Hybrid Publishing: Getting a Handle on the New Middle Ground

It’s strange, but this word—“hybrid”—is somewhat controversial in some publishing circles. I guess, like a lot of terms, there are certain people and even factions who want ownership of it, and others who want to distance themselves from it. I came across a guy online who claimed to have “coined” the term in 2011, but the origins of hybrid publishing go back at least another full decade, if not farther.

My introduction to hybrid publishing coincided with my introduction to publishing in 2000, when I landed a job at North Atlantic Books in Berkeley. They had in place a hybrid publishing agreement with some of their authors that offered creative terms—usually in which the author paid for some or all of their production and print costs in exchange for higher royalty rates. North Atlantic is hardly the only publisher to have ever cut deals like this, and the longer I’ve been in the industry the more I’ve seen how commonplace this practice actually is, especially in smaller houses and especially among business-minded authors.

Recently, another kind of “hybrid” has entered into the mix, the hybrid author—and this, I imagine, confuses people because it’s the same term, but used in a different context. The hybrid author is someone who has book deals with traditional presses, but also self-publishes, or publishes in some other nontraditional way. That said, when I talk about hybrid publishing, I am not talking about hybrid authors, who are quickly making up a larger subset of the author population than ever before.

Hybrid publishing encompasses the middle ground between traditional and self-publishing. Hybrid publishing is not a term all publishers or authors in this space use, but it’s the term I prefer because it’s a catchall. Because this is a new and growing area of the industry, people are trying to figure out what this area is—and I propose we adopt hybrid as the umbrella term under which at least four kinds of publishing models fall:


1. Traditional publishers who’ve been brokering hybrid deals for years. All it means to have a hybrid publishing agreement in this context is that the author pays up front in some capacity. It was my early exposure to this kind of publishing that gave me the foundation for She Writes Press, the “hybrid” publishing company I co-founded that falls under partnership publishing below. The only downside to this variation of hybrid is that it’s not transparent. Most traditional publishers who do it don’t talk about it, which has propagated a false dichotomy in the marketplace that there are those who pay to publish and those who get paid to publish. The truth is much blurrier than that. 


2. Partnership publishing models. Models like these include She Writes Press. We are a publishing company, and our authors pay to publish under our imprint. The authors keep a high percentage of their royalties, so they absorb the financial risk of their publishing endeavor. We offer traditional distribution and the benefits that brings, including the ability to have your books preordered and your data streamlined; a curated, selective acquisitions process; and we have a publisher at the helm making sure there’s a cohesive vision and that all of the books are adhering to a level of quality that’s on par with traditional publishing. Another benefit unique to publishers who have traditional distribution is that they qualify to submit their books to the traditional review channels, like PW, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal. This is a boon to authors who depend on reviews to drive sales—namely novelists and memoirists. Other publishers in this space include Ink Shares, Turning Stone Press, and White Cloud Press.


3. Agent-assisted publishing models. Many agents are starting their own publishing companies to publish the works of authors whose books they cannot sell. For the most part, these efforts are valiant. Agents feel strongly about the work they’re seeing and want to find an outlet where these authors can be published. They’re hybrid because the authors are being published under the agent’s imprint. What these models lack to date is effective distribution. Where they excel, and what makes them like the other two models above, is that they understand publishing and put out quality books that their authors can be proud of. One asset here as well may be on the foreign market side. If your agent continues to represent you, and has published your book, it’s likely they will make strong efforts to sell foreign editions of your work. Be sure to ask!


4. Other assisted publishing models. There are many assisted publishing models out there, and I differentiate these from assisted self-publishing because authors are publishing under a company's imprint rather than their own imprint. Some people might call this self-publishing, but it’s really not, because the company you're working with is delivering a finished product, and they’re paying you royalties or author earnings on your sales. These companies do not curate, or have traditional distribution. To the novice writer, these companies might look very similar to partnership publishers and agent-assisted publishers, but they’re quite different in their orientation to the business—namely in the fact that they’re operating more like a mill than a publishing house. You need to be cautious in this space. There are good companies and bad, so do your homework.


The real qualifier of a hybrid publisher is that the author pays to publish. The payoff for the author is the much-higher royalty, and that someone else does the heavy lifting of publishing the book (and in the cases of partnering with a traditional or partnership press, you’re benefiting from their industry relationships as well).

The hybrid publishing space is difficult to navigate because not all models are created equal. I would love to distance She Writes Press from some of the other pay-for-service companies that fall into this category, but at the end of the day, for better or for worse, we’re all together for a similar business purpose: to offer authors an opportunity to get published in a way that is neither traditional nor self-publishing. We come to the table with different experiences, values, and missions, and as authors entering this space, you get to choose your partners. So the onus is on you to be thorough, do your homework, and choose wisely.  

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Comment by Brooke Warner on April 19, 2015 at 7:32am

Cate, thanks for asking. We are actually trying to put together a "comparative publisher" sheet in-house. I'll let you know when it's ready for release. Thanks again!

Comment by Carol Kurtz Walsh on April 14, 2015 at 2:07pm

Hi Brooke, Thank you so much for this helpful explanation.  I have almost completed my 

memoir -- after 2 1/2 years work -- and am perplexed about how and where to have it 

published.  You gave me a lot to think about.  Carol

Comment by Kelly Priest on April 13, 2015 at 11:35pm

A friend of mine tried some similar option with their publishing agency and it turned out to be an successful endeavor. She earned quite a lot from the book. However, it's kinda risky bet to take, because of the initial investment needed.

Comment by Joanne Barney on April 13, 2015 at 10:11am

I have just signed with Penner Publishing, a new company, which will publish three of my books and will expect me, of course, to help publicize them and sell them.  I am a little confused and perhaps should have written for advice sooner, but I am not paying this company for any of their services.  They, in fact, are sending me a check, upfront, (not a lot, but helpful to cover writing expenses) soon, and are beginning the redesign of my self-published novels.  Does this fit into your hybrid definition or is Penner a new kid on the block?

Comment by Brooke Warner on April 10, 2015 at 12:48pm

@Harriet—sounds like Terri is a woman I need to know!!

@Libby—we are so thrilled to have your book on our list.

Comment by Libby Ware on April 10, 2015 at 12:34pm

I tried for years to find an agent. Although I met with some through writers conferences, submitted to agents after researching them, had a few agents who requested the whole ms., I was unable to find an agent who wanted to represent me. (Other than an agent who I signed a contract with and went through a couple of stages of editing, but she left the business before she started sending out my ms.) I heard about She Writes Press through this website and I carefully researched them before deciding to send in my sample pages. I'm in the middle of the proof-reading process, but I've been impressed by the She Writes books I've seen and am very happy with the cover and design of my book.

Comment by Harriet Hodgson on April 10, 2015 at 4:43am

You're welcome Brooke. A few other things I like about WriteLife hybrid publishing . . .Unlike independent publishers, the author is not paying for an entire press run or book storage in a warehouse. WriteLife has an intensive proofreading process and, according to one of my publishing industry contacts, is known for error-free books. WriteLife belongs to several independent publishing associations and Terri Leidich encourages authors to contact independent bookstores and attend conferences. Although I have a long track record as a freelancer, Terri's marketing expertise has really helped me.

Comment by Brooke Warner on April 9, 2015 at 7:04pm

Harriet, thank you for letting me know about WriteLife. I'll have to reach out to Terri. I'm working on a list of hybrid publishers and I didn't know about them.

Comment by Irene Allison on April 9, 2015 at 4:21pm

Things are in such a state of flux in publishing. There are so many choices (and potential pitfalls) especially for a new author like me that it's good to have solid professional guidance. I very much like the hybrid model that She Writes Press has created, which I first discovered through an article in Writer's Digest.

Comment by Charli Mills on April 9, 2015 at 12:15pm

As someone looking to publish her first manuscript, I appreciate the clarification. I did consider a hybrid publisher after encouragement from several credible authors under their imprint. They told me to contact them again when my social media was more robust. An agent and a publisher are now reading my manuscript, but no telling how long that will take or what will transpire. Some days, I feel like I'm trying to win at a shell game. But I continue to build my platform, and write to the best of my abilities, focusing on quality and the stories I enjoy writing.


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