Authors no longer have to choose between traditional publishing and self-publishing. A third option has emerged and is gaining ground: hybrid publishing, which fuses aspects of traditional publishing with self-publishing, often for an up-front fee. At least that’s one definition; as any author exploring the territory of hybrid publishing will find, it’s complicated.

“Hybrid publishing is an often-confusing term,” says Mark Lefebvre, director of self-publishing and author relations at Kobo. “You could be talking about a type of assisted self-publishing, where a company that has in-house expertise gives authors the ability to pay for those services and will publish virtually any manuscript that crosses their threshold; or referring to a model where the author might invest up front but there is editorial evaluation and input, and publishing projects are chosen based on their merit as a sellable product.”

Further creating confusion is the fact that a “hybrid author” has nothing to do with a hybrid publisher. The former is, as Mark Coker, founder and CEO of Smashwords, points out, “an author who publishes books both with conventional publishers and who also self-publishes.”

Also complicating matters is the fact that publishers once called vanity presses—those that offer supported self-publishing services and will publish whatever manuscripts come their way once the authors’ checks clear—could technically be called hybrid, because they leverage traditional publishing aspects along with the pay-to-play method of self-publishing. Author Solutions has a number of supported self-publishing imprints, including AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Trafford Publishing, Wordclay, and Xlibris, all of which fit the definition of hybrid. The company also has partner imprints in alliance with traditional publishing houses.

Though it may be fair to call all of the above hybrids, they skew more toward self-publishing because almost any author can publish with them. The hybrid publishers that stand out more clearly are those that screen submissions and have a strong sense of branding.

The Major Players

“What defines a hybrid publisher is not being made clear, and I am not sure that it can be, [but] when I look at what defines a hybrid publisher, [I see] a level of curation,” publishing industry consultant Jane Friedman says. “Not everyone who walks through the door can get published.”

Amy Edelman, president and founder of IndieReader, says the “better” hybrid publishers are the ones that “vet the books before agreeing to take them on.” She Writes Press, Evolved Publishing, EverAfter, and Inkshares follow this model, though they all operate very differently from one another. SWP, which publishes books for, by, and about women, charges a fee of $4,900 per title for a bundle of services that includes distribution, e-book file preparation and upload, proofreading, and custom design, among other services. Authors retain 60% of the net profits on print books and close to 80% of the net profits on e-books.

“Our authors pay, but they have creative control and keep more of the financial reward by getting most of their royalties,” says Crystal Patriarche, CEO of SWP and its parent company, SparkPoint Studio, adding that authors also go on national press tours twice per year and have access to webinars and other educational tools. They are strongly encouraged to hire publicists, either on their own or through BookSparks, SWP’s sister public relations company under the SparkPoint umbrella.

With Evolved, which publishes mostly fiction and some nonfiction, authors are not required to pay an up-front fee, though they can pay for services such as editing or cover art, enabling them to maximize their retailer royalty rates, which are up to 81%. “We pride ourselves on offering the highest royalty rates in the business, but authors must recognize that this comes with trade-offs,” says Dave Lane, managing publisher and editor. “We offer print books, but we utilize the print-on-demand services of Lightning Source. As a division of Ingram, they’re able to make our books available everywhere in the world, and their quality levels are good, [but] those print books do not go into broad distribution in the way they would with a traditional publisher.”

EverAfter, which publishes romance titles exclusively, works with authors in a variety of ways, including bringing successfully self-published e-book authors to the print market. “Last July we launched a program where we put authors’ books into traditional print distribution with active sales representation for select titles,” says Mary Cummings, v-p and director of business development at Diversion Books, EverAfter’s parent company. “No matter how successful a romance author is in the digital space, print is a different animal, so we also work with these authors on strategy, marketing, and publicity in order to optimize their sales in print formats. We approach these distribution relationships with the perspective of a traditional publisher, so we aim to add as much as we can to the conversation along the way. We also offer à la carte services, from design to publicity, to authors that want them.”

Inkshares, which focuses primarily on SF and fantasy titles, runs on crowdfunding. Authors, who pay no fees, are tasked with generating a following in the Inkshares community and can have their books published by Inkshares once they have scored at least 250 preorders.

“Once a book hits its goal, we work like a traditional publisher,” says Jeremy Thomas, CEO and cofounder of Inkshares. “We have a deal with Ingram distribution services that can get books into bookstores.”

Crash Course in Publishing

For many authors, the value of working with hybrid publishers rather than self-publishing is clear. There’s support, community, and the sense that the publisher believes in the work. But would any author choose a hybrid over a traditional publisher? It happens.

“[SWP] has authors who have several books out by a traditional publisher who want something new but don’t want to be on their own [as self-publishers],” Patriarche says. One distinct benefit that authors see, particularly with SWP, is a transparent process through which they can learn about book publishing.

SWP author Kristen Harnisch calls it a “crash course in publishing.” “Because I’m fronting the money and making most of the decisions, I’ve learned about editing, proofreading, printing, cover design, marketing, and distribution and now share these insights with authors at writers’ conferences,” she says. “Hybrid publishing has also given me more time to make my debut novel a success—a year or more—which is not the standard in traditional publishing.”

Jill G. Hall, who chose to publish her first novel with SWP, went the hybrid route in part because she felt that, at the age of 60, her “chances of getting picked up by a [traditional publisher] were slim.” Moreover, Hall didn’t want to lose control of her work.

“I have strong organizational skills, am a go-getter, and like being in charge,” Hall says. “I love to learn new things and found it an exciting challenge to learn the ins and outs of book marketing.”

A Tough Sell to Bookstores

Hybrid publishing does have its drawbacks and is assuredly not for everybody. Jordan Rosenfeld, who has published several books on her own, as well as with traditional presses and the hybrid publisher Booktrope, which closes May 31, enjoyed having a collaborative team backing her project, but says she is now “on the fence” about hybrids.

“I think that the best use of a hybrid publisher is for authors who want to write a series and can churn out a lot of books,” Rosenfeld says, “I think for one-off books, you’re better off trying to get a traditional publisher with some marketing budget.”

Authors who are keen on getting books into the hands of readers should by all means consider hybrid publishers, but authors who want to get their books into bricks-and-mortar stores should be aware of the model’s inherent challenges. A hybrid publisher that has access to bookstore distribution is promising, but the truth of the matter is that getting an indie book on shelves is “difficult and expensive,” IndieReader’s Edelman says.

Hall says the only thing that she didn’t like about hybrid publishing was the lack of interest from bookstores. “Many people and bookstores had never heard of SWP or the hybrid model before,” Hall says. “Since my novel wasn’t traditionally published, they looked down their noses at my book because they felt it wouldn’t be very high quality, [but] readers have given me great feedback, and that’s what matters most to me.”

Growth and Challenges

All signs point to growth in the still relatively small hybrid publishing sector, particularly as the stigma around self-publishing continues to fade. But long-term prospects could become an issue for emerging companies.

“Sustainability is by far the biggest challenge,” Friedman says, noting the closure of Booktrope for lack of revenue. “I expect there will be continued strain on most hybrids unless they shift more cost, or higher costs, onto the author and [become] more like service companies, and/or develop high-profile titles that bring in better revenue through sales.”

This challenge will become clearer over time, and what is most important at the moment is that authors do extensive research and watch out for predators. “A lot of authors are swayed by having contracts; they get excited and forget to do their due diligence,” says Penny Sansevieri, CEO at Author Marketing Experts. “Some years ago, we saw a lot of predatory publishers offer authors contracts and say they were a ‘traditional publisher’ because they paid a $1 advance. Authors signed up in droves. They also, however, signed away years’ worth of book rights, which is ridiculous.”

The key for authors is to do their homework, connect with peers who have published with hybrids, and determine their expectations and goals from the start.

“As a former banker, I always tell authors who choose hybrid publishing to crunch the numbers and make sure it’s affordable,” Harnisch says. “Add up all of your estimated expenses—including book promotion costs—and divide by the royalty you’ll earn on each book. Is your break-even point 4,000 units? Will you be able to sell that many books? Be realistic and adjust your expectations and plans accordingly.”

Nicole Audrey Spector is a freelance writer living with a man and a dog.