In an effort to serve as wide a membership as possible, this year the Independent Book Publishers Association held not one but two Publishing University conferences in April. IBPA opened PubU with virtual programming on April 20-21, followed by face-to-face events a week later in Orlando, from April 28-30. PubU serves small presses, hybrid publishers, and author publishers (also known as self-published authors), with a motto of “helping each other achieve and succeed,” said CEO Angela Bole. “This is a program built by the members for the members.”

IBPA’s dual approach to its annual conference was in response to small businesses’ needs in uncertain and expensive times. “There's a lot of people who are still uncomfortable traveling, and also, as soon as the war [in Ukraine] started, flights went up in price astronomically,” Bole said. Because IBPA wanted to build a “community vibe,” the organization rose to the logistical challenges of scheduling keynotes and breakout sessions across multiple platforms, plus catered events and the 34th annual IBPA Benjamin Franklin Book Awards ceremony presented live in Orlando. (See the winners here.)

Hosting a conference in Orlando was not without its complications. Planning for an Orlando PubU had begun pre-pandemic, in 2019. Three years later, Florida is a political lightning rod. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed both the “Parental Rights in Education” bill (known to opponents as “Don’t Say Gay”) and the “Individual Freedom Bill,” curtailing workplace DEI training and discussions of race in classrooms. On April 18, a federal judge in St. Petersburg struck down President Joe Biden’s national mask mandate on airplanes and public transit. Mindful of these divisive actions, IBPA released a position statement ahead of the meeting. While some dissenters canceled their memberships, Bole said “that statement was, for the most part, extremely well received.”

“All in all for the conference this year, we were over in attendance than we typically are, counting everyone who did virtual-only and people here in person,” Bole said. Of a total 390 registrants, 189 opted for virtual-only sessions, while 201 chose an all-access pass to attend online and in-person. Bole added: “I don't know how sustainable it is to build two conferences that we run in one month, but the staff managed with aplomb. Part of me doesn't know how we could have done it any other way.”

Virtual and all-access attendees sat in on breakout sessions about marketing books to schools; direct-to-consumer strategies; and how to ensure inclusive titles are distributed successfully. Stephen Green, COO of the Portland, Ore.–based media group A Kids Company About, anchored the Orlando conference with his keynote on how “Small Businesses Drive the Community.” During the virtual component, Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, talked about “Disrupting the Publishing Industry,” a topic she has explored in PW. Warner spoke about mitigating waste, destigmatizing print-on-demand, and improving distribution (“one of the biggest pain points of our industry”). John Chrastka of EveryLibrary moderated a panel on free speech, and attorney Jonathan Kirsch delved into the nitty-gritty of copyrights and contracts.

A Debate Around Ethical Hybrid Publishing

Hybrid publishing came under particular scrutiny at PubU. On April 29, during the IBPA meeting, the U.K.-based Society of Authors and Writers Guild of Great Britain released an announcement, “Writers’ unions call for reform of the ‘hybrid’/paid-for publishing sector.” The press release promoted an investigation, “Is it a steal?,” based on a 2021 survey of 240 U.K. writers: “the unions found that 94% of those who had paid to have books published lost money, typically in the thousands. Most paid over £2,000 and on average sold only 67 books, earning just £68.”

The white paper accuses hybrid publishers of predatory practices and calls them “‘vanity’ presses”: “In our view, of all the publishing approaches available, a ‘hybrid’/paid-for deal is the worst option a writer can take,” the SoA and WGGB report. “We have seen too many cases where the ‘hybrid’ / paid-for model amounts to a counterfeit approach to publishing. We invariably advise writers against it.”

In answer, the Authors Guild released a response to the SoA publication, allowing that the report “focuses on three main hybrid publishers active in the U.K. The hybrid publishing space is larger and more nuanced in the United States.” The AG acknowledged the existence of “dishonest publishers,” while directing readers to the guidance in IBPA's Hybrid Publisher Criteria, which outline ethical practices for hybrid publishing. The AG pointed to “an urgent need to educate authors about how to … make informed decisions about their path to publication in order to avoid falling prey to scams.”

Likewise, a statement penned by Warner, who is a former IBPA board president, that was provided to PW aimed to “offer a reframe, which is that the problem is bad-faith actors using the hybrid label to take advantage of authors.” The statement asserted that “Hybrid publishing is not the problem” and called references to vanity presses “outdated.” While commending the SoA and WGGB for raising the alarm about misleading business practices, IBPA stands behind its nine hybrid publisher criteria as fair business practices. (Warner also wrote about the issue on Jane Friedman’s blog, and promises forthcoming detail in a May 11 post.)

This dispute was taken up at PubU in a talk titled “Ethical Hybrid Publishing: Avoiding Conflicts of Interest and Combating False Perceptions.” Maggie Langrick, founding publisher and CEO of Wonderwell—and one of the members of the working group that drafted IBPA’s nine criteria in 2018—spoke out against the “misrepresentation” of companies like her own. Langrick pointed to companies that promise things they can’t deliver, and said, “If any hybrid publisher does that stuff, it’s a problem for all of us, right? really bothers me to see people dragging the name of my business model through the mud by doing those shady things.”

Langrick gave suggestions on how to avoid conflicts of interest and build a selective list: “You’re going to have to say no to people who want to pay you money,” she said. She also advised listeners to “commit to transparency” at every level, from service contracts to editorial assessments of submissions. “You’re not there to flatter them. You’re not there to blow sunshine in their face. You need to tell them ‘this needs work,’” she said. “Cut the smoke and mirrors. Just be a great publisher.” That advice holds up for any publisher, hybrid or traditional.