Depending how far along you are in your writing journey, you may know who the “Big 5” are, or you might have just heard the term during a book club gathering and nodded along, sticking your nose in your steaming coffee hoping no one noticed you didn’t have a clue.
Needless to say, they’re called “big” for a reason, so it must mean “good,” right? True, but I’m surprised how often I’ve encountered writers who have solid logic for why they might walk away form an offer from the Big 5. Personally, I think a newbie writer would be nuts, but, a writer with an established platform, credentials, and clout might be making a wise business and personal decision to walk away from the Big 5.
Before we go into all that, let’s make sure you know what people mean when they say the “Big 5.”
The “Big 5” is a term that refers to the largest book publishers in the world.
1. Penguin Random House (PRH) – HQ in New York, USA
PRH is a merger between the publishers Random House and Penguin Group since July of 2013. The “Big 5” were known as the “Big 6” before this merger. PRH may have only been around for 3 years, but Random House and Penguin Group were both founded over 80 years ago.
PRH is a global compilation of over 250 imprints and publishing houses collectively employing over 10,000 people and publishing more than 15,000 new titles annually. (Source)
2. Simon & Schuster, Inc. – HQ in New York, USA
Founded in 1924, Simon & Schuster publishes 2,000 new titles annually and is comprised of 35 different imprints. (Source)
3. HarperCollins Publishers LLC – HQ in New York, USA
HarperCollins was founded in 1989, but is comprised of older companies who merged together, dating back to 1817 from Harper & Brothers. HarperCollins has some lovely history, including classic children’s stories such as Where the Wild Things Are and Charlotte’s Web as well as authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Mark Twain.
HarperCollins publishes roughly 10,000 books annually under 120 imprints. (Source)
4. Macmillan Publishers Ltd – HQ in London, England
Founded in 1843, Macmillan may be familiar to the regular population because Macmillan is the largest academic publisher. I know I remember seeing this name engraved across shiny textbook covers throughout my childhood and adolescence.
I actually couldn’t get concrete information on Macmillan as a whole, other than they publish books, academic journals, and magazines and are known as one of the largest publishers in the world. I think this is due to the fact that Macmillan is dubbed an international publishing company and is owned by a separate entity: Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. But to give you an idea, Tor/Forge is a part of Macmillan.
5. Hachette – HQ in Paris, France
Founded in 1826, Hachette is comprised of more than 150 imprints and published over 17,000 new titles in 2015. They’re quite transparent and you can see a full list of their figures on their main website.
If you’re into the details, you can check out this nifty flowchart which shows the Big 5 and breaks them down into their divisions/imprints.
Okay, now that we have an idea of who the Big 5 are, why wouldn’t authors be pinching themselves if they got an offer?
I think the best explanation comes from Jane Friedman, one of my favorite bloggers. You can read her post here, but in a nutshell she explains that publishers can no longer market a book as well as an established author, and don’t have the motivation or capability to do so.
But do you see the nuance? I said an established author. I’ve seen posts like Jane Friedman’s over and over. Self-publishing is more profitable and is a better business and personal decision for some, but I really think that these type of blog posts are read by aspiring writers and can be confusing. One sees that the typical royalties for self-publishing are 70% while traditional royalties are 7~25%. It feels like a no-brainer, why would I ever want to traditionally publish? This is a never-ending debate, but let’s face it, the majority of us have no idea what we’re doing and when we do tackle a self-publishing endeavor, we really don’t have the expertise, experience, marketing strategy, or funds to do it properly. That’s why self-published books get a bad rep because there’s no one to stop a book from going out into the world before it’s ready, whether or not the author knows it.
It’s not to say those who want to self-publish can’t be successful, just look at Andy Weir or Susan Ee. Both experienced massive success from their originally self-published titles and were quickly approached by publishers. Surprisingly, both Andy and Susan accepted representation. I’m sure there were a variety of reasons why they chose to accept representation and a drastically reduced royalty rate, but I like to think it’s because having a publisher, at least for the first few books, solidifies an author’s career by establishing credibility, providing professional editing and marketing services, as well as having experienced professionals to work through all the legal aspects that can come with that level of success.
I know traditional versus self-publishing is a never-ending debate, and I’m not trying to make anyone pick a side here. If you’re interested in the pros and cons, I’d suggest reading Creative Penn’s post on traditional versus self-publishing.
The purpose of this post is to say that traditional publishing has the most value when used as a resource for credibility and professional services you couldn’t otherwise afford or find on your own. I also want to point out how long the Big 5 have been around. Did you pay attention to the summary? The Big 5 have been publishing books longer than you’ve been alive!
You can tackle publishing by yourself, but it won’t be without pitfalls and learning things the hard way. That’s why if you want help, you should aim for the best publishers to provide you with the resources you need to establish your writing career, meaning you should target a top literary agent who can land you a deal with the Big 5. Dream big!
Recommended resources if you’re just getting started:
Writer’s Market 2016 by Robert Lee Brewer
Guide to Literary Agents 2016 by Writer’s Digest’s Chuck Sambuchino
Publishing 101: A First-Time Author’s Guide by Jane Friedman
How to Write a Book: For Beginners by A.J. Flowers (Yes, that’s me!)
These will help you in all areas of writing a book, writing it well, and getting it ready for an agent, as well as a recent list of agents and what they’re looking for. But truth be told, the best thing you can do for your writing is be consistent, drink up knowledge like a sponge whenever you can get the chance, work with other writers either on websites like Scribophile or through workshops, and most of all, read widely!