We All Need to Be Defended Against Predatory Publishing Practices

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Photo by Wai Siew on Unsplash

Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is by Brooke Warner, founder of She Writes Press, a hybrid publisher. She has written this post in response to a recent UK-based report into hybrid and paid publishing services.

I’ve written and spoken about hybrid publishing for years now, and it’s a nuanced and complicated issue. Some of you may know I’m not a huge fan of the term “hybrid publisher,” because sometimes it’s little more than a marketing ploy by paid publishing services, meant to make authors feel good about their choice of paying to publish. (More on that here.) But there are excellent hybrid publishers who deserve to be categorized differently than your average paid publishing service. She Writes Press is one of them.

Here is my own perspective on hybrid publishing, which includes a look at the costs and earnings of two authors who’ve used She Writes Press to publish.

The barriers to getting a book published have never been lower, and the consequence of this reality—that anyone can publish a book—is that predatory bad actors come out of the woodwork, and would-be authors must be on guard.

A prerequisite to becoming an author these days is self-education about the industry. The pay-to-publish space has been on a steep growth trajectory, evermore so in the past decade. There’s been a proliferation of self-publishing, but also of other non-traditional models—which, lacking any clear identifying label, have had to define themselves. Non-traditional by design, these author-subsidized publishing models have adopted labels that include hybrid (the one that’s been mostly widely embraced by the industry), partnership, subsidy, entrepreneurial, cooperative, and others.

I’m the publisher of two hybrid imprints, She Writes Press and SparkPress, and when I first launched She Writes Press in 2012, there was no right label for what we were doing. The only other presses I knew with this kind of “in-between” publishing model, where authors paid for various aspects of production, printing, and warehousing in exchange for higher royalties, were traditional publishers who cut hybrid deals with authors (often at the authors’ request because these models can in fact be in the authors’ best interest), and Greenleaf Book Group, who didn’t call itself hybrid at the time.

It was my early authors who pushed me to call what we were doing something—anything. They wanted a label because they wanted to distinguish themselves, and to explain to the outside world that their publisher was neither traditional publishing nor self-publishing. But being neither, we were in a gray zone. Many of my authors advocated for partnership, but in the end I settled on hybrid because that’s what it felt like to me—a hybrid between traditional and self-publishing, and I first wrote about this “third way” space in a Publishers Weekly Soapbox piece in March 2014.

Since 2014, hybrid publishing has exploded, but with the model’s elevated attention and reputation, the sharks started to swarm. One of the most complicated and disappointing results of naming this third-way publishing something concrete—hybrid—was how it started to be exploited and coopted. As She Writes Press and SparkPress began seeing true results, and therefore legitimacy, in traditional spaces (reviews, awards, sales), we also started seeing all kinds of entities, most of them providing services to authors to varying degrees of professionalism, who were calling themselves hybrid publishers. In the absence of any true definition for what this middle-ground was (in fact, I myself didn’t really know what it was and wrote a definition of hybrid in the first edition of my book, Green-Light Your Book, that I wouldn’t stand behind today), the floodgates opened, and all kinds of businesses were suddenly calling themselves “publishers” even when they were not true publishing companies (which involves vetting manuscripts or being selective about what you publish) and having a marketing, distribution, and sales strategy for all books.

One early response to this coopting came from the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), who released its Hybrid Publisher Criteria in early 2018. It offers nine criteria for the industry and authors alike to use as a measurement of a hybrid publisher’s integrity. The problem is that human beings run companies, and human beings fudge the rules, and in the aftermath of making public those criteria, I talked to more than a few heads of “hybrid publishers” who said to me with all sincerity, Yes, we’re hybrid; we meet all but two of the criteria.

The failure to force well-intentioned would-be hybrids and bad actors alike to comply to true standards met a new point of resistance last week with the release of a report called Is It a Steal?: An Investigation into ‘Hybrid’/Paid-for Publishing Services, put out by The Society of Authors and The Writers Union. It was clearly initiated to draw attention to the degree to which authors are exploited by “pay-for” publishing services, but the underlying and wrong assumption the report makes is that all hybrid publishing is vanity publishing, and that no existing hybrids have standards they adhere to—which would include things like vetting, traditional distribution, and proven sales records. Nor does it acknowledge IBPA’s criteria, which has been around for more than five years. The report, instead, is an attack on the whole of hybrid publishing, without any nuance or acknowledgment from its authors that perhaps hybrid publishing needs also to be on the offensive because our label is being misused, and therefore hybrid publishing is being exploited too. It’s important to note that the Society of Authors and The Writers Union are UK-based, and as the US-based Authors Guild rightly notes in a statement it released in response to “Is It a Steal?”, “The hybrid publishing space is larger and more nuanced in the United States. There are some highly reputable hybrid publishers in the U.S.”

Had this report been framed differently, I would champion its efforts. I believe that its authors, at heart, want to protect unwitting would-be authors from being taken advantage of—which is important in the confusing landscape of offers, from every corner of the Internet, to publish writers’ works for fees that reach up into the tens of thousands. I myself got a phone call just last week from a woman who couldn’t wait to partner with me to make my book, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir, published in 2014, a bestseller. The very premise of this offer was absurd, both because of what the book is (not bestseller material) and because of how old the book is, but I wouldn’t necessarily know that if I weren’t a book publishing professional. The old truism, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” unfortunately falls on deaf ears and starry eyes when it comes to capitalizing on authors’ hopes and dreams.

“Is It a Steal?” attempts to address a known problem: predatory publishing practices. There are many bad actors out there, and we do need strategies to address this problem. We need to protect and educate writers. However, “Is It a Steal?” wants to strongarm bad actors by insisting that they follow a set of “recommendations.” But the bad actors won’t give a lick about recommendations; they will not be moved by a report telling them to be transparent and to produce a viable marketing plan if that’s not what they do or intend to do.

The better—and only—way to address the problem of bad actors in the publishing space, especially those who are coopting the good name of “hybrid” for their own reputational and financial gains, is to educate would-be authors. We must equip authors with the tools they need to see past flattery and compliments, to support them to think clearly when someone tells them they’ll make them a bestseller, to empower them ask critical questions about contracts and rights and finances. 

I’m as frustrated as The Society of Authors and The Writers Union by bad actors, scammers, and unscrupulous people who overcharge and underdeliver, but attacking hybrid publishers is not the right way forward. Many of us in the hybrid space have been immersed in author advocacy for years. All of the legitimate hybrid publishers I know are hard-working stewards of the book and author champions who entered into the hybrid space because they saw a need that they could fill. In my case, I started She Writes Press specifically because the barriers to traditional publishing are so high (too high) for most authors, and because there are many authors who do not want to self-publish, and for whom distribution and sales, reviews, and a team that supports them through the publishing process is the right combination of elements they’re looking for in a publishing experience. My own efforts as a hybrid publisher have focused from Day One on leveling the playing field for authors, to give them a fighting chance against their traditionally published counterparts and to sell more books that the average self-published author can on their own without infrastructure and publisher support.

I empathize with writers and authors who are getting bombarded with oftentimes contradictory information. But my best advice to all authors is to trust your gut. Know that reputable publishers won’t make hard sales pitches. If you feel pressured or like someone is catering to your ego, walk away, or at least ask for time to think. If you’re not sure about something—anything—in a contract you might have received, send that contract to the Authors Guild to review. Again, never succumb to pressure. If the so-called publisher is pushing you, that’s a red flag. Ask for references. Interview authors who’ve published with these entities in the past. If you want to be really well-equipped, join the IBPA. Their savvy, attentive staff will always answer your questions and address your concerns. Writers and authors have a world of resources out there; it’s just a matter of figuring out who to listen to.

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