Hybrid Publishing

Via The Passive Voice, which focuses on interesting articles related to publishing, I just saw this one, at Kirkus, in which Bob Mayer argues that to “self”-publish, you need a team. I love that Bob used quotes there, given my feelings for “self-publishing” and my desire for people to stop calling independence that, but I’m also intrigued by Bob’s suggestion that authors need teams, and even teams who have vested interest in authors’ work. It sounds a lot like what a publisher does, but I think it’s more complicated than that. I think it’s more about hybrid publishing.

I’m coining that term to describe a new sort of publisher. There’s been talk of “hybrid authors” for a while; Chuck Wendig suggests a definition here:

The hybrid author merely looks at all the publishing options available to her. She is told she is supposed to check one box and move on — “Stay within the clearly-marked margins,” they warn. “Check your box, choose your path, then shut the door gently behind you.” But the hybrid author checks many, even all the boxes. The hybrid author refuses to walk one path, instead leaping gaily from path to path, gamboling about like some kind of jester-imp. She says no to coloring within the lines of a traditionally-published or a self-published drawing.

She opens all the doors. She closes none of them.

“Do one thing?” she scoffs. “Do all the things!”

This hybrid state is, likely, the best possible scenario of all possible scenarios. It’s the “I’m going to publish some of my own short stories and novellas and maybe a niche title or two, but here I have these other novels that Simon & Schuster wants to publish in print to deliver to bookstores, so I’m going to let them” scenario. I think, by Chuck’s definition (and there may be others), Hugh Howey is probably a hybrid author. I think Chuck is, himself, in fact; he’s published stuff like an awesome short story collection via Kindle Direct Publishing, sold a whole series to Amazon, and has an entirely separate series with Angry Robot Press. He flits about with unsurprising agility–he’s a good writer with good stories, and he’s smart to boot. Moreover, he refuses to stick to one, safe thing; he reminds me of Neil Gaiman that way.

As I note here, the problem with the scenario is that “get an agent and a publishing contract” is not, in general, a box authors can simply check. One can hope to eventually check that box, but it’s a box that has to be offered.

Independently publishing is a choice. Corporate publishing isn’t, really. You can pursue it. You can make choices along the way; you can choose to submit queries to agents, but ultimately you can’t choose to have an agent. That choice is most often left to agents.

I’m pleased to see this is becoming less true. I’m seeing more and more authors whose agents came to them–I think Howey is one of them. I’m seeing more authors get approached by corporations. This is a good thing, and it means authors will have more power, overall, but it’s something that’s occurring slowly.

Point is, independent publishing is a button an author can push. Publishing with a corporation isn’t.

But I digress. I want to talk about what I see as hybrid publishing, and hybrid publishers.

There are benefits to independent publishing: rights and control remain with authors. That’s pretty huge. On the other hand, that means all the responsibility remains with authors, too, as do costs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can easily get expensive, and it can easily go awry. Cover design isn’t inexpensive, for example, and while authors can do it themselves, most often, at least at first, it’s best left to professionals. From personal experience: I didn’t outsource cover design to begin with, and my first cover for my debut collection was terrible. But I kept learning, and beginning with Meets Girl I think I’ve gotten better, and continue to do so. I love what I did with Miya Kressin’s Asylum saga, cover-wise, for example (and I’m pretty sure she does, too). Hiring a publicist and buying ads and etc.–all those things cost money, and they’re usually things a corporation would pay for if one signed a publishing contract with them.

As I see it, the major benefit of a corporation is potential access to its larger budget. Keep in mind, though, that’s potential; I’m not sure marketing budgets are ever guaranteed. I could be wrong, but from what I’ve seen from authors with corporations, even they wish they’d had more support in terms of marketing and promotion.

There’s also the question of rights. When you publish with a corporation, they get the rights to publish your work. Clauses in contracts pertain to revision of rights–that is, when rights to work revert back to authors. I remember back in the 90s, I was a big fan of Dean Koontz, and there was a time when, because he’d been smart and gotten the clause included in his contract, rights to his backlist had reverted to him, allowing him to sell those rights to paperback publishers, who were happy to exploit them. If only the Kindle revolution had begun then.

I think hybrid publishing combines the best of both worlds. It’s what I aim at with Exciting Press–through Exciting Press, we provide to our authors most of the support a corporation might in all the ways we can. Our authors keep control and have say in everything from the editorial process to the cover design process. They ultimately have final say over the entire product, and most of all they keep their rights. I’ve worked it out so that rather than acquiring rights, Exciting Press acquires only a digital license, and a limited-term one at that. I don’t have the pockets that a corporation does, so promotions and advertising are far more limited, but we’ll get there. And because I’m an author first, our authors get so-far-as-I-know industry-leading royalties.

I’d say I think this will become more common, but really it was never uncommon. There’s a long history of savvy authors becoming more invested in their own publishing. Stephen King, who’s often credit as a pioneer in digital publishing because of his The Plant serial experiment and his Riding the Bullet ebook experiement, has–from what I’ve heard–a unique contract with his publisher, Scribner, that means he gets higher royalties from and more control over publishing in exchange for far lower advances. After his breakthrough A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers went on to found McSweeney’s Press–which has since issued all Eggers’ novels (and many by other writers) in hardcover. Talk to almost any indie author and they can tell you about all the authors who’ve taken that initiative–usually included in the discussion are names like Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, John Grisham, and Tom Clancy. One can generally make arguments for or against several.

Hybrid publishing simply highlights that there’s no one way to be a publisher. What it also highlights, though, is that it seems like often the most successful businesses are the ones who know what they want and take active, certain steps to do it.