of a publisher. That said, I’m sure there are many ways to do it wrong. 😉

        1. I’ve confused you — sorry about that. This sentence: [When the publisher does nothing but take money from the author to manufacture the book ] DOESN’T refer to the Partnership model. I figured that those reading the chart would know that. It refers to the Fully Assisted path.

          And we obviously agree that the Partnership model adds value to the process.

          : )


  2. Thanks so much for this article. After more than 300 book deals, including deals for stacks of award-winners and best-sellers, I have turned in my ‘literary agent’ badge. What a freeing experience. I am not abandoning the publishing world. Instead, I am enjoying all of its best forms more than ever. To me, every great book is a ‘golden key’ that opens exciting new doors for speaking engagements, mass media appearances, social media buzz, etc. True, a lot of people don’t have a good or great book in them. Then again, a lot do. The more on-ramps and fewer roadblocks we can create for them, the more everyone wins. I’ve presented a ‘no fear’ 2-part workshop on today’s best book publishing options at a growing number of colleges, grad schools, universities, conferences, etc. I’ll be glad to send a copy of the handouts to any of your readers. Just drop a quick line to me at mailto:dsanford@corban.edu. You can check out my bio at http://www.linkedin.com/in/drsanford.

  3. I now serve on the leadership team at Corban University, http://www.corban.edu. Like many other universities, Corban actively promotes publishing. Not just within its faculty, but administration and students too. We also host the annual Portals Writers Conference (see our http://www.corban.edu/wordworks/writers-conference.html page), which is coming up June 20-23. The handouts I have offered are from a two-part workshop I’ve presented all across the U.S. and Canada. Of course, the workshop and handouts keep changing with the times. 🙂

    1. It sounds like you love doing this — so glad to hear it!

      Thanks for sending the handouts, too. I’m looking forward to reviewing them.


  4. Guy explained that when readers contemplate buying your book today, they often don’t even notice the publisher. They look instead at the ratings and reviews received by the audience. What’s key in artisanal publishing is that you start with a good book, and then market the book with everything you’ve got. Marketing a book for many would-be authors is a daunting task, and thousands of self-published authors are ignorant of what’s required to get the word out (or they detest the marketing process altogether). In the end, if you want to be a successful artisanal publisher, you have to be willing to market.

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