What Are Trade Books?

Definition & Examples of Trade Books

woman in a bookstore
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Getty Images / Eugenio Marongiu

Trade books are those that are published for a general audience and available through most regular book dealers. Trade is considered the largest category in book publishing.

Learn more about what trade books are—and aren't.

What Are 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 of online booksellers, and the volumes found in public libraries.

Alternate name: Trade edition

How Trade Books Work

The most well-known publishers of trade books are dubbed "the big five." They include Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster.

Publishers market trade books to the general public, and their distribution teams usually focus on making sure they get into libraries and both brick-and-mortar and online bookstores.

Some smaller, independent publishers also make use of trade distributors to get their books to the general market. And technically, hybrid publishers and self-publishing services can also produce books for the trade market, but they have challenges in getting the books to the consumer.

Types of Trade Books

Trade books can be paperback or hardcover and encompass many genres of both fiction and nonfiction, including novels, biographies, cookbooks, history books, and children's books.

Sometimes it's easier to understand what a trade book is by looking at what it's not. They do not include rare books or textbooks for niche readerships. At the same time, they don't include books targeted toward impulse buyers, like you might see at airports. They usually fall somewhere between these categories.

Since textbooks are written by or with the input of instructors, used for the classroom, and often purchased in bulk for use by entire school systems, and not the general public, they're not considered trade books.

However, trade books can be used in schools alongside textbooks. 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.

Along the same lines, highly specialized books used by practitioners in fields such as accounting, medicine, psychology, and computer science are also not trade books. These come from professional publishers that specialize in those areas and can include in-depth books on very niche areas.

For example, "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" can sell for $250 or more in hardcover.

Some books may have both trade editions and mass-market editions.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are mass-market books. They're usually sold in on racks in non-traditional locations instead of bookstores, including grocery stores, drug stores, newsstands, and airports. They're usually smaller, printed on lower-quality paper, and cost less than trade books. This format is often used for romance novels and thrillers, although those genres can be trade books, as well.

Examples of Trade Books

You can go to your local library or bookstore or look at the New York Times Best Sellers "Paperback Trade Fiction" category to find examples of trade books. Some famous examples of trade books include:

  • "Goodnight Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown
  • The "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling
  • "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown
  • "Happy Days With the Naked Chef" by Jamie Oliver
  • "Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L. James
  • "Twilight" by Stephenie Meyer
  • "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini
  • "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett
  • "You Are What You Eat" by Gillian McKeith

You can add to this list the myriad of other children's books, cookbooks, biographies, and other fiction and nonfiction books.

Key Takeaways

  • Trade books are published for a general audience and are widely available to the public through libraries and bookstores.
  • They include many types of both fiction and nonfiction, including novels, biographies, cookbooks, history books, and children's books.
  • Trade books are not rare books, textbooks for niche readerships, or mass-market books on racks at drugstores.