Traditional publishers are generally considered to be the big five New York-based publishers: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster.
Although these publishers control a substantial portion of the U.S. book market in terms of sales (either a quarter or three-quarters of the market, depending on the source – estimates vary widely), they are not as all-powerful as they used to be.
Co-publishing and self-publishing have encroached on the monopoly held by traditional publishers (and traditional publishers usually ignore sales figures regarding self-publishing, unless that book becomes something of a phenomenon).
To capture the attention of one of the big-name publishing houses, authors must find an agent who will help them pitch their manuscripts to the publisher. The publisher will publish the book, perhaps market the book a bit, but the rest is up to the author.
In the traditional publishing model, the author is responsible for marketing his or her book (even if the publisher does some publicity). When authors pitch their nonfiction books to the publisher, they must also present a solid marketing plan. Authors must convince potential publishers that they have a solid marketing and promotion plan for a book before even reading through the manuscript.
In the traditional publishing model, the publisher covers printing costs and the author is responsible for additional marketing costs (that is, marketing beyond what the publisher offers). Traditional publishers also give authors distribution to major retailers, getting their books onto bookstore shelves.
Here is the upside: If you are an established author who has a substantial following, a publisher will go all-out for you, and will promote you. You will still need to self-market.
Here is the downside: Although your book will be edited, copyedited, professionally designed and packaged, you're entirely on your own when it comes to getting the word out about your book. If time is of the essence, then traditional publishing may not be the right choice for you, since many of the major publishers can take years to get your book to market.
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