This article by Patricia Burroughs is from the January 2019 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
One of the great benefits of being a NINC member is access to the wealth of knowledge and experience available in the NINCLINK email loop from writers of all different backgrounds. Recently someone presented a confusing question, “What is a hybrid publisher?”
Most of us know what hybrid authors are. But it took some Googling to discover that there actually is such a thing as a hybrid publisher.
It primarily boils down to financial risk, and who is taking it.
Until the 21st Century, most publishing was what we now call traditional publishing. The publishers took all the financial risks from editing, to publishing, to marketing, to shipping. And the author usually got paid an advance up front!
The opposite of traditional publishing was vanity publishing. These publishers fed off a writer’s vanity (or more likely, desperation) and promised the sky—but the author had to pay all the publisher’s expenses, plus more, and then ended up with boxes of books to market and ship. Vanity publishing was rarely a good idea and almost always ended in frustration for the author.
But after the turn of this century, authors gained the power and ability to skip the traditional publishers and publish their own work profitably. Yes, self-publishing.
We all know the term “hybrid author” as a writer who combines both publishing paths in her or his career. Publishing has evolved its own hybrid, not to be confused with “hybrid authors” any more than it should be with “hybrid cars” or pluots, a hybrid of plums and apricots.
A hybrid publisher is a publisher that—in a perfect world—brings a lot of value to the table that the author usually can’t provide. Namely? Marketing and sales through established access and relationships with libraries, schools, and brick-and-mortar stores.
But it’s not that easy.
One reason there are so many definitions and descriptions of hybrid publishers is because they have widely different business models. Also, different companies that range from legitimate to scammers are using the term.
It’s up to writers to know what to look for and what to avoid.
The simplest and most accurate definition of hybrid publishers is that they combine aspects of traditional publishing with aspects of self-publishing.
In general, the author often provides the book and the money to cover editorial and production costs. This is usually far more than the typical self-published author pays for the same services, even if they hire them done. Thus it’s even more important that the publisher can hold up its side of the bargain.
The publisher provides the knowledge and experience to publish and market the book. This can include providing developmental editors with a background that matches the author and book, as well as later editing, professional layout and covers, and of course—selling books.
How do you get this magic on your team? You pay high publishing expenses up front and then split the royalties with the hybrid publisher, hopefully at least 50/50. Unless your financial investment is low, anything less than 50/50 is not a good deal.
So the author pays huge expenses up front. How is this any different from a vanity press? The publisher should then market and sell the book with a vastly wider reach than the given author could do alone.
This sometimes works.
Let’s just accept that sometimes this actually works out satisfactorily for the author who earns back initial expenses and more. Some hybrid publishers can point to at least a few true successes and connect a prospective client to authors who are willing to recommend said publisher. (If not, it does not bode well to assume that with your book they will suddenly break through and sell thousands or tens of thousands of books when they haven’t before, no matter how flattering it feels to be told your book is special, ‘the one’ they have been waiting for.)
So, again, hybrid publishing can be a good deal. But in all actuality? It’s a long shot.
Beginning with—there is no association or body to monitor or penalize hybrid publishers who are simply vanity presses with a clean, unblemished new term to call themselves.
An author interested in hybrid publishing has a lot of research ahead. Here are some questions to ask and things to investigate.
Are their books editorially curated?
Do they have a gatekeeper and standards a book must meet or do they take anyone who sends them a submission?
Do they provide sound, professional editorial support?
Do they provide developmental editing, copyediting, proofreading, and all the steps expected from a reputable traditional publisher?
Do they produce quality books you’d be proud to have your name on?
How do you know? Read as many free samples on Amazon and elsewhere as you can find. If those pass muster, buy some in digital and print, if the publisher does both. Read complete books to see if they maintain the quality you expect. Hold actual print books in your hands and don’t just read them. Compare them to good traditionally published books.
Do they provide a higher than standard royalty since you are subsidizing production of the book?
Assuming the author investment is significant (as it seems to be in most if not all cases) that should be at least a 50/50 split of net royalties.
What rights does the publisher want to claim?
As publishers, they may want more than you want to give. An important question is, do they exercise all the rights they want to keep? Do they actually create quality audiobooks that are selling and getting good reviews (or at least no bad reviews) on sites like Audible? Do they actually market print books to libraries, schools, stores, etc.? If the answer to these or similar questions is no, it’s incredibly difficult to justify a publisher keeping them, no matter what traditional publishers might do. You have more clout in this situation than you do with a traditional publisher. Carefully consider whether you want to let them sit on your subsidiary rights, hoping someday they’ll be able to use them—or better, that they’ll be worth something because of your later success (which may have little to do with this particular book or anything this publisher did).
Perhaps one of the most important questions is what do they offer in terms of marketing and distribution?
Does the publisher have an actual print catalog of their books? Do their books get reviewed in PW, Library Journal, or specific publications and websites that have an authoritative voice and reach in your book’s genre or niche?
Do they have an actual marketing or sales team that will be actively attempting to sell your book, in the way you would expect a traditional publisher to do? Do they buy ads in places that count or promote their list in other ways? Do they have a marketing and sales strategy for your books? Did they and/or their sales team come from marketing at a reputable publisher in your genre or niche? If not, how are they going to be able to sell more books than you can on your own? Being able to point to books in an Ingram online catalog is not proof of their connections. You can do the same thing yourself. Being in the catalog means your book is available for books, libraries, and bookstores to order. But if the publisher can’t actually stimulate sales, how are they holding up their part?
A hybrid publisher should bring a lot of value to the table that the author can’t provide. That means not just producing books but selling them.
A publisher that isn’t every bit as vested in making money from your book as you are is a publisher whose business model is based on getting money from writers.
There is no standard definition of a hybrid publisher, what they offer, or what expenses they expect the author to cover. Do your homework and you may find that special situation that will actually make a positive difference to you. Just remember that in this, like many aspects of publishing (whether traditional or self-pub), the odds aren’t in your favor until you’ve done your due diligence and made smart choices.
The IBPA (International Book Publishers Association) has a helpful and informative webpage with downloads, which states their IBPA Hybrid Publisher Criteria and details the IBPA’s “Industry Standards Checklist for a Professionally Published Book.”