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What Is Publishing and What Does a Publisher Do?

The Ultimate Guide to Book Publishing in 2024

So, what is publishing, anyway? If you have ever wondered how to get published, you probably have a lot of questions about the book publishing process. What does a publisher actually do to turn a manuscript into a polished book? Do you even need a traditional publisher or will a hybrid or indie publisher help you achieve more success as an author?

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Listen, we get it. The world of book publishing can often seem confusing, exclusive, with a barrier of entry that seems impossible. But it doesn’t have to be that way. To help shed light on this lucrative industry, we’re sharing an overview of key facets of the book publishing industry—defining what publishers offer, as well as showcasing your main options as a writer who wants to become a published author.

We’ll explore each of the four paths available in bringing a manuscript to market, which include traditional publishing, indie publishing, hybrid publishing, and self-publishing.

As a writer assessing routes like traditional publishing vs self-publishing, you’ll want to weigh factors ranging from target audience, goals for your book, and desired level of control over the process. We’ll break down the central considerations and tradeoffs of today’s varied options so you can make an informed decision on how to get your book into the world.

What Does a Publisher Do?

At a basic level, a publisher’s primary role is to handle the business side of transforming an author’s manuscript into a book available for sale. But their responsibilities include a diverse range of editing, design, marketing, distribution, and financial functions.

In a traditional scenario, most authors do not have the expertise or resources to accomplish all that’s required to professionally edit, produce, print, market, and distribute a title on their own. That’s where publishers add value. From managing editing, proofreading, and fact-checking, to securing reviews and promotions, publishers work closely with authors throughout creation of the book and shepherd the often multi-step process from manuscript to bookshelf.

How to Get Published

The good news is that authors today have more options than ever before. While in the past, traditional publishing through the “Big Five” major publishing houses was the only avenue, now authors can also choose from self-publishing, and hybrid or indie publishing.

The traditional route involves getting a literary agent, creating a book proposal, and signing a contract. If you’re lucky, you’ll receive an advance and royalties from a large, mainstream publisher who covers the editing, distribution, marketing, and publication costs. This route offers prestige and higher potential sales, but very limited control for the author.

With the rise of self-publishing platforms and tools, many authors now successfully publish their books themselves. This route allows total creative and business control, but the downside is that the author handles all publishing tasks and expenses alone.

Hybrid publishing blends these models, with the author paying for specific services from a publishing services company.

Indie publishing refers to working with a small, independent publisher for more individual support.

And here’s the key piece of advice that all writers need to keep in mind: there is no definitive “best” path when it comes to publishing. Rather, authors must align which route they take with their goals. Factors like desired creative control, target readership, return on investment, revenue streams, and whether building author brand prestige matters should dictate the publishing model an author pursues.

Let’s dive deeper into the unique value proposition of each publishing type so you can make an informed decision.

Traditional Publishing

When you think of publishing, perhaps more known houses like Random House or Simon & Schuster come to mind. These big publishing companies fall under what’s known as traditional publishing, a model that has launched many successful authors’ careers over the years. But how does it actually work? And what makes the traditional route different than other options like self-publishing and indie publishing?

Traditional publishing refers to when an author works with a “Big Five” or large publishing house, like those mentioned above, to publish their book. This model involves securing a literary agent, writing a query letter or book proposal, and signing a contract in which the publisher provides most tasks related to transforming, publicizing, and selling the book, while the author receives a small percentage of sales as royalties. A literary agent typically brokers the book deal on the author’s behalf and helps them navigate the lengthy submission process.

Should You Traditionally Publish?

Deciding between the four different publishing paths requires assessing if your goals align with the strengths of traditional publishing. This traditional legacy model best serves authors who already have an established readership eagerly awaiting their next book. Leveraging a robust email list, social media following, or reputation as an industry thought leader sets up well for the visibility a large publisher can offer.

Now, that’s not to say that first-time authors or inexperienced writers can’t go the traditional route. They can, as has been proven time and time again. Rather, these folks will have a harder time securing a traditional deal.

Authors who have solid writing credits under their belt stand to benefit from tapping into a traditional press. Publishers seek out exceptionally skilled manuscripts and strong narrative voices worthy of wider distribution. If your craft is finely tuned or you possess hard-to-access insider experience developing intriguing content, traditional publishing’s extensive reach could help popularize your perspective.

Finally, pairing with an established imprint lends immediate clout and validity useful for authors focused on building long-term brand prestige over immediate profit. The backing of a “Big Five” giant like Penguin Random House signifies quality, boosting credibility. Of course, authors lose creative control and retain only modest royalties, but those seeking validational rewards and career longevity tend to thrive most via traditional publishing, should they be able to achieve such a lucrative deal.

READ MORE: Is a Traditional Book Deal Worth the Hype?

Value of Traditional Publishing

What exactly does partnering with a traditional publishing house offer that makes forfeiting creative license and revenue worthwhile for the right author? There are a few core advantages tied to legacy publishers’ financial resources and distribution breadth that enable exponentially larger readership discovery and sales potential.

Firstly, tapping into a massive imprint with countless industry connections garners authors higher visibility opportunities. Publicity teams work connections with reviewers, media outlets, retailers, and A-list author colleagues to actively promote upcoming title releases. Display placement in premium positions in thousands of brick-and-mortar stores also aids discovery.

Additionally, having a distinguished company like Penguin Random House behind your book signifies unmatched credibility. Their brand stamps your work with quality, bolstering your author authority.

Finally, traditional publishers sometimes offer multi-thousand-dollar advances to authors of a certain caliber as an investment into future shared profits once sales earn beyond the initial payment. For authors seeking prestige and widespread exposure over short-term earnings, the traditional path delivers immense value.

Drawbacks of Traditional Publishing

While traditional publishing offers some clear advantages, there are sizable drawbacks to consider as well.

Signing away creative control can frustrate authors who envisioned maintaining direction over their intellectual property. Publishers make major decisions like cover design, title changes, and editing direction.

And contrary to popular belief, while publishers handle distribution, most marketing and publicity falls onto the author’s shoulders even after receiving an advance. That substantial upfront payment isn’t a personal windfall either—publishers expect authors to fully invest that money into hiring marketing aids and purchasing their own books to spur initial sales momentum.

Publishing Timeline

The journey from manuscript to book on bookshelves via the traditional route typically spans around two years—not accounting for writing time.

First, signing with a literary agent may take upwards of six months.

About a year later, your agent may secure a book deal. Upon signing a contract, your book isn’t ready to print. You’ll invest a year collaborating with editors before the long-awaited launch.

Roughly eighteen months post-contract, your book hits shelves.

Marketing and securing reorders consumes year two. However, the reality is 90 percent of debut authors struggle to generate adequate sales within two years—risking their publishing house dropping them if readership doesn’t meet expectations.

The extensive process demands serious effort.

What Is a Literary Agent?

Navigating the complex world of traditional book deals and contracts is extremely difficult without representation. This is where signing with a literary agent proves invaluable.

Literary agents are industry professionals who represent authors in their business dealings, acting as liaisons to publishers on authors’ behalf. They leverage insider connections and negotiate on authors’ interests throughout the publication process—handling the extensive paperwork so authors can focus strictly on writing.

Having a knowledgeable expert fighting for the most favorable contract terms and book deal for you relieves immense burden chasing the traditional path.

Agents typically collect 15 percent of any earnings in exchange for this irreplaceable guidance and work.

READ MORE: How to Get a Literary Agent (and 6 Resources to Help Your Search!)

What Is a Query Letter?

So how do you actually land a traditional book deal without already being a bestselling author? If you’re publishing a work of fiction, the secret is crafting the perfect query letter.

A query letter is a crucial one-page introduction to your manuscript that piques literary agents’ interest enough to request reading your full draft. This document should hook their attention with a compelling overview conveying your genre, target audience, where it could be shelved in bookstores, and a short yet powerfully magnetic description of the plot and characters—essentially back cover copy.

Queries require extensive editing to flawlessly represent your story’s selling points. While challenging to master, successful queries lead directly to signed contracts.

READ MORE: Query Letter Writing: How AI is Assisting in Book Query Letter Writing

What Is a Book Proposal?

While most fiction manuscripts garner interest solely based on an eye-catching query letter, nonfiction works often require an additional selling document—the book proposal.

This overarching proposal acts essentially like an extended business proposal that formally outlines the editorial vision of your concept and details target readership, competitive titles, chapter summaries, writing credentials establishing your authority, and market analysis demonstrating consumer demand.

Proposals can span dozens, and sometimes upward of a hundred pages, requiring extensive labor akin to writing the actual book itself. However, as daunting as creating these polished proposals may be, having a persuasive, professionally-packaged proposal fuels lucrative bidding wars between publishers when executed effectively.

READ MORE: Book Proposal 101: Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

What Is a Book Deal?

What Is a Book Deal?

In simplest terms, a book deal refers to the business agreement or contract signed between an author and publisher stipulating the commercial terms related to publishing a book.

After successfully enticing a literary agent and acquisitions editor via written pitch materials like a query letter or proposal—securing a lucrative deal is the tangible culmination marking an author’s transition into the traditional book realm.

While advances vary wildly based on project potential, first-time authors can usually expect deals offering $1,000 to $15,000, though on the rare occasion, if a first-time author has a truly unique idea, once-in-a-generation writing chops, and honed-in marketing skills, it’s possible to receive an advance in the six figures.

Book deals legally outline all critical details including rights granted, royalty rates, territories, intended timeline, and author delivery expectations in order for publishing efforts to officially proceed.

What is Your Path to Getting Published?

Seize your literary destiny—watch our publishing secrets webinar!


By opting in, you’re joining our vibrant community! Expect 2-3 weekly newsletters packed with curated content, exclusive updates, and valuable insights to fuel your journey. Welcome to the conversation!

READ MORE: Book Deals and the Changing Landscape of Publishing


Self-publishing refers to authors independently handling the publication process themselves instead of signing with a publishing house. Rather than providing a manuscript to a publisher in exchange for royalties, authors shoulder full control and responsibility over their book as an entrepreneurial endeavor. This allows them to retain all profits while maintaining total creative license throughout the process.

The rise of user-friendly platforms and free access to global distribution channels online have propelled self-publishing’s recent explosion in popularity. However, the autonomy of self-publishing comes at the price of exclusively bearing the workload. Authors must finance all upfront costs, as well as learn to juggle the many hats of an editor, designer, formatter, marketer, publicist, and distributor—or pay professionals à la carte.

Below we’ll explore key considerations about whether self-publishing is the right fit based on your skills and goals as an author. While there’s potential for higher profit potential, self-publishing poses marketing challenges. We’ll also outline actionable steps for navigating the process on your own on today’s most popular platforms.

Should You Self-Publish?


Self-publishing best suits tech-savvy authors eager to retain creative license and maximum royalties. You’ll single-handedly coordinate editing, design, sales, promotion, and distribution—requiring project management prowess.

Financial prudence is also key since you fund upfront costs prior to generating sales. An entrepreneurial spirit willing to bootstrap is vital. And without a publisher’s marketing machine, selling substantial copies is rare unless you tactically nail publicity yourself.

If you loathe bureaucracy, have an existing audience, and enjoy business strategy, self-publishing’s independence empowers authors to nurture a book completely on their terms.

READ MORE: Is Self-Publishing Worth It?

Value of Self-Publishing

Self-publishing trades brand credibility and advances for absolute creative control and higher royalty earnings potential.

By directly managing sales and retaining all profits, successful self-publishing authors have the potential to boast stronger profit margins. Tapping directly into sites like Amazon also enables utilizing their distribution channels for global sales faster than traditional publishing’s long production timelines.

And with total oversight of packaging like covers and sales copy, authors can nimbly test variations to optimize commercial success. For business-minded authors, self-publishing provides unmatched influence over your book as an asset you fully own.

READ MORE: A Step-By-Step Guide to Self-Publishing

Drawbacks of Self-Publishing

Despite widened access and streamlining of self-publishing technologies, solo publishing remains intensive. Solo authors juggle editing, design, marketing and distribution. This overwhelms and limits sales potential.

If you don’t possess any of the above mentioned skills, you’ll need to consider hiring experts to help you, which can add up quickly.

Lastly, algorithms making titles visible rely heavily on existing sales momentum—a sizable hurdle facing unknown newcomers who don’t have a background in marketing and awareness.

READ MORE: How to Make a Living by Self Publishing?


An upside to self-publishing is that you create the timeline. Though it’s important to note that the timeline you set shouldn’t be to simply appease you, but rather, it should be designed intentionally, taking into consideration your marketing and awareness.

Though self-publishing often moves much quicker than the traditional route, it does mean no lengthy submissions or contracts.

Authors alone control release timelines. However, creating a quality book still demands dedicating ample time for revisions. And don’t underestimate pre-launch preparation if marketing properly for visibility. Realistically allot two to four months accounting for essential editing, cover design, and launch planning.

READ MORE: What are the Steps to Self-Publishing a Book?

Is an Editor Necessary?

Even talented wordsmiths can become blind to their own manuscript shortcomings. After extensive writing and revising, we become too familiar with the content to spot lingering errors, verbosity, inconsistencies, plot issues, etc.

A quality editor provides an impartial, expert appraisal of your draft. Skilled editing elevates the strength of your ideas and storytelling prowess through constructive feedback helping refine your book to fuller potential.

While adding cost, professional editing lends an indispensable outside perspective allowing you to publish the best possible version of your book.

Is a Formatter Necessary?

While templates and tools exist facilitating DIY ebook formatting and print typesetting for self-publishers, hiring a professional formatter alleviates production stress. If you don’t possess the tech skills needed to DIY your own book, you’ll need to hire a professional to help.

Remember, a book’s packaging directly impacts selling success, so don’t cut corners here. Affordable formatters liberate authors to focus energy on writing over sweating interior design details.

Their expertise also adds polish ensuring a more immersive, consistently styled reading experience meeting genre expectations. Readers notice clunky formatting errors.

READ MORE: Formatting for Success: How AI is Assisting in Book Formatting

Is a Designer Necessary?

Like professional formatting, investing in custom cover design dramatically enhances self-publishing results by boosting perceived value and landing more clicks.

Unless you possess strong graphic design skills, recognize that judging a book by its cover remains a reality. Stock templates breed genericism while amateur aesthetics scream “self-published.”

But designers versed in genre trends and indie marketing psychology can create bestselling-worthy covers at reasonable rates. Their touch lends visual intrigue. Alongside editing, quality covers are wise investments, enabling self-published success.

Self-Publishing Platforms

Today’s foremost self-publishing platforms include Amazon KDP for leveraging Kindle’s readership; IngramSpark to access wider bookstore distribution; and Draft2Digital to publish across platforms like Apple Books and Barnes & Noble Nook.

Choosing user-friendly technology will let you retain rights while handling printing, distributing, and payments for your work is publishing’s future.

Each platform provides different access to global sales channels. Weigh each site’s royalty rates, distribution reach, formatting requirements, and sales reporting to pick your best fit.

READ MORE: Best Software for Self-Publishing Books

Indie Publishing

Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing - everything you need to know.

Indie publishing involves partnering with a small, independent press to publish your book instead of a “Big Five” giant.

These publishers range from startups to respected mid-size companies focused on niche genres. While they can’t match major publicity budgets, indie publishers provide personalized attention championing debut voices traditional publishers overlook.

For unique books lacking mass commercial appeal, indie presses excel at taking risks on unconventional but skilled writing. They spotlight fresh talent agents ignore.

While you may forfeit larger advances, indie publishers simplify accessing professional editing and design while retaining copyright ownership.

Should You Indie Publish?

Indie publishing suits authors interested in collaborating closely with engaged editors who share their offbeat vision.

If you plan to write on a niche topic, an indie publisher might be your best fit. If you plan to write a self-help book, for example, an indie publisher might have more connections in the self-help industry than a traditional publisher would.

Indie publishers are receptive to new author pitches, boasting simpler submission access. While royalty rates lag traditional publishers, you’ll retain flexibility over your intellectual property.

Be sure to temper sales expectations, as indie publishers command limited marketing resources. But for personalized guidance fine-tuning your book and converting general readers into fans and clients, indie publishers empower unconventional authors.

Value of Indie Publishing

Indie publishers differentiate themselves from major publishers by providing personalized attention championing each author’s unique artistic vision over chasing guaranteed commercial viability.

Editors take the time to understand your work on a deeper level. While smaller operating budgets limit an indie publisher’s scope, their niche focus within specific genres translates to insider literary connections and engaged target audiences ideal for unusual projects.

Unconcerned with shareholder responsibilities dictating “Big Five” decisions, indie presses generally measure success on artistic merit—not just sales. For authors craving an ally supporting the full realization of your creative identity, indie publishers empower bold, unconventional books.

Drawbacks of Indie Publishing

Budget constraints handicap smaller indie presses’ ability to amplify book launches akin to prominent publishers who spend freely on publicity venues your work may deserve.

Unless you land a breakout hit, earnings will likely be modest. Further raising challenges, many niche indie houses rely heavily on authors spearheading their own marketing efforts, which rival self-publishing demands.

Unless your book specifically targets an existing engaged community eager for very tailored content, an indie press’s obscurity can also limit sales reach.

Finding the Right Indie Publisher

How to get a book published!

Vetted resources like New York Book Editors, Writers Market, and Writers Digest offer searchable databases outlining hundreds of indie publishers welcoming submissions. Study submission guidelines and imprints specializing in your genre. For example, Difference Press champions self-help books written by coaches and consultants, while Europe Editions focuses on offbeat literary fiction and historical novels overlooked by commercial publishers eyeing solely proven moneymakers.

Seek mission-aligned presses focused explicitly on spotlighting new voices and unconventional perspectives like yours. Then polish an irresistible query showcasing your manuscript’s niche brilliance.

Hybrid Publishing

Hybrid publishing blends aspects of traditional and self-publishing, allowing authors to access core publisher services like editing, design, and distribution while retaining control like a self-published author.

Also called “assisted self-publishing,” authors pay hybrid publishers à la carte pricing for just the tasks they choose. This empowers authors with flexibility missing from restrictive contracts.

Hybrid publishers offer faster access to market over lengthy trade timelines, too. If upfront costs make solo self-publishing daunting but you still crave oversight, the hybrid route couples professional support with indie liberty.

Should You Hybrid Publish?

Hybrid publishing best suits business-minded authors interested in overseeing their book’s path to market while leveraging publishing expertise lacking personally.

Those without sufficient time or skill to tackle required components alone benefit from à la carte assistance. However, the hybrid model works best for nonfiction authors or fiction writers with existing platforms, as you retain marketing responsibilities.

Since you pay for services, hybrid publishing also demands sufficient finances to access quality support and maximize ROI. If you crave control but need tailored guidance reaching readers, hybrid publishing can provide helpful middle ground.

Value of Hybrid Publishing

The core value proposition of hybrid publishing is receiving high-caliber support matched exactly to authors’ needs where gaps exist in their knowledge or bandwidth. Timeline flexibility and retaining copyrights also empower authors.

Since reputable hybrid publishers possess industry connections and distribution pipelines impossible to access alone, you can leverage broader retail opportunities for sales velocity. Guided partnership allows focusing energy solely on writing over business details.

However, research options diligently; subpar hybrid publishers spamming author services exist predominantly to profit from writers rather than truly supporting books.

Drawbacks of Hybrid Publishing

Beware of hybrid publishers making false promises typically associated with either end of the publishing spectrum. Not all provide actual marketing, publicity, and distribution support that authors expect from a partner. Instead, some may dump responsibility back onto your shoulders.

Others may lock authors into manipulative contracts rivaling traditional publishing’s most predatory rights grabs. Since you self-fund editing, design, etc. via set packages, unexpected cost overruns erode potential earnings.

Do your due diligence vetting hybrid publisher integrity and services value before committing your book or money into the arrangement.

Finding the Right Hybrid Publisher

Be sure to extensively research options weighing factors like contract terms, author testimonials, transparency around service packages/pricing, genre specialties, marketing track records, and distribution reach. Prioritize publishers committed to empowering authors’ career longevity over quick payouts.

If ROI is important to your author goals, be sure to determine the publisher’s plan for marketing your book, if any.

Resources like New York Book Editors and Writers Digest showcase reputable hybrid presses versus those exploiting author dreams with little intention of selling books. Scrutinize companies before trusting your book with a hybrid partner.

Choosing Your Publishing Path

Selecting your optimal publishing path requires serious self-reflection on core motivations, risk tolerance, skills, and project type driving your author’s journey.

Are creative control, profit potential, career longevity, or readership reach most vital? Be honest about strengths and weaknesses across editing, design, business operations, and marketing functions. Just because you don’t want to invest the money in expert help doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do the work yourself.

Then, explore publishing models aligning with priorities balancing control, support systems, time investments, and financial considerations that suit your book goals. Weigh tradeoffs, timeline realities, and marketing ownership of each path.

While publishing barriers have lowered, easy routes to author riches and fame rarely exist. Intentionality is key.

READ MORE: Can Self-Publishing Lead to Traditional Publishing?

Determining Your Goal

Outlining tangible markers of success underpinning your decision is essential in determining a publishing path.

If profit maximization motivates you, recognize that six-figure author fortunes happen rarely without major marketing hustle across any path. However, leveraging a traditional publisher’s distribution breadth can yield predictable income streams supporting a full-time writing career. Keep in mind that lucrative traditional book deals are rare to come by unless you have impeccable writing skills and a knack for marketing.

If your goal is to drive leads to ancillary sales, such as getting clients to your consulting business, hybrid or indie publishing avenues facilitate this freedom best.

Once clarifying must-have fulfillment—be it income level, copies sold, artistic control, career foundation, or readers bonded to your ideas—your optimal next step will reveal itself.

Do Your Research

Whichever publishing route intrigues you, you must do your due diligence when it comes to research. Talk with authors who’ve walked the path assessing pros, cons, opaque processes, and hidden hassles that guides don’t spotlight.

Verify industry claims through external research. For example, don’t assume a huge platform precedes a lucrative traditional deal; publishers now expect authors drive their own followings. Or that all hybrid publishers actively promote releases like a true partner; some offload marketing entirely onto authors post-payment.

Develop eyes wide open to the work involved for your prospects of victory.

Understand the Timeline

Publishing timelines vary wildly, so gauge them against your expectations and availability. Can you withstand a multi-year process of agent hunting, contract negotiating, editing by committee, and prerelease promotion before traditionally debuting—then still tirelessly marketing to retain your publisher’s backing? Or does an accelerated self-publishing pathway enable testing ideas faster via analytics and pivoting strategies to maximize sales?

If finances and business operations aren’t strengths but you want tailored guidance, assess reasonable turnaround times for reputable hybrid publishers to deliver. Once launches end, the author grind continues all paths, so pace yourself for marathons over sprints.

Want to figure out what your perfect path to publishing is? Take our exclusive book strategy training program here!

What is Your Path to Getting Published?

Seize your literary destiny—watch our publishing secrets webinar!


By opting in, you’re joining our vibrant community! Expect 2-3 weekly newsletters packed with curated content, exclusive updates, and valuable insights to fuel your journey. Welcome to the conversation!

What is Your Path to Getting Published?

Seize your literary destiny
Watch our publishing secrets webinar!

By opting in, you’re joining our vibrant community! Expect 2-3 weekly newsletters packed with curated content, exclusive updates, and valuable insights to fuel your journey. Welcome to the conversation!

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