Traditional publishers are generally considered to be the big five New York-based publishers: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster.
Although these publishers control a substantial portion of the U.S. book market in terms of sales (either a quarter or three-quarters of the market, depending on the source – estimates vary widely), they are not as all-powerful as they used to be.
Co-publishing and self-publishing have encroached on the monopoly held by traditional publishers (and traditional publishers usually ignore sales figures regarding self-publishing, unless that book becomes something of a phenomenon).
To capture the attention of one of the big-name publishing houses, authors must find an agent who will help them pitch their manuscripts to the publisher. The publisher will publish the book, and do some publicity, but the rest is up to the author.
Another important consideration in the traditional publishing model is that marketing of the book is the responsibility of the author, and the author must present a solid marketing plan to the publisher when pitching his or her book. Publishers must be convinced there is a solid marketing and promotion plan for a book before even reading through the manuscript.
In the traditional publishing model, the publisher covers printing costs and the author is responsible for marketing costs. Traditional publishers also give authors distribution to major retailers, getting their books onto bookstore shelves.
The upside: if you're an already-established author with a substantial following, the publisher will go all-out for you, and promote you well (you'll still have to self-market).
The downside: although your book will be edited, copyedited, professional designed and packaged, you're entirely on your own when it comes to getting the word out about your book. If time is of the essence, traditional publishing may not be the right choice for you, as many of the major publishers can take years to get your book to market.
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