Is Hybrid Publishing Ethical?

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Note from Jane: Today’s post is by Meghan Harvey (@meggsaladpdx), Chief Strategy Officer at Girl Friday Productions. Girl Friday is a paid-for publishing service that also runs a hybrid arm, Girl Friday Books.

Last month, I wrote extensively about the nuances of hybrid publishing. It included two hybrid publishing case studies where the authors did earn a profit, which is not typical. Earning that profit required the authors to invest tens of thousands of dollars in printing, marketing and publicity.

I’m publishing Meghan’s perspective because I think she’s right that it’s problematic to equate ethical hybrid publishing with a positive return on investment for the author via book sales alone.

The publishing industry has been arguing for a long time about traditional vs. hybrid vs. self-publishing and which of these avenues are legitimate, and which are not, but a recent UK study that decries hybrid publishing as unethical has ruffled a lot of feathers.

Here’s the basic problem, in my view: these arguments ultimately conflate “ethical publishing” with positive ROI on a per-book basis. I’d like to take a closer look at that foundational premise, its inherent cracks, and offer a different paradigm.

Regardless of who pays for it, this is the cost to produce a book

My operating assumption is that you want to create a quality book—a book that will be on par with the quality of every other book on the shelf next to it. Regardless of who is fronting the investment (the publisher, in the case of a traditional publishing, or an author, in the case of hybrid or self-publishing), it can easily cost upward of $20,000 to create the thing.

Yes, there is variance based on the book’s contents (if you need a fact-check or an index or photo permissions clearance, for example), word count, or printing specifications. There is also a great deal of variance in terms of the pricing you can find these services for—but generally speaking, you’re going to get what you pay for. Good designers and editors have fairly standard rates, so I’m using those here to illustrate what I call the actual cost of producing a high-quality book. If you cross-check these numbers with a traditional publisher, you’ll find they expect to outlay about the same amount when such responsibilities are handled by freelancers.

Three-pass editing (Developmental, Copyediting, Proofreading): $7,500
Cover and custom interior design: $3,000

Finding great editors and designers is an important task—one that many self-publishers have no interest, ability, or time to do. Partnering with a reputable hybrid publisher or a publishing services firm who continually vet their creative partners removes the onus of team curation from the author.

Project management and back cover copywriting: $5,000

Self-publishers can and often do take on their own project management. It takes around 120 hours of professional project management to produce a book, more for the inexperienced. A lot of authors decide this is not how they would like to spend their time and hire out project management accordingly.

Offset print run (let’s assume a relatively small run of 3,500 copies, for example): $8,750

Total creative investment: ~$24,250

These costs do not include marketing and publicity. A full-scale publicity campaign, for example, starts around $10,000. The vast majority of traditionally published authors receive limited marketing and publicity support from their publisher, so regardless of publishing route, the bulk of a book’s marketing and promotion responsibility falls squarely on the author.

The earning potential from a single book

Publishers, as well as many individuals deciding on a hybrid publisher or on self-publishing, are concerned with turning a profit on the project. So, let’s look at how many copies a book needs to sell to earn out the creative investment alone on a paperback with a list price of $18.95.

  • From $18.95, we subtract the wholesale discount. If the book is being sold into bookstores, 40-55% is standard.
  • Then we subtract the distributor’s cut (18-20%).
  • The hybrid publisher and author split the net revenue (let’s call that $9.23 in this case) along the lines of their specific deal, and these vary widely. Sometimes hybrids take 15%, others take 50% of net revenues. We’ll use 30% for this example, making author earnings ~$6.46/book.

What this means is that, if all your books are sold through the brick-and-mortar channel, you would need to sell around 3,700 copies to break even on your up-front creative and printing investment. (Direct, non-retail-distribution-dependent sales channels earn more per copy.)

This sketch should shed some light on why traditional publishers are increasingly looking to acquire books that will sell more than 5,000 copies. It also suggests why publishers stress the importance of author platform: the author’s direct relationship with readers reduces the need to pile on marketing spend to reach sales goals.

Traditional publishers face ever-increasing printing costs and relatively stagnant retail prices (the market simply will not bear a $30 paperback novel, or even a $20 one). So they have little choice but to recover their margin with bulk rates for larger print runs. In other words, the sales projection threshold for a traditional publishing deal continues to move up, yoking publication to commercialization.

Is producing a book worth doing if it in and of itself is not a profitable project?

There is not a single right answer to this. For some people it is, and for some people it isn’t. A book does not always need to be an ROI-positive event to be worthwhile. Many thought leaders and entrepreneurs write book-production costs off as a marketing expense, since they recognize the legitimizing value of a byline to their authority. A book can function as a lead-gen tool to drive conversion to contract sales; a book can act as a compelling business card that helps net new clients or speaking engagements; a book can drive an individual’s community engagement and retention. Many authors prefer to work in a hybrid or fully assisted self-publishing model because those avenues offer them more control over their work and rights, greater speed to market, and increased potential for return on their intellectual property.

I echo Jane Friedman in saying that “Most writers, regardless of how they publish, are motivated not by money, but some other reason. Prestige, Infamy. Status. Visibility. A million other things.”

This insight applies not only to nonfiction writers, but to novelists, children’s book authors, and memoirists as well, for many of whom producing a high-quality book is a lifelong dream. The value writers get from publishing their book often has little to do with the royalties it generates. As Jane describes in great detail in the aforementioned article, “The writer who makes a living from book sales alone is the exception and not the rule in traditional publishing . . . what most frustrates me, year after year, is why we believe or assume that authors have ever earned a reasonable full-time living from publisher advances or book sales.”

Hybrid publishing is not the best path for everyone. Here’s when it makes sense.

Hybrid publishing is a business model; there is nothing unethical about it as long as everyone is clear on the terms. In a traditional publishing model, the publisher assumes most expenses associated with creating and releasing a book, and therefore takes the lion’s share of the reward or revenue. In most hybrid models, because the author takes most of the financial risk, they should also reap the majority of the royalties. If an author is willing to take on the financial risk for their project and would like to keep 100% of the royalties, they can certainly do that by self-publishing or even choosing a paid-for publishing service that offers 100 percent net.

So why do we need hybrid publishers at all? With the traditional model reducing risk for authors and the self-publishing model increasing stake and earning potential, why would anyone want to work with a hybrid publisher?

A good candidate for hybrid publishing is similar to an author who intentionally chooses to self-publish. However, the distinguishing factor of the hybrid model is national sales representation with brick-and-mortar retailers. What a hybrid publisher brings to the table is that sales muscle that a traditional publisher has, under a model that allows the author to retain control of their content and earnings. For some books this doesn’t matter so much, given that the majority of print books are now purchased online. For some books, the in-store channel is a key discovery point and will significantly contribute to overall sales volume. And for some authors, seeing their book on the shelves of a bookstore is a primary goal.

Measures of ethical practice for a hybrid publisher

To assign ethical purity to traditional publishers on account of their business model ignores the reality that there are bad actors across the industry. As in any industry, business ethics are about a commitment to transparency, integrity, and trustworthiness. Writers do need to beware. Armed with the following questions, writers can confidently select a trustworthy partner.

  1. Does the hybrid publisher or services firm seek out clarity on your goals and idea of success before providing a bid for how they will achieve your vision?
  2. Does the hybrid publisher or services firm promise or even imply that you’ll be seeing a return on your investment over the course of a single book launch? If so, can they back that claim up with sales projections to support it? Does this publisher have comparable titles that have sold in the same volume range?
  3. Do they ever turn authors away? If so, what is their criteria for turning down a project? It’s a good sign if they turn down projects for which their capabilities do not align with the author’s expected results.
  4. Can they provide transparency about your anticipated royalty per book sold, by channel?
  5. Look closely at their terminology around distribution. “Distribution” is one of those smoke and mirror terms. If your hybrid publisher is offering distribution for your book but not sales representation, that basically means you will be in their catalog and orderable by booksellers, but buried amongst millions of other titles. Effectively, your books will not get bought into stores without sales representation.
  6. Are they transparent about the costs in their bid, as well as the potential for additional elective services? Beware of the bait and switch.
  7. The final and most important question to ask: Does your prospective publisher or publishing services firm have the author’s best interest at heart? Does their model reflect that posture? Does their relationship with prior authors reflect that experience? If not, keep looking.

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