Note from Jane: This post was originally published in 2016, but remains up to date.
I’m frequently asked by writers, journalists, and even publishing insiders to define “hybrid publishing.”
This is a confusing term to discuss, because you will hear different definitions or descriptions of hybrid publishing depending on who you ask and what their agenda is. The term has become popular among companies that wish to put a new, “innovative” face on a very common, age-old activity: charging writers to publish.
Here’s what I think most people can agree on: Hybrid publishers combine aspects of traditional publishing and self-publishing. Beyond that, however, it is challenging to define what such companies have in common. They have extremely varied business models, methods of working with writers, and approaches to marketing and distribution. Costs, too, are all over the map.
Making matters more complicated, “hybrid authors” are not authors who work with hybrid publishing companies. Instead, that term describes authors who both traditionally publish and self-publish. A good example is the thriller novelist CJ Lyons. So don’t confuse hybrid authorship with hybrid publishing—they’re two different trends.
Varieties of hybrid publisher
While is nearly impossible to generally describe hybrids, here are some rough categories you’ll find in the market today.
- Editorially curated. While authors typically subsidize the costs of editing or publication, the publisher doesn’t accept every author who walks through the door. As a result of their selectivity, the publisher usually has better marketing and distribution. Examples include She Writes Press and Greenleaf Book Group.
- Crowdfunding driven. Publishers such as Inkshares and Unbound require the author to raise a certain amount of money from their readership before they are granted a deal, which then closely adheres to a traditional publishing process.
- Assisted self-publishing. Authors pay to publish, and there is little or no discernment in what types of authors are accepted. In the pre-Internet era of publishing, this was commonly called “vanity” publishing (and sometimes still is).
- Traditional publishers with a self-publishing arm. Some traditional publishers—including small presses you haven’t heard of—may offer author services or assisted self-publishing and call it a “hybrid” option.
In the case of assisted self-publishing (I prefer to call them “publishing services,” for what it’s worth), these companies adopt the moniker of “hybrid publisher” to look more innovative or attractive to authors, to help shed that old stigma of “vanity publisher.” They’re not really a hybrid publisher unless they can point to what they do that offers a traditional publisher’s value—such as selectivity in acquisitions, editorial guidance and vision, and marketing muscle that can’t be secured on your own as a self-publishing author. (What many authors don’t realize is that book distribution is more or less free and straightforward. You shouldn’t hire a publishing service because you’re worried about “distribution.”)
In the case of small presses with a self-publishing arm—which may not offer great professionalism to begin with in their traditional operations—they may be using paid services to prop up their business and also to position themselves as progressive. These can be the most frustrating “hybrids” of all, since they might be identifying themselves primarily as a traditional publisher and be listed in market guides such as Writer’s Market, but could use that 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?
I recommend running in the other direction if that happens.
How to evaluate a hybrid publisher
So how do you tell if you’re just being sold a bill of goods by a hybrid publisher? Here’s what to consider.
- A good hybrid will have some method of curating or selecting what projects to take on. In other words: They consider the market potential of your work and its ability to succeed. If they appear to take anyone and everyone, then you’re better off evaluating the best self-publishing service to use. Don’t kid yourself about leveling up to a hybrid. (So-called hybrids aren’t averse to playing to your ego to get your business.)
- A great hybrid offers the potential of specialized or hard to get distribution, where they can get books physically placed on shelves in stores. They might not be able to promise this, but if they’re actively placing books at bricks-and-mortar retail outlets—and they have a catalog of titles for marketing purposes—that’s a good sign. Again, any self-publishing author can easily get distribution through online retail, via Amazon and Ingram (distribution fees are zero or little for online retail), so the more the hybrid invests in marketing and distributing print editions, the more they might be offering something you may not be able to accomplish yourself. Still, keep in mind most books are not sold in stores now. They are sold online.
- A good hybrid works with you both pre-publication and post-publication. The relationship doesn’t end once the book is done. (However, you may have to pay fees to continue the relationship.)
The Independent Book Publishers Association released hybrid publishing criteria in 2018 to help the industry create some professional standards around hybrid publishing. This is a good and helpful effort, but companies are not required to follow these criteria and no one is policing it. It’s just a set of best practices and anyone can call themselves a hybrid.
To summarize: The best hybrid publishers conduct some level of gatekeeping, offer value that the author would have a hard time securing on her own, and should also pay better royalties than a traditional publishing deal. (Fifty percent is common.) Ideally, the hybrid is recognized in the industry for its quality and has a good reputation for providing a publishing experience that justifies the cost. Once you pay thousands of dollars to publish, it reduces the likelihood you’ll make a profit on book sales. So go in eyes wide open, and spend only what you can truly afford. Published books rarely sell as many copies as authors dream of.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.