Publishing a science fiction or fantasy book can seem like a mystical experience – it happens to those privileged few, but the rest of us can only fire out manuscripts at random. Or at Random, as the case may be.
But any aspiring author can’t be content to work for anyone who accepts them, or they’ll wind up in the literary equivalent of a sweatshop. Instead, it’s best to research the assorted publishing houses and know which one is the best fit.
No one knows this better than Brandon Sanderson, a New York Times bestseller who has published almost 20 novels within the last decade and has been heralded as the future of fantasy. He still finds time to teach courses at Brigham Young University, all of which are free online.
In one late-2014 lecture, Sanderson laid out a crash course in the various publishing houses. Any author should know the landscape of the publishing world, and for those in the speculative fiction genre, Sanderson’s guide is a valuable place to start. Using his lecture as a starting place, I’ve created a bullet-pointed list as a 101 course in publishing houses and imprints.
The Big Five
The publishing house monopoly makes things easy: there are just five major, respected houses in the industry. Beneath each is a host of smaller organizations that operate semi-independently: they won’t compete with another imprint under their house, but one might accept a manuscript that another imprint has rejected.
Previously the big six—before the Penguin and Random House merger in 2013—your “big five” houses are: Penguin/Random House; Macmillian; Hachette; Harper Collins; and Simon & Schuster.
Penguin Random House
Or “Random Penguin,” for those of us who are better at naming companies than whoever was in charge of that merger. This house boasts the most confusing collection of SF and fantasy imprints. Let’s split them back into their two original houses, in order to best tackle the mess that is their selection of imprints.
Under Penguin are two more names, Ace and Roc. It’s important to note that they operate as one (complete with combination facebook and twitter accounts), despite using two names. A rejection from one is a rejection from both, so don’t double submit.
A long-time paperback publisher, Ace and Roc upped their output to hardcovers in the ’70s and ’80s. They still produce pulpy action adventures, but will consider any other SF&F genre as well. Together, they form one of the oldest and most professional imprints on this list.
One final publisher to mention under the confusing and broad category of Penguin Random House: DAW Books. DAW operates independently from Penguin, but shares a distribution relationship and headquarters with the house. They’re small and fans of epic fantasy, as indicated by their biggest name, Patrick Rothfuss.
Macmillian owns Tor. A popular imprint since the 90s, Tor rose to the top with the kind help of Robert Jordon and Terry Goodkind. Unique for a hands-off approach, Tor allows its editors to curate books as they please. This means that authors should take more than normal care in picking an editor, and the author will be working with only that editor. It is “Fantastic, but has no adult supervision,” according to a quote from Sanderson.
This imprint is notable for a savvy web presence: it runs Tor.com, a popular SF&F blog.
Hachette’s speculative fiction imprint is Orbit. They have a reputation as a top publisher in many foreign countries and have recently broken into the US publishing scene. They have a strong reputation despite being relatively new, as their US imprint was only launched in 2007.
According to their site, they publish “approximately 60 titles each year from both established and debut authors,” among whom are Joe Abercrombie, Iain M. Banks, Karen Miller, Lilith Saintcrow and Brent Weeks.
Voyager is the imprint under Harper Collins. See how simple this is once we get away from Penguin Random House? Every other house merely has one speculative fiction imprint.
Urban fantasy is a focus at Voyager, according to Sanderson. Harper Voyager is the first global imprint for HarperCollins Publishers worldwide, and according to their website, publish a variety of genres that include “science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy/supernatural, and horror.”
Simon & Schuster
The Saga imprint is the youngest, just launched in 2013 and still getting on to its feet. It is planning on publishing 12-15 hardcover titles annually as of this year. They’re hoping to prove themselves, so check them out in the near future. Or if you have a manuscript, send it their way!
But wait! There’s more!
A handful of smaller presses aren’t owned by the big five, but produce a noteworthy quality of fiction. Baen is the most well-known independent press. It sells a lot of action-adventure, from sword and sorcery to military sci-fi. Advances might be small, but it’s a tight-knit, trustworthy community.
There are others—Pyr, Tachyon, Angry Robot, and more—but I’ll let you check them out yourself. This article is an Imprint 101 course: I just gave you the basics of the speculative fiction publishing world, but you’ll need to do the homework yourself. You can’t take the “aspiring” out of “aspiring author” until you’ve taken notes on each imprint and figured out which house or editor is the best fit for you. Good luck!