Infographic: 5 Key Book Publishing Paths

Understanding the 5 Key Book Publishing Paths by Jane Friedman

UPDATE: I have produced an updated version of this infographic, which is significantly different from this one.

One of the biggest questions for authors today is:

Should I traditionally publish or self-publish?

It’s an important question—one that tends to result in heated debate—but it’s becoming an increasingly confusing and complicated question to answer because:

  1. There are now many varieties of traditional publishing and self-publishing—with evolving models and varying contracts.
  2. You won’t find a universal, agreed-upon definition of what it means to “traditionally publish” or “self-publish.” 
  3. It’s not an either/or proposition. You can do both. (See this interview with CJ Lyons.)

I spend a lot of time at writers conferences trying to clarify the pros and cons among the different publishing paths and the growing number of services available to authors. There is no one path or service that’s right for everyone; you must understand and study the changing landscape and make a choice based on long-term career goals, as well as the unique qualities of your work—not to mention your own strengths and weaknesses.

With that in mind, I’ve developed an infographic (click to download as PDF) to describe what I see as the key 5 publishing paths, their value to authors, the potential pitfalls, and examples of each. These five paths are:

  1. Traditional publishing: where you query and submit to agents and editors in an effort to land a contract that pays an advance and royalties (and typically involves nationwide bookstore distribution).
  2. Partnership publishing: one might consider this the evolution of traditional publishing, where authors are positioned more as partners, receive higher royalties, but usually no advance.
  3. Fully-assisted publishing: the old “vanity” self-publishing model, where you write a check and get your book published without lifting a finger. I don’t recommend this, but it’s still a significant part of the self-publishing market, now dominated by Author Solutions.
  4. Do-it-yourself (DIY) publishing with a distributor: while this applies to either print or e-books, today this usually involves e-publishing your work (to reduce financial risk and investment involved with print), and using a service provider or distributor to reach all possible online retailers—and/or to provide some level of assistance.
  5. Do-it-yourself (DIY) direct publishing: when an author doesn’t put any middlemen between him and the retailer selling his books. Often, this option is combined with #4 above; for example, someone might sell direct through Amazon KDP, and complement it with distribution to all other retailers through Smashwords. This is possible because most distributors and online retailers of e-books work on a nonexclusive basis.

What about an agent’s role in these five models? Generally speaking, agents should serve as an author’s career manager and adviser, not as the author’s publisher. This is why I’ve included agent-assisted models in “special cases” below the chart. Still, though, when it comes to partnership publishing, agent-run outfits (e.g., Rogue Reader) are doing some of the most innovative work, and this only blurs the lines further.

You’ll notice I’ve indicated that, moving from left to right across the chart, an author gains more control over the process, undertakes more risk, and stands to earn more money. This is a generalization and may not hold true in every situation. For fully-assisted publishing in particular, one might argue this poses the highest risk and offers the least control. However, as a general rule, keep in mind that as one moves from the traditional models to DIY models, the author undertakes more risk, work, and responsibility, but stands to gain more financially if successful over the long term.

What is not really accounted for in this chart: Selling direct-to-consumer from your own website, or through other means (e.g., back-of-the-room sales). I’m also not addressing self-publishing that employs print runs (whether short digital runs or traditional print runs). While neither of these options is necessarily beyond the skill of a new author, it is a more advanced option that is beyond the scope of this chart.

Update (June 3): For some enlightened reaction to this chart, read Mick Rooney’s response, as well as my comments on it.

Feel free to download, print, and share this infograph wherever you like. I will keep developing it as the publishing landscape changes, so leave a comment if you have suggestions for how to make it more helpful.

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Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
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  1. Great compilation of material!
    FYI – Don’t know if you’re aware but AuthorHouse now has ‘BookTango’ – direct answer to KDP, free e-book publishing with lots of distribution, including Amazon.

  2. Jane, you are so generous with you knowledge and insight. I will love to share this with writers who struggle with which path to take.

  3. Great information, Jane! Is there an alternative link to the pdf? I’m having trouble making the connection. Thanks.

  4. Pingback: Infographic: 5 Key Book Publishing Paths | Jane...

  5. Fantastic resource, Jane! I’m sharing this *everywhere*. :)

    I love the list of example companies at the bottom of each category too, so authors can get a better feel for each option. Thanks!

  6. I do think it’s important to add to this sentence “…undertakes more risk, and stands to earn more money”… but usually doesn’t. Although you can theoretically make the most money doing it without middlemen, the chances of getting anyone to pay attention to your book are greatly reduced. Unless you are famous already, the chances, a few outliers notwithstanding, of making any money are still slim to none.

  7. I’m sharing this brilliant graphic all over the place. This visual alignment makes everything crystal clear, and I can’t think of a single base you don’t cover.

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  9. Excellent tool to use in my creative writing classes. The number one question on writers’ lips today, especially emerging writers. Thank you.

  10. Thanks for this definitive explanation, Jane, now I know that Ginninderra Press (AUS) is a Partnership Publisher. They published my short story collection (print) in 2010. Although there is a limit to the size of what they publish I was not out of pocket in any way, and they are selective to what they choose.

  11. Hrmmm… I thought KDP Select was only exclusive for the first 90 days. Then you can choose other platforms such as pubit (Nook), Smashwords, etc. Has that changed?

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  13. Hi, Jane! So glad we’re on the same page. Thanks for furthering the discussion. My SheWrites Press post last week spoke to these five paths from the POV of a “literary change agent.” I’ll be discussing these paths further with authors on June 7 in Chicago:, and again at digi.lit in San Francisco on June 29. So much to consider, so many personal factors to discuss as authors choose the right route. Thanks for capturing the objective factors so succinctly, and providing a good basis for ongoing discussion!

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  16. Respectfully, I must disagree. These sorts of murky definitions (especially
    “partnership publishing”) are part of what confuses so many new authors into
    falling prey to vanity presses.

    I really, really think we need to define types of publishing by the one truly
    defining aspect of business: money.

    Traditional publishing is where all the proceeds flow to the publisher first,
    and the publisher then pays the author. This may or may not include an advance.
    The author pays the publisher nothing.

    Vanity press is where all the proceeds flow to the publisher first,(and in
    theory the publisher then pays the author,) AND the author also pays money to
    the publisher.

    Self-publishing is where all the proceeds flow to the author (or the author’s
    company) first, and the author pays money to service providers (editors, cover
    artists, etc) at the author’s descretion as services are required.

    Thusly, “partnership publishing” is traditional publishing. Both DIY types
    are self-publishing.

      • The industry is just changing too rapidly to try and define things based on services offered or standard practices. The flow of money is easy to understand.

        I think we’re going to see a lot more gray area services-wise as traditional publishers try to innovate and scammers try to imitate them. Start simple, one of three things. Then branch out from there depending on what services you are working with and who is paying for what. I think that will cover all those “special cases” and “hard to define” things. For example, a crowdfunded book is still self-published if the money goes to the author and the author pays for any services needed to produce book.

        That way you also aren’t talking about how an “author” publishes. Each individual book is published one of three ways. I think in the (near) future, hybrid authors (those who have some books that are traditionally published and some that are self-published) are going to become the norm.

    • This is an interesting way to shape the options. Another way of putting it would be in terms of how likely it is you’ll make money; so, e.g., while traditional publishers offer less control for authors they also provide the most *likely* avenue for sales and revenue.

      Another dynamic is that with traditional publishing the author’s control is variable usually based on expectation of sales–a bestselling author or hot prospect will have more “pull” than an author with a modest track record.

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  23. TED-level, Tufti-level information graphics — and so needed among the writers and authors in my community. Thank you so much for this service to us all.

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  28. […]A few weeks ago the industrious and expert publishing analyst, Jane Friedman, posted this very useful infographic titled ‘5 Key Publishing Paths’. Since then it has been reproduced many thousands of times by authors across social media channels, blogs and websites, but it has often been reposted and pointed to wrongly as if it represented the holy grail of publishing paths for authors. What some of those reposting the infographic (or didn’t much bother to read the full post) omitted was some of the most valuable pieces of information contained in Friedman’s original post.[…]

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  33. What classification would you give when an author is positioned as a partner with a publisher that does not accept all work, there is no advance and the author receives a higher royalty, but an author investment fee is required?

    • That’s one of those hard-to-classify cases, but I’d probably consider it a fully-assisted service. There are some valuable full-assists out there (Greenleaf is one that comes to mind) that are selective about what projects they take on, and require a significant fee or investment from the author.

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  37. Thanks so much for this article and infographic. After more than 300 book deals, including deals for stacks of award-winners and best-sellers, I have turned in my ‘literary agent’ badge. What a freeing experience. I am not abandoning the publishing world. Instead, I am enjoying all of its best forms more than ever. To me, every great book is a ‘golden key’ that opens exciting new doors for speaking engagements, mass media appearances, social media buzz, etc. True, a lot of people don’t have a good or great book in them. Then again, a lot do. The more on-ramps and fewer roadblocks we can create for them, the more everyone wins. I’ve presented a ‘no fear’ 2-part workshop on today’s best book publishing options at a growing number of colleges, grad schools, universities, conferences, etc. I’ll be glad to send a copy of the handouts to any of your readers. Just drop a quick line to me at You can check out my bio at

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  41. It is great, I’ve learned a lot. And I have a question, I need to draw the value chain of electronic publishing. Do you have any idea about the distribution part? I don’t know any detail. I would welcome any suggestions. Thanks in advance

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