Traditional Publishing in 2024: Is It Worth It?

Shannon Clark
February 26, 2024 | 8 mins

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A common question for many who are considering writing a book is “How will I get it published?” The publishing industry is a labyrinth of twists and turns that are nearly impossible to navigate without outside guidance. It’s understandable that anyone who is not familiar with how the publishing machine works, might be hesitant to jump into the deep end.

Traditional publishing has been the standard for books for so long that many assume it’s the best way to go. Leave it to the professionals, right? Well, not so fast. 

If you are new to publishing and want to give your book the best chance of success, knowing who the players are, what they do, and how to play the game is crucial. 

Below, we’ll take an objective look at traditional publishing, what it means in 2024, and whether it is the best choice for you. 

A brief history of traditional publishing

In Richard Guthre’s 2011 book, Publishing, he opens with the following description:

Publishing is a process by which human communication is made public. The intention in the first human messages transmitted by the first public speech, the first musical performance, even the first marks scratched on to a cave wall or rock face, are all integral to a history that leads through time right up to the door of contemporary publishing. Publishing has been present in every personal, political, social expression of ideas, in every creative instinct, impression, emotion, thought, mem-ory, information exchange that has ever deliberately been made public in any cultural context since humans first began to record existence.

Guthrie, Richard A. Publishing: Principles and practice. London: SAGE, 2011.

Publishing is about the dissemination of information to reach as many readers as possible. Ideally, the “many” will make up those who actually want to receive the information, so the best publishing vehicle is the one that has the best chance of getting content into the right hands. 

To understand traditional publishing (or any other type of publishing), we have to look at its foundation: books. 

Before the printing press and other modern conveniences, getting books into the hands of readers was a tedious process. Forget mass production, just getting oral histories and stories onto something that could be saved for posterity took great effort.

Writing and recording can be traced back to the Egyptians (around 3000 B.C.) who found innovative ways to use reed pens and papyrus paper—they also wrote on other materials. However, it’s the Chang Dynasty of China (618-907 CE) that can be credited with developing a printing process that created complete pages that could be stamped out using carved wood. 

Fast forward to the 1400s (Innovation can move at a snail’s pace.), the next big shift in typesetting occurred when German inventor, Johannes Gutenberg, created the printing press. Single pages carved in wood were updated to individual blocks of wood with fonts called “moveable type” that could be moved around to create different words on a page. 

Learn more about typesetting in this article

Modern publishing

Since the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press—the predecessor of today’s offset printers, innovations in technology have made getting books mass-produced an efficient process. This efficiency has made reproducing books today less labor and time-intensive, so the cost per book (when adjusted for inflation) is much smaller. 

Traditional Publishing - Depiction Of Gutenberg Printing Press Circa, 1869 - Public Omain

Books are no longer limited to the wealthy who can afford the expensively printed luxuries, and authors today don’t have to find wealthy patrons to foot the printing bill. 

Where the original focus of book publishing was on production and overcoming financial and geographical restrictions, today’s focus is on getting the abundance of books available into the reader’s hands, and competition is fierce. 

On any given day, it would seem like there are more publishers, book designers, and publishing platforms than there are authors, and everyone wants to be your choice for getting your book out on the market. This includes traditional, hybrid, and self-publishing companies

For this article, we’ll take a closer look at the traditional publishing side.

Traditional publishing

The traditional publishing business model is set up in favor of the business. In other words, a traditional publisher’s ultimate goal (as with any other for-profit business) is to make money for their bottom line. 

Selection Process 

Because traditional publishers like MacMillan publishers or Penguin Random House are focused on profit, authors and their books are selected based on their potential to make money for the company. How does a publisher know if an author will make money for them? No formula can guarantee success, but traditional publishers who understand their market (i.e., genre, audience, book saleability), including its ebbs and flows will make an educated guess on the probability of success. 

Traditional publishing criteria for signing an author:

  • Great content – the book has the ingredients of what their audience likes
  • Author’s current platform size – Traditional publishers want to know that you can do some of the heavy lifting of marketing your book.
  • Timeliness – Is the market open to your book’s content at this time or at the time it will be published?
  • Genre – Do they publish books in your genre?
  • Competition – Are there too many books already on the market that are similar to yours?
  • Your marketing plans – What plans do you have to encourage book sales?
  • Author career plans – Are you a career author? Do you want to write more books? Traditional publishers look for great authors who can continue producing great books. 

Many traditional publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts and require all inquiries to come through an agent. 

What is an agent?

How to submit to a traditional publisher:

Whether submitting with an agent or without one, you’ll need to have one or more of the following based on the publisher’s requirements (submission guidelines):

  • Query letter – A letter of introduction that gives a brief synopsis of your book.
  • Book synopsis – Included in the query letter, a synopsis covers the plot points of your book, an introduction to its characters, conflicts, and any relevant information that will help an agent grasp your story. This is not a sales pitch.
  • First few chapters


Also called advance on royalties is when a traditional publisher offers a set amount of money against future sales. Not to be confused with a signing bonus, any money a traditional publisher offers as an advance must be paid back with future book sales. Once the money is reimbursed to the publisher, an author will begin receiving royalties. 


A royalty is the percentage an author makes on each book sale. Compared to other forms of publishing like hybrid and self-publishing, traditional publishing offers the lowest royalty rates of 7%-25%. 

Traditional publishers will either pay royalties on retail sales or net sales. If it’s on retail sales, a royalty percentage will be based on the book’s retail price. For example, a 10% royalty on a $15 print book would be $1.50 per sale. 

If the royalty is calculated based on net sales, the royalty is taken after store discounts are taken (typically 50-55%). Net sale royalties are usually higher. Using a similar example as the previous one, let’s say your book is still $15, but your net sale royalty is 20% and the publisher offers a wholesale discount of 50%. After the 50% is taken, your 20% royalty would be based on $7.50 which would also be $1.50. 

Caution: Steer clear of publishers who offer royalties based on net profit. This allows them to deduct everything from printing costs and warehouse fees, to whatever additional costs they want to deduct before they get to a baseline profit from which to deduct royalties. This could leave you with only pennies per book sale. 

Related: How Much Do Authors Make?

Book Production

In traditional publishing, book production includes everything that goes into taking a book from manuscript to printing. This includes editing, cover design, and formatting. Unlike some hybrid publishers and self-publishers, traditional publishers maintain control of the creative process. They make all decisions related to the book’s production with little or no input from the author. 


These days, much of the marketing to consumers is on the author’s side. This is why many traditional publishers hesitate to sign authors who don’t have a significant following or the ability to produce sales. Traditional publishers tend to focus the bulk of their marketing dollars on the bookseller side. 

Distribution rights

The rights to your book include all of the ways your book may be distributed commercially. This includes print, digital, audio, movie, foreign, translation, publishing excerpts, and more. The publisher maintains full control of whichever rights are granted to them in the book contract for the duration of the agreement. Granting a publisher primary rights (print and digital) is standard. All other rights (subsidiary) should be negotiated and only placed in the publisher’s hands if they can provide the best returns. 

Is traditional publishing a good fit for you?


  • They pay all upfront costs including printing, editing, and designing.
  • You have a ready-made team of book publishing professionals assigned to handle the book production process.
  • Being picked up by a reputable publisher offers industry validation.


  • Limited creative control
  • Smaller profits
  • Loss of book rights
  • Slower turnaround time

Related: Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing: Which Is Best for You?

Final thoughts on traditional publishing

Ultimately, the best publisher for you is the one that gets you the results you desire whether it’s traditional publishing, hybrid or self-publishing.

If your focus is on building a following and you find a traditional publisher who has a reputation for building author careers, then go for it. You may have to sacrifice how much money you can make on the front end, but if you are getting what you want in return, it could be worth it. 

On the other hand, if maintaining creative control and more profits per book sale means more, then self-publishing or hybrid publishing is often a better choice in the long run.

Are you ready to learn more?

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