Hybrid Publishers Are Not Vanity Presses

by Mar 12, 2020Big Ideas

Authors today have many publishing options available to them, which can make it hard for them to understand the differences, much less choose the route that suits them best. Some authors want the professionalism and market reach of a traditional publisher, while others prefer the accessibility, higher royalties, and expediency that self-publishing provides. And then there are those authors who simply want the best of both worlds.

Many businesses have sprung up to service this “best of both worlds”—that gray area between traditional publishing and self-publishing—and they vary widely in their credibility, features, and financial models. The gold standard are hybrid publishers offering aspects of both traditional and self-publishing. In a nutshell, hybrid publishers behave just like traditional publishers in almost all respects except that they publish books on an author-subsidized basis, as opposed to an advance/royalty basis, and return the lion’s share of proceeds from sale to the author.

Hybrid publishing is not well understood by most authors, or even the publishing industry itself. Some self-publishing service companies and vanity presses have adopted the “hybrid” label without understanding—or perhaps without caring—that their offering is not equivalent. Reputable hybrid publishers chafe at this because it threatens to erode the credibility of a legitimate, nascent publishing model striving to establish its place in the industry.

In the end, the inconsistency between businesses using a fee-for-service business model generates much confusion among authors, who struggle to make an apples-to-apples comparison between vanity presses and hybrid publishers.

The Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) aims to change that. The organization’s Advocacy Committee, of which I am a member, has compiled a set of criteria to define hybrid publishing and distinguish bona fide hybrid publishers from imposters. The aim is twofold: to help authors make better-informed decisions, and to give hybrid publishing companies a clear set of ethics and parameters within which to build their businesses, along with the standards they must meet.

So, just what is a hybrid publisher, and how is it different from a vanity press or self-publishing services company? IBPA’s Advocacy Committee has identified the following standards that differentiate hybrid from other publishing models and services. (See the complete document here.)

A hybrid publisher must:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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, copyediting, and proofreading, as needed, together with following traditional standards for a professionally designed book. All editors and designers must be publisher approved.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

In a rapidly changing industry, it’s inevitable that emerging models will be misunderstood and misidentified in the early days. By articulating this set of defining criteria, IBPA hopes to help authors and hybrid publishers get on the same page about their expectations and obligations.

How does your hybrid publisher measure up?

Authors, if you’re considering working with a self-identified hybrid publisher and want to confirm that they’re representing themselves accurately, look for the following red, yellow, and green lights.

RED LIGHT: They are willing to publish your manuscript sight unseen. A fee-for-service firm that does not vet its submissions for topic or quality is a vanity press, not a hybrid publisher.

RED LIGHT: They publish a random grab-bag of books of all sorts, with no clear mission or mandate. Vanity presses and self-publishing service companies are indiscriminate about what they publish because they are in the business of selling services to as many customers as possible, not building a reputable publishing list with a focus and a personality.

YELLOW LIGHT: Their “distribution” is limited to listing your book with a wholesaler and putting it on Amazon via a POD printer and nothing more. This is a yellow light instead of red because publishers like this may meet hybrid publishing criteria if they actively support authors to get books into sales channels beyond Amazon, like bookstores and/or specialty markets.

GREEN LIGHT: They offer you ownership of your rights, control, and high royalties in exchange for their upfront service fees.

GREEN LIGHT: They care about the quality of their books. At minimum, they screen your submission and provide editorial support in order to ensure it meets their standards. They may offer a full suite of editorial services.

GREEN LIGHT: They present your book to retailers, usually through a third-party distributor, and/or actively promote it to target markets.

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