Radius News

Let’s Discuss Hybrid Publishing – Part 1


In this two-part piece, Radius Editorial Director Mark Fretz dives deep into the debate around hybrid publishing. Let’s get started.

Publishing Misunderstood

Book lovers may have a vague idea of where books come from, but the industry of publishing is woefully misunderstood. As a book publisher situated by choice in between the traditional publishing and the self-publishing sector of the publishing industry, a significant part of my time is devoted to educating authors about publishing generally and about author-centered publishing in particular. Author-centered publishing, which goes by many names (a.k.a. hybrid publishing), is especially misunderstood. In an attempt to increase understanding, I want to offer to authors and publishing industry professionals an insider’s take on author-centered publishing. I invite readers to check out my more thorough treatment of this topic in the white paper, “Dare To Publish,” available free here.

Like a lightning rod, author-centered publishing seems to spark strong reactions pro and con. Consultant Jane Friedman’s recent blog post, “IMHO: A Nuanced Look at Hybrid Publishers” (May 11, 2022), framed this slice of the publishing industry nicely. Her post came in the wake of a report on hybrid publishing from the Society of Authors (SoA) and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) released April 29, 2022, “Is It a Steal?: An Investigation into ‘Hybrid’ / Paid-for Publishing Services.” That report kicked off a robust discussion in the industry about hybrid publishing, a topic in which I clearly have a vested interest.

This post is the first of a two-part series related to the “Is It a Steal?” report. In the first post, I provide context to the report by painting in broad strokes the landscape of the publishing industry. The second post summarizes my assessment of the report and puts forward a critique of the conclusions and recommendations drawn by the authors of the report. My aim here is to remedy misunderstandings about author-centered publishing.

The Publishing Landscape

Allow me to describe the book publishing landscape in the broadest of strokes. Authors that want to publish a book have three basic options: traditional publishing, author-centered (hybrid) publishing, and self-publishing. Who controls the copyright to the content and who supplies the capital distinguish one from the other. Content equates to intellectual property and its inherent rights (i.e., copyrights), which an author hold. Capital relates to the resources used to cover publishing expenses. Simply put, the answer to both questions involves a publisher and an author.

Traditional Publishing Author-Centered Publishing Self-Publishing
Controls Copyright Publisher Author or Publisher Author
Pays/Takes Risk Publisher Author and Publisher Author

Publishing comes down to this relationship between authors and publishers. Legally, the relationship is formalized in publishing contracts. In publishing contracts, authors enter into a quid pro quo (literally, “this for that”) of some sort with another party. The proactive party differs, depending on the other party’s role (i.e., who is selling and who is buying). Now let’s survey the three alternatives.

Traditional. With traditional publishers, the author is selling and the publisher is buying. Thus, the quid is a creative work of content and the intellectual property and rights attached to it. In exchange for the author assigning the copyright to the publisher, the quo is a commitment on the part of the traditional publisher, mostly at the publisher’s expense, to turn that creative work into one or more products that can be marketed and sold to generate revenue. The publisher is obligated under contract to share a portion of that revenue with the author as royalties, sometimes paid out in advance of publication. Tasks such as editorial work, design and production, marketing and publicity, printing, sales and distribution are the publisher’s responsibilities.

An attractive feature of the traditional publishing model for authors, at least in theory, is that the publisher provides the capital and takes the majority of risk. One cost the author bears is that she or he must relinquish control of the book’s copyrights. The reality is not so simple. Authors almost always assign rights to the publisher; however, the publisher does not always pay for everything. It is not uncommon for publishers to expect authors to pay for substantive editing before submitting the manuscript for production, require or expect authors to invest at least a minimum amount of their own money in marketing and publicity campaigns in addition to whatever promotional efforts the publisher puts forth, and guarantee an author buy-back of some number of copies up front.

Author-Centered Publishing. When authors want a measure of control but also want expert advice and wish to collaborate with reliable publishing professionals, they can turn to an author-centered publisher as a partner. The author may relinquish or assign to the publisher some or all the subsidiary rights, but retain their copyright. Like in traditional publishing deals, authors are selling their creative work but maintain more control of what is still their property, how it is produced, and the products that they sell in the marketplace.

Authors may supply capital to finance the cost of publication, in whole or in part. Pooling their respective resources, author and publisher together turn the author’s creative work into one or more products that can be marketed and sold to generate revenue. The publisher and author split revenues, with the author sometimes receiving an advance against royalties. Generally speaking, under author-centered contracts authors earn a higher royalty than under traditional publishing contracts.

For example, an author enters into a contract with an author-centered publisher, licenses the rights of the book to the publisher for a 5-year term, and agrees to pay $15,000 toward the costs of publication, however the publisher and author mutually agree to distribute those funds. For their part, the author-centered publisher agrees to handle all editorial and production work, print an agreed quantity of the book to the specifications mutually determined, and sell the book through all channels, retail and other, that the publisher’s distribution network supplies. For the author’s $15,000 investment, she or he receives a $3,000 advance and earns 60% net royalties (i.e., the author and publisher split net revenue 60/40).

Publishing Services. Authors wanting to self-publish can find a wide array of options. A major attraction to this option is complete control over the entire process, including retaining control of their copyright. The price for this control is having to pay for everything. Most self-publishing involves an author engaging one or more third parties to perform discrete tasks and provide distinct goods and services, such as editing, design, typesetting, marketing, publicity, printing, and distribution. Contracts with individuals and companies providing these publishing services are in essence straight transactional work-for-hire agreements. Hypothetically, a services-only project could look like this: The author pays the company $5,000 and in exchange gets editorial, design, and production services, as well as support interfacing with a printing and distribution company like KDP or IngramSpark. Of course, printing and distribution costs are over and above the $5,000 paid to the service company.

An oversimplified portrayal of self-publishing is that authors pay and retain copyright. However, upon closer examination, even self-published authors may assign rights. For instance, if they license their film rights to a movie producer, they are relinquishing rights, and the same applies to translation rights. Author-centered publishing, in other words, is not alone when it comes to the author paying and relinquishing rights.

Tangibles and Intangibles

Absent from the foregoing descriptions is a valuation of tangible and intangible assets that play a significant role in the publishing process. Expertise, experience, networks, and infrastructure directly influence whether an author and book succeed; the lack of them contributes to a book’s inability to reach its target audience and sell through. Publishers and authors bring various degrees of each asset to the relationship. Evaluating which option is best suited to a given author and book needs to take these intangibles into account, along with the tangible factors discussed above, such as capital.

When it comes to author-centered publishing, the range of assets can be quite broad. Companies claiming to be author-centered publishers are varied regarding what they say they do, what they actually do, who performs the real work, the quality of that work, and how they treat authors. This unevenness contributes to the murkiness of the author-centered publishing universe. Authors are hard pressed to find accurate information (i.e., educate themselves), let alone compare companies or offers on an apples-to-apples basis. And the myriad labels employed by companies in this space only adds confusions, it doesn’t bring clarity.

The “Is It a Steal?” report refers to this sector as “‘hybrid’ / paid-for publishing.” Authors searching for help find labels such as hybrid, author-centered, independent, entrepreneurial, paid-for, vanity, contributory, subsidy, partnership. The focal points of these various terms coalesce around the financial aspect (i.e., paid-for, contributory, subsidy, partnership[1]), the relational aspect (i.e., independent, vanity, partnership, entrepreneurial, author-centered publishing), or how it compares to other models (i.e., hybrid).

It would be misleading to call all publishing paid for by the author—historically—“vanity” publishing. From the earliest book-length publishing, either the author or a patron paid for production, printing, copying, etc. And authors continue to pay in whole or in part for the publication of their books. Author-centered publishing should not bear the negative connotations of “vanity” publishing, for the two are distinct types of publishing. The criteria of which is which should not hinge solely on whether or not the author invested or was required to pay for any part of the book’s publication. Authors invest financially in their books, regardless of the publishing universe they choose—whether under contract to a traditional publisher or an author-centered publisher, or opting to self-publishing their book.

While explaining the differences between traditional, author-centered, and self-publishing in this post, the meat of our discussion can be found in the second post in this series, where we evaluate the “Is It a Steal?” report in detail. Readers that want to delve into this topic more thoroughly can download my white paper, “Dare To Publish,” for free here.

[1] Partnership appears twice in this list because it can be both financial and relational.