What is traditional book publishing?

book distribution book formats book marketing book promotion royalties traditional publishing Sep 27, 2021

What is traditional publishing?

Traditional publishing was for many years the only option for authors who wanted to publish a book. The author will enter into a contract with an established publishing house and benefit from the knowledge and skills of a professional team who will take care of the book design, sales, marketing, etc. A key person on the team will be the editor who will present requirements and give feedback on the manuscript.

In some markets, traditional publishing houses accept manuscripts directly from authors. This is the case in Denmark, for example. In the US, however, they would only work with literary agents. Regardless of whether you decide to solicit an agent or the publishing company directly, you will need to send a book proposal or a query letter submitting your manuscript.

How does a traditional publisher make money
- and why should you care?

The primary sources of income of a traditional publishing company are:

  • Commission from book sales
  • Selling commercial book rights to other publishers

In many markets, it is common practice to focus only on the local market and collaborate with other international publishers to cover a broader market. These relationships may be a reason to or better yet criteria for evaluating if a publisher is a good fit for you if you are looking for an international author career. Relationships matter.

And while we are at it, it also matters that traditional publishers often have great industry relationships with personal relationships to PR people, event planners and book store owners. Influencing these people can increase demand for certain books, and will in the end mean a higher profit to share between the publisher and the author.

All parties involved need to profit. The bookstore, the distributor, the publisher, the author. A typical profit for the author in this model will be 7-10% for a paperback book and 10-15% for a hardback book.

The royalties are calculated based on sales. In order to increase profit a publisher can work on three primary dimensions:

  1. Higher book quality can increase the sales price

  2. Selecting authors who already have a strong brand and significant traction in the market will bring demand up while also reducing promotion cost

  3. Selecting mass-market titles will bring up the volume which will bring down the printing cost per book

High book quality is clearly in your interest, especially if you are going to use your book as a branding tool and a lead generating tool in your business.

The second dimension can make it easier or more difficult for you to get a publishing deal depending on what your current brand strength is. Do you have thousands of highly responsive and excited people on your email list and many followers on social media? Do you know highly influential people who are willing to promote your book? Or is your marketing platform more modest?

The third dimension here is actually the reason for this part of the blog post. I want you to be clear on the fact that there might be a conflict of interest between you and your publisher.

Because low printing cost is a key factor in a traditional publisher’s ability to make any money on your book, they NEED high volume. Printing thousands of books instead of a few brings down the cost per book so significantly that their entire existence depends on it. For this reason, publishing houses will start their selection process with a solid market analysis and seal out topics of interest to the mass market and create a production plan typically looking a few years ahead.

Working with someone who wants to sell a lot of books can seem like something you would want to do right? 


You need to be aware of the potential and often very real conflict of interest here. The most common purpose for solopreneurs who want to publish a non-fiction book is to position themselves as the expert in a very specific niche. And that is rarely what you get with a traditional publisher. It is simply not good business for them.

How do solopreneur authors make money working with a traditional publishing company?

Targeting ‘average’ in a mass-market is NOT in your interest if you are looking to build a profitable personal brand based teaching business. 

You will want to show your personality and communicate in a language that will attract the exact right customer for your business. 

Selling books is not your end goal. 

Selling your much higher-priced services or products to book readers is. Attracting just 1 premium customer is usually a lot more profitable than selling 1000 books.

Your profits

Let's say your sell your book at $15 and receive a 10% royalty.

⛔️ 1,000 books to ‘random’ people = $1,500 

✅ 100 books to a higtly targeted audience with 5% conversion into a $1,000 product = $150 in royalties + $5,000 after sales = $5,150

That is a 343% increase in revenue from 90% less books sold!

THAT is why you should care if your goals are aligned with those of the publishing company.

But there are more you should consider before choosing a traditional publisher.

Book rights

There are really two types of book rights you should be aware of:

  • Creative rights
    The influence you have or do not have on the final content or layout of the book. Your interest is to have full freedom and control over how to convey your message in a way that will turn book readers into online course students or whatever your signature product is. And no editor knows or understands your audience better than you. No editor knows your expertise as deeply as you or how to best teach your stuff in a way that will make readers progress in your sales funnel.

  • Commercial rights
    The power you hand over to the publisher when signing the contract in terms of how, where and for how long the book is sold. This can be limited to certain formats or languages or can even be so extensive you are excluded from publishing other books in the same category without permission.

You will often, in fact, no longer be the owner of the book.

You are giving up the rights to your own book - and thereby to one of the most important assets in your marketing and branding. And as a business owner and marketer, you should think twice before putting such strategically important assets in the hands of anybody other than yourself.

And this is not just about the book launch or the initial marketing plan. You will also most likely not be the one who decides when the book will no longer be available in the market if it is sold to a third party, if you can publish an audio version or if you can translate it to another language or give it away in a marketing campaign for your online course.

🚨🚨🚨 Contracts are similar but not all alike so my best piece of advice is that you investigate properly and get legal counsel on your contract before signing it. 🚨🚨🚨 

Common reasons to choose traditional publishing

My experience with authors reveal 5 key reasons why aspiring authors lean towards traditional publishing:

#1 Marketing
You will be the one doing the marketing and building the audience whether you have a publisher or not. Check your contract and ask questions!

#2 Distribution
It is not as complex as you think. And you don’t need to print a single book as a self-publisher, yet you can offer your book in all formats (paperback, hardcover, ebook, audio). You have access to the same book stores and they all really use the same few systems to which you also have access.

#3 Knowledge and skills
You will need to learn about the process no matter what you choose. And you can hire the same skills to help you as a self-publisher, even sometimes the same people that the publisher is using.

#4 Credibility
Few people care if there is a publisher behind you - in fact, many will think you are cool to know how to do it yourself. When was the last time you bought a book because of the publisher name on the back cover? Also, if you want to, you can easily establish a publisher name yourself.

#5 Imposter syndrome 

It is NOT important the be ‘chosen’ by a publisher - it is important to be chosen by your favourite customers.

Before choosing a traditional publisher

The most important things you should take into consideration are:

  • Terms and duration of the contract - and maintaining book rights!
  • Matching or conflicting goals between you and the publisher
  • Does the publisher have relationships that will be beneficial to you, ie. for international sales or media/PR? How much are they willing to commit to in terms of your book promotion?
  • Freedom to create the exact right book for YOUR BUSINESS.

Interested in becoming a part of the community of self-publishing solopreneurs?

Check out the Author Programme - We would be happy to welcome you! 

You don't have to do this alone.

Your knowledge and wisdom deserve to be shared.

We are better together.

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