Making the Case for Hybrid Publishing
My first career job out of college was working for a husband- and wife-owned press in Berkeley, California. Though both Berkeley and that press had a bit of a radical past, I wouldn’t realize until years later that the business dealings I was exposed to at that press would end up challenging people’s notions of how publishing is supposed to be done. Back then, in the early 2000s, the publisher who mentored me was cutting what we called distribution deals and co-publishing deals, in addition to traditional deals. From the outside, the nontraditional deals were no different than the traditional ones, but from a contractual point of view, authors were investing in their projects for a bigger cut of the royalties. No one balked at this. It wasn’t a secret, but it wasn’t advertised either, and often the most financially successful authors were those subsidizing their own work.
Fast forward 15-plus years to the hybrid press I co-founded on these same principals. She Writes Press is built on a traditional model, benefiting from a vetting process, traditional distribution through Ingram Publisher Services, and a strong mission. But unlike the press where I cut my publishing teeth, we are public about how much authors invest and exactly what their royalty cuts are. We also don’t negotiate any traditional deals. We’ve never aspired to be qualified as traditional, but we are not a self publishing company either. Hybrid publisher is my preferred term because the definition of hybrid fits the bill: “something that is formed by combining two or more things.”
While our model has been well-received by aspiring authors and the industry alike, we still face challenges that are difficult to overcome. The stigma of self publishing has lifted somewhat, but it still runs deep. There’s still a perception that anyone who chooses to publish non-traditionally couldn’t make it in the big leagues, even though there’s evidence to the contrary. Everywhere you look, authors are opting out of traditional publishing, for reasons varying from disillusionment to a desire for more creative control to personal bad experiences. Where the publishing landscape used to be either-or, traditional publishing versus self-publishing, it’s now a spectrum, with emerging publishing models occupying a gray zone in between, and with self-published authors taking advantage of industry professionals’ expertise in everything ranging from editorial to design to production.
The lines are blurring everywhere, and yet the industry’s response to this has been to throw up roadblocks for all author-subsidized models by insisting that author subsidization be a measure by which authors are judged, making them ineligible to enter certain contests, receive certain reviews, and join certain associations. The industry sees the nontraditional space for the cash cow that it is, wanting to benefit from the glut of self-published titles in all kinds of ways, and yet there’s strong resistance to letting books speak for themselves, or to change the measures by which we judge books to things that actually matter -- like writing, cover and interior design, and production value. The argument I’ve heard over and over is that there are too many books being published, so we must have this arbitrary policy in place, effectively barring anyone who has not been paid to publish from access to industry support and legitimacy.
I sometimes think back to the early 2000s and all those authors I worked with who saw the entrepreneurial benefit of a co-publishing model, who were choosing that over one that paid them a measly $1 per book against an advance. I remember a panel I sat on where an editor from one of the Big Five houses said they refused to give one author who asked a zero advance because they just don’t do that. But when asked why, she wasn’t sure. And while the biggest publishers seem to be thriving, throwing more advance money than seems sane at books that won’t possibly earn out, university and small independent presses are struggling for survival, looking for ways to stay in business, never mind prosper in this culture where anyone can publish a book.
The case for hybrid publishing is strong. This is a model where professionals with book expertise and values are running companies that parallel and even rival their traditional counterparts. The emerging middle ground of publishing cares about standards. Books are vetted, well-edited, and beautifully designed. Hybrid publishers feel comfortable and even entitled to the “indie” label because the work they’re publishing embodies the spirit of independent publishers who’ve come before them, opening doors and giving opportunities to authors who need a platform for their undiscovered voices.
In a publishing era where we’re witnessing the consolidation of imprints everywhere and higher barriers to entry based solely on an author’s platform and not the merit of their work, hybrid publishing models offer hope. And these publishers come to the table with a mandate, which is to level the playing field for authors and to shake up the status quo. And since books actually do speak for themselves, and since many authors choosing these models are increasingly savvy about the business, I think we’ll continue to see more presses leading with or adopting hybrid options into their models.
As we grow in numbers, we must band together firstly to put book publishing standards front and center, but secondarily to insist that the measures for what makes a book “worthy” in the industry’s eyes be measures that matter, so that those books that deserve to rise to the top will rise because they’re good books and not be hindered from doing so because of their publisher’s business model.
Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of Green-light Your Book (June 2016) and What's Your Book?