Hybrid Authors: Advantages and Precautions (Self-Publishing Roundtable (3/6))

(As a reminder, this is part three of the series discussed here.  This series was originally concieved to be part of a roundtable discussion, so don’t be afraid to comment, disagree, offer new suggestions, etc.)

INTRODUCTION

As I start writing, I fully expect this to be the shortest article in this blog series.  I am not a hybrid author, so I can’t say the sorts of things about it an expert (or even a journeyman) hybrid author might.

That doesn’t mean I know nothing (I’m not Jon Snow).  There is a lot you can learn just from research, from talking to others who’ve done it, from talking with others who’ve failed at it, from simply reading other articles on the subject, etc.  I’ve been doing that for years, and this is what I’ve learned.

Hybrid authors are those authors who choose to self-publish some works while also pursuing traditional publishers for their other works.  Many people who have tried all three types of publishing (trade, self, and hybrid) believe it to be the best of all possible options, but there are some things to watch out for is you wish to pursue this option.

The first thing is something a lot of articles on the subject seem to neglect mentioning:

You cannot choose to be a hybrid author.  You can only choose to try to become a hybrid.  You can only choose to submit your writing to a publishing house; then you wait and hope against astronomical odds.

I do not know what the stats are, now, but when I was in college some fifteen years ago I was frequently told by industry professionals that 99.9% of submissions for publication to any legitimate publisher were regularly rejected.   90% of submissions were rejected, unread, because the author failed to read submission policies correctly.  90% of the remainder were rejected because they believed the writing was flawed.  90% of the remainder after that were rejected for other reasons (such as “We have too many books with Elves\Vampires\Robots in them already!” or “I don’t like the author’s obvious political statement!”).

The odds of getting accepted are even more astronomical for those who wish to pursue a hybrid career.  Not because some publishers look down on you for self-publishing (that’s a bit of a mixed bag; some publishers do, some don’t care, and some take into consideration your sales history).  If you are looking into becoming a hybrid author, however, your choice in publishers is limited — you should only be looking publishers large enough to expand your potential market.  That eliminates most (not all; as I have mentioned in past articles, nothing is universally true in this world of self-publishing) small-press publishers, and almost all electronic-only publishers.

Incidentally, in part zero of this series I mistakenly called this part of the series one on “hybrid publishing.”  I have since corrected that mistake, though I think it is an easy one to make.  This is an important distinction, as some publishing scams (or vanity presses mascarading as “new forms of publishing” or “assisted self-publishing” or whatnot) chose to use the term “hybrid publishing” as their business model’s moniker.  This confusion may or may not have been deliberate, but either way it is something to avoid.

ADVANTAGES OF BEING A HYBRID

There are a few reasons someone may want to try and become a hybrid author.  I would caution writers considering becoming a hybrid that a few of these “advantages” aren’t actually advantages you get from being a hybrid author.

What I mean by that is that some people go looking at Trade publishers hoping to find certain things, like “expert marketing,” “legitimacy,” and “a chance to work with a real editor!”

Uh, right.

Unless you’re already a celebrity or you’ve had the self-publishing success of an HM Ward or a Hugh Howey, you will almost certainly enter the Trade\Hybrid field as a midlist writer.  Marketing at the midlist level is spotty, at best — at times, the publisher expects you to spend your advance (one of those “things a trade publisher offers you don’t get from self-publishing”) on your own marketing.

Okay, that’s not entirely true, and I will make exceptions.  Notably, Baen Books has one of the most reader-centric marketing programs in publishing, and pushes their mid-list almost as hard as they do their big-name writers.

Most publishers, however, aren’t marketing their midlist books to readers.  (note the distinction)  They may be willing to send you on a “book signing tour” (frequently at your expense), but that’s mostly as a sop to whiny authors and provides little real-world marketing help.

And “legitimacy”?  Legitimacy is a buzz-word, in this context, to mean “I lack confidence that I am a real author; it doesn’t matter how many sales I can generate as a self-publisher, or how much money I am sacrificing to go to a trade publisher, only they can provide proof that I am a real author!”  Sigh.

Confidence-boosting is only worth so much.  I really don’t mind people who want the legitimacy of a trade publisher’s endorsement, but I do mind how people have used that hunt for legitimacy to talk themselves into signing really bad contracts unnecessarily, or to pursuing trade publishing deals that will do nothing for their career.

Finally, “a chance to work with a real editor”?  Really?  What do you think those freelance editors I talked about in part I of this series were?  (And I’ll warn you — a number of publishers, including some of the largest, are outsourcing much of the editing for their midlist, often to the very same people you can hire as a self-publisher)

Okay, enough about the advantages which aren’t.  What about the advantages that are?

The first can be summed up as, um, “legitimacy.”  (sigh, I know)  Having the endorsement of a Trade publisher should not matter to you one iota in the legitimacy of calling yourself an author, but it sometimes matter to others you might do business with:  Producers looking to buy movie rights, newspapers doing book reviews, translators looking to buy translation rights, conventions looking for guests, etc.  That isn’t to say that these people never work with purely self-published authors, just that having the endorsement of a Trade publisher makes it easier to deal with them.

But the real advantage of Trade publishers is print distribution.  Now, I like small press publishers, but most lack the resources for strong print distribution.  That makes many small press publishers useless for the careers of a self-publisher, as they can offer little or nothing that a self-publisher cannot do (sometimes better) themselves.

But this is where the so-called “marketing power” of larger trade publishers really comes in.  As I said, trade publishers don’t put much effort in marketing their midlist to readers… but they will market them to bookstores.  In theory, it’s up to the bookstore itself to push the marketing to the readers — in reality, midlist writers once again get short-changed, but if you can at least get your book on the shelves it has a chance of selling.

Self-published authors, with a bit of work, can have success getting their books into local bookstores and libraries (I will get into this more extensively in my article on print publishing).  Trade publishers, on the other hand, can get books into bookstores and libraries nationally — sometimes even internationally.  And that can, in turn, make it easier to convince your local bookstores to stock those books you self-publish, too.

There are other things a Trade publisher can give you (advances, logistical support, free covers and editors (at the loss of control), etc.), but these have no effect on your career as a self-publisher.  Rather, these are the trade-offs anyone makes when they chose between self-publishing and pursuing trade publishing.  You may or may not want these things, and they will neither help nor harm your self-publishing career.

But be careful, for there are things in Trade publishing that can harm your self-publishing career….

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR

The Holy Grail of hybrid publishing contracts would be a “print-only” deal that allows you to retain all electronic rights to your work.  Not many publishers are willing to sign writers to one, and most that do will only give them to those Hugh Howey\HM Ward level self-publishers mentioned above.  If you can get one, it’s almost unquestionably worth it.

But if you do, there are things you need to watch out for.  Things which can harm your career as a self-publisher.  Things which could even end your career as a self-publisher.

It starts with agents.  A lot of publishers won’t deal with authors, of any persuasion, without an agent — Big-5 publisher Hatchett’s parent company proudly boasted of the requirement in their business statement for investors.  (Note: That entire investment presentation should be a warning to authors when dealing with trade publishers.  Some of the things said in it are downright scary)

Now, agents aren’t necessarily a horrible thing.  Even if you are purely self-published, you may (eventually, not right away) want an agent who can handle, say, negotiations for movie rights or translation rights (please note:  The agents you want negotiating your translation or movie rights are different from the agents you’d get to deal with a trade publisher, anyway, though there may be some amount of crossover within the agencies they work for).

You don’t need an agent when dealing with certain publishers (you probably want a lawyer to look over your contracts, but that’s not the same thing), but if you have a chance at a “holy grail” type of deal it’s worth trying to get one.

But if you do get one, make sure of your terms when approaching them.  There are agents out there who will do almost nothing for you, and in exchange demand control over all of your business deals and 15% of sales for every book you have published, are currently publishing now, and will publish in the future… even if they have had nothing to do with those books.

And that’s true even of some “good” agents who aren’t in the business solely to rip authors off.  Now, don’t get me wrong — there really are some agents who do look out for the good of the author (a very few, and most of them are fully booked) — but the horror stories of dealing with agents get pretty bad.  Kristine Kathryn Rusch has collected quite a few.

But in some cases they are a necessary evil, so keep as close an eye on your agency agreement as you do your publishing agreements… which should be the same sort of eye you keep on a jewel thief in a room full of loose diamonds.  Make sure that there’s no overreach.  Try not to give them powers over you and your work that they shouldn’t have.  And then monitor them to make sure they don’t exploit rights you never signed over to them, anyway.

But worse than agents, there is a certain contract clause Trade publishers like to insert in their contract clauses that really can kill your self-publishing (in fact, your entire writing) career:  The Non-Compete Clause.

Non-compete clauses are supposed to prevent a writer from trying to publish anything (either self-published or with another publisher) that might compete with their own book (as published by that publisher) for a specified period of time.  This can be acceptable — a two or three month period right after the book is released can be okay, but sometimes the period of time is egregious; remember that “as long as the book is in print” potentially means “forever” in the days of POD printing.

Of course, what is interpreted as “competing” with your book is rarely, if ever, fully defined.  Sometimes there’s a “gentlemen’s agreement” handshake deal about it, but that is absolutely worthless.  Most publishing houses don’t get this extreme, but I have read about authors who have basically been told that anything they write for another publishing house is “competing” with the book, even if that writing is in a different genre and written under a pen name.

Also, in the current publishing era, you want to be careful about reversion clauses (when you get your rights back, allowing you to self-publish the book or sell it to someone else).  Too many publishers retain the old “until it goes out of print” language in their boilerplate contracts even though — as said above — with eBooks and POD, books can be made to never go out of print.

And, of course, there’s everything else that goes with trade publishing.  There are scams to worry about (check sites like Writer Beware for more on those).  It takes much longer to get that book out than it does in self-publishing.  You have no control over the cover, no final say over the edits, etc., etc.  In other words, the same things that had you deciding to self-publish in the first place.  They haven’t gone away — it’s just that there are other issues that the self-published author has to pay more careful attention to.

CONCLUSION

As I am not a hybrid author, I obviously cannot speak to everything there is to know about being one.  I know a lot of hybrid authors speak to the successes they’ve had working as hybrids, and how it is the “best path” out there, but it isn’t a path you can just “decide” to go on.  It’s a decision someone else (a Trade publisher) has to permit you to make.

All I could talk about was the things which were, well, general warnings you hear all the time and common sense reasons for doing it at all.  For some reason, though, there are a lot of writers who seem oblivious to these warnings and ignore all common sense, so it needs to be spelled out for them.

I would like to hear more, from other authors who have gone through the Hybrid Authorship path to publishing, on what they view as the biggest advantages they’ve recieved, the things they’ve learned you need to watch out for, and their opinion on the best way to get on this path.

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