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The 3 Publishing Paths: Which Is Right for You?

Congratulations! You’ve decided you want to publish a book. 

This may end up being one of the most rewarding accomplishments of your life. It could also be one of the most confusing and overwhelming journeys you undertake. The simple truth is that publishing is a maze. It is full of twists and turns, and without insider knowledge, it’s easy to get lost or hit a dead end.

At first glance, publishing is publishing: the elusive world of Charles Dickens and Malcolm Gladwell, Joan Didion and Zadie Smith. In reality, self-publishing has always been an avenue for countercultural writers (some of them even being revered today). And recent shifts in the industry landscape have brought a third option into the mix.  

“The Road Not Taken”

Robert Frost


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

The three paths available today are...




Metaphorically, you are standing in the yellow wood where these three paths of publishing diverge. I’ll break down each path, with its pros and cons, so you can make a confident, informed decision about which path you will take.

First, I’ll let you in on a secret: it doesn’t really matter how you’re published. Why? Three reasons.

  1. Readers typically don’t know the difference. Unless someone works in the publishing industry, they’re not likely to understand the differences between trade, hybrid, and self-publishing. Readers are not going to interrogate you or fact-check how you were published. All they care about is the quality of your book. 

  2. You will have access to the same quality of resources and expertise in each path. The publishing industry runs on freelancers. Talented creatives go where their work is most rewarding, financially and creatively, and many work across all three publishing paths. That means you can find freelance talent of the same caliber regardless of the path you choose. 

  3. All the paths can lead you to your goals. Building a following, attracting clients, increasing your legitimacy, sharing valuable knowledge—all are possible in any of the paths.

I’m not here to tell you which path is best, because there is no “best.” There’s simply the right path for you. So let’s dive in!

Trade Publishing

New York City Publishing (Photo by Samson Katt)

When most people think of publishing, trade publishing is what they think of. In trade publishing, a publisher buys the rights to your book and then publishes it, giving you royalties that are typically only 7 to 15 percent of each book sale.

The Big Five publishing houses are:

  • Penguin Random House

  • Simon & Schuster

  • HarperCollins

  • Hachette

  • Macmillan

Trade publishing also includes university presses, academic publishers, and small presses—essentially, anyone who gives you an advance for the rights to your book for a period of time.

Advantages of Trade Publishing

  • Prestige: Being published by one of the Big Five is a little like going to an Ivy League school. There’s a level of natural prestige and legitimacy attached to it.

  • Well-connected networks: Who you know matters, and trade publishers typically know a lot of helpful people. Sometimes they’re even under the same umbrella company as valuable contacts. For example, HarperCollins? Owned by News Corp, which also owns the Wall Street Journal, Fox, and part of Hulu. Because of their connections, particularly with media outlets, trade publishers often can provide advantageous media opportunities. And never forget: for people to buy your book, they first need to know about your book.

  • Strong brick & mortar retail distribution: These publishers have dedicated sales teams that speak directly to buyers at box stores, like Barnes and Noble. These stores have limited shelf space. When they’re deciding how to fill it, they're going to listen to their BFF in sales at Macmillan before they listen to the guy walking in off the street. 

  • Low upfront cost: This is the only path where you are paid, instead of paying, to publish. A trade publisher will handle all the editing, cover design, interior layout, etc., and associated costs. The trade-off is they take the biggest chunk of profit from book sales. 

Compromises of Trade Publishing

  • Gatekeeping: Each path comes with its own challenges, but when it comes to the actual process of publishing, this one is the most complicated. You have to get past the gatekeepers: literary agents and acquisition editors. Query letters, sample pages, comp titles (short for comparable titles), agency research—there’s a heap of extra steps just to get through the gates.

  • Long timelines and no guarantees: On this path, timelines are often indefinite. It can take years to find an agent and years more to go through the publication process. And you know what Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Colson Whitehead, and just about every writer you’ve ever heard of have in common? They’ve been rejected. Get ready to hear the word no. A lot. Trade publishing has very low acceptance rates, and because there are gatekeepers, results aren’t guaranteed. Even if you pass the first gate and an agent says yes to your book, they may never sell it. You will need perseverance, patience, and a bit of luck to succeed on this path.

  • Low morale: With the gatekeeping, long timelines, and frequent rejections, many authors lose hope and confidence. Even those who go on to publish face struggles with mental health. In one survey of debut authors by The Bookseller, more than half reported that their mental health was negatively impacted by the publishing process. Consider investing in tissues and a good punching bag.

  • Less control: When you sign over the rights to your book, you also sign over a good deal of control. Trade publishers are ultimately businesses, and they will make the decisions that are most profitable for them, not necessarily for you. 

With trade publishing, while there are no guarantees, Foreword Literary Consulting can give you your best shot with Submission Support. We help you target your submissions, so that instead of throwing everything at the wall and hoping that something sticks, you’re just throwing spaghetti.

Hybrid Publishing

In hybrid publishing, you pay an upfront fee, which can range anywhere from $10,000 for a bare-bones package without ghostwriting or much marketing, to as high as $400,000 with airport distribution (which is notoriously difficult to get in any market). Because you are paying the upfront cost of publishing, you typically retain significant to full rights to your book and can often earn near to 100 percent of the royalties, if not the full earnings. 

Hybrid publishing is a happy middle ground between trade publishing and self-publishing: you get the structure of trade publishing with the control of self-publishing.

Advantages of Hybrid Publishing

  • Near-total control: You retain the rights to your book. Your publisher may make suggestions about edits, design, and marketing, but if push comes to shove, you have the final say. 

  • Easy access to talent: You don’t have to search for the talent to help you complete your book. Your publisher will connect you to qualified experts, many of whom have experience in trade publishing. This doesn’t just save you time sifting through freelance job sites—it also guarantees that your investment will deliver the quality you need to make a strong impression in the market.

  • Faster timelines: There’s no waiting while you query or while your agent shops your book to publishers. You get started right away. Most hybrid publishers can get a published book in your hand within two years. 

Compromises of Hybrid Publishing

  • Upfront cost: Of the three paths, this one has the highest upfront cost. You are paying not only to publish your book, but also to have a project manager guide the entire publishing process


Two people unpacking their books (Photo by Blue Bird)
  • Wrong-fit and predatory publishers: Not every hybrid publisher is the same, and some are predatory. Picking the right publisher can be challenging, and you need to do your due diligence. 

  • “Vanity press” stereotype: Many people equate hybrid publishing with vanity presses, and who wants to publish just for their vanity? The major distinction between hybrid publishing and vanity press is that a vanity press will publish anyone who pays, regardless of the merit of the book, while a true hybrid publisher is more selective. Some so-called hybrid publishers are essentially glorified vanity presses, but the majority are teams of mission-driven publishing veterans who believe in the books they publish. 

On this path, choosing which hybrid publisher to work with is a key decision that will have a domino effect on the rest of your publishing journey. At Foreword Consulting, we offer services to help you evaluate your options and pick the right partner.


Click here to book your consultation call today! 


author opens package with samples of her new book and checks the hardcover .jpg

Self-publishing is the tried-and-true, DIY path.


However, this doesn’t mean you have to write the book, edit it, do the interior layout, design the cover, and market it all by yourself (although you can). It does mean that you are responsible for every piece of the publishing puzzle and the associated costs. You are the conductor, ensuring that every section of the orchestra comes together to create a beautiful symphony.

Self-publishing gets a bad rap because people often think of poorly produced books filled with errors. In reality, whether it’s trade, hybrid, or self-publishing, you’ll never find a typo-free book, despite the sharpest eyes reviewing it pre-printing. You can get pretty close, though, as there’s a vast amount of resources available to self-publishing authors, allowing you to produce a quality book on a budget. There’s also a vast readership for self-published books that didn’t exist before, thanks to services like Kindle Unlimited and apps catering to readers.

Advantages of Self-Publishing

  • Complete control: You have complete creative and professional control. You pick what you do yourself and what you contract out. You also choose who to hire.

  • No middle-men costs: Since you work directly with freelancers, you save on all the middle-men costs that come with a hybrid publisher.

Compromises of Self-Publishing

  • Total responsibility: Complete control comes with total responsibility. All decisions and expenses fall on you as the author. You must be your own project manager, and you will need to do a lot of research and self-educate, becoming an autodidact in all things publishing. This path typically requires the most time and work from you as the author. 

  • Difficulty finding talent: You can contract the same quality of talent as in trade or hybrid publishing, but finding that talent can be challenging. With freelancing marketplaces like Fiverr, Upwork, and Reedsy, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. You have to sift through thousands of freelancers, of varying quality and expertise, and you never really know what you’re going to get. 

  • Snooty opinions: Many people look down on self-publishing, and that’s on them, but some self-published authors still choose to disguise the fact they self-published. It’s easier than you might expect. You’ve heard of Penguin Random House, but how about Hogarth? Dragonfly Books? Dutton? Well, those are all imprints under Penguin Random House. The big trade publishers usually have dozens of imprints under their umbrella, which lets self-publishing imprints fly under the radar. 

You’re in charge on the self-publishing path, but you don’t have to do it alone. Foreword Consulting can help connect you to the right talent for you and your book with Creative Matchmaking.

So what path do you want to take?

I’ll let you in on another secret, more of a little-known fact: Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”? It’s a joke! Literally. Frost wrote it to poke fun at his friend and fellow poet Edward Thomas. The two often took long walks together, and Thomas would always regret that they didn’t take the other path.


The poem closes like this:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Some believe this means we should take the less traveled path, but for Frost, it was more likely about how whatever path we take, we will make meaning out of it. Notably, though, Frost doesn’t say whether the chosen path made a positive or negative impact, just a difference. 


This is why having a guide can be so helpful. At Foreword Consulting, we’ve helped authors through each path and understand the twists and turns. We can help you make the best decision based on your personal, professional, and creative goals and connect you with the resources you need to succeed. Then someday, whatever publishing path you traveled—trade, hybrid, or self—you will be able to look back with a sigh.


Out of the yellow wood, with the aged yellow pages of your book in hand, you will see how your choice made all the difference in the best way possible.

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