Writers be aware and beware

Once upon a time, knowing what you needed to do to become a published author was easy. You had to write a book that would get past the gatekeepers. To do that, you needed to find an agent and then that agent needed to sell your book. You typed up your manuscript, made it as publication as ready as possible, shoved it into an envelop and then sent it on its way. Then you waited, praying each time the mail was delivered for good news. Those were the good old, bad old days.

Then along came indie publishing. Smashwords started the movement but it was Amazon that really broke the industry open by offering authors the chance to take their books directly to the reading public. We are still seeing the reverberations of the loss of complete control shuddering through traditional publishing. It isn’t just publishers who have been impacted. Agents have as well.

I’m not going to rehash the history or many of the responses. You can search our archives for that information.

However, there is now a newish development in traditional publishing’s attempt to survive these newly choppy waters of an industry it used to dominate and control. That development is the rise of “hybrid publishers”. Now, hybrid publishers are not the same as hybrid authors. Hybrid authors are those who publish both traditionally and have indie works out there. Hybrid publishers are, in my opinion, little more than glorified vanity presses. At least they have the potential of becoming those boils on the ass of publishing.

Back in February, the Independent Book Publishers Association not only recognized the existence of these so-called hybrid publishers but published a list of 9 criteria that must be met to be deemed a “reputable hybrid publisher”..

Define a mission and vision for its publishing program. A hybrid publisher has a publishing mission and a vision. In a traditional publishing company, the published work often reflects the interests and values of its publisher, whether that’s a passion for poetry or a specialization in business books. Good hybrid publishers are no different.

Standard boilerplate. This isn’t going to tell a writer , much less a reader, all that much. This is along the lines of  “we aim to publish the most engaging flights of fancy in the realms of sword and sorcery and goth magic.”

Vet submissions. A hybrid publisher vets submissions, publishing only those titles that meet the mission and vision of the company, as well as a defined quality level set by the publisher. Good hybrid publishers don’t publish everything that comes over the transom and often decline to publish.

That last sentence is what should help separate the “reputable hybrid publisher” from the vanity press.

Publish under its own imprint(s) and ISBNs. A hybrid publisher is a true publishing house, with either a publisher or a publishing team developing and distributing books using the hybrid publisher’s own imprint(s) and ISBNs.

This is where my radar starts going off. These hybrid publishers are being subsidized in some form or fashion by their authors. It might be in payment for different packaging options or for editing levels. It might be for cover design, etc. But money is flowing not only to the author but from her. Yet, the publisher is registering the ISBN and, unless I miss my guess, copyright. That means you need to be very sure you are not only aware of the reversion rights in your contract but what steps you will have to take to reclaim those rights.

Publish to industry standards. A hybrid publisher accepts full responsibility for the quality of the titles it publishes. Books released by a hybrid publisher should be on par with traditionally published books in terms of adherence to industry standards, which are detailed in IBPA’s “Industry Standards Checklist for a
Professionally Published Book.”

Again, this doesn’t really say much.

Ensure editorial, design, and production quality. A hybrid publisher is responsible for producing books edited, designed, and produced to a professional degree. This includes assigning editors for developmental editing, copy editing, and proofreading, as needed, together with following traditional standards for a professionally designed book. All editors and designers must be publisher approved.

And this is where I would want much more information about how the author subsidizes the process. The “as needed” language bothers me. Who determines what editing is needed? And, if the author has to pay for the level of editing, how do the prices compare with hiring a freelance editor? Who oversees these hybrid publishers to make sure they aren’t upselling whenever possible?

Pursue and manage a range of publishing rights. A hybrid publisher normally publishes in both print and digital formats, as appropriate, and perhaps pursues other rights, in order to reach the widest possible readership. As with a traditional publisher, authors may negotiate to keep their subsidiary rights, such as foreign language, audio, and other derivative rights.

Pardon me while I laugh hysterically. This is a rights grab. Publishers got bitten in too many cases when e-books became a viable market. They hadn’t included language in their contracts that would cover e-book rights. So now they are trying to draft their contracts to cover any advance/change/alteration in delivery method that might come down the line. Just like they want to grab your copyright, they want to make sure they are the ones to profit from your work above and before you do.

Provide distribution services. A hybrid publisher has a strategic approach to distribution beyond simply making books available for purchase via online retailers. Depending on the hybrid publisher, this may mean traditional distribution, wherein a team of sales reps actively markets and sells books to retailers, or it may mean publisher outreach to a network of specialty retailers, clubs, or other niche-interest organizations. At minimum, a hybrid publisher develops, with the author, a marketing and sales strategy for each book it
publishes, inclusive of appropriate sales channels for that book, and provides ongoing assistance to the author seeking to execute this strategy in order to get his or her book in front of its target audience. This is in addition to listing books with industry-recognized wholesalers.

Another point where you should look very closely at not only the contract but the monies the author has to “subsidize”. Here is the key, at least in my mind. “At minimum, a hybrid publisher develops, with the author, a marketing and sales strategy for each book it publishes, inclusive of appropriate sales channels for that book, and provides ongoing assistance to the author seeking to execute this strategy in order to get his or her book in front of its target audience“. In other words, if you want anything beyond being listed in the catalogs and on our website, you will pay for part of the price involved and we expect you to do the donkey’s share of the work. Not that the latter is much different from traditional publishing these days. Most authors get nothing more than catalog listing and website mentions. Any other promo they pay for.

Demonstrate respectable sales. A hybrid publisher should have a record of producing several books that sell in respectable quantities for the book’s niche. This varies from niche to niche; small niches, such as poetry and literary fiction, require sales of only a couple thousand copies, while mass-market books require more.

I hate such general language. Again, who makes this determination? How often should sales be reported and royalties paid? What is the appeals process, if there is one, with IBPA if a publisher claims to be a “reputable hybrid publisher” and they are not?

Pay authors a higher-than-standard royalty. A hybrid publisher pays its authors more than the industry-standard* royalty range** on print and digital books, in exchange for the author’s personal investment. Although royalties are generally negotiable, the author’s share must be laid out transparently and must be commensurate with the author’s investment. In most cases, the author’s royalty should be greater than 50% of net on both print and digital books

While I like the “greater than 50%” language, it is still too vague. To start, it says “in most cases”. What are the exceptions? Why are there exceptions? Does the amount paid upfront by the author impact the amount of royalties paid later? So many questions and no answers.

Remember, all this is in exchange for “the author’s personal investment.” That means you open your wallet and give the publisher–hah!–money. There is a reason for the old adage, “money flows to the author”. If you are going to pay someone for a cover or editing or marketing your book, shouldn’t you get substantially more than 50% of the royalties? More than that, should you not be the one holding the ISBNs and copyrights?

Publisher’s Weekly hits the nail on the head, sort of, with its discussion about hybrid publishers. “We’re hybrid. We meet most of the criteria,” some of these so-called hybrid publishers say. When it says “most isn’t enough,” PW is exactly right. But only up to a point. If someone is going to claim hybrid publisher status, they must live up to all 9 criteria. But there must be more. There must be some sort of enforcement, enforcement within the industry, Until publishers are willing to police themselves, the “most” argument will prevail.

And let’s face it, publishers aren’t going to open the can of worms that comes with self-policing. Why? Because then they open the door to the possibility of someone with integrity calling out those publishers who aren’t paying what they should be in royalties. Heaven forbid one of the inner circle actually admit where their words can be used in court that Bookscan numbers are a scam that rip off authors by estimating the number of books sold.

But that is a post for another day.

If you are an author, ask the hard questions not only of yourself but of the publisher. Then ask yourself if it is worth giving up your copyright, possibly long after you die, for benefits you can hire out on your own while still maintaining control of your brand. Indie publishing isn’t for everyone but hybrid publishing sounds like it could be a quick way for publishers to not only use your money to subsidize their expenses upfront but to also keep from paying you royalties down the road.

Note, too, the lack of language about advances. That means the money you would get upfront from a traditional publisher is missing in a hybrid publisher. So, you help pay the bills, you don’t get your royalties until after net is figured. Hmm, I smell a rat approaching.

I’m sure there are legit hybrid publishers but is it worth the risk? There is too much danger for them to become the vanity presses of the modern age. Don’t fall victim to the predators. Do your homework and be prepared to walk away if necessary.

Now for a bit of promo. I have a new Christmas-themed short story set in the Eerie Side of the Creek universe. Christmas Magic is available for download now.

Christmas is a magical time, especially in Mossy Creek, TX. Quinn O’Donnell can’t wait to share such a special time with her six-year-old daughter, Ali. But this being Mossy Creek, nothing is ever as it seems and the holiday season promises to be the most magical ever.

Join Quinn and Ali as they enjoy Ali’s first Christmas in Mossy Creek where dreams can come true if you believe and are willing to fight for them and for the people you love.


Featured image via Pixabay.


  1. who are these people and what makes them qualified to write “Industry Standards Checklist for a Professionally Published Book.”

      1. Yep. And while I applaud them for wanting to do something to help give credibility to small and indie presses, there is still too much gray area in their guidelines and no real teeth.

  2. It seems to me that there must be some market niche for mutually beneficial relationships between authors and a… (what’s the word for a service that brings other services together… it’s on the tip of my tongue but the only word I can come up with is coagulator)… that allows profit on both sides.

    Though perhaps it should be in exchange for a royalty. Ha! Like, my company will coordinate artists, editors, and marketing, for which the client/author pays an advance , and then my company/service gets a royalty once the advance pays out… make it 8%.

    The more excited the “coagulator” is about the book, and the more certain that there will be payout and royalties involved the lower the negotiated advance might be. Lots of motivation there for a good marketing plan and excellent cover art. The client/author collects 100% of sales until the initial out-of-pocket “advance” is paid back and then pays that 8%, if not forever then for long enough that the “coagulator” can count on a nice royalty income.

    1. There are those who will agree to work for a percentage of royalties. Some audiobook narrators do that. My main concern with these so-called hybrid publishers is they are taking money upfront from the author for services traditional publishers are supposed to do and, at least judging by these 9 criteria, they take your copyright. If I don’t want a traditional publisher to have my copyright, especially not for the life of it, why would I want a hybrid publisher to?

      As for an aggregator, there are groups of writers who have formed co-ops, etc., to exchange editing, promotion and the like. No money changes hands but there is an expectation that you will pull your share of whatever you can do to help your fellow authors.

      1. Yup. If YOU pay THEM, they are doing work for hire. You own the copyright for their work, not vice versa.

    2. Oooh…

      *mental image of a “aggregate publisher” that is basically a clearing house– authors pick their editors, and their artists, and publish through the AP, which gets a 1% cut of sales while publishers and editors get a negotiated percent cut or an upfront, or on regaining rights to sell elsewhere*

      It’d pretty much have to be limited to via a system, and MOVING it would be a pain, but….

  3. Another risk for writers going for small publishers is the publisher’s longevity. Sadly, a non-vanity small press is more likely to go out of business than one that bases its business model on fleecing the authors. And then good luck trying to get your rights back.

    For what it’s worth, my advice to new writers who don’t want to go the indie route (which is neither easy nor guaranteed to succeed) is to go full-on trad with reputable publishers, by which I mean publishers who won’t make you pay for services. If you are going to dish out your own hard-earned cash, you might as well hire contractors (editors, artists, etc) and go indie. The chances you’ll see any of your money back will be much higher (not necessarily high, btw, but higher).

    1. (which is neither easy nor guaranteed to succeed)
      Well of course, if it was easy anyone could do it.
      As for success, depends on your definition. If you go indie all you need to be a published author is to pass the Amazon requirements for file format. Presto, you are published.
      The thing is, nowhere does anything in that scenario guarantee anyone will buy your work.
      As for easy, well naturally you have to have a finished manuscript that some segment of the reading public would find worth their time and money. Properly formatted, edited to remove the most glaring errors in spelling grammar and continuity, encased in an attractive relevant cover, and marketed to the reading world, of course.
      The question any author must ask is: Is it worth the extra effort to retain full ownership and control over my work, or spend years banging on gates in hopes that some gatekeeper, whether agent or publishing editor, will take notice. And then to sign a legal contract granting them the right to do all sorts of nasty things to your pride and joy, and ultimately to reap most of the profits from the sale of your work.

    2. Unfortunately, it is a concern if you go with a larger publisher as well. Oh, the house might survive but imprints come and go. When they go, under, authors and their works are often orphaned, the books left in limbo. That’s another reason writers must have an IP attorney go over their contracts before signing them. Reversion clauses must be in there that are reasonable for both sides, something the standard contract isn’t. It is slanted in favor of publishers.

  4. The description of the ideal hybrid publisher still skirts too close to the worst of the vanity presses, and too far from the security of trad-pub for my taste. And who is going to enforce the “rules?” As others have pointed out, there are too many “author pays and then we see what happens” points in this plan.

    1. Exactly. Worse, as I have seen with authors I know, they sign with publishers that don’t bill themselves as “hybrid”. Yet, when you look at the contract, the author has to pay for editing services or cover design, etc. Worse, there is no real work done by the “publisher” to promote the books and, when I’ve asked, the authors admit they have never seen their books in the local bookstores.

  5. Hybrid: the ugly offspring of mating a publisher with a vanity press.

    I’ve started skipping FB post from some door mat types who (1) brag about their contracts “with a real publisher” no matter how small. (2) Complain about all the marketing they have to do, and traveling to signings at their own expense. (3) Mope around looking for sympathy over their poor sales and lack of money. (4) Sneer at the very mention of Indie publishing. (5) Sign another contract with the same small publisher.

    I shudder at the thought of adding (1.1) Pay the publisher.

    1. Most of them would probably open their checkbook…

      The goal of many people seems to be “become a real published author!” Which is fine, but if you’re going to do it as a profession, “and then you get paid” trumps “I have to pay for typesetting and marketing, but I’m a Real Published Author!”

      1. There is that one useful service: they drain off the impossibles.

        There was a guy who solicited advice and was viciously abusive when he got it on two venues I was on. There was, in fact, much rejoicing when we heard he signed up for Publish America.

        1. I’ve known folks like that–and there are a few who I wouldn’t cry over if they did sign with a predator. Those are the ones who act like the person you described. I’ve learned not to offer advice to certain people because, no matter what you say or what your qualifications might be, they will never say “thank you” and will, more often than not, argue with you or tell you how you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  6. Let us say that I always try to be grateful for teh advice here, even if I do not always take it. Having gone indie, I pay for my book covers, and am grateful to friends who identify errors.

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