IMHO: A Nuanced Look at Hybrid Publishers

In late April, two UK writers organizations, the Society of Authors and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, released an investigation into paid-for publishing services and the predatory practices often associated with them. The pejorative term for such companies is vanity publisher, although that description has fallen out of favor. Still, the stigma associated with self-publishing is partly rooted in the long history of vanity publishers (which have existed since the 1800s) and their questionable and sometimes unethical practice of charging authors significant sums to publish books they know will not sell.

You might think that a report that shines a light on this problem would be most welcome. For me, it’s certainly welcome; in my 25 years in the business, I’ve spoken with thousands of authors who’ve fallen victim to predatory publishing schemes. Some didn’t even realize they weren’t dealing with a traditional publisher.

But the report has ruffled some feathers because it lumps together hybrid publishers and other paid-for publishing companies. The report focuses on the phenomenon of publishers that charge authors up front and take rights or a share of profits, which is a defining feature of hybrid publishers. The report is not concerned with arrangements where the author pays and earns 100 percent of net profits and retains all rights. (Examples of companies that offer such terms are AuthorImprints and Scribe Media.)

The report states unequivocally, “In our view, of all the publishing approaches available, a ‘hybrid’ / paid-for deal is the worst option a writer can take. In our direct experience … and as our research bears out, ‘hybrid’ / paid-for publishing deals do not result in enough sales or exposure to justify the payment by the author. For many years, even before researching for this report, we have seen how such services fall short of expectations, with writers unnecessarily handing over rights and control over their manuscripts, along with large sums of money.”

Soon after the UK report was released, both the Independent Book Publishers Association and Authors Guild released statements that essentially agreed that, yes, there are predators out there, but they believe the report overreached in lumping in all hybrids with various predators. The IBPA writes, “Hybrid publishing is not the problem. The problem is … with bad-faith actors who are using these labels precisely because hybrid publishing has been gaining legitimacy and traction in recent years.” Note that the IBPA has a stake here in defending the reputation of its members, which include hybrid publishers. The Authors Guild argues, “The hybrid publishing space is larger and more nuanced in the United States.” Is it? I find it impossible to say, but the US market for these services is certainly bigger than in the UK.

In all my years of advising authors who plan to self-publish, I have always tried to steer them toward services that offer 100 percent net sales. But no matter how much I advocate for this approach, some educated and savvy authors still choose a hybrid publisher, despite earning less than 100 percent net. Why?

  • The people who are leaders in the hybrid publishing space have done a tremendous PR job in establishing hybrids as a respectable and even innovative publishing path. Traditionally published authors who have been dropped by their publishers may feel unprepared or be unwilling to self-publish. Even literary agents sometimes approach hybrids when they’ve been unable to secure a traditional contract. A recognized hybrid publisher can provide visibility and legitimacy in the industry, helping an author maintain status and reputation. And some authors want to replicate as closely as possible their traditional publishing experience and carry on with bookstore- and industry-focused marketing. That’s hard to do on your own without traditional distribution and sales channels, which hybrids can offer.
  • Authors who have never before published—or don’t want to go traditional or have failed to go traditional—may like the idea of a hybrid publisher for the same reasons stated above. Celebrities/influencers as well as nonfiction authors who have well-established careers are especially likely to seek a traditional publishing look and feel. (It’s not by accident that the most successful hybrids—in my estimation, anyway—are run by people who used to work at traditional houses.) Authors may want to invest in a print run so they can sell in the back of the room, give away books to clients, or focus on traditional bookstore marketing.
  • Nonfiction authors tend to earn their money not from book sales but from consulting, speaking, and education, so their investment in a hybrid publisher is an investment in raising their profile and looking more authoritative. Whether they would do just as well working with a self-publishing service, retaining all rights, and keeping 100 percent net is the right question to ask. 

Then there are authors who seek out hybrid publishers because of the aforementioned PR. Unfortunately, such authors can be susceptible to predatory practices because they may not fully understand how and where books get sold, or believe they’ll earn back their investment in sales—which rarely happens, especially for those writing fiction. Worse still, as the UK report points out, “Despite these services often being marketed as traditional publishing, writers did not receive the brand recognition or imprimatur of being published by a respected or well-known traditional publisher.” And here we come to the real difficulty.

Every week, I am asked by writers for a list of “reputable” or “quality” hybrid publishers. I try to emphasize that the “hybrid” designation is not a shortcut to a quality deal or better outcome. No one is policing the hybrid label, and the moniker has been readily adopted by those who are mostly interested in taking authors’ money. As the UK report says, we’re not talking about one or two rogue companies spoiling it for everyone. The rogues dominate. While the IBPA pulled together criteria for evaluating hybrids some years ago, their work has not made things easier. It has instead hardened public perception that hybrids are desirable if you can just find a reputable one. I wish writers would let go of this idea that hybrid is somehow more advantageous than the alternatives (especially straightforward self-publishing), because it is not. It is one path among many.

I can only name a handful of hybrid publishers that have a recognizable brand in the industry. These include Greenleaf Book Group, Wonderwell, Girl Friday Books, and She Writes Press. This is not an exhaustive list, and no one should assume these companies I’ve mentioned are safe or “good” or can guarantee results. Such companies change over time as well, and author experiences vary. I touched base with agent April Eberhardt, who has years of experience in dealing with hybrids and helping writers choose the right publishing path. She complimented Wonderwell and Girl Friday for their fantastic work and ethical approach to hybrid publishing. However, she offered a warning about the cost—around $25,000. “That’s the entry price for hybrid publishing,” she said. “You will pay it one way or the other.”

Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware was consulted for the UK report, and I asked for her take on the hybrid landscape specifically in the US. She wrote to me that so many exploitative publishing providers have appropriated the term hybrid that it has become meaningless, since the only thing it reliably denotes is that author fees are involved. The word hybrid, therefore, is exponentially more likely to describe a predatory company than a reputable one—in the US as well as the UK, she said. “In my opinion, the [Society of Authors] is completely correct in using the term pejoratively.”

Of She Writes Press specifically—one of the first hybrids and often used as a reputable example—Strauss said it “does add value beyond what authors would get from a reasonably honest old-style vanity or an assisted self-publishing service, which lifts it above either of those options. And it does seem to be selective, and its books are good-looking.” Currently, a She Writes publishing package is $8,500, a cost that’s listed on the site, but that figure does not include editing, book printing, or publicity. Strauss said, “It is completely opaque on the important issue of how likely it is that authors will recoup their investment, never mind make money. Which of course makes business sense for any fee-charging publisher, because I suspect if they were honest about that, many potential customers would be turned away. These are issues that all respectable—for lack of a better word—hybrids share, and they make it difficult for authors to make informed decisions about the wisdom of investing such a large amount of money.”

To be fair, I’ve observed She Writes Press founder Brooke Warner comment publicly about the financial realities of hybrid publishing. She told me via email that her press sees about 10 to 15 percent of its authors earn out when you factor in all costs and that she shares these stats with every author during onboarding. Most authors earn around $2 royalty per print book (not so different from traditional) and as much as $5 per ebook. (You can read the She Writes Press FAQ that lays out the math.)

See earnings case studies from two She Writes Press authors.

Even authors who are fully educated about hybrid publishers, and choose one considered reputable, can end up unhappy with the results. Frequent complaints are that the books don’t get real editing and costs aren’t clear at the outset. It is not uncommon for authors to rethink their choice, pull their titles from a hybrid, and self-publish. Of course, I hear no shortage of complaints about traditional publishers, too, about everything from lack of editing to lack of marketing support.

So what’s the solution? I’m not sure there is one. Authors who understand what they’re walking into frequently overestimate their sales potential. And those who don’t understand the business at all can be hard to reach. Predatory firms tend to advertise in Google search results, catch prospects early, and apply high-pressure sales tactics. But there are measures mentioned by the report that could help: Anyone who carries advertising for such operations or accepts hybrid publishers as members must ensure they’re not propagating or legitimizing poor or misleading services. This is a drum that indie author David Gaughran has been beating for years, taking industry publications and events to task for giving suspect companies more visibility and credibility by association.

Bottom line: Paid-for publishing deals aren’t inherently bad any more than traditional publishing deals are inherently good. Angela Engel, founder of the hybrid publisher Collective Book Studio, commented recently, “A traditional contract does not mean it is wholesome.” In fact, some traditional publishers offer hybrid-like deals and don’t want it to be known. Authors may only learn the truth when they receive the contract and it requires them to buy back a specific number of copies or guarantee institutional sales. Worse still, some traditional publishers operate paid-for publishing services (these include Simon & Schuster’s Archway, Thomas Nelson’s West Bow, and Hay House’s Balboa Press), and this leads authors to believe they may be given opportunities with the traditional operation if they perform well.

Recognized hybrids tend to emphasize their traditional brick-and-mortar distribution and sales, along with their reputation inside the publishing industry. However, I find some authors place far too much value on this. Amazon is now responsible for more than 50 percent of all book sales regardless of format, and no one needs a hybrid to sell on Amazon. (Among self-published authors, Amazon accounts for 90 percent or more of all sales.) There are some cases where investing in a print run and focusing on independent bookstores is a smart move, and a hybrid can be invaluable when publishing complicated, full-color illustrated books. But to really benefit from the distribution and branding of a good hybrid requires not just paying the hybrid but also paying for publicity. Few authors see their money come back in the form of sales, and it’s difficult to repeat such an investment over multiple books. Self-publishing is a sustainable path over the entirety of an author career, but unless you’re very well off, hybrid publishing is not.

If you are considering a hybrid: I beg you to comparison shop. Get quotes from at least three companies if possible and compare them with self-publishing services that pay 100 percent net (consult the helpful list from ALLi), and/or research self-publishing on your own. Talk to authors who have recently published with the hybrid and ask about their costs. Don’t spend money you can’t afford to lose. Do the math.