More Mileage with Author / Publisher Hybrids

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April 2015
by Deb Vanasse
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Having entered into what seemed an exciting and mutually beneficial hybrid arrangement with a publisher that let me retain all rights except English-language print rights, I was eager to learn how similar agreements were working for others. So I posed the question to a panel of experts who had gathered at a big national conference to discuss changes in publishing.

One panelist, a publisher with a small but well-known press, scolded me for having even proposed a hybrid arrangement. By retaining nonprint rights to my novel, he suggested, I was playing foul, depriving my publisher of essential revenues from the digital edition.

My publisher and I shared a very different take on our deal. We had negotiated with the idea that we’d increase sales on both sides of the table by pooling our efforts. But is that how the relatively new concept of hybrid publishing actually plays out in practice?

Doing What Each Does Best

Four years ago, author Bob Mayer began using the term hybrid to describe authors who publish both through traditional, commercial publishing companies and on their own. Back then, Mayer says, these were mostly authors who were publishing their new work with traditional houses while re-releasing their out-of-print titles independently.

Since then, the term hybrid has come to encompass a variety of creative publishing arrangements. In the case of British author Michele Gorman, it means she retains rights to certain formats and in certain markets. Penguin published her debut novel, Single in the City, in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth territories, while Gorman published the book independently in the United States.

She now has a similar arrangement with Avon/Harper Collins for The Curvy Girls Club, published independently in the United States and Canada and by Avon in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Asia.

Deb Vanasse (left) and Michele Gorman at book signings.

Deb Vanasse (left) and Michele Gorman at book signings.

From an author’s perspective, Orna Ross, founder/director of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), views a hybrid arrangement as one in which a trade publisher functions as an author service. “We have seen authors do this at the top of the bestseller charts,” notes Ross. “Hugh Howey is the most famous, but there are increasing numbers of others. And we’re also seeing it at the opposite end—indie authors teaming with small indie publishers or agents or bookshops to handle their print.”

Hybrid arrangements involve the author and publisher taking charge of what each does best, says Ross. “The more creative thinking that happens here, the better. Some publishers handle digital very well.” Others, including some of the largest, are “abysmally bad. They just don’t understand the digital landscape. What ALLi is against is their hoovering up all rights, just in case. It’s lazy, uncreative business. And authors who value themselves won’t agree to such deals.”

Gorman points out that even when publishers enter into hybrid arrangements, they sometimes fail to make the most of what authors bring to the table. They acquire books by hybrid authors “but then do what they’ve always done, which is to separate the writing from the marketing and promotion.” In particular, Gorman says, many publishers exclude authors from decisions about covers and blurbs—two areas of marketing in which most independently published authors have become quite savvy.

“Hybrid authors work very hard to build their reader platforms and to find ways of growing and engaging a loyal readership,” explains author Ruth Saberton. “This isn’t a quick job—it is done one reader at a time.” Indie authors can bring existing audiences with them, Saberton notes, adding, “We also have the knowledge of how to market our books and a great following on the social media sites.”

Mayer points out additional advantages to the hybrid arrangement. “Psychologically, I think hybrid authors are a little less on edge, because the traditional deal isn’t all or nothing for their career,” he says. “As a hybrid, I know I can go to a publisher and not care about my advance because I already have a solid income stream. I can also present a publisher with a solid marketing scheme.”

Partnership Pluses

It was the prospect of such value-added involvement that led the University of Alaska Press, which holds the English-language print rights to my novel Cold Spell, to embrace a hybrid arrangement. As acquisitions editor James Engelhardt notes, his press is mission-driven and very flexible, but like any other publisher, it must have balance sheets that show profits.

“To do that,” he says, “we need to partner with active, lively authors—authors who are willing to support their books. And our sense that we’re partners may be an important position to start from.”

From Engelhardt’s perspective, my proposal that I retain all rights except English-language print rights made sense. The University of Alaska Press had an established book series (the Alaska literary series) and I had a solid track record with both independently published and traditionally published print books.

“In books that have gone to electronic versions, we haven’t seen the electronic erode print sales,” says Engelhardt. “So we were open to trying something new.” Also, he notes that I bring “a lot of enthusiasm” to promoting my books, which is something the press was “very happy to have in a partner.”

As Gorman points out, it may be easier for a traditionally published author to go hybrid than for an author whose only publishing experience is independent. “An independent author may have difficulty working with a publisher because a publisher can’t be as responsive, fast, or devoted to your book as you are—they have dozens to deal with!” she says. “But if you start out traditionally published, you understand these limitations and make the decision to sign a traditional deal because it has other advantages.”

For me, those advantages include favorable reviews in trade publications — Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist — where my novel would never have been featured had it been entirely self-published. Cold Spell also got shelf space in bookstores well beyond my local region, something that would never have happened without a well-established publisher’s involvement.

New Norms

“These days, it’s natural for an author to publish books in various ways, depending on what’s best for the book itself,” says Midge Raymond of Ashland Creek Press. Authors who propose hybrid arrangements should keep in mind the publisher’s investment in bringing the book to market, and acknowledge the benefits that result from the efforts of professional editors, proofreaders, and designers.

And the author and publisher should discuss contract language that ensures that content of the book is the same in all editions while also covering questions such as which files will be shared and how release dates will be managed.

“My impression is that the standard, monolithic publishing contract is fast dying out across the landscape,” says Engelhardt. “That die-off creates more work, but it also frees the author and publisher to find new, interesting ways to continue to get good work to the audience that wants it.”


About the Author:

Deb VanasseDeb Vanasse is the author of 16 published books, including, most recently, What Every Author Should Know: No Matter How You Publish and the companion volume, Write Your Best Book. Co-founder of the 49 Alaska Writing Center, a nonprofit that supports the artistic development of writers throughout Alaska, she is also the founder of the author collective Running Fox Books. To learn more: debvanasse.com.

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