A fellow publishing professional told me recently that she wished hybrid publishing had a different name—that it would be better if hybrid publishing could be clearer, sexier somehow, as if that would solve its lingering challenges. But there is no name hybrid publishing could adopt that would change the fact that it’s a gray zone—between traditional publishing and self-publishing—or that it’s an emerging model that’s still being defined.
The Independent Book Publishers Association took a giant step earlier this year to codify hybrid publishing by laying out nine criteria that publishers must meet to be called hybrid publishers. The criteria are important because hybrid publishing, despite its unsexy name, does have clear appeal. It’s getting attention. The industry is writing about it and therefore further codifying and validating it. And because the business model is one in which authors pay, service providers and other entities that do not meet the criteria are calling themselves hybrid because it behooves them to do so.
Not all of these players are sinister. I’ve talked to plenty of service providers who say, “We’re hybrid. We meet most of the criteria.” The issue is that most isn’t enough, and hybrid publishing will only be fully embraced and legitimized once the good actors understand that aspiring to be hybrid and being hybrid are two separate things.
Hybrid publishing has, in fact, been around for as long as publishers have existed. In its simplest definition, hybrid publishing is traditional publishing in which authors invest in their own book projects in exchange for higher royalties. On the front end, the difference comes down to the money and who pays; on the back end, reputable hybrid publishers must adhere to the industry’s best practices and standards. Traditional publishers have been cutting these kinds of deals for decades, and often the authors who want them are the savviest and most entrepreneurial: they understand that there’s a certain insanity to giving up over 90% of their earnings and that the reality of a big advance is that it has the potential to be a career killer.
There’s no question that advances are seductive. Every aspiring author wants one, not only for the money but because an advance is a financial vote of confidence. The problem is that votes of confidence have zero insurance attached to them, and since the publishing industry has only doubled down on advances in recent years, with many celebrated six- and seven-figure deals, the entire process—auctions, bidding wars, giant advances—runs on high adrenaline and makes book publishers look a whole lot like problem gamblers hitting the Vegas Strip.
One editor, quoted in a 2014 Publishers Weekly article titled, “The Rise of the Seven-Figure Advance,” in attempting to explain these enormous advances, said, “The whole pool of talent is shrinking. There are fewer publishers, fewer slots, and fewer submissions, so... the higher the quality of the project, the more you’re likely to get.”
The talent pool is not shrinking. Far from it. It’s just that there are fewer “sure bets”: the debut (often young and attractive) literary ingenues and celebrities. Publishers cry poor and then throw a million dollars on red. What’s actually shrinking is any space within traditional publishing for new ways of thinking about how publishers might do business. Those who think outside the box, as always, are the indies.
The big question that continues to challenge hybrid publishers is how they can prove they have a stake in projects if they’re not paying for them. It’s decidedly less glamorous to have to pony up the money to publish than it is to get an advance, true. To measure what’s at stake for a publisher, however, is to measure what’s gained or lost. Hybrid publishers gain an asset every time an author is added to their lists, but they happen to pay authors a far greater percentage than traditional publishers, and that therefore puts far less pressure on either party to earn out.
The first article I wrote for PW about hybrid publishing was in 2014. “Traditional publishing has so little flexibility that it’s wedged itself into a creative void, and I think the long-term cultural impact will become evident,” I wrote. There’s no separating the space that hybrid publishing is carving out for itself from the frenzied dance being played out in traditional publishing, because the two are interconnected. Yes, it’s more interesting to watch the drama that unfolds when the stakes are higher. But, in the long run, the career writers of the future will be those who embrace the myriad business models open to authors today.
There are not and have never been sure bets in book publishing. It’s a creative industry, and therefore, thankfully, many of the books that rise to the top defy reason and expectation. Thus, what matters most to any author should be the mechanisms by which a publisher can get a book out into the world. And, because the hybrid criteria include distribution, authors would do well to investigate this process and learn about how sales and marketing work. Authors should also determine whether previous books from publishers they’re considering rise to the level of success that they’re hoping for. These are the measures that matter—the measures that will give authors the most insurance in the end.
Brooke Warner is the publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, a TEDx speaker, a writing coach, and the author of Write On, Sisters! (She Writes, fall 2019).