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  • Writer's pictureBarbra A. Rodriguez

Choosing Between Hybrid and Traditional Publishers

Long gone are the days when traditional publishing houses are all writers have to access readers. Meanwhile, the hybrid publishing route now has nearly a dozen players, some with a few decades of experience behind them. Writers still need to be careful that a supposed hybrid won’t be a scammer out to simply make money from them. But the same holds true for other publishing alternatives. Each hybrid offers its own version of book production services, which means a writer also needs to consider which hybrid service provider best fits their needs.


Aerial view of side-by-side books, arranged to form a question mark (freepik.com)
Guidance helps to sort through complex publishing options

To sort this all out, I’ve compiled the main pros and cons of hybrid versus large traditional publishers (see a recap at article’s end about small presses as another potential option). My summary includes tips and resources about elements that can trip up writers when evaluating hybrids.


How Hybrids Generally Operate

Hybrid publishing came about because traditional publishers have such a high bar to entry, based on their projections of how likely a book is to be successful. As a result,  hybrids provide an alternative for authors of works such as memoir or essay collections that are more difficult to get reader interest in for market saturation or other reasons, or for reasons such as a topic being considered too controversial, or the author’s public presence, too minimal. Author and anthropologist Leslie K. Simmons, for instance, chose the hybrid route because her soon-to-be-released historical novel centers on a Native American, which she is not. At 73, she said, “I had little appetite for years of rejection.”


Legit hybrids charge fees, typically for some level of editing of your work, cover and interior design, as well as offering marketing and book distribution services that can be minimal to hefty in scale. Like traditional publishers, they can also connect authors with added service providers, such as when I fact checked a health care-related book (Greenleaf Book Groups served as an intermediary, with the authors covering the cost). Here is a breakdown of the elements to consider:


Costs

Hybrid services don’t come cheap, with it not being unusual to pay $10,000 to $20,000 or above. So cash-strapped writers might want to consider university and small presses as well, which, like traditional publishers, give authors an advance (a lump sum to help keep a writer solvent while developing the manuscript). Hybrids tend to draw writers with expendable income, those who are determined to publish despite the odds, and/or that lack time or the means to undertake the complexities of the self-publishing process themselves.


Picture of an hour glass with sand up top, and money at the bottom (Freepik.com)
For writers with funds, hybrid presses may produce a book faster than traditional publishers.

On the plus side, in exchange for a hybrid’s fees for professional publishing support, they usually provide clients with more in royalties (the percentage of the cost of each book the author receives once its sold). A common royalty rate in traditional publishing is 15 percent, whereas closer to 50 percent can be in the contract of hybrid publishers. That amounts to $1.50 you’d get for a traditionally published book that costs $10, versus roughly $5 with a hybrid (though the

royalty percentage can vary by format, as covered in detail here by a recently defunct online publishing service). One caveat: some hybrids ask you to purchase a certain number of your own books as part of the contract, which adds to expenses, unless you’re willing to promote the work at talks and such, and are able to help drive book buzz and sales (as is ideal).


Prestige and Quality

Legitimate hybrids typically vet the writers they take on, such as checking whether the length of something like a memoir is in keeping with genre expectations. That’s a sign that they take their work seriously, whereas a vanity press will take all comers. But keep in mind that the higher bar to entry in traditional publishing means there is still more prestige to that route. You can seek indie book awards and such to make up for that. Meanwhile, with a legit hybrid publisher, the quality of the final content could be better than what you’d get publishing fully on your own. I say that as someone who’s worked with independent authors, as well as serving as a proofreader (providing a final editing pass) for an established hybrid publisher and traditional ones for several years.


Control

Another benefit of hybrids is that they offer you more control over elements such as the cover design, word choices, and other factors. “I'm not a control freak,” Simmons says, “but this is my vision, not some sales slot to be filled.” You’re the paying client with a hybrid, so the ball is “in your court” to a larger extent (while keeping in mind the wisdom of listening to hybrid staff whose expectations for your work often mirror that of traditional publishing staff—which, in fact, they may have been at an earlier career stage).


Services

In terms of the general services provided, hybrids vary on this front, so that it’s best to consider several different ones before selecting one. The legit options typically provide at least a sentence-level edit of your content for grammar, punctuation, etcetera, and a Beta read. But some also provide structural editing as a step before the sentence-level edit. I’d recommend going that route, or hiring your own developmental editor before working with a hybrid, as it’s very common to need some structural work, particularly for first-time authors, or those tackling memoir or another complex project.


For comparison, a traditional publisher will tell an author if structural, aka substantive or developmental, editing is needed for their work before the sentence editing stage. They may cover this cost, as well as that of editing to improve the writing style and voice if needed, or these service fees may be split with the author; for instance, Stanford University Press covered both costs with a memoir I dev. and style edited in the spring, while an author helped foot the tab for those on a trade book about sustainable agriculture I provided the same editing stages of for MIT Press mid-year.


Time

It’s not unusual for the editing stage at a traditional publisher to take a year or more to complete (in some cases, I’ve heard just getting the contract finalized can eat up six-plus months). It’s possible, though, for a traditional publisher’s editorial stage to be more thorough, or not (it’s traditional for at least two proofreaders to look at the final, line edited work at a traditional press, but Greenleaf required the same thing when I proofed for them – though often on a tighter timeframe). If speed is what’s most important, self-publishing, where you call all the scheduling shots, may be the better route.

A shopping cart full of different colored books (Feepik.com)
Hybrids can beat the marketing at traditional presses, though you'll likely pay for that

Marketing

Back in the day, traditional publishers provided authors with thorough marketing support. But it’s not unusual to hear now of an author whose support got sidelined when a celebrity’s book came out at the same time as theirs, and such. So you may well get as much, or more, outreach support from a hybrid (or other) press.


With hybrids, you’ll want to know whether

they tend to publish regularly in your genre, so


that they’re more likely to do well at marketing the work, and whether there’s a fee for them to do anything beyond promoting your baby on their website. It’s possible a hybrid could map out a marketing plan that you would then be in charge of carrying out (as a cost-saving measure). Simmons, who evaluated five established hybrid publishers before selecting one, noted that “Their marketing services can be comparable in price to doing it independently, and they have a vested interest in the results.”


Regardless of the publishing route, marketing is one area that authors need to anticipate spending a lot of time on, often starting out six months or so before your book is out.


Distribution

For getting books in readers’ hands, traditional publishers still provide the best option, as bookstores won’t stock hybrid-published books, given that they are usually print-on-demand. Traditional houses also are the ones with the best connections for reaching libraries, which can matter for something like children’s books. Of course, space is limited on bookstore and library shelves, but traditional publishers also work best for getting mainstream media reviews.


What hybrids offer in terms of distribution varies. Ideally, they will provide more than making your book available through KDP, which you could have done as a self-publisher. For instance, find out if a hybrid will reach out to IngramSpark, which is known to have better international distribution than Amazon, and to Barnes & Noble, and Bookshop.org.


Other Differences That Can Matter

Be sure to check the quality of a few of the hybrids’ final products before you narrow down your list of possibilities. While doing the latter, you might find some interesting takes on the publishing process. For instance, Simmons eventually chose Köehler Books, which has a traditional publishing branch as well. Although she found their marketing offerings not as robust as another hybrid, her contract stipulates that, if she sells 2,000 copies of Red Clay, Running Waters, Köehler will offer her a traditional publishing deal for her next book. “This would include an advance and services supplied by them,” she says, “but surprise, surprise … authors still ‘own’ the marketing.”


By Barbra A. Rodriguez


To receive my brief Scoops4Scribes newsletter on the writing life, style matters, and writing hacks, click here.


This piece from Publishers Weekly covers the list of criteria established by the Independent Book Publishers Association for a hybrid to be reputable, as well as listing 11 legit hybrid publishers (who sponsored the article).


My previous post covers resources for avoiding author scams, including scammers masquerading as hybrid publishers, or as traditional publishers.


Learn the pros and cons of picking a small (traditional) press verses a larger one here.


Read this great post by memoirist Gabi Coatsworth about questions to ask when considering hybrids.


The founder of two hybrids provides her take on what’s wrong with traditional publishing in terms of which authors they accept. 



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