Earlier this month, two UK writers’ organisations—the Society of Authors (SoA) and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB)—published Is It a Steal?, an investigation into what it calls hybrid publishing services.
What is hybrid publishing?
The SoA and WGGB define hybrid publishing as a situation where ‘a writer pays money for publication, and grants the company a licence of rights or the company takes a share of any profits’.
This type of agreement is often called ‘contributory’, ‘subsidy’ or ‘partnership’ by its practitioners. Previously, this hybrid approach was often called ‘vanity’ publishing.
Hybrid publishing is different from a traditional or conventional trade publishing contract, where a publisher provides everything from editing and printing to marketing and distribution. Under a traditional publishing contract, an author is paid a fee or an advance and royalties in exchange for a licence of rights to a work. The publisher funds its operation through book sales and does not ask for payments from a writer.
Hybrid publishing is also differentiated from self-publishing, where an author retains the rights to their self-published work even if they pay a self-publishing service provider to edit, design, produce or market their book. Under a self-publishing model, the writer receives all profits after the sales platform or distributor has taken their cut, and can extract themselves from the agreement at any time.
As the report warns, at first glance, hybrid publishing deals can look a lot like traditional publishing agreements; however, they are very different in that there’s rarely any sign of expenditure from the publisher other than the author’s contribution. There is usually no intention by the hybrid publisher to publish the work other than in ebook or print on demand formats, or as a very short print run.
According to the SoA and WGGB, ‘a “hybrid”/paid-for deal is the worst option a writer can take.’
‘In our direct experience of working with SoA and WGGB members, and as our research bears out, “hybrid”/paid-for publishing deals do not result in enough sales or exposure to justify the payment by the author,’ they write.
‘For many years, even before researching for this report, we have seen how such services fall short of expectations, with writers unnecessarily handing over rights and control over their manuscripts, along with large sums of money. We have seen the impact this has on writers’ careers and confidence in their work, and on their finances. We have seen too many cases where the “hybrid”/paid-for model amounts to a counterfeit approach to publishing. We invariably advise writers against it. ‘
The SoA and WGGB surveyed 240 writers with experiences of hybrid publishing deals between February–April 2021. The survey findings were stark, including:
- Fees ranged from £330 (A$583) to more than £10,000 (A$17,700), with £2,000 (A$3540) the median amount paid by writers
- A median of only 67 physical books were sold per deal, with median of royalties received of £68 (A$120)
- Writers made a median loss of £1,861 (A$3290), with reported losses as high as £9,900 (A$17,500)
- Just 6% of writers reported that they made a profit from their ‘hybrid’ / paid-for publishing deal compared to 61 who reported making a loss (94%)
- 59% of writers who accepted hybrid deals reported that their book wasn’t subsequently available to buy in bookshops, supermarkets or other retailers
- About half (52%) of writers were dissatisfied with the publishers’ efforts to generate sales; 37% of writers were dissatisfied with the customer service they received; and 36% of writers were dissatisfied overall with their publishing deal
- 48% of writers wouldn’t recommend their publisher to others.
A total of 91 companies were named by respondents—indicating that ‘this is a widespread issue, not a problem with one or two rogue companies.’
Further, the SoA and WGGB received detailed, qualitative survey responses from writers outlining their experiences dealing with hybrid publishers.
In addition to the other findings, authors reported experiences including aggressive marketing and manipulative sales approaches; ineffective marketing package upgrades and other upselling; unclear contracts; unnecessary and excessive acquisition of rights; services that fell short of expectations; disappointment about the quality of the books produced; and lack of availability of published books in bookshops, supermarkets and other retailers.
The report makes a series of recommendations for writers, publishers and other organisations.
Writers who are considering pursuing a hybrid publishing deal are encouraged to first: educate themselves on the publishing industry and the different publishing approaches (using resources such as this free SoA guide); consider whether a hybrid deal is the best way to achieve what they want from publication; look closely at the details of the deal; research the company offering the publishing deal; and have contracts vetted by member organisations such as SoA and WGGB.
Publishers, service providers and other trade bodies are encouraged to commit to a series of key publishing principles—including clarity around their business model, customer rights and cost transparency—that will differentiate legitimate companies from shady operators,
The full Is It a Steal report—which also includes a handful of case studies—should be of interest to independent authors and I encourage anyone who is considering hybrid publishing to have a read of this first. While it’s a survey of UK writers, many of the practices described are similar to those offered by companies around the world, including Australia. If you have experience—good or bad—with hybrid publishing in Australia, please reach out. Next month, Independent Publishing will be talking to local service providers, writers groups and authors to examine whether the SoA and WGGB report into UK hybrid publishing is reflective of the experience of Australian independent authors.