Hybrid Publishing: Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know

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Today’s post is by author Barbara Linn Probst.

As someone who has published (twice) with a hybrid press, I’ve become aware that there’s a lot of confusion about what the term means and how hybrid publishing really works.

Before I became a novelist, I was a qualitative researcher, so I did what comes naturally: I investigated. I looked at the websites of presses that call themselves hybrid (or use words like co-publishing, collaborative, or bespoke) and talked with ten people who had published with hybrid presses to learn about their experience. While ten isn’t a huge sample, clear patterns emerged from their stories that sometimes surprised me—and may surprise you, because they debunk some of the myths about why people choose to go hybrid.

I’ll begin by explaining what a hybrid publisher is (and isn’t) and conclude with questions you may want to ask if you decide to explore this option. In between, I’ll share what 10 authors had to say about why they chose the hybrid path, what they liked best and least, and what advice they would give to others.

What is a hybrid press?

Hybrid publishing combines elements from two different sources.

  • It resembles self-publishing because the author carries the cost and financial risk; thus, it involves an investment of your own capital.
  • It resembles traditional publishing because professionals, not you, carry out the tasks required to transform a Word document on your laptop into an object called a book that people can buy and read.

It’s like hiring a contractor. You pay the contractor to oversee the design, construction, plumbing, electricity, and so on, because he has the contacts and expertise that you lack or don’t have the bandwidth to acquire. When it’s done, you own the house; the contractor produced it (for a fee), but he doesn’t own it.

The chief advantage of the hybrid model, for those who choose it, seems to be control—over timing, rights, outcome, and the product itself. The chief barrier, for those who do not choose it, seems to be money. For some, there may be a second issue—the dream of being traditionally published by a major publishing house and the fear that you won’t be a “real author” if a publisher/fairy godmother doesn’t tap you with her magic wand.

Yet here’s the truth: if it’s a good book, professionally produced, readers don’t care what imprint is on the spine. In my survey of what makes readers give an unknown author a chance (with over 750 responses), “publisher” was never mentioned.

The salient words are “professionally produced,” since “good book” is a matter of opinion. Not all presses that call themselves hybrid are equally professional, however, with equal track records. For a would-be author, the question is: how can I make a reliable assessment?

To help writers navigate this sometimes murky, often misunderstood landscape, the IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association, 2018) issued a set of criteria for determining if a press is a reputable “hybrid.” While these standards are not enforceable, they do provide a helpful set of guidelines. According to the IBPA, a hybrid publisher must:

  1. Define a mission and vision for its publishing program.
  2. Vet submissions.
  3. Publish under its own imprint(s) and ISBNs.
  4. Publish to industry standards.
  5. Ensure editorial, design, and production quality.
  6. Pursue and manage a range of publishing rights.
  7. Provide distribution services.
  8. Demonstrate respectable sales.
  9. Pay authors a higher-than-standard royalty.

The way a publisher fulfills these criteria will vary, of course. Nonetheless, you should be able to get clear answers about how each item is addressed and what it really means.

Note: A hybrid press isn’t what used to be called a vanity press, where all you had to do to publish was write a check—or at least it’s not supposed to be. Unfortunately, a lot of companies use the term “hybrid” because to some authors it sounds better than “self-publishing,” or they want to avoid the vanity label. Such companies may or may not meet the IBPA’s criteria. Hybrid is also not the “partnership arm of a traditional press, as Jane Friedman warns in her article defining hybrid publishing, that uses a so-called hybrid option as a bait-and-switch: “Oh, sorry, your work doesn’t meet our editorial needs for our traditional publishing operation, but would you like to pay for our hybrid publishing [or self-publishing] service?”

Why do people choose hybrid publishing?

The people I spoke with, all women, had published with eight different hybrid presses; in two instances, I spoke with more than one person using the same publisher. Two of the authors were about to launch their second books with the same press; another had published two books, each with a different hybrid publisher. They represented fiction, memoir, self-help, and parenting (nonfiction).

I had assumed that most had chosen hybrid publishing because they had tried, and failed, to get an agent and a traditional contract. I was wrong. Although three of the people I spoke with did have that experience, most did not. Time and again, I heard: “I never queried any agents, but went straight to hybrid.” There were two key motivators for that decision.

One was the desire for ownership and control. They didn’t like the idea that a traditional publisher, having “bought” their book, could change the title, choose the cover, edit or even restructure the contents. By retaining the rights, they could control both immediate and future decisions—for example, about reissuing in a different format.

The other reason was time. These were, in general, women over fifty who didn’t feel they had the time (or desire) to embark on the long and highly uncertain path to agented publication. They understood that getting an agent, difficult enough, did not guarantee publication. Some had watched friends, elated to find an agent after months or years of trying, sink into new despair when the agent couldn’t find a publisher for the manuscript—for reasons that might have nothing to do with its merits.

For those who had tried to find an agent, without success, the pivot to the hybrid route brought relief and a restoration of agency. As one person told me: “I’m never going to put myself through that soul-destroying process again.”

When I asked people why they chose hybrid rather than self-publishing, most felt that self-publishing was too much to manage. They didn’t have the time, skills, or inclination to take on a daunting set of tasks that they knew nothing about. The traditional distribution that the hybrid press offered was another important factor.

I then asked: “Why this particular hybrid press?” In many cases, it was serendipity—a referral, a chance encounter, something that “just fell into my lap and was a perfect fit.” The authors did their due diligence—made sure that the press was respected, produced books of high quality, and had a strong team—but few investigated other hybrids. Rather, they learned about the hybrid model and this particular hybrid at the same time.

One author used a different hybrid publisher for her second book. “I had done my first book with a hybrid that was much more expensive. By the second time, I’d learned a lot and could do a big part of it myself, so I switched to a different hybrid press that was much more affordable.”

How does hybrid publishing work?

The first step is submission. Sample pages (or the entire manuscript) are evaluated, or “vetted,” to determine suitability for publication. To meet IBPA standards, not all submissions will be accepted. Some might be accepted on a contingency basis—that is, on the condition that the author pay for additional developmental and/or copyediting. Several people I spoke with had to do this, but none saw it as a ploy to get more money. Rather, they viewed it as a valuable step to make their manuscripts as strong as possible—and, secondarily, to protect the reputation of the publisher’s brand, which would benefit all.

Note: It can be difficult to interpret “acceptance rates,” since these contingency manuscripts might or might not be included in the reported rate. For any number of reasons, a contingency manuscript might not make it all the way to publication. A high (initial) acceptance rate doesn’t necessarily mean that the press will “take anyone,” just as a low acceptance rate doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s “more selective” and thus “better.”

Once an author’s work has been accepted, most hybrids offer a choice of packages, covering services from basic (design, production, and distribution) to enhanced (such as developmental editing, marketing material, or media outreach). Others take a strictly a la carte approach, either recommending a custom-designed plan or allowing the author to put together her own plan. Still others have a single fixed package.

Several people noted that the final price at “check-out time” was significantly higher than the price they were quoted on signing—not because the publisher had done anything improper, but because, as inexperienced authors, they didn’t know what else they would actually need. As the saying goes, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Naively, they assumed that the contract price would be all they would have to pay.

In fact, there were additional costs before the book could get into readers’ hands—for advance reader copies, shipping, storage, permissions, etc.—that came as an unwelcome surprise. Those costs might be billed by the publisher, who took care of them, or the author might have to find a way to get the tasks done herself. One person told me that she had to obtain her own ISBN and pay for a proofreader—tasks she hadn’t realized were needed, but were not included in her package.

Assessing the hybrid publishing experience

The best parts of the experience, for those I spoke with, were: 

  • How professional everything was, from start to finish; the meticulous care and high quality at every stage, culminating in a beautiful finished product
  • The participation, control, respect, and veto power
  • The communication and responsiveness; their patience in answering my questions
  • The commitment and support that continued well past publication date
  • The traditional distribution
  • The “insider education” about the entire publishing process; how much was learned

Aspects that people regretted or found disappointing tended to center on the cost of tasks that they realized, in retrospect, they could have handled themselves. Several also wished that the publisher had helped more with marketing or offered a publicity add-on, since they overestimated the publisher’s role in promoting their book. Others were unhappy about the smaller-than-expected sales.

The big question, for some, was whether the investment had been worthwhile.

That’s the question that arises most often about hybrid publishing, and a difficult one to parse because it depends so much on individual resources and goals. The cost for hybrid publishing might fall into a “discretionary spending” bin for one person—like a new car or a remodeled kitchen—while, for another person, it might mean dipping into precious savings. It might represent a lifelong dream, well worth the cost even if the money is never recouped, or a step in an entrepreneurial chain.

For some, the rationale for the expense was relatively clear:

I earned it. I’ve invested it well, and I’d like to spend some of that money on the things I most desire and care about.

In the end, it isn’t about the money. It’s about sharing my work with the world and receiving recognition of my ability as a writer. By writing a memoir, I’ve also given life to people who are no longer alive and preserved a time in history that many have forgotten or never understood. I spent large amounts of my life to accomplish this, and I’m glad I did it. How many people fulfill their lifetime dream? Who wouldn’t pay for that privilege, if they could?

For others, it was more complicated:

I felt a little guilty about the amount of money I spent and didn’t want to share that with anyone. I questioned how much I spent, especially when my book sales weren’t as good as I’d hoped. I think eventually, I just accepted that it was my money and in the long run I was proud of myself for having published my first book. Still the money remains a sticky issue for me. I’m not sure I’ve made my peace with it yet.

Some authors raised the funds in creative ways—and that’s important to know, because it debunks the myth that you need to have a large amount of disposable income in order to take the hybrid path. One person crowdfunded her first book and paid for the second one with the royalties she earned. Another found a relative willing to underwrite her first book, and then re-invested the royalties to earn enough to fund a second book at a much lower cost, since she had learned enough to handle many of the tasks herself.

I heard that it takes at least five years to start turning a profit when you’re an author like me, so I view this as a business start-up investment and hope it will pay off! Every book I add will create a new royalty stream, and I’ll keep reinvesting and building from there.

I concluded my interviews by asking people what they would say to a writer who was considering the hybrid path. Again and again, I heard three themes:

1. If you can afford it, do it.

Authors said:

If you want to be a more active participant in the process, then hybrid is a good option because you don’t have to be out there on your own, doing it all yourself.

It’s a professional, respectable way for a debut author to establish an identity as a published author, a way of building legitimacy and credibility, that you can use as a stepping-stone.

It’s the path of the future as traditional publishing becomes less and less accessible. It’s a good middle ground, especially for a first-time author. If you want to get your book out fairly soon, this may be a good path for you. 

2. Do your homework so you understand what you are committing to financially, and choose your publisher carefully.

Authors said:

It’s a great option but make sure you really understand all the costs that are going to be involved, including printing and publicity.

If you have the money and it’s a high-quality hybrid press, do it. You’ll get your book out there a lot faster. Just make sure that the publisher is strong, with good credibility and the staff to support what needs to be done.

This is a crucial point. Because of the tremendous variety in cost, approach, and quality of presses that call themselves “hybrid” (though not all use that word), it’s important to do your research and avoid going with the first quote you’re offered or the first company you find.

3. Know your goals, vision, and expectations.

Look inside and clarify what you want from this experience. Let go of the need to apologize for your choice.

How to research hybrid publishers

In addition to the IBPA criteria, here are some additional questions you may want to consider as you explore working with various hybrid publishers:

  1. How long have they been around and how many books have they published? How many do they publish a year, on average?
  2. Do they do a print run, or ebooks only, and/or print-on-demand? Do you care?
  3. Do they offer a single fixed-price package, several packages, or a customized a la carte menu? If it’s a package, does it include everything you’ll need start-to-finish, such as printing and shipping to the distributor? If not, what other items will be needed and how much are they likely to cost?
  4. How big is their staff? Does it seem large enough to do everything they say they will do? What is the turnover?
  5. Look at the Submissions page. What does “vetting” actually mean?
  6. What kind of distribution do they offer? Are their books in bookstores and libraries?
  7. What is the projected time frame, from start to finish? Is there a queue or waiting list, or can they take you right now? How important is that to you?
  8. Look at the Amazon pages for some of their authors. Do their authors get trade and customer reviews? Win awards?
  9. Look at the titles. Do I see my book fitting here? If possible, order a couple of their books to see the quality of the finished product.
  10. What do people have to say who have published with this press?

Rather than including a list of hybrid presses—especially since, in most cases, I have no direct experience and would not want to imply an endorsement (or a lack of endorsement of those I don’t happen to be familiar with)—I encourage you to explore for yourself through IBPA or other trusted sources.

One of the advantages of the hybrid route is that you get to choose a publisher and publishing package that’s right for you. My aim in this article has been to offer tools that can help you make that choice.

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