The True Story of Getting a Traditional Publishing Contract

Updated: Oct 8, 2019



As we discussed yesterday, there’s really three types of traditional publishing contracts you could potentially land.


There’s big-time Big 5 traditional publishing, where you score a truly sweet deal with Hachette Book Group (HBG), Harper Collins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House or Simon & Schuster.


They’re not only going to pay you upfront for the rights to your manuscript. They’re going to give you an in-the-know editor… top-quality cover design… and a publicist who probably knows a thing or two about what he’s doing.



Sign on the dotted line, baby. Sign on the dotted line.


(Just as long as you understand the quid pro quos, that is.)


Then there’s a filler deal with one of those big guys. It’s not as lucrative, but you still get to claim your “I got published by this industry giant” bragging rights. And, finally, we have our small publisher possibilities as well.


Each experience can be exceptionally different, and there are pros and cons to all three. But there are a few common threads that bind them all together in the same basic grouping.


That’s why they’re all called traditional publishing.


Certainly Not an Easy Quest to Set Out On


It’s true that the first option listed above is considered more prestigious than the other two. And it’s almost certainly going to make you the most money.


But the truth is that, ultimately, traditional publishing is traditional publishing. Getting traditionally published is getting traditionally published. And…

Getting traditionally published ain’t easy.


The Big 5 publishing companies (which we discussed on Thursday) rarely – if ever – accept unsolicited manuscript submissions from writers they don’t know. They almost always – if not always always – work through literary agents (which we’ll be discussing on Tuesday) to sign on new talent.


And while the “little guys” are more approachable, they’re still pretty picky. They have to be that way if they want to stay in business. So “the burden of proof” is all on you.

In order to truly understand why it has to be this way, you first have to look at it from their perspective.


They’ve got a lot that they’re working with.


A Traditional Publishing Swamp


According to author and editor Joseph Epstein (no relation to Jeffrey Epstein, for the record), 81% of Americans want to – and should – write a book.


Building off that, Publishing Perspectives writer Justine Tal Goldberg wrote:


That’s approximately 200 million people [in 2011] who aspire to authorship. Excluding those who want and never do, and those who do but never publish, we’re still looking at millions of folks hungry for the literary limelight.

That’s a lot.


Naturally, they're spread out between numerous literary agents, small publishing companies and self-publishing options. For example, I personally don’t bother with the latter anymore. Nor do most of my editing clients.


However, there are still a lot of people who prefer the traditional publishing route – some for very good reasons, others for shallow or uninformed ones. And there’s no way that traditional publishing companies can handle them all.


Moreover, they don’t want to handle them all. Some of them have very specific focuses, for one thing. Plus, there are individual tastes and biases to take into account, as well as perceived sales – or the lack thereof – to factor in.


That’s why self-publishing exists. That and literary agents, which is next week’s topic to tackle.

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