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Let’s Discuss Hybrid Publishing – Part 2


A Critique of the “Is It a Steal?” Report

Industry reports don’t usually make for great bedtime reading. For anyone interested in so-called hybrid publishing, “Is It a Steal?: An Investigation into ‘Hybrid’ / Paid-for Publishing Services” may be the exception. When the Society of Authors (SoA) and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) released this report on April 29, 2022, it kicked off a robust discussion in the industry about hybrid publishing, a topic in which I clearly have a vested interest.

This post is my second of a two-part series related to the “Is It a Steal?” report. In the first post, I provided context to the report by painting in broad strokes the landscape of the publishing industry. Here readers will find a summary of my assessment of the report and a critique of the conclusions and recommendations drawn by the authors of the report. I invite readers to check out my more thorough treatment of this topic in the white paper, “Dare To Publish,” available free here.

For the publishing industry to move beyond the confusion commonly experienced by authors trying to learn about author-centered publishing, we desperately need to change the narrative. These two posts, along with my more detailed white paper, aim to do just that.

The Perspective of the “Is It a Steal? Report

The “Is It a Steal?” report shares the results of a member survey concerning hybrid publishing conducted by the SoA and WGGB. Actually, the authors of the report interpret and provide commentary on these survey findings, and also put forward recommendations for how various constituencies should respond or behave in the wake of the report. For what it’s worth, my perspective is informed by over three decades in the publishing business. I’ve worked in all three realms of the publishing industry discussed in this two-part series, traditional publishing, publishing services, and the last six years as editorial director of an author-centered publishing company—Radius Book Group.

The aim of the report is laudable:

We are not aware of any previous assessment of the contractual and financial implications of writers’ relationships with these companies, and of how satisfied they have been with the services they paid for.

Our survey and this report aim to address that gap, investigating both positive and negative experiences, exploring how that might translate into better practice, and how writers and the publishing industry should respond. (p. 3)

Author experience is an important, if not the only, set of data on which to base any assessment of the author-centered publishing universe.

Whether it is an honest question, or simply rhetorical, the title of the report—“Is It a Steal?”—unmistakably casts hybrid publishing in a negative light. It should be no surprise that the authors have a negative opinion of hybrid publishing. The SoA and WGGB represent the interests of authors of various types of literature and creative expression.

“As with all our activities, this report is about putting writers first. It challenges poor practice, promotes good practice, and aims to ensure that writers understand the agreements they sign, get value for money when they pay for a service, and retain control of the work they create.” (p. 3)

They state outright in the Executive Summary (p. 6) that:

“In our view, of all the publishing approaches available, a ‘hybrid’ / paid-for deal is the worst option a writer can take…‘hybrid’ / paid-for publishing deals do not result in enough sales or exposure to justify the payment by the author.”

Three criteria guide the report.

  1. Contract: Presumably contractual implications pertain to copyright issues and who controls those rights.
  2. Finances: How much an author and publisher each pay, and how much the author and publisher each receive through royalties and other revenue streams.
  3. Satisfaction: The metrics of any author’s satisfaction. In fact, describing the metrics of satisfaction (i.e., the bases of measurement by which to judge satisfaction) is germane and central to this whole discussion.

All three of these criteria are reasonable. How well they are integrated into the evaluation of the data and conclusions drawn from them is a vital question.

The assumptions and biases that shape the report can be summarized as follows:

  1. Putting writers first: This bias is self-evident and one I share.
  2. Challenging poor practice: The assumptions here are (a) that the authors of the report can define both good and poor practice, (b) that they can adequately articulate ways to address poor practices, and (c) that their solutions align with the interests of writers/authors.
  3. Understanding author agreements: Understanding the terminology, the terms and conditions, and deciding whether authors agree to them, are different things. All parties may understand the terms but authors may decide differently based on their priorities, goals, values, and agendas. Same terms, different decisions.
  4. Value for money paid for a service: Valuation is at issue here but the report fails to state the basis. If one author pays $10,000 for services and another pays $5,000 for the same list of services, one might assume that the first author paid too much. However, the same service performed by different companies is not necessarily of equal quality or value. One company may design a jacket cover using one of three prescribed designs and another may do a custom cover. Yes, both authors get a cover design but not necessarily designs of equal value or impact.
  5. Retaining control of copyrights: Retaining control of copyrights is of ultimate concern. In theory, one’s copyright represents the most valuable asset when writing a book and therefore should rank at the top of an author’s concerns. As with earning a percentage of royalties, you only earn something when the sale of the product generates revenue. If the copyrights that are of ultimate concern are never exercised (i.e., the book is never produced or printed, no subrights are licensed), then the author can proudly proclaim “I control my copyrights,” while those rights languish and the book fails to generate revenue. We need to tease out the implications of this fundamental assumption to evaluate the publishing options, especially author-centered publishing.

Reactions to the Report

The data generated by the survey of their members reflects the experiences and views of the “14,800 authors of all types, at every stage of their careers,” who comprise the organizations. A total of 240 writers responded to the survey (1.62% of their combined members). Given the limited response rate, readers of the report are well advised not to extrapolate from responses by these 240 authors to all authors around the world. Likewise, it is illogical to assume that conclusions from this single report from the UK could accurately and reliably describe the global author-centered publishing sector. Descriptions of individual authors’ experiences by all means deserve their due credence. Only they should be set in the wider context of the publishing landscape described in the first part of this post.

The report’s conclusions are not universally embraced as either accurate or reflective of all interested parties. Hybrid publishers responded by clarifying their company’s position relative to the criticisms of the report (e.g., predatory marketing and unethical sales practices). Brooke Warner or She Writes weighed in with “We All Need to Be Defended Against Predatory Publishing Practices” (May 2, 2022).

Publishing and author organizations in the United States put out statements attempting to distance themselves from the report’s conclusions. Consultant Jane Friedman’s recent blog post, “IMHO: A Nuanced Look at Hybrid Publishers” (May 11, 2022), summarizes the various responses. Pay attention to the particular contexts of all those making proclamations on the subject.

Authors themselves may or may not know about the report, or have read it. I haven’t spoken with an author or literary agent that read the report. If they did and lack the contextual information and savvy to temper what they read with other sources of information, they may be running away from hybrid publishing. Or they may just be confused by all the hubbub.

The Data

As for the data as presented, the numbers are both straightforward and to some extent unclear. In summary,

  • 240 people responded
  • 194 respondents named a publisher
  • 125 writers had accepted a deal
  • 110 had declined a deal

From this summary we know, for instance, that there were 240 total respondents and varying subsets of respondents named a publisher, accepted a deal, and declined a deal. What we don’t know is the relationships between the 194 of them that named a publisher, the 125 that accepted a deal, and the 110 that declined. How do the various categories overlap? Does declining a deal preclude also accepting a deal? These points are unanswered as presented in the report.

When the report summarizes that “only four respondents reported that they made a profit; 61 made a loss,” how about the rest? Presuming no overlap between the two, is this 65 of 240 total respondents, or 65 of 194 who named a publisher, or 65 of 125 who accepted a deal?

The data about those offered a contract and those that accepted one is unclear, as we see in Table 1: Number of ‘hybrid’ / paid for contracts offered and accepted per currency. Again, how do the numbers in these columns relate? Doesn’t an offer normally precede acceptance and signing? Are any contracts signed without the acceptance of an offer?

The Details

Backed by data and details, this report’s case appears airtight. Yet, scratch below the surface and we find holes in the argument. In the interest of space, I summarize my critique here and refer readers to the full review of the details in the white paper, “Dare To Publish”.

Author-centered publishers offer authors various types of contracts. The report focuses on “publishing deals where the writer both pays for publication and hands over rights in their work” (p. 3). These two conditions are a problem for the authors of the report. If authors pay for publishing their book and they assign certain rights to the publisher, that is unacceptable to the authors of the report. No one can dispute that book publishing comes at a cost. Someone has to pay, be that in traditional publishing, author-centered publishing, or self-publishing. Regarding copyrights, the report clearly advocates that authors should not assign their copyrights to other parties, without fair compensation. Even so, an author has the right to assign copyright to whomever she or he wishes, under whatever circumstances the author agrees to. When combined the issues of paying for publishing and relinquishing rights bring us face-to-face with the crux of the problem. Recall the description of the different publishing options in our previous post. Without saying so outright the report presumes that the publisher should take all the financial risk, one component of which is paying the author an advance against royalties, in exchange for the author assigning copyright to the publisher. The traditional publishing model is thus the de facto ideal.

This model may favor authors in the short run, yet in the long run, the publisher realizes greater profit than the author, taking the lion’s share of revenue. Considering the stress placed on authors controlling their copyrights, assigning copyrights to a publisher in this way runs counter to the priorities of the report. As long as an author receives adequate compensation, apparently it is okay to relinquish control over the copyright. So maybe copyright isn’t as central and important as one might be led to believe.

One major theme of the report is its challenge of poor practices of hybrid publishers. Predatory marketing, false or misleading pitches to authors, lack of transparency (i.e., hidden fees, unclear contractual terms), failure to fulfill stated or implied promises, all raise red flags for authors. From an author-centered publisher’s vantage, I couldn’t agree more. But the report doesn’t distinguish between publishers that act unethically and those that act ethically. It simply lumps together all publishers in this space and pronounces them and their kind bad for authors.

Under what conditions would an author-centered publisher be acceptable to the authors of this report? Here are some possibilities:

  1. One might be if they acted like traditional publishers.
  2. If authors receive what they consider fair value for the money they invest in publishing their book, that might qualify the author-centered publisher as acceptable. In this case, the author realizes a healthy return on her/his investment.
  3. Two dimensions of money may come into play. One is realizing a profit through the publication of their book. The other is negotiating to receive 100% (or something close to that) of royalties.
  4. Copyright control. Another condition may be that the author retains control of the copyright.
  5. Author-centered publishers that treat authors well and receive high satisfaction ratings from authors could lay claim to being acceptable.

Perhaps under these conditions, the authors of the report might deem an author-centered publisher acceptable.


Authors want to publish books. The predicament they face is that the traditional route for publishing is closed to all but a select few authors. If getting a major trade house or well-known independent or academic publisher to publish their book is the ideal for authors, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, then most will end up disappointed. If instead, authors remove the caveat of publishing with a traditional house and simply set a goal of publishing their book, they can entertain a much wider array of options. Along with opening the door to alternatives come tradeoffs, not all of which will be acceptable to each author. One of those tradeoffs might be relinquishing exclusive control of their copyright in exchange for achieving their ultimate goal of publishing their book.

The authors of the report are entitled to draw their own conclusions based on the data and shaped by their assumptions and biases. If “sales or exposure” are the only criteria, then by all means judge accordingly. If other factors come into play, however, then those should figure into the discussion, as well. What constitutes “enough” of either? Whose scales do we use?

Expectations play a crucial role in evaluating any publishing option. They directly affect reactions to sales data or any news about our book. All parties to publishing a book set expectations. To work together productively, in a way that minimizes surprises and disappointments, author and publisher need to establish a set of mutually shared expectations.

How do we decide what “large sums of money” are for authors? Nothing is free, least of all publishing. Determining what constitutes large sums is inseparable from who pays. In a traditional publishing contract, do authors concern themselves over the fact that the publisher is paying them an advance against royalties of $10,000 while needing to shell out perhaps three times that amount to publish their book? Most authors and literary agents are primarily concerned with the size of the advance and thank their lucky stars they don’t bear the financial risk of publishing their book. If a crisis of conscience arises only when authors need to pay for publishing, then we need to examine the crisis a bit more closely.

In the end, the “Is It a Steal?” report provides some useful data and provocative analysis. It contributes to the conversation about author-centered publishing by stirring up people in the industry that pay attention to this universe. It does achieve the goal of attempting to fill a void in the “assessment of the contractual and financial implications of writers’ relationships with these companies, and of how satisfied they have been with the services they paid for.” Let it not be the last word on the subject, though, because this emerging sector is still convulsing and growing and finding its identity. This fact is especially pertinent to authors trying to navigate the book publishing world now and in the future. Dispelling misunderstandings about author-centered publishing can only help authors sort out their own minds on the matter. May this and similar articles pave the way to better understanding.