Small vs Big Six Publishers: What’s the Difference?

Earlier this month, I polled you all about my new blog series, and was delighted to learn that I’m not the only one who is interested in learning more about publishers who accept submissions direct-from-author. So I’m kicking off that series this week to help us all along that road to publication.

Agnes_F 1 Photo Credit

But I’m not kicking it off by discussing a publisher right off the bat, because as I started to dig into this question I began to realize that there’s a wide, wild range of publishers out there these days. I thought it would be helpful to start by identifying some categories.

Big Six Publishers

The Big Six New York publishers are the best known in the publishing world:

  • Hatchette Book Group
  • Harper Collins
  • Macmillan
  • Penguin Group
  • Random House
  • Simon & Schuster

You’ll see a lot more publisher names on the shelves of your local bookstore, but most of those names are imprints, or divisions of a larger publishing house. For example:

  • Greenwillow  is a division of HarperCollins
  • Viking Children’s Books is a division of Penguin
  • Aladdin is a division of Simon & Schuster

Each imprint has its own style and focus, so although they usually function independently, a single manuscript often won’t be a good fit for more than one imprint.

As a rule, the Big Six are less open to unagented submissions than smaller publishing houses, but there are definitely exceptions. A big one is that if you attend a writing conference with a particular editor in attendance, you can often submit directly to that editor even if he or she is usually closed to unsolicited submissions.

Small Publishers

Here’s where things start to get tricky, in my opinion. I mean, what exactly does “small” mean? Not Big Six? If you try to lump the rest of the publishing industry into “small publishers” and “indie publishers,” it seems like you cover a great deal of ground. Small publishers would include:

The small to medium publisher
  • Puts out a significant number of high quality titles a year. In addition, they
  • Has a full publishing team, including graphic artists and editors
  • Distributes books to brick and mortar bookstores across the country
  • Sells books to libraries
  • Receives reviews in major book review venues
  • Wins prestigious book awards
  • Does NOT print books on demand

The small publisher that puts out a few high quality titles each year. These publishers do pretty much everything above, but on a smaller scale. They will often have a narrower focus for the books they publish. For instance, they might publish only romances that take place in the Southern US or regional nonfiction or science books for preschoolers.

The “niche” publisher
  • Still smaller publishing team
  • Still narrower focus, often serving a small audience
  • Often have high quality editing, but have limited production and distribution capacity
  • Often well-respected within a particular field
The back-room publisher
  • Okay, I’m not sure what to call this category—I just know that their are numerous VERY small publishing groups who put out only two or three high-quality anthologies, fiction, or nonfiction titles a year.
  • Books are often print-on-demand, because they don’t have a publishing team
  • They pay very little, but offer publication opportunities to folks who are just starting out or those looking for publication credits
  • They have extremely limited access to standard channels of distribution and reviews
The hey-I-can-do-this publisher
  • With the recent rise of ebook publishing, it seems like there are more and more publishers out there—and unfortunately, from my preliminary digging, all aren’t created equal
  • Some have GREAT editors on board and produce high-quality titles
  • Some are motivated by a desire to cash in on the ebook boom
  • Some are motivated by a desire to see their book published by a “real” publisher rather than self publishing
  • Some are motivated by a desire to fill a market need—for instance, they see a need for “clean” romance novels and, since this is such a small niche, don’t think these books will find a market elsewhere
  • They offer small or no advances
  • Author is responsible for most marketing
  • They have extremely limited access to standard channels of distribution and reviews

Obviously, all these small publishers exist on a spectrum—but I think it’s crucial for today’s writers to know that not all are created equal. It’s so exciting to get a publication offer, I think it’s really tempting to say “yes” without fully considering what publication with a particular house means.

Sometimes, it means a small advance, but your book will earn out quickly and stay in print a lot longer than with a Big Six publisher.

Or it might mean that you will be responsible for ALL marketing efforts.

Or that your book will be published with typos or low production quality.

Or that your book will be print-on-demand, which often means higher prices for the consumer (and therefore a harder sell).

Or that you’ll receive much more personal attention and loyalty from your publisher than you would with a Big Six house.

I’m not bashing small publishers: the whole reason I’m doing this series is that I’m leaning toward working with a small publisher myself. As you’ll see in future posts, small publishers can offer numerous advantages. I think it’s really, really important, though, to identify what a publisher can and can’t offer before you decide to sign on that dotted line.

I’m *definitely* not the expert here, so please—let’s discuss in the comments and learn from each other! What’s your experience with the world of small publishers? What did I miss? What would you add? What do you want to know? Thanks in advance!

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  1. says

    Terrific breakdown. Everything seems to be shifting so quickly that it’s nice to have this baseline. Thanks.

    • says

      I know! It seemed like a simple project when I started–review publishers who accept unagented submissions–but it didn’t end up being as simple as I expected. There are a million new publishers out there, so how do you tell them apart? It seems like distribution is the biggest factor.

  2. says

    Small publishers can be great to work with. My first novel was published by Pronghorn Press, a very small Wyoming press where I got to have input on my cover, among other nice features. It was a great experience.

    However, there are sharks in those waters. It’s definitely worth checking in Writer Beware to see if your potential publisher is listed there.

    Cheryl, I don’t know your policy on including URLs, so I’ll just say that they’re on the SFWA site. Google “Writer Beware” and they’ll pop right up.

  3. says

    Thanks for the article! I’m brand new to the industry, and I’m trying to decide if I want to go self-pub and so on. do you know of any sources for agents that aren’t biased against young authors?

  4. says

    I believe, at this moment, that there should be a SINGLE factor to scan through about who is small publisher and who is not. This creates a mathematical objectivity. Which is perhaps required. And my idea would be to judge them by the amount of ADVANCE they offer. This not only shows their confidence (in taking the ‘risk’ that the Vanity presses & Printers don’t) but also is perhaps proportional to their various abilities like the Investment CAPITAL, the Distribution NETWORK, the Ultimate PRODUCTION—thus the whole Publishing PROCESS.

    The more advance they (can) give, the bigger Publishers they are—in my opinion. Thus the Zero-advance Publisher means: the smallest level of Publisher in the ‘Hierarchy’ here. That is, the HEY-I-CAN-DO-THIS type, for example.

  5. says

    You make some really good points about small vs. big publishing. I write primarily romance and women’s fiction. Romance, particularly, is a huge share of the e-book industry right now. A few years back, I decided to throw my hat (or books) in with some small e-pubs. All in all, it’s been a good experience. There are two I work with–I have editors at both that I trust with my work. The pubs provide cover art and are, both of them, growing. The downside is promotion, a lot of which is left to me and there is no advance, though I get a fair share of royalty on sales. It’s a tough market, very flooded, and it’s darn hard to sell books.
    Please don’t misunderstand, I’d love a six figure contract from a big house. But, first of all, those contracts are hard to come by–harder for fiction than non-fiction. They look for big concept and big names, so it’s tough for a mid-list author. And,secondly, they are much less invested in authors who aren’t big names. The newer contracts aren’t always writer-friendly. There are a bazillion writers out there and only six (actually five now) big pubs. I have input with a smaller company that I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have with a big one. It’s the difference between working for any mega-conglomerate as opposed to working for a small business. I’ve always felt comfortable with small.
    There are, of course, plenty of fly by nights. You have to do your homework and listen to the experiences of others and do your best to stay away from scam artists.