What Are Trade Books in Publishing?

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Trade Publishing refers to the business of publishing books for a general audience, and encompasses most of what the consumer thinks of when thinking about "book publishing."

Trade Books

"Trade books" are the ones most people think of when they think of books and publishing. They are what's stocked in most common brick-and-mortar retail bookstores, the "best-sellers" on online booksellers, and the volumes found in public lending libraries.

Some examples of trade books are:

  • romance novels
  • thrillers
  • biographies
  • cookbooks
  • history books
  • children's books

Trade books are, of course, available through online booksellers such as bn.com and amazon.com, which also carry non-trade books.

Examples of Trade Publishers

Trade publishers publish trade books. The most well-known trade publishers are the Big Five—Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster.

Technically, hybrid publishers and self-publishing services produce books for the trade market, but these involve challenges to getting such books to the consumer.

Also, business consolidation means many "name" publishers now house trade-publishing divisions along with other types of publishers. These include Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, where trade books represent 12% of their business, as well as Palgrave Macmillan and more.

So What Is Not a Trade Book?

Sometimes it's easier to understand what is a trade book by looking at what is not a trade book. Examples of books that are not trade books include:

Academic Books and Textbooks: These are written by or with the input of instructors, used for the classroom, and often purchased in bulk for use by entire school systems.

Some books from trade publishers are "adopted" as mandatory reading for certain schoolroom or college subjects. For example, the trade novel Huckleberry Finn is often sold to schools to be read in American literature classes.

In these cases, the books are sold by trade publishers through sales reps and channels that cater to these specific school and academic sales channels.

Professional, Technical, and Reference Books: Highly specialized books used by practitioners in fields such as accounting, medicine, psychology, and computer science.

These come from professional publishers that specialize in those areas and can include in-depth books on very niche areas.

For example, the book Architectural Graphic Standards, a professional book published by Wiley, "is the written authority for architects, designers, and building contractors. It provides comprehensive guidance on the visual representation of materials, products, systems, and assemblies."

Because of the small, distinct audiences trade books target—and the cost of authoritative content—professional, technical, and reference books cost substantially more than trade books. For example, Architectural Graphic Standards costs $250 in hardcover.