Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Traditional Publishers are Actually Trade Publishers

Whether we call the new mode of publishing self-, indie, or artisan, the most consistently used label for the formerly dominant publishing model is, “traditional.”

As people who work with words, we understand how important it is to use the right ones. There are, for example, some circles where traditional means, “time-tested values,” not, “hopelessly stuck in the past.” But the real problem with the label, “traditional,” isn’t whether it implies the business model is good or bad but that it doesn’t accurately describe the business model.

Major commercial publishers are, “trade publishers,” because they published to the book trade. They sell their wares to booksellers, not readers.

“But,” you may object, “readers are still the ones buying the books, so what’s the big deal?”

Consider the problem of children’s books: children don’t buy books. Thanks to the inconvenient fact that very few children have disposable income, essentially all children’s books are purchased by well-meaning adults. This means that the book must appeal not only to the child for whom it’s intended but also to someone in the circle of adults with an interest in supplying that child with reading material. It’s not uncommon for the two constituencies (children and adults) to have very different reasons for choosing a book.

Booksellers, of course, want to sell books. The ideal book for a bookseller is one that every reader will want. Readers want to buy books that will entertain, educate, or provide an experience. The ideal book for a reader is one that speaks to his or her specific needs and desires. Absent that ideal book, readers choose the ones that seem to best suit their needs from what’s available. It’s not uncommon for the two constituencies (booksellers and readers) to have very different reasons for choosing a book.

Booksellers order the products they resell from trade publishers. Trade publishers don’t deal directly with readers. That means trade publishers are primarily in the business of convincing booksellers to offer their wares to the reading public. Convincing readers to read their books is at best a secondary concern for trade publishers.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

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