Why Hybrid Publishers are Bad for Authors
Facebook is a well of made-up information. I don’t condemn it, exactly. It’s impossible to spend our lives verifying everything. Sometimes unconscious anecdotes hold more truth than our logical minds can understand, and if you want to be a functioning adult, you have to be capable of acting on impulse, which means drawing conclusions without the hard, cold facts.
However, Facebook is not to be trusted. I once read a stream of comments about whether or not to use “past” or “passed” in a sentence, and the speakers were split right down the middle. There is a correct answer here, folks, and 50% of them were absolutely certain about the wrong one.
There’s a lot of misinformation on self-publishing. The process is difficult; you can do everything right and still come out with nothing. But what’s scary is how often people prey on the new and hopeful, and how easy it is to end up being taken for a ride… even by completely well-meaning individuals.
While the aspiring artist has always been a target for scams—a lot of people seeking immediate reward and banking on destiny tend to make unthoughout decisions—the average writer has to be extra cautious today because he can up in a bad situation even though people meant no harm.
With the advent of ebooks and accessible printing options, anyone can easily become a publisher via self-publishing. All you have to do is come up with a name. I could easily have your book published within the week if I wanted to; e-format, paperback, hardcover, you name it. And I could even be remotely decent at it, considering the hours I’ve spent doodling covers instead of writing.
But why would someone want to go through my publisher? I have no experience in selling books, no name recognition, no connections in the literary world. If I was going to invest financially in your novel, we might have a deal, but a lot of these start-up publishers don’t spend money.
Instead, they offer a self-publishing, traditional publishing hybrid that always yields in bad results for the writer.
Self-publishing is not the right path for some, yet the better option for others. It takes a certain personality type to be successful, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Many people would do better in a traditional setting where they can be advised by experienced professionals, having their weaker points and inexperience supplemented by another person’s hard work and opinion, and, of course, get money they don’t personally have to back their beloved project. There are others who are loyal to an idea that doesn’t fit the current literary atmosphere, they prioritize creative control, they have an eye for good business, or simply don’t play well with others, and would be better suited as an independent author.
It’s not anyone else’s job to tell you which path you should take, and in fact, any reason you choose your direction is a good one. It’s your book.
But while you don’t need to explain yourself, it’s important to not choose an option lightly. While self-publishing is less stigmatized, authors still need to be careful about going public with their books because past decisions can affect future ones.
Hybrid publishers are companies who want to claim the label of publisher without any of the financial risk. In actuality, the only difference between traditional publication and self-publication is who’s footing the bill.
While looking at publishing, it’s important to understand what a publisher does. Things change at a rapid rate nowadays, but typically publication works like this:
Author applies to agents who have an understanding of the market, contracts, and personal connections within publishing companies. If an agent likes an author’s manuscript, she signs on that book, helps the author with some revisions, and attempts to sell it to acquisitions editors. While the ideal is for the agent and author to work long term with each other, most publishing contracts are book-by-book, and it is actually a red flag if a contract discusses future manuscripts. Both parties have the right to end their relationship at any time, and the author/agent have may not wish to work together on the next book (though it is important to remember that publishing is a small world and screwing someone over is likely to get backfire.) Sometimes a publisher might contract an entire series, but that’s not common. Because the agent has more experience knowing what specifically editors are looking for, knowing what is a reasonable sized advance, and recognizing bad deals, she protects the author from making a naïve mistake that may ultimately screw him over. Some publishers don’t require agents to submit to them, but these are usually smaller companies who aren’t inundated with so much “slush” they can’t keep up. The agent takes around a 15% commission and does not get paid prior to selling the manuscript. They will never ask you for a fee.
The acquisitions editor is queried individually by the agent. The editor then brings her selection before the board and has to pitch the marketability of that book to get them to approve. They allot her the amount of money they are willing to spend on the project, and she, the agent, and the author negotiate terms.
The editor then spends time working with the author to revise and edit the manuscript. The manuscript may be passed on to a different (developmental) editor during this process, or may even be passed to several (technical editors or line editors). The amount of power the author has with these editors varies. The company will hire a graphic designer for the cover, to which most beginning writers have little word on, sometimes not even be allowed to see it prior to publication. The writer may or may not have say on the title.
After the book has reached its final stages, it is sent to a copyeditor for grammar, for spelling, capitalization, punctuation, typos, continuity of style, and clarity of thought. The copyeditor rarely has his name given to the author nowadays. The writer goes through the correction and marks what she would like to change and stay the same, then the book goes to be printed. At this point, if the author wants to make any drastic changes, he is charged for extra costs. This process is expected to cost a publisher $50,000-$100,000.
Big publishers will then send out “ARCs,” Advanced Reader Copies, to select individuals who they believe will benefit their marketing, such as well-established reviewers.
The amount of money that goes into a book’s marketing budget varies nowadays. Some smaller publishers do not budget any money for advertising at all and expect authors to promote themselves. Some small publishers offer little help, but give the writer a small amount of funds for advertising. Larger publishers are getting notoriously more and more frugal in their marketing of debut authors, and it’s becoming more up to us to make ourselves successful.
However, the most important aspect is that a publishing company pays for the editor, the designers, and the author. While Print On Demand (POD) only publishing is growing more and more prevalent, the publisher should also be fronting the cost to put physical copies in bookstores if they claim that is what they are going to do. A big reason it’s difficult for self-publishers to get their books into bookstores is that publishers have a buy back option, in which they will pay for any books the stores didn’t sell, which most writers can’t afford.
When it comes to self-publishing, the author takes on the responsibilities of the publisher. He funds the graphic designer, the editor, the proofreader, the cost of printing, and all other duties that he cannot do himself.
The good side is he has more control over who he’s working with, the final say in all aspects of the project.
In essence, money is power.
Following along, you can start to see why hybrid publishers might be the worst of both worlds for the author.
Hypothetically, it’s possible that you have a highly experienced team of publishers with knowledge who want to help out the little guy and cannot do so by taking on the full financial risk, but that’s not why these companies come into being.
Hybrids aren’t necessarily money grabbing schemes; sometimes they’re just people trying to take the terrifying business by the horns and put themselves into a position of power. They mean well, but they don’t have the leverage to start a company in the right way. It can be virtually free to produce a book nowadays, so if you can get a writer to pay your editors and find their own cover (which many of these new publishers will ask for), you can easily be a publisher without spending a dime yourself. Some people think the system is broken and want to change it, but don’t have the money to do so. This ideology is laudable, but problematic for the writer, especially because many of these “innovative” entrepreneurs don’t truly have an understanding about why the system works that way.
In honesty, there’s not much of a reason for credible, experienced editors to work for them. Editors are in high demand right now, and if you have a nice resume, it’s easy to find work within a company that pays you directly rather than being a middle man, and if you don’t want to work for someone, there’s plenty of writers to freelance for. These companies “hire” inexperienced editors and hand them a manuscript.
So, instead of getting an editor who has championed and fought for your manuscript as you would with a traditional publisher, and instead of hand selecting an editor you’ve vetted and budgeted for as you would in self-publishing, you have an “Editor-in-Chief” who takes on as much work as he can, making money off each one no matter the quality, and then hands it off to his underlings, often who he found on Facebook.
One of the best ways to recognize the validity of a publisher is to learn literary jargon. Many of these new publishers misuse words like, “royalties,” “editor-in-chief,” “blockbuster,” or “book proposal.” It’s difficult to know what you don’t know, but once you start understanding common terminology, you’ll be more quick to recognize bad deals or fake professionals.
What you can do right now is make a list of what you want from a publisher. There are downsides to traditional publishing, and while I am a huge advocate that it’s the best way to go for some people, there are many occasions in which an author would better off going the independent route. If a publisher wants you, but you’re not actually getting anything you want out of the contract, self-publishing might be better.
Do you want a print book in bookstores? Then you want a reputable publisher that bookstores feel safe stocking. Look to see if any of their authors stock books in local shops (many will share links on their websites to those stores out of support, or simply to brag about the fact they’re actually there).
Do you want accessibility to readers? You might find that it’s difficult to research these authors online. This may mean that they’re fake, their publishers don’t have a good website, or that they don’t coach authors on how to promote themselves. None of these are good signs.
Do you want financial investment? Let’s be honest, the biggest reason for traditional publication is to have someone else take the monetary risks. If you’re paying, that’s a huge strike against why you’d want to work with them.
Do you want a knowledgeable and experienced team to help you with your career? The credentials of those involved should be upfront. If they have an amazing team, they’re going to advertise it, especially if they’re small. If the company is mostly faceless, not sharing their book acquisitions, success stories, or staff, it’s because they don’t have something to brag about. Publishers will always talk about best sellers, awards, and stellar staff members on their website if they have any. If they don’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad at what they do, but remember that the whole point of getting roped in with someone else is they can do something you can’t.
Are you squeamish about hiring people? I know I am. Something highly appealing about the traditional publication process is that you’re less likely to get left in the lurch last minute. These people have worked with each other before and face greater ramifications for not coming through. If that’s the case, it’s okay to ask about the company’s hiring process and who these people are. If they are hesitant to communicate with you, you shouldn’t be working with them artistically.
Do you want respectability? A lot of people idolize traditional publication over self-publication because of the “look” we might get if we said we were self-published. And it’s not without merit. The look is real, and I, an avid reader of indie books, know all too well just how poor a self-published work can be, so it truly doesn’t mean the same to say you were picked out of a slush pile as it is to say you put your writing online. While it might be nice to announce you were picked up by a small press, the people who don’t know much about publishers won’t know if someone’s self-published, while the ones who do are likely to treat it the same as self-publishing. If all you’re getting out of something is name recognition, make sure it’s actually a recognizable name.
When it comes down to it, it’s simply about valuing your contributions and not allowing fear or impatience to make decisions for you. It’s not just about finding a place that will have you, it’s about finding the right place.
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