collection of worn out books

Although independent publishing has made vast, once unthinkable inroads in claiming a share of the publishing market in recent years, major publishing companies are still a crucial part of the industry­—as well as the favored option for many authors. The Big 5 publishing companies account for somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 percent of the trade publishing market in the US. Any author deciding how to publish their book should gain a basic understanding of how this industry works, what these companies could each offer aspiring writers, as well as the drawbacks and alternatives.

Together, these major publishing companies cover most areas of the publishing industry, including trade, fiction, nonfiction, journals, education, and so on, using imprints, or subsidiary publishing companies, to establish a reputation in a particular area.

The Major Publishing Companies

Hachette

The Hachette Book Group (HBG), based in Paris, is part of Hachette Livre, which itself is part of Lagardère publishing. In 2018, the company had 150 books on the New York Times bestseller list, 31 of which reached #1. According to their own website, each year, HBG can expect to publish approximately:

  • 1,400+ adult books (including up to 100 digital-only titles)
  • 300 books for young readers
  • 700 audiobook titles (including print and download-only titles

These figures are dwarfed by the number of books self-published these days.

Half of their business is actually in travel retail, including travel essentials, duty free items, fashion, food service, and other non-publishing areas. They are also known for content publishing, production, and broadcasting in addition to book publishing.

The company’s roots go back to the 1837 founding of one of its publishers, Little, Brown, and Company. That company was acquired by Time Warner in 1968, and the Hachette Book Group came into being in 2006 when Time Warner Book Group was in turn acquired by Hachette Livre.

Parent company: Lagardère Publishing

Country of origin: France

Founded: 1826

Imprints and brands: Some of Hachette’s divisions are Hachette Digital, Faith Words, Orbit, Yen Press, Grand Central Publishing, and Hachette Audio.

Annual revenue: $2.7 billion (2019)

Headquarters location: Paris, France

HarperCollins

HarperCollins is the second largest major publishing company after Penguin Random House, with more than 10,000 books published each year through its 120 imprints. Notably, HarperCollins is owned by NewsCorp, which owns Fox News, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among others. Book publishing accounts for about 19 percent of NewsCorp’s sales. They are known mostly for consumer books, publishing about 10,000 new books annually, in 16 languages, with a catalog that includes 200,000 titles.

  1. and J. Harper was founded in New York City in 1817. By 1987 the company had become Harper & Row, which was acquired by NewsCorp that year. Three years later, NewsCorp also acquired William Collins & Sons.

Parent company: News Corp

Country of origin: United States, United Kingdom

Founded: 1989

Imprints and brands: Avon Books, Broadside Books, HarperTeen, HarperCollins Children’s, Harper Business, Harlequin Romance, Newmarket Press, William Morrow, HarperAcademic, and many others.

Annual revenue: $1.5 billion (2019)

Headquarters location: New York City, United States

Macmillan

Macmillan is owned by a German family company, which provides limited financial data to the public. It has imprints in the US, Germany, South Africa, Australia, and the UK, among others. They specialize in textbooks, particularly STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Parent company: Holtzbrinck Publishing Group

Country of origin: United Kingdom

Founded: 1843

Imprints and brands: Macmillan trade publishers include Henry Holt and Company, St. Martin’s Press, Farrar, Picador, Starus and Giroux, Macmillan Audio, and Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.

Annual revenue: $1.4 billion (2019)

Headquarters location: London, England

Penguin Random House

This massive company publishes 15,000 books each year, with almost 250 imprints, making it the largest of the major publishing companies. Random House and Penguin merged in 2013combining their adult, children’s, non-fiction print, and digital trade book divisions. Before this merger, there was a “Big 6” list of major publishing companies. Penguin Random House is known primarily for publishing consumer books.

Parent companies: Bertelsmann (75%), Pearson PLC (25%)

Country of origin: United States

Founded: 2013

Imprints and brands: Imprints and publishers under Penguin Random House include Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Penguin Group U.S., Random House Publishing Group, Crown Publishing Group, Dorling Kindersley, Random House Children’s Books, and others.

Annual revenue: $3.3 billion (2019)

Headquarters location: New York City, United States

Simon & Schuster

Simon & Schuster is part of the CBS Corporation. They publish 2,000 books each year under 35 imprints. They were originally founded in 1924, and have been owned by Viacom, Gulf + Western, and Marshall Field at various point in their history. Like Penguin Random House, they are also known mostly for their consumer book publishing. In 2019, Simon & Schuster imprints had a total of 200 New York Times bestsellers. Since December 2019, they’ve been a part of ViacomCBS Corporation.

Parent companies: CBS Corporation

Country of origin: United States

Founded: 1924

Imprints and brands: Today, their division and imprints include Howard Books, Pocket Books, Atria, Gallery Books, Free Press, Folger Shakespeare Library, Simon & Schuster, Scribner, Touchstone, and Threshold Editions.

Annual revenue: $830 million (2019)

Headquarters location: New York City, United States

Today, their division and imprints include Howard Books, Pocket Books, Atria, Gallery Books, Free Press, Folger Shakespeare Library, Simon & Schuster, Scribner, Touchstone, and Threshold Editions.

This chart is great for understanding which imprints belong to which major publishing companies.

The Publishing Landscape

In the not-too-distant past, these publishers were simply the only way authors could publish a book with any real hope of success. This is far from the case today, although publishing with these companies still carries a degree of prestige that may be important to some authors. Each approach to publishing carries pros and cons, and major publishers are no different.

Challenges and benefits of the traditional path

With traditional publishing, the process begins with authors getting a literary agent, who shops their book around to those major publishers, using their established network and their knowledge of how to market a book. You’ll research agents, find one with experience in your book’s genre, and submit your book.

This is the first hurdle—even great books will likely face many rejections from agents, who look for what they believe they can market most easily to companies. Just searching for an agent to accept your book can take quite a long time, if it gets accepted at all.

And once you’ve landed an agent, the process of getting a publishing deal has only just begun. They may also suggest revisions for your manuscript. Once the agent begins their efforts to get you a publishing deal, the process can take six months or even longer. Once you finally have a publishing deal, it can then take up to two years for the book to hit bookstore shelves.

Major publishers are selective

In other words, even in a best-case scenario, it takes years to publish this way. And depending on the genre, more often than not, even skilled authors won’t get a publishing deal in the end. Major publishers focus on books that have the clearest chance to reach widescale success, often ignoring quality books written for a smaller niche, great writing that simply isn’t in a “hot” genre at the time, books that might be worth the risk but aren’t a guaranteed bestseller, and great books whose author doesn’t already have an audience or platform established.

Pros and cons

If you do get a publishing deal, there are some great benefits. You’ll have experienced professionals working on editing, designing, and marketing your book, and they’ll have decades of experience in understanding what sells. These companies also pay authors advances, and it won’t initially cost you anything to publish your book.

Both your agent and publishing company are betting that they’ll be able to make money off of your book’s success, which is why they’re so selective. But, in addition to their selectiveness and the long timetable, the other downside here is that you’ll only make a small percentage of royalties from your book in the long run. Much of that revenue will go to your publisher and a small amount to your agent. You’ll also give up control over creative and marketing decisions.

Independent publishing options

Conversely, self-publishing offers full control over creative decisions, as well as nearly all of your revenue, and your book can often go from a completed manuscript to publication in a matter of months. On the other hand, it requires an up-front investment in your book. You can find more information on the pros and cons here, but the bottom line is that you can have access to the same support you’d get from a major publisher when you self-publish—you just have to find the right process.

The publishing world is now full of options beyond those traditional publishers. The self-publishing model, of an author-driven process as simple as a few clicks on Amazon, has grown into a wide array of companies offering support for authors. This ranges from simple, do-it-yourself services all the way to companies that provide the same level of quality as traditional publishers.

Find a quality process

Just watch out for vanity publishers. These “publishers” basically charge authors to print and distribute their book, with no attention to quality and services that barely go beyond what the author can do themselves on Amazon. They’ll publish anything, happily taking your money and not giving much in return that you couldn’t do yourself. A good independent publisher is your partner, and they will help you navigate the publishing landscape to give your book as good a chance in the market as books published by a Big Five publisher.

This often means screening for quality with an assessment by professionals, and using the same processes and resources that traditional publishers do. It means a collaborative process that includes active participation by both you and your publisher in making your book the best it can be. Often, it means working with the very same editors and designers who produce bestsellers for traditional publishers.

Izzard’s collaborative process

In other words, the best independent publishers take cues from the traditional publishing process, while offering the benefits of self-publishing. At Izzard, we take it even further. Instead of just taking inspiration from the traditional publishing process, our collaborative approach works with authors to build a team of professionals for their book—the very same individuals who’ve helped traditional publishers produce bestsellers.

It all starts with an affordable manuscript assessment, to get professional feedback from those experienced editors on whether the book has a path to success, what editing is necessary to bring it there, and whether it’s ready for the larger investment of publishing.

Our editors, designers, and other team members have years of experience working on traditionally published titles. After we dive into our network to select a choice of editors and designers with relevant experience, we’ll offer a handful of options and leave the choice up to the author, who also has the final say on all creative decisions—which can’t be said in traditional publishing. By building a team of experts, doing the legwork behind the scenes, but leaving the author in the driver’s seat, we’re able to offer the quality of traditional publishing along with the control and efficiency of self-publishing. 

The “Big 5” publishers have decades of expertise, and they might represent the best path for some authors. But for many more, the same expertise and the same level of quality is within reach, with the right support and process. There have never been more ways to get a book published—the challenge is finding the right one.