Publishers: Who’s Who in the Zoo

Notice, I said “publishers”—not publishing. There’s an important distinction. We’re going to get into the throes of finding a publisher (Don’t you fret, now), but we should cover some basics about the publishing world before getting into the nitty-gritty.[1]

I want to begin by explaining my origins.

I come from the Midwest, a cheery, sylvan sort of place where people uses phrases like, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” It’s an alarming adage—questionable at best and reprehensible at worst. It makes people wonder if we warm ourselves with the pelts of our domestic companions or if there are bunch of naked cats running along the Mississippi. I’ll be the first to tell you that the phrase isn’t true, nor is the image that just spawned in your head.

There is only one way to skin a cat. To take this gruesome adage just that much further…

There is only one way to successfully publish a book. 

Want the skinny? Stick with me. 

When looking at the publishing world, I divide houses into three different categories: traditional, indie/small press, and self. I will go into the pros and cons of each and what you should be looking for when you finally make your decision; but, to begin, let’s settle on some basic definitions.

Traditional. Traditional publishing is exactly what the name implies: It’s how we’ve always done it.  An author writes a book, queries an agent[2], is signed by said agent, and then waits for that agent to sell their book to a publishing house. What’s special and sacred about this process is that this is how one sells to what’s known as “The Big Six” (Or “The Big Five,” if you count the merger.)—the largest and most well-established names in the business. We’re talking Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins—the ones you can name.

It is widely understood that you cannot offer your book to these large publishers without an invitation to do so. For example, I can’t just shoot an email to Penguin entitled, “How you’re going to make oodles of money” and expect them to come clawing to my doorstep, demanding my masterwork. You either have connections, are approached by the publisher themselves, or go through an agent. We will talk about the pros and cons of this later.

Indie. Indie, or “Independent Publishing,” is anyone or anything that stands apart from the monopolizing conglomerates. They are also known as “small presses,” though that comes with its own brand of ambiguity. (For instance, Bloomsbury—the house that originally published Harry Potter—is a small press, but it is very well-established and functions like a traditional press.) Small presses can be as big as global corporations and as small as an operation in somebody’s basement.

When trying to delineate “traditional” from “indie,” I draw the line at how much control the author possesses. “Independent” publishers can be distinguished by their elasticity. Normally, they are smaller, so they take on fewer clients and give their authors more freedom/responsibility in the publishing process in terms of editing, marketing, and development.

Some indies do everything for the author and function like a Big Six. Others do nothing more than stamp a logo on the back cover.

Traditional versus indie? Clear as mud.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of indie publishers, and each one operates by its own rules. Often, you can approach an indie publisher with a polished query, sans agent. Agents never hurt, though… Or do they?[3]


I know what you’re thinking. Stop thinking it.

Stop with the preemptive conclusions. Stop with the biased attitude. Don’t you dare say anything about self-published authors until you’ve read my next post.

Self-publishing is pretty much “self” everything, including “self-explanatory.” The author is controlling the entire process: writing, editing, production, printing, marking, etc. The author may hire tasks to separate parties (i.e., editing, illustrations, face-painting), but the overall power, rights, and licensing remain in the author’s control.

It should go without saying that you don’t have to query anybody or hire any middleman to publish your own book. I am begging you to wait for the next post before you turn up your nose to this one. 

In a nutshell, that’s a nutshell.  

Don’t you worry. We’re going to get to that cat.

In my next post, I’m going to spend beaucoup de time weighing the pros and cons of each method. Then I’m going to tell you which one you should choose because—my dear friend, you really must trust me—there is one way to skin that cat.[4]


[1]Notice, I said “basics.” I am not a publisher, nor am I a professional. This post is informed at its best and rigmarole at its worst.

[2] We will go into this later. For now, let’s just say that you pitch your book to a middleman who knows some big people in New York, then the middleman sits at a big table and pitches your book to a big publisher.

[3] More about this later! Jeez. Calm down and go mow the lawn or something.

[4] For the record, I do not condone animal abuse.

Photo by Elmira G. on Unsplash


Author: h.kates

H. Kates is a war gamer turned author. Her middle grade fantasy, PATEL PATTERSON AND THE APOCALYPSE KEY, debuts... Eventually.

2 thoughts on “Publishers: Who’s Who in the Zoo”

  1. Another good one! I’m a bit late to the party here, but I’m glad I came. The clearest definitions of these methods I have yet seen. I definitely want to know more about self publishing and indie. Traditional? Eh, not so much. Can’t wait for the continuation!


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