The “Big 5” Trade Publishers and Their Imprints

Stacey Donovan
December 9, 2020

As the publishing industry is rapidly changing every year, even every day, here’s a look at the publishers that remain at the top, as well as other major publishers beyond the “Big 5,” which may now be the “Big 4” (one now very big indeed) with the surprising sale of Simon & Schuster to Penguin Random House, but it’s too early to know exactly what this changed landscape will look like. Perhaps there will be room for another publisher on this list to claim a spot in keeping the “Big 5” as just that, or perhaps Penguin Random House may take over the publishing world more than ever before, leaving little room for others to rise up the ranks. The latter seems more likely as Penguin Random House is now estimated to have about thirty percent of the U.S. book market.

Here’s a look at the most current breakdown of the major publishing houses, their notable imprints, and a brief history of how they came to be and where they are now. 

We will just have to wait and see where they are headed, however, as the scene of publishing alters more every day.

1. Penguin Random House

“Big 5” publisher. Founded in 1924 initially, Penguin and Random House merged in 2013 to create the current incarnation, and now the company is getting even bigger with a recent acquirement of another “big 5” publisher—the most surprising news we’ve seen in the publishing industry in a long time, if not ever. 

Penguin Random House’s current notable imprints: 

  • Knopf Doubleday- This imprint has multiple other imprints, as most within Penguin Random House. Knopf is known for publishing hardcover within all fiction and nonfiction genres, and the smaller imprints beneath Knopf itself are dedicated to genres from classics, to commercial fiction, to translation, and more.
  • Crown Publishing- This imprint specializes in bestselling fiction and narrative nonfiction in categories including biography, science, history, politics, and so on. Fiction authors that have been published with this imprint include those of Gillian Flynn, Andy Weir, Ernest Cline, among many others.
  • Viking Press- This imprint is dedicated to both fiction and nonfiction authors across all genres.

Now, on to the notable news about Penguin Random House:

They have purchased Simon & Schuster! ViacomCBS agreed to sell the company that has been around for ninety-six years. Now combined with Penguin Random House, the new company is being referred to as a megapublisher. Penguin Random House was already recognized as potentially the biggest of the 5 major houses, and Simon & Schuster was recognized as the third largest in terms of sales and revenue. This deal took place in November 2020 for an estimated $2 billion. Simon & Schuster was first put up for sale back in March 2020 as the first wave of the pandemic hit. The deal has yet to be finalized, and both companies are protected in the case that it falls through. Assuming the deal is executed, this could greatly reform the publishing industry as we know it. There will now be 4 big publishers to pitch instead of 5, and PRH will be a clear front-runner, shrinking the other major publishers.

About Simon & Schuster before the sale agreement to Penguin Random House:

Simon & Schuster was founded in 1924. As of 2016, they were the third largest publisher in the United States.

Some of their notable imprints include (it is still too early to know the ins and outs of how PRH and S&S will be redesigned in terms of imprints and the merge): 

  • Howard Books- Publishing fiction across genres, as well as nonfiction including biography and memoir. They also publish Christian living, inspirational, and gift books.
  • Scribner- Publishing fiction and nonfiction across genres. Stephen King is often published under Scribner. They have published authors such as Annie Proulx, Frank McCourt, Don DeLillo, and many others.
  • Touchstone- Publishing fiction and nonfiction across genres.

2. Hachette Livre

“Big 5” publisher. Founded in 1826. The new merger was created officially in 1992.

Notable imprints: 

  • Grand Central Publishing- This imprint mainly focuses on fiction spanning from commercial to literary.
  • Little, Brown and Company- All genres are published under this imprint. 
  • Mulholland Books- This is an imprint within the imprint of Little, Brown and Company. It is dedicated mainly to publishing mystery novels of all types.

3. HarperCollins

“Big 5” publisher. HarperCollins was formed in 1989 through a multi-company merger. 

Notable imprints: 

  • AvonBooks- This imprint is dedicated to publishing romance of all kinds, including paranormal, erotica, fantasy, contemporary, and more.
  • Harlequin Enterprises- Publishing mainly women’s fiction and romance across all genres.
  • Harper- Publishing fiction and nonfiction across all genres.
  • William Morrow- Premier fiction and nonfiction publisher across genres.

4. Macmillan Publishers

“Big 5” publisher. Founded in 1843. The current embodiment of MacMillan was established in 2015 after company merges took place.

Notable imprints: 

  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux- Publishing fiction and nonfiction across genres, they also publish renowned poetry.
  • Picador- Publishing literary fiction.
  • Thomas Dunne Books- Publishing fiction and nonfiction across genres.

5. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Original bookselling business was purchased in 1832 by Ticknor; Fields later joined as a partner. Houghton purchased his own publishing company in 1864, Mifflin joined in 1872. Ticknor and Fields’ company merged with Houghton and Mifflin and it continued to morph over the years from then on with new leadership and partners. HMH is the leading textbook and instructional materials publisher. They also publish a variety of fiction and nonfiction for children and adults.

Notable imprints: 

  • Clarion- This is the young readers division, publishing picture books and children’s fiction.
  • John Joseph Adams Books- This imprint is dedicated to science fiction and fantasy books.

6. Scholastic

Founded in 1920 as a magazine initially, they went on to publish their first book in 1926. Scholastic is mainly a children’s book publisher, as well as educational texts, and their notable imprints below are dedicated to publishing books for kids.

Notable imprints: 

  • Arthur A. Levine- Children’s book imprint.
  • Klutz Press- Imprint for children’s books.
  • Orchard Books- Children’s book imprint.

7. Wiley (John Wiley & Sons)

Mainly an instructional and academic publisher. Founded in 1807 and was the first publisher of authors such as Melville and Poe.

Notable imprints: 

  • Bloomberg Press- Mainly publishing financial and business texts.
  • Capstone- Publishing business books.
  • For Dummies- This is one of the most well-known instructional publishers. Publishing user friendly instructional texts across all topics.
  • Wiley-Blackwell- This is a research brand within Wiley Publishing. Provider of academic, scientific, and professional texts.

8. Oxford University Press

Mainly publishing journals of an academic nature, it is the largest university press in the world. They also publish updated editions of literary classics not initially published by Oxford. Founded in the sixteenth century.

Notable imprints: 

  • Clarendon Press- Publishing classics and academic books.

9. Disney Publishing Worldwide

Founded in 1991. Publishing children’s books for all ages, as well as adult titles. Disney Publishing Worldwide is the publishing subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company.

Notable imprints:

  • Hyperion- Children’s book publishing imprint

10. Workman Publishing Company

Founded in 1968. Publishing a wide variety of fiction and children’s books, as well as cookbooks, parenting guides, country living, gardening, humor, calendars, and gift books.

Notable imprints:

  • Algonquin- Publishing fiction and nonfiction across genres, expanding from its initial focus on literary fiction. Algonquin Young Readers is another notable imprint publishing middle grade and young adult books.

11. Sterling Publishing

Founded in 1949. Publishing a broad range of genres. Sterling Publishing was acquired by Barnes & Noble in 2003.

Notable imprints:

  • Flash Kids- Publishing workbooks and flashcards for students from preschool through high school in essential curriculum subjects.
  • Sterling Books- publishing a broad range of subject areas, mainly in nonfiction, from lifestyle to current events to history, and so on.

12. Abrams Publishing

Founded in 1949. They were the first publisher to specialize in art and illustrated books, having expanded across genres since. 

Notable imprints:

  • Amulet Books- Publishing novels, graphic novels, and nonfiction for young adult and middle grade.

Publishing is Changing all the Time

We have already seen the indie publishing world take off in popularity. Authors who might not have otherwise had a chance can publish their books in one click now without needing permission from the “gatekeepers” known as agents and publishing houses. However, those that are published with the major publishers have a much greater chance of being seen and heard by larger numbers of people, and that speaks volumes about these publishing houses. There is a reason they have stuck around and have dominated for decades upon centuries. Even with the sale of one major publisher to another, and constant merging, fluctuating, and shifting, one thing is clear—the biggest publishers aren’t going away. 

About the Author

Learn more & contact Stacey Donovan

More Articles

How to Find a Professional Book Editor

How to Find a Professional Book Editor

Learn the essentials of working with an editor for your book. Understand the editing process, from initial manuscript evaluation to final proofreading, and discover key aspects to consider for a fruitful author-editor relationship.

read more
How to Jump-Start Your Writing

How to Jump-Start Your Writing

Are you working on a novel, but you aren’t writing as much as you wish you were? Has your project stalled as a result? Are you kicking yourself for your lack of discipline? I’m going to assume you really do want to write the book. I’m assuming that the problem isn’t...

read more


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *