A Crash Course in Publishing: YPG Breaks Down the Industry

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This article was contributed by YPG member Quressa Robinson. If you are a YPG member and would like to contribute articles on publishing-related topics for our site, please contact Becca Worthington at bworthington@publishers.org.

A job in publishing, like the elusive unicorn, is rare and often hard to come by. If working in publishing is your passion and long-held dream, you may feel desperate to get a foot in the door; any job at a publisher will do. Or perhaps you’ve already gotten that foot in the door and are trying to stay encouraged as you traverse the sometimes harrowing life of an assistant. But what’s the next step? Understanding the different branches of publishing will help you develop a deeper understanding of the publishing world, its structure, and the many opportunities you can find there. And for those of us who consider ourselves old souls of the industry…well, this breakdown might serve as a good refresher course on the duties of our colleagues. And we might even learn a new fact or two!

There are four major branches of publishing—trade, scholarly, academic/textbook, and professional. Other types of publishing and related businesses include alternative media, subsidy presses and vanity publishing, contract publishing, self-publishing, regional publishing, packaging, and fulfillment houses. For more information on these topics, visit http://www.bookjobs.com/. In general, however, the difference between the branches is actually quite simple: the consumer. To whom are publishers selling their books?


Trade publishing is the branch with which most, if not all, people are familiar, and it is the branch of publishing that sells directly to the general consumer. These publishers acquire, edit, produce, and sell books to bookstores and other retailers where consumers can purchase them. Formats for trade books have traditionally been hardcover, trade paperback, mass market, audio books, and, more recently, e-books. Trade publishers have a variety of subject options—business, memoir and other nonfiction, cookbooks, various fiction genres, and children’s/YA—that eager job seekers can choose from when deciding on a specialty in publishing. Both Jessie Edwards (associate publicist for Avon/Harper Voyager/HarperCollins) and Allison Moore (editorial assistant at Little, Brown for Young Readers/Hachette Book Group) work in trade publishing.

“People read the books I work on for pleasure. The other branches are working primarily to inform the reader. We’re trying to entertain, enlighten, and inspire them,” says Jessie. For Allison, “the atmosphere of a children’s book publisher is truly unique—while we are incredibly detail-oriented and take our jobs and the quality of our books very seriously, we also discuss things like fairy princesses and superheroes for a good chunk of our days. We also have the opportunity to work on a vast range of books—from lift-the-flap ABC books to serious fiction for teens—so every day, and even every hour, is something totally different.”

The most well-known trade publishers are the “big six” (well, at least for now!) that include Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and Random House (which, as most of us are well aware, will soon be combined). The “big six” often have separate imprints that focus on a specific book format. Vintage/Anchor, for instance, is a trade paperback imprint under the Knopf Doubleday Publishing group, which is owned by Random House. “Big six” publishers tend to have more turnover within their entry-level positions, especially in editorial. Also, for editorial, advancement may be capped at an assistant or associate editor unless you demonstrate strong acquisition skills. As Alex Lewis (editorial assistant for Simon & Schuster) points out, “It’s critical to know how vitally important networking is—it’s essential to cultivate good relationships with agents and other young editors across the industry, even if you’re not yet in a position to acquire projects on your own. Having those connections will help you take the next step in your career when it’s time to start acquiring.”

While most people think that they only want to work in trade, and only at a “big six” house, a smaller company may be a better fit for you. Don’t overlook independent publishers! Indie publishers, which are not a part of large multinational corporations, generally publish around ten titles a year and earn less than $50 million annually. A few examples of indie publishers are Black Dog & Leventhal, Chronicle Books, Cider Mill Press, F + W Media, Globe Pequot Press, Grove/Atlantic, Melville House, The Other Press, Soho Press, Sourcebooks, Sterling Publishing, and Workman Publishing. . While there is less job turnover and fewer positions at indie publishers, they are often more hands on. Entry-level positions tend to include more responsibility and the learning curve may be swifter.

Educational Publishing

Textbook publishers create books that are based on a specific subject for classrooms and students. Often textbook publishers create books with a specific course syllabus or curriculum in mind. The textbook market is differentiated between higher education (books for colleges and post-secondary schools) and school textbooks (books for elementary school or high school–“el-hi”). Examples of textbook publishers include McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Reed Elsevier, and Houghton Mifflin.

Higher education textbooks are often chosen for a particular course by a professor or instructor. The textbook then becomes available for individual purchase by students at a local or university bookstore where the textbook becomes the property of the student. El-hi textbooks are agreed upon and purchased by entire schools and school systems for use/reuse in classrooms where they remain after purchase. Most publishers issue new editions of textbooks every three to four years. Textbook publishers also publish ancillary materials such as teachers’ manuals, presentation slides, student workbooks, and online study guides to aid in the teaching and learning process.

Publishing is increasingly moving towards becoming more competitive in the digital age, and this competitive drive is not limited to trade publishing. As Karrin Varucene (associate editor, English, for Bedford/St. Martin’s) observes, “I wish I had known early in my career that academic publishing would be moving toward developing and offering digital learning systems and tools, and that these would steadily become just as important, if not more so, than the textbook as we know it.”

No matter which branch of publishing you choose to go into, it is important to continue your education and stay current with trends and changes in publishing as a whole.

Scholarly/University Press

Scholarly or academic publishing consists of houses that publish academic and scholarly research. The most common scholarly works published are journals, which are often peer reviewed or editorial refereed. Journals contain information from various academic disciplines—usually each discipline has its own journal(s). Notable publishers of scholarly work are Springer Science+Business Media and John Wiley & Sons. Scholarly publishers work with researchers, professors, scientists, and professional and scholarly societies around the world to publish up-to-date, comprehensive, essential content that informs readers of critical topics and leads to further research and discoveries.

As Bill Mullen, editorial program coordinator for current protocols and WIREs at Wiley, observed, “I’ve found that without working on fiction, everything else I love about publishing is still there. . . . Scholarly publishing means a far different relationship with your authors: the incentive for authors (as well as the publication’s editors or editorial boards) is recognition to advance their careers, more than for direct payment. Discoverability (through Google and PubMed) and academic reception (by measures such as the Impact Factor) are crucial.”

A university press is an academic, nonprofit publishing company often named after the university with which it is affiliated. A university press publishes the same types of scholarly and academic journals as a scholarly publisher, but it also publishes “popular” titles designed to reach its target audience of academics and scholarly professionals. Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press are the two largest and oldest university presses in the world. University of Chicago Press is the largest university press in the United States and publishes The Chicago Manual of Style, the standard style guide for book publishers.

Anna Howland (journals production team leader, Oxford Journals for Oxford University Press) sees academic publishing as “focused on a mission that seeks to support the higher learning community. Above all, the goal is to disseminate knowledge and innovation in research and scholarship to everyone across the glove, regardless of nationality or means.” Howland also suggests that those interested in breaking into publishing should “seek out experience and ask questions of everyone you can. Apply for internships. Read Publishers Weekly and learn who all of the major players are. Learn how the business model works, and decide what fulfills you as a person.”


Professional publishers produce materials for scholars and professionals in science, medicine, technology, business, law, and the humanities. Their books and databases are geared toward professionals who need access to reliable, widely accepted information and standards. Often those working in professional publishing are required to have a degree in the specific area their books are geared toward. Professional publishing companies are those such as Pearson, Thompson, and Wolter Kluwer Law and Business.

“I wanted to be a part of the publishing process of groundbreaking research that directly impacts scholars, students, and interested readers,” says Amanda Amanullah (senior editorial assistant, Scientific, Technical, Medical, and Scholarly for Wiley). “While STMS was probably not my first choice, I realized that it would provide a valuable experience and give me the chance to contribute to the scientific research world.”

You, too, like Amanda can choose to contribute to the world of scientific research. Or, perhaps, one of the other branches has piqued your interest. Well, now that you are thoroughly versed in the vast world of book publishing (hopefully it’s a little less vast now) you can more easily navigate the varying options available to you. Go forth, unique publishing snowflakes, and find your niche. Live long and publish.

Q. Robinson, book slut and editorial assistant at an indie publisher, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. You can find her musings on books, creative writing, and other word-related tidbits at www.quressa.com and random tweets @qnrisawesome.

Neither the Association of American Publishers (“AAP”) nor the Young To Publishing Group (“YPG”) represents nor endorses the accuracy or reliability of any advice, opinion, statement or other information displayed, uploaded or distributed through this website by any member, user, information provider or any other person or entity. Member-generated content published on this website reflects the views of the provider of the content, and does not constitute the opinion of the AAP, the Young To Publishing Group, or any of their respective members or divisions.

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