Hybrid publishing in Australia

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In April, 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 they call hybrid publishing—defined 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’. 

The findings were stark: just 6% of writers reported that they made a profit, and almost half (48%) wouldn’t recommend their publisher to others. As a result, the authors of the report made a slate of recommendations for writers, publishers and other organisations, to both better warn authors about the risks and to better regulate the industry.

In response to the report, Independent Publishing has examined the market for hybrid publishing in Australia to find whether there are similarities with the situation outlined in the UK, the feasibility of ethical hybrid publishing under certain conditions, and the lessons for authors who are looking at entering into a hybrid publishing deal.

What is hybrid publishing? 

Olivia Lanchester, CEO of the Australian Society of Authors (ASA), emphasised the importance of properly defining hybrid publishing as a model that charges writers to publish their work, and also takes their rights or a share of profits.

‘This is a hybrid of the traditional publishing model—where the author grants the publisher a copyright licence, and the publisher bears the financial risk of publication—and a self-publishing model—where typically an author is responsible for all of the costs of, and decisions regarding, the production their book,’ Lanchester said.

Hybrid publishing, therefore, does not include service providers, who will work with authors on specific areas such as editing, design and layout, and marketing and publicity, but will not take their rights.

‘By insisting on an exclusive copyright licence, as hybrid publishers typically do, I believe they are more than a service provider; they are a licensee of intellectual property,’ Lanchester said. ‘By taking an author’s rights, they have the same responsibility as any licensee: to generate a return for the author.’ 

While the ASA does not have a blanket recommendation against authors dealing with any hybrid publisher, as ‘so much depends on an individual’s author’s circumstances and motivations to publish’, Lanchester echoed many of the concerns raised by the UK’s SoA and WGGB.

‘What is of particular concern is where there is a lack of transparency, lack of author input and control, aggressive marketing or hounding of authors, poor quality of services and exaggerated or unsubstantiated sales claims,’ said Lanchester. ‘The ASA encourages authors to exercise caution in relation to any arrangement where the hybrid publisher seems to be making money out of fees paid by authors, rather than out of book sales.’  

On the rise

Debbie Lee, senior manager, content acquisition and business development for Ingram Content Group, has observed ‘a groundswell of business as self-publishing has evolved, and authors are not left in the dark, trying to do everything themselves or “going it alone”’.

With IngramSpark, Lee works with a great number of what the company calls ‘author service providers’, including book design, production and editing experts, who work with independent authors on a fee-for-service basis, as well as hybrid publishers, who offer package deals and may manage an author’s titles under the publisher’s own imprint, paying authors their ‘publisher compensation’ (revenue on sales via the retail market), less an admin fee.

Lee is optimistic about the market for author services, including hybrid publishers, that has emerged in Australia. ‘We are really grateful to the fabulous hybrid publishers operating in this space, the majority of whom are truly dedicated to helping indies produce great books at reasonable prices,’ Lee said. ‘It’s quite a different landscape to that described in the UK article, which implied high production fees, IP control, and low royalties. By comparison, I think we are fortunate in Australia. A shady operator would get found out pretty quickly and not last too long!’

Australian authors, however, are subject to the same aggressive marketing tactics from large hybrid publishing companies that have been the subject of author complaints, including in the UK report. As head of the peak national association for Australian authors, Lanchester said the ASA receives ‘regular complaints’ about hybrid practises and an increasing number of requests for advice on hybrid publishing in the past five years.

‘We believe this is due to the rapid increase in self-publishing, the businesses that service this area, and a muddying of the water around the options available to authors when considering author-funded publication,’ said Lanchester.

When can hybrid publishing work for authors?

Lanchester said there is a role ‘in some circumstances’ for hybrid publishers, but is focused on warning authors about the risk ‘because we see so much of the heartbreaking fall-out from bad practices’.

These circumstances or conditions under which hybrid publishing could work as an alternative to self-publishing, according to the ASA, include those where an author, cannot afford to invest in an opportunity to get their work to market, has neither the time nor the inclination to pursue DIY self-publishing, or has satisfied themselves about the legitimacy of the provider and wholly understands the risks.

Key to this, according to Lanchester, is an ethical profit share arrangement—‘one which takes into account the risk and investment borne by both parties and sets corresponding returns’ and ‘corrects the information asymmetry seen so often in publishing where authors simply don’t have the same level of understanding of the book trade when they negotiate and sign’.

Doing it right

Independent Publishing spoke to self-identified hybrid publishers, and authors who’ve worked with them, who are adamant about the ethics and efficacy of the hybrid model—when done right. The publishers are at pains to distinguish themselves from the predatory publishers who take advantage of authors, as detailed in the UK report, and are enthusiastic about the opportunities the hybrid publishing model can offer certain authors under the right circumstances.

Ian Hooper is executive director of Leschenault Press and The Book Reality Experience (Book Reality), based in WA. Leschenault Press is a traditional publisher; it charges no upfront fees to the author, foots all the bills and shares royalties. ‘We have done that for a couple of authors we felt passionately about and for a few anthologies,’ explains Hooper.

Book Reality, on the other hand, operates under a hybrid model as an imprint of Leschenault Press. Book Reality charges fees for part of the upfront expenses, with royalties on subsequent sales of these titles also shared between publisher and author.

Additionally, Book Reality also deals with authors on a fee-for-service basis, offering authors the same services as under a hybrid deal, but setting them up with an independent publishing account, registering the author’s ISBN accounts and publishing all under the author’s name. ‘The upfront fee is a bit more, but all royalties are theirs moving forward,’ said Hooper.

Hooper is selective about who he works with; not all manuscripts make the cut. He estimates he ends up working with about 40% of ‘cold contacts’—those who reach out through Book Reality’s submissions page—and about 90% of those who are recommended by a previous client. ‘We do very little in [the] way of active marketing and rely on referral for the most part,’ Hooper said.

‘We begin every new client interaction with the same email—it is lengthy and it lays out exactly who we are and what we do. Only when the author has acknowledged it, do we proceed. We lose about 10% of authors at that stage as they want a traditional publisher. That is a good outcome as they are not being blindsided later.’

Hooper, too, is troubled by predatory publishers marketing aggressively to Australian writers. His advice to authors on what a hybrid deal should cover include: an itemised and costed statement of what services are and aren’t included; a proposed publication date; a statement that copyright always resides with the author; specification of other rights, such as first serial rights, recording and dramatic; and an end date for the contract and assignment of rights; and a ‘get out clause’ specifying what happens if the author wants to break the contract early.

Bradley Shaw is the managing partner of Shawline Publishing, a hybrid publisher which also runs a planned chain of independent bookshops. He presented Independent Publishing with a list of principles by which Shawline abides as a hybrid publisher. These include having a defined mission and vision; publishing titles under the company’s ISBNs; publishing titles to ‘industry standards’ of editorial, design and production quality; a distribution service; and paying authors a higher-than-standard royalty.

Shaw said a proper hybrid publisher ‘should have a record of producing several books that sell in respectable quantities for the book’s niche’, noting many Shawline titles will sell between 500-1000 in their first year.

‘Many of our authors have made significant sales figures, yet perhaps to date not a high return due the many impacts of the industry from the previous years,’ Shaw explained. ‘The change in retail and distribution has impacted us and the increase of print and distribution costs will remain for some time during the recovery. For our authors, the best success they have achieved is by purchasing their own copies from us directly at an affordable price and selling them direct to their own market, at events, at markets, or into local businesses.’

He also agrees with Hooper that a genuine hybrid publisher vets submissions, ‘publishing only those titles that meet the mission and vision of the company, as well as a defined quality level set by the publisher’. ‘Good hybrid publishers don’t publish everything that comes over the transom and often decline to publish,’ Shaw said.

‘Regardless of who pays for editorial, design, and production fees, it is always the publisher that bears responsibility for producing, distributing, and ultimately promoting professional-quality books in the global markets,’ Shaw added. ‘An author-subsidised business model in no way relieves a publisher of its editorial, design, marketing, sales, and distribution responsibilities.’

Happy customers

Independent Publishing spoke to half-a-dozen authors who published work with Leschenault Press or Book Reality; each would recommend the company to other authors in the same position they were. Similarly, Independent Publishing spoke to a number of authors who published with Shawline and would likewise recommend the publisher. Almost all of the authors Independent Publishing spoke to made clear they were aware of the ‘dodgy’ hybrid publishers, either from personal or anecdotal experience, and were keen to distinguish their experience working with Hooper or Shaw.

The Book Reality authors and their experiences ranged from Mark Townsend, who, as chairperson of Bunbury Writers Group, published several books with BRE to showcase the talents of local writers, rather than for profits, to aspiring genre writers such as Dean Buswell, who published The Order of Elysium, the first book in a planned trilogy.

Buswell was full of praise for Hooper after working with Book Reality. ‘Unfortunately, simply because of the nature of the internet and marketing, it’s the forceful predatory companies that come to the surface more often than not,’ Buswell said. ‘But there is good and bad in every industry.’

‘I first tried self-publishing then stupidly went with another large hybrid company who were only interested in my money it seems,’ said Gill Wells, an author who has published five titles with Shawline. ‘Everything Shawline does is to the highest standard and they are always available by phone or email which wasn’t the case with the other company. I am so delighted to have found them. I know there are some dodgy companies out there but to me Shawline are in a different league.’

V M Knox has published three books in her ‘Clement Wisdom’ historical mystery series with Leschenault Press. The fourth book in the series, West Wind; Clear, is due out at the end of this month, but, as Knox is the publisher’s bestselling author, the book will be published without Knox having to contribute any fees.

After self-publishing with an ‘appalling vanity publisher’ in the UK, which she can’t name after signing a confidentiality agreement when the contract was dissolved, Knox re-wrote, re-titled and re-published her work with Book Reality. Knox said her books have been ‘well received by the reading public’, with high star-ratings on Amazon in the US, Canada, UK and Australia, while her second book received a Publisher’s Weekly starred review.

Her only complaint is not with the hybrid publishing process per se, but with the trade treatment of books published via the method.

‘One of the things about this method of publication that really annoys me is that bookshop owners think if a book isn’t traditionally published it must be rubbish,’ said Knox. ‘I have experienced the rudeness and contempt of bookshop owners who, without knowing why I chose this method of publication, make assumptions. But with hundreds of five-star reviews, Publisher’s Weekly reviews and interviews, I am developing a readership that I suspect would be envied by other published authors.’

Predators lurking

Lanchester’s assertion that the ASA receives regular complaints about hybrid practices is backed up by anecdotal evidence from authors and publishers.

‘I’ve known a few people, not closely, who have shared stories about the use of companies which have taken their money and provided a sub-par service and then were given terrible after care service; as in pretty much non-existent,’ said Buswell.

‘I was once cold contacted (red flag) before I knew about Book Reality, by a [vanity publisher],’ Buswell added. ‘They made it sound like I was already personally selected to be published, even though they had not even seen my manuscript. They were vague about costs and timeframes, and provided no actual outset for their services, just kept speaking with romantic notions about being a published author. I obviously listened to my instincts and declined. Even so, they kept trying to call and pressure me for a few weeks.’

Author Noreen Reeves, who published Looking Through the Rear Window and Billy’s Tree-Mendous Adventure with Book Reality, said she got ‘sucked in’ by a US-based vanity publisher, a ‘big mistake’ that ‘burnt’ her and taught her ‘a lot of hard lessons’. Similarly, Lee-Ann Koh, author of Black and Blue, said she knows of an author who signed with a vanity publisher and was upsold various marketing packages, then apparently told that their book had been optioned for film and would be made into a movie or TV show.

One of the problems that gives rise to predatory practices is that many authors know little to nothing about the publishing industry and process. Hooper, who said some clients come to him having been badly ‘burnt’ by other companies, described the level of misunderstanding some authors have, with many coming to him ‘not knowing that editing was really needed, and that it is expensive’. 

‘We lose a lot of the clients that approach us when we explain how it works and how much it costs. That’s okay,’ said Hooper. ‘We are trying to raise the standard of indie publishing. They can, in that case, choose to publish unedited books under their own names, and we will help them on that path.’

‘New authors come to us with information gathered from online resources and blogs, and mostly all of it is conflicting and confusing for many of them and often from overseas references, so little of the positive Australian information is known to them,’ added Shaw. ‘There is always a contest about the investment into the process and the resources offered to them, and this is also very confusing as there is no cost parameters from one publisher service to another and this can be very challenging to uncover the value of the benefits and learn the real truth of the process on offer from each of them.’ 

What can be done? 

Stopping predatory publishers from taking advantage of authors will require some combination of educated writers, industry regulation and, Hooper and Shaw argue, recognition of reputable hybrid operators.

I think the key to remediating this issue is education,’ Lanchester said. ‘Organisations like the ASA spend a lot of time encouraging authors to conduct due diligence and interrogate hybrid publishing deals. We recommend that authors and illustrators seek independent advice if they are uncertain about any contract they are asked to sign, or in relation to any agreement which requires them to pay substantial sums. As your financial risk rises, your scrutiny also needs to increase.’

Lanchester added that if a company an author is dealing with is a member of the Australian Publishers Association (APA), it must comply with the APA’s Code of Conduct, which includes an obligation on the hybrid publisher to ‘be open and honest with authors in relation to the likely returns an author might expect from any financial contribution he or she makes to a publication’.

For Hooper, the problem is with predatory companies exploiting the ‘hugely personal and emotive’ desire to be published not being clear from the outset they are not operating under a traditional publishing model. ‘They reel the author in and then after a little has been paid, well, the author is heading down the path and so they keep going. The key is to make the industry recognise that author-funded (or part-funded) publishing is as worthy as any other type of publishing and has been since Charles Dickens and Beatrix Potter did it for themselves.

‘After that, we need to have a recognition scheme for those companies that do it well (and honestly). Maybe even an award that is recognised internationally and backed by the traditional big hitters. (It’s not like there aren’t enough award ceremonies that the traditional companies get recognised in and that the likes of my company are not even allowed to enter).’

Similarly, Shaw said the book trade ‘needs to continue to support new talents and allow hybrids to operate to standards […] these can even be set out as industry compliances’.

‘I hope the industry will stop foreign companies taking Australian writers for a quid and that authors learn the correct information by speaking with publishers directly,’ Shaw added. ‘There is little to hide, and we are very transparent in our aims and desire to help new authors gain the best chance of success.’

In a sentiment echoed by most of the authors Independent Publishing spoke to, Buswell urged writers to do their own research. ‘Just like how self-publishing has a bad name because of all the authors who throw up and publish their first drafts for the world to see, there are still amazing stories within that pile from people willing to do it right.

‘And just as a book lover may search that pile for a great book, indie authors need to spend just as much time and love into finding the right service as they would expect that service to put into them.’

Final word

The ASA urges an abundance of caution for any author considering a hybrid publishing deal, and with good reason. As authors attest, there are numerous unscrupulous companies who will aggressively market to Australian writers, taking advantage of naïve authors using the language of hybrid publishing to rort and deceive.

Among these warnings, however, it’s also apparent there are hybrid publishers with a genuine interest in helping authors achieve their goal of producing a high-quality finished book with a reasonable degree of distribution. If an author has the means to afford it, has been educated on their options and the reality of their expectations, and is presented with a transparent breakdown of what they are getting for their money, hybrid publishing can be a suitable option. The presence of predatory publishers taking advantage of Australian writers is a concern for legitimate hybrid publishers with a demonstrated record of working with authors, and they are urging for more industry recognition to help stamp out the bad actors.

In any case, author advocates, ethical hybrid publishers, and writers with experience in the hybrid market are unanimous in urging any would-be authors to properly research any company and examine the specifics in any deal when considering hybrid publishing. 

More information about what to look out for can be found in the Is It a Steal? report, and from the ASA here.

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