Posted On July 13, 2012 by Print This Post

Anne R. Allen presents Who Are the Big Six? What Does “Indie” Really Mean?

Please welcome back author and blogger Anne R. Allen

The auto industry has the Big Four. In traditional publishing, it’s the Big Six…and a slew of mid-sized and smaller presses. Today, Anne gives us a breakdown of print and e-book publishing options. Be sure to check out her latest offering, HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE…AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY, at the end of the post.

Anne, it’s great to have you with us again! 

Who Are the Big Six? What Does “Indie” Really Mean? Answers to Not-So-Dumb Questions You Were Afraid to Ask

There’s much talk on the Interwebz about “Big Six, “small presses” and “indie publishing.”  But a lot of people who are newer to writing aren’t quite sure what these terms really mean.

None of us wants to sound dumb, so we usually don’t ask.

So I’ll pretend you did. Here’s a quick guide:

The Big Six

These are the six multi-national corporations that control most of the Western world’s publishing

  1. Simon and Schuster
  2. HarperCollins
  3. Random House
  4. Macmillan
  5. The Penguin Group
  6. Hachette 

Two are American: Simon and Schuster and HarperCollins, (although Harper is a division of Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, so it’s pretty international.)

Two are German: Random House is owned by Bertelsmann and Macmillan is owned by Holzbrinck.

One (Penguin) is British

One (Hachette) is French.

Some people include the Canadian Romance giant Harlequin when they’re talking about “big publishing” (which I guess would make them the “Big Seven.”)

Most books you see in stores come from the Big Six/Seven. They have hundreds of imprints with familiar names like Little Brown, Knopf, Viking, NAL, Pocket, Scribner, St. Martins, Dutton, Avon, Crown, Tor, Zondervan, Grand Central, Dell, etc. but they’re all owned by one of those six corporations.

In almost all cases, you need an agent to query them.

Five of the six—all but Random House—have recently run afoul of the US Department of Justice because of their attempts to keep the price of ebooks artificially high. A lot of people think this means the Big Six are doomed.

I’m not so sure about that. Greedy multinational conglomerates tend to be rather good at hanging onto their trousers in a crisis.

But there’s no doubt the ebook revolution is changing the face of publishing. Most of the changes the Big Six has come up with recently have NOT been author-friendly, but maybe they’ll learn from their mistakes. (We can hope.)

 Mid-Sized Publishers (sometimes called “small” just to confuse you) 

This covers a lot of territory, from university presses to big international operations like Canada’s Harlequin (see above) and the UK’s Bloomsbury (which has branches in London, New York, Berlin, and Sydney.) 

When mid-sizers are successful, they tend to be bought up by the Big Six. (Thomas Nelson, the largest independent Christian publisher, was bought by HarperCollins in 2011.)

There are many dozens of mid-sized houses. They often address particular niche markets. Here’s a sample list—by no means comprehensive.

  • Kensington: Most genres except sci-fi and fantasy 
  • Llewellyn: New Age nonfiction and mysteries (under their Midnight Ink imprint)
  • Chronicle Books: Art, food, pop culture (and some illustrated fiction like Griffin and Sabine.)
  • Perseus Books: Travel and other nonfiction genres. 
  • Workman Publishing: Tends toward the literary.
  • Sourcebooks: Formerly a financial publisher: now includes fiction in all genres.
  • Sunset: Gardening, cookbooks and how-to
  • Poisoned Pen: One of the largest mystery publishers.
  • F + W Media/Writer’s Digest Books: How-to 
  • Dorchester: Genre fiction. It was the premier mid-sized independent publisher of mass market paperbacks until 2010, when it suspended most paper operations and went to ebooks only and soon after declared bankruptcy. Its financial difficulties have given it a “not recommended” stamp from most writers’ organization, but last month, Amazon announced it will be buying Dorchester. Very good news for their authors.
  • Titan Books: UK publisher of movie and TV tie-ins as well as graphic novels. Took on Dorchester’s crime fiction imprint, Hard Case Crime
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Textbook publishers who declared bankruptcy last month

Most mid-sized publishers want agented submissions, but not all. Kensington still accepts unagented queries for all their lines (snail mail only.) Check websites for submission guidelines. Midnight Ink no longer accepts unagented queries, but some Harlequin lines do. Right now, they include Harlequin HeartwarmingKimani PressHarlequin Historical Undone, and Nocturne Cravings .

Here’s a database of midsized and small publishers compiled by Canadian thriller author Jack King

NOTE: Mid-sizers tend to pay smaller advances and lower royalties (that includes Harlequin.) They also tend to be the most financially precarious. So expect some of these to go the way of Dorchester and Houghton Mifflin if they don’t keep up with the times.


Amazon is a bookstore that has become a book publisher. It has a number of lines in different genres:

  • Amazon Encore: Reprints of self-published and out of print books
  • Amazon Crossing: Books in translation
  • Thomas and Mercer:  Thrillers
  • Montlake: Romance
  • 47 North: SciFi
  • New Harvest: General Fiction

You need great sales as a self-pubber to be approached by Amazon’s publishing wing, but agents are also selling directly to Amazon.

Amazon has some of the most author-friendly deals around, BUT other bookstores are reluctant to carry their products because of the obvious conflict of interest.

Other online retailers like iTunes/Apple may follow suit.

Brick and mortar bookstores are also producing their own books. This isn’t new. City Lights in San Francisco has had its own publishing wing since 1955, but with POD technology, this may become a trend that will help bookstores stay alive.

Independent Ebook Publishers

These are new publishers like Ellora’s Cave and Samhain Press (with more start-ups every week) They publish primarily ebooks and usually appeal to a particular niche.

Expect to see more and more of these.

Because ebooks have low overhead, they can be more author friendly and often provide some marketing help for their authors. (Samhain is branching into print, although the bulk of their titles are ebooks.)

These generally do not require an agent for submissions. But because this is a new industry, check them out thoroughly and try to get referrals from satisfied clients.

 Small Presses

 These are sometimes called “indie presses.” (Ten years ago, this is what people meant by “indie” publishing, but now self-pubbers have kind of taken over the word.)

There are thousands of them. It’s hard to find useful listings because the number is never stable. They spring up and get knocked down like a literary version of Whac-A-Mole.

Some, like Beacon Press, GrayWolf, and Copper Canyon Press are extremely prestigious and have been around for decades.

Others are regional and publish books specific to one area.

Others address niche genres, like Canada’s SciFi publisher Edge, and noir mystery publisher BleakHouse Books 

A large percentage focus on poetry and literary fiction. Poets and Writers has a great database for literary small presses. For more general list, check the Writer’s Resource Directory

They are usually labors of love and nobody gets rich, but they’re often a good way to break in to print and lots of authors are very happy to stay with a small press where there is a more personal interaction with editors.

Authors are responsible for their own marketing and there’s generally no advance, but higher royalties.

These publishers generally don’t want to deal with agents—writers should query the editors directly. (Remember to check for submission guidelines on their websites.)

But be careful: Check them out thoroughly with sites like Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors and if they’re not well-established, contact other clients before you sign. And always have a lawyer or publishing professional look at the contract before you sign.


These are a tiny version of the small press—usually one or two-person operations, generally oriented toward the literary. They often publish chapbooks of poetry. They operate on a shoestring, and are usually run as a hobby.

But beware: some of these are run by authors who are essentially self-publishers who take on a few other writers to make their own work look more “legit”. Look for red flags: grandiosity, negativity about the industry, and bad spelling/grammar on the website are tell-tale signs. 

Vanity Presses 

These are publishers who make their money from services to authors rather than from selling books.

Before ebooks and POD (print on demand) technology, vanity presses were mostly pricey self-indulgences—although every so often a vanity-published book like the 1990s phenomenon The Celestine Prophecy made it to mainstream readers.

Two of the best known of the traditional vanity presses are Vantage and Dorrance.

But as prices came down and self-publishing took off, the line between real publishers, printing services, and vanity presses blurred. A lot of authors got taken in by vanity publishers posing as real publishers. But others successfully used them as printers for self-publishing and with a lot of promotion, made the bestseller lists with books like The Christmas Box and Legally Blonde.

The problem is most vanity publishers charge very high prices for services, so their books are too pricey to be profitable for the author. Some of them, like PublishAmerica, even tie up the author’s copyright for seven years. (PublishAmerica gets an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau.)

Here are some of the best known vanity publisher names. These companies have almost all been bought up by Authorhouse.

  • PublishAmerica (aka Independence Books)
  • Tate Publishing
  • AuthorHouse
  • XLibris
  • iUniverse
  • Ivy House
  • Trafford Publishing


 “Indie” or Self-Publishing

True DIY publishing. You do everything yourself or hire somebody to do it for you. You can do this several ways:

  • Get help from a publishing facilitator like Smashwords or BookBaby, who for a flat fee will code your ebook and upload to different retail platforms and keep track of royalties. They also offer inexpensive cover design and other services.
  • Get shepherded through the process by an agent. A number of agents are actually helping authors become indie publishers these days—usually existing clients. Some industry purists consider this a conflict of interest, but the agented authors I know who have published through their agents have nothing but good things to say about this.
  • Hire your own private editor, cover designer, and coder and keep complete control.

If you’re an indie publisher who wants your books printed in hard copy as well as electronic form, you’ll need the services of—

P.O. D. Publishing Service Providers 

These are printer/distributors who use print on demand technology. This means that instead of having a huge print run for your book that has to be stored in a warehouse, the book is only printed when it is ordered.

Most small presses use these providers, too.

The primary POD providers are

  • CreateSpace: Owned by Amazon. Printing with them gets you on Amazon, which owns a huge share of the book market
  • LightningSource: Owned by Ingram, the biggest book distributor in the US. Ingram supplies bookstores, so if you want to see your book in your local bookstore window, LS has the advantage.
  • Doesn’t charge any upfront fees, so even though they keep 20%, I’m putting them in the service provider category rather than putting them with vanity presses. They put your books on their own site (not terribly customer-friendly) and Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other online retailers worldwide.


The ebook revolution is rapidly shifting the old publishing paradigm, and nobody’s quite sure what’s coming next.

Much of what I’ve written here will probably be obsolete by next year.

But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the old guard. They may have life in them yet.

Publishing companies seem to dosey-do and change partners like square dancers on speed, but they’re still very much with us and learning to adapt with the changing times. (Some are learning faster than others, and I have no doubt some will fall to the e-revolution.)

We live in an age when authors have more choices than ever before, and if you don’t like the choices you’re being offered right now, wait a few weeks and something new is bound to pop up!


What about you out there in Romance U-land? Did you know the names of the Big Six? How many mid-sized publishers can you name? (Let’s add some to my list. I hardly scratched the surface here.) And if you know of a great small publisher—especially one interested in Romance, do leave that name, as well. Any additions, subtractions or caveats welcome.


Anne’s latest book, HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE ,will be free on Kindle for three days starting Saturday the 14th. 

“If we’d known the challenges writers would face in the 21st century, we’d have gone into a more stable profession. Maybe running an all-Ayatollah drag show in downtown Tehran. Let’s face it. Aspiring writers need help. More so every day. When even seasoned publishing professionals can’t keep up, what’s the newbie to do? HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY! is a collaboration between author and publishing industry blogger Anne R. Allen (THE CAMILLA RANDALL MYSTERIES) and bestselling international author Catherine Ryan Hyde (PAY IT FORWARD and 17 other novels). It’s a distillation of mentorship Catherine has provided over the years combined with Anne’s most popular blog advice. It’s the proverbial “What we wish we hadn’t learned the hard way.” Ebook buyers will receive a FREE updated version every six months to ensure you always have the latest information and advice available as you pursue your writing career.”

 Join us on Monday, July 16th when Sarah M. Anderson presents The Revision Process: From Unpublished to Published.


Bio: Anne R. Allen is the author of five comic mysteries published by Mark Williams International Digital Publishing.: FOOD OF LOVE , THE GATSBY GAME , GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY , SHERWOOD, LTD, and THE BEST REVENGE. She blogs with NYT bestselling author, Ruth Harris at Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris

Anne’s latest book is a guide for writers written with Catherine Ryan Hyde (author of the iconic novel Pay it Forward.) It’s called HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE…AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY and contains a lot more practical info about what you need to be a professional writer today, plus advice about how to take care of yourself as you navigate the wildly changing landscape that is today’s publishing world.

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32 Responses to “Anne R. Allen presents Who Are the Big Six? What Does “Indie” Really Mean?”

  1. Anne – This is a must-read for any who writes or is considering writing for publication. VERY impressive! And hugely helpful, too. THANK YOU!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | July 13, 2012, 6:14 am
    • Thanks Becke–We have so many paths open to us! You don’t have to choose right away. I did leave out two very important “midsized” publishers. Disney Hyperion–which is like the Big 6 in that you need an agent and they’re pretty durn big. Then there’s Scolastic, JK Rowling’s US publisher. Also a pretty big deal.

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | July 13, 2012, 10:14 am
  2. Morning Anne and thanks!!

    I’ve always wanted to know the answers to those questions, but hated to ask! =)

    Very comprehensive list, I’m definitely adding this one to my keeper file!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | July 13, 2012, 6:21 am
  3. Wow! I love this. Very useful and comprehensive list all in one post. Thank you.

    Posted by Kiru Taye | July 13, 2012, 6:24 am
  4. Hi Anne,

    My publisher, Wild Rose Press, is wonderful. There are so many publishers out there. Checking the warning sites is very important.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | July 13, 2012, 6:57 am
  5. Anne, as usual a great post. Valuable info & a must-bookmark!

    Posted by Ruth Harris | July 13, 2012, 7:22 am
  6. Hi Anne. This is a terrific post! I would have loved to have had this a few years ago.

    Thanks for the great info. It’s going right into my keeper file.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | July 13, 2012, 7:32 am
    • Adrienne–You and me both. If I’d known that Kensington was still looking at unagented romance, I might have looked very hard at them. (It’s where Ruth Harris was editor, and then publisher. We would have met under very different circumstances.)

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | July 13, 2012, 10:20 am
  7. Nice, easy-to-understand list. And I have to admit- I’m one of the ones who doesn’t want to ask for fear of sounding ignorant!
    And I’m really looking forward to your book.
    Thanks for a place to run when I need a go-to list!

    Posted by Kelly Wolf | July 13, 2012, 9:15 am
  8. I’m going to link this to my Facebook page, because you’ve done a better job explaining the Players of Publishing than I ever could!

    Great post!

    Posted by Macy Beckett | July 13, 2012, 10:04 am
  9. Thanks for a very clear and concise explanation of what is often very confusing these days.

    One question: Why do “industry purists” think it’s a conflict of interest if agents help clients get into self-publishing? Isn’t it the agent’s job is to help a writer make money? I mean, who do “purists” think the agent should serve? The Big Six?

    Posted by Dave Thome | July 13, 2012, 10:10 am
  10. Thanks for the informative and useful post! I’m bookmarking this one.

    Posted by Willa Blair | July 13, 2012, 11:37 am
  11. I don’t write how-to books but seeing Sunset on the list put a smile on my face. I own lots of their old cookbooks. I also remember Scholastic Books. I used to save my allowance to buy books through their school program.

    Thanks for this very useful breakdown of publishing options. When I was in school, I worked in the trade department of the campus bookstore. It was one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had. It’s interesting to see how many of the mid-sized and smaller publishers have been gobbled up by the larger ones.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | July 13, 2012, 12:32 pm
    • Jen–Actually Scholastic is now a very, very big deal, thanks to something called Harry Potter. They started out marketing direct to schools and it sure worked. They pretty much invented the YA genre.

      Places like Sunset and F & W, which published Writer’s Digest Books, are still chugging along, but I wonder how long they’ll make it when a lot of the info is available online. (I love my Sunset California cookbook!) They’ll have to catch up with the ebook revolution.

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | July 13, 2012, 2:22 pm
      • I remember when Lane Publishing published the Sunset books and magazines. If you’re ever up in the Bay Are in May, Sunset hosts an open house. Seeing the Sunset test kitchens ranked right up there with Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian!

        Posted by Jennifer Tanner | July 13, 2012, 3:44 pm
  12. Thank you for this informative post. I learned so much and will use it as a reference!

    Posted by Larissa Reinhart | July 13, 2012, 2:18 pm
  13. Great, comprehensive post. Thanks for spelling it all out so clearly, Anne! 🙂 I’ll be sharing it.

    Posted by Laura Pep Wu | July 13, 2012, 3:53 pm
  14. Anne,

    Thanks for joining us today and thank you everyone for stopping by!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | July 13, 2012, 11:04 pm
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    Posted by Jane | December 6, 2015, 8:04 pm


  1. […] As writers you have probably noticed the proliferation of new presses that have recently broken into the publication arena. I have heard that now is a great time to be a writer because there are so many options open to us. Anne R. Allen did a terrific breakdown of the different levels of publishing for Romance U in her July post, Who Are the “Big Six”? What does Indie Really Mean? […]

  2. […] things relative to publication are most important to you? Is the prestige of publishing with a Big Six (or Seven) house worth whatever it takes? How have the recent (and ongoing) industry changes impacted your […]

  3. […] cheaper prices due to lower costs, which meant huge tactical advantages ‘against’ the Big-Six-now-5-or-maybe-4 legacy publishers. Plus making an e-book was less expensive than making a print-book. This was a major game changer […]

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