One of the things I have learned as I went through my own book-writing and publishing journey is the extent to which many people think they know the publishing industry and are more than happy to dispense advice about it to writers who dare to express interest in publishing models that are not traditional publishing, whether self-publishing, hybrid publishing, or vanity publishing. I am especially irked when these people go online and say something more or less like this: Hybrid publishing is evil and you should never, ever touch it with ten-foot pole.
The reason this irks me is because after conducting quite a bit of research on the publishing industry as a first-time author, I chose to publish my first novel through a hybrid publisher, and I had an utterly fantastic experience. Yes, there are some writers who have not had a good experience with this exact same hybrid publisher, but that’s not surprising. Take any publisher of any kind, whether traditional, hybrid, or vanity and you’ll find writers who had a great experience and writers who had a horrible experience. That’s simply to be expected. Just because some people had a bad experience doesn’t diminish the many who had a lovely experience.
The irksome part of some of the interactions I’ve had with people about hybrid publishing is when they want to paint all hybrid publishers as “bad” for the simple reason they’re not traditional publishing. There are all kinds of hybrid publishers out there now, and some are no doubt bad while others are great. What lurks behind the knee-jerk naysayers, however, are deeper misconceptions about how most traditional publishing works. I also suspect there is a good amount of fear they won’t get a foot in the door of a big publishing house and will miss out on experiencing their traditional publishing dream which, to be frank, is only that—a dream—especially for first-time, unknown authors. Based on my own research, I want to bust some of the pervasive myths around traditional publishing.
Myth #1: Traditional Publishers Pay the Author, Not the Other Way Around!
The biggest knee-jerk reaction I see against hybrid publishing is this: Any publisher who is a “true” (traditional) publisher would never require an author to pay any kind of fee for anything up-front. Therefore, any “publisher” who would require any kind of author payment must be a vanity press or is up to something even more nefarious.
Where the knee-jerks, as I now call them, are wrong in their thinking has to do with book production costs and who pays for them. It’s expensive to produce a high-quality book. When a traditional publisher accepts your book, they cover all of those costs for you up-front. Nice! But that doesn’t mean you’re getting your book produced “for free.” You can bet they’re going to recoup all those book production costs on the back end by keeping a gigantic slice of every book sale in perpetuity! A reputable hybrid publisher should be transparent about book production costs and wants those covered up-front by the author before providing all the services that go into producing a quality book. This strikes me as quite reasonable.
Lesson #1: Every author pays for their book production costs
Whether it’s traditional, hybrid, vanity, or self-publishing, the author always has
and always will pay for book production costs, it’s just a matter of when and how.
A complicating factor is when writers envision getting an advance from a traditional publisher. This is the dream, right? It is also a myth, at least the way knee-jerks understand it. Let’s say you (as a first-time author) miraculously get a foot in the door of a big publishing house, and the big publisher decides to give you a $10,000 advance. Woo-hoo! You did it! You’re living the dream, right? Wrong! That “advance” isn’t free money, it’s an advance against sales and royalties. It’s more like a no-interest loan and you will have to pay it back! You won’t see a dime in royalties from sales of your book until that full $10,000 advance is paid in full. This is called “earning out” in publishing jargon. A first-time fiction author, by the way, is rarely going to get a $10k advance. It will be more like $2k to $5k, but $10k is a nice number to work with for purposes of illustration.
But wait, there’s more! Did you have to enlist the help of a literary agent to get a foot in the door of the traditional publishing house? Probably, and especially if you’re a first-time author. That $10,000 doesn’t go to you right away in one lump sum, by the way. It is paid in three or four installments, and each check goes first to your literary agent who will deduct the agreed-upon commission from the $10k, typically around 15%. But you will still have to “earn out” the full $10,000 to the publishing house before you get any royalties at all.
No, you don’t have to write checks to the publisher to pay back the loan (the advance). What they do is keep the royalties from sales of your book until the royalties earned equal the amount of the advance. Only after you’ve “earned out” will you start getting any royalty payments from the publisher. Those royalty payments may only happen once a year, or twice a year if you’re lucky, though I’ve heard some publishing houses do pay quarterly.
Smaller publishing houses often don’t pay any advance at all because they don’t have money to gamble betting on you, the unknown first-time author. But they try to make up for it by offering higher royalty rates than the big publishing houses.
After you’ve “earned out” your advance, which could take years to begin with, then you start accumulating royalties that will be paid out to you on whatever schedule the publisher decides. The big publishers calculate what royalty you get based on what the book retails for when sold to customers. Let’s say you have a nice hardback novel and your big publisher’s contract says the royalty will be 10%. Let’s also say the suggested list price for your book is $25. Of course, you know it would be $24.99, but that makes for messy math in a article, so cut me a break, okay?
Every time a copy of your hardback is purchased for $25, you earn a royalty of $2.50. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? It’s not. And if a book retailer like Barnes & Noble decides to sell your book for less than the suggested list price, then that’s less royalty per book for you. B&N regularly sells debut books for 30% off the list price, and your royalty will only be 10% of what the book sold for, which in this scenario is discounted to $17.50, meaning you’ll get a whopping $1.75 royalty on those book sales. Ouch, right?
Keep in mind a big traditional publisher wants to get back not just the cost of printing and shipping your books, but also all the labor costs that went into producing your book (editing, interior layout, cover design, etc.). A big publisher has a lot of employees and other overhead to pay for, so keeping 90% of the sale of each of your books in perpetuity is how they do it. But remember, you don’t get any royalty payments until you’ve earned out of that $10k advance. So, how many of your books need to sell for you to earn out of a $10,000 advance? $10,000 ÷ $2.50 = 4,000. Yes, 4,000 copies of your book would need to sell at full list price for you to pay back your advance. If your book sells quite well after earning out, the publisher may reward you by upping your royalty by a couple percentage points. Yeah, thanks for next to nothing.
By contrast, with the hybrid publisher I worked with, I paid a non-refundable deposit of $300, then conducted a successful thirty-day Indiegogo campaign where people who wanted to support my book publishing dream contributed. I raised $5,000, which was enough to cover the book production costs for the paperback and eBook versions of my novel (those prices have gone up since I went through their program). Unlike self-publishing, I didn’t have to do any of the book production myself, nor did I have to go out and find, hire, and manage individual service providers for editing, interior design, cover design, copyediting, and proofreading. The hybrid publisher provided all of that, along with weekly coaching sessions and editorial meetings all along the way(the writing phase of the program is called Book Creators).
I went from first-draft manuscript to published novel in just five months. My paperback list price is $12.99 (on the high side for a slim paperback, I’ll admit), and each copy that sells via Amazon results in $4.85 to me—almost twice the royalty the hardback book with the big traditional publisher is generating, and I didn’t have to earn out of an advance either. From the day my book released, every penny of royalty earned goes to me, not the hybrid publisher I worked with. They helped make my book happen, but I have total control of all the rights, and I get all the profits.
If I’m lucky enough to sell 4,000 copies (which feels unlikely at present, to be honest), I would get $19,400. The hardback author sells 4,000 copies and gets nothing because they had to pay back the $10k advance they spent long ago. Yes, they did get that $10k advance, but I will have earned nearly twice that from my first 4,000 copies sold!
Here’s the rub on the traditional publishing route if you had to enlist the help of a literary agent. Let’s say you do manage to “earn out” your advance on that hardback novel. Whew! At least now you’ll be getting that measly $2.50 royalty (or less if the retailer discounted the list price) per book sale, right? WRONG! Your literary agent will continue to get their 15% commission on all the royalties from sales of your book after you earn out the advance.
So, on a full-price book sale, your royalty will be $2.50 less the agent’s 15% commission, so you’ll get $2.13. This magic number you’re supposed to get just keeps getting smaller! If your hardback sells another 4,000 copies at full retail price (unlikely), you’ll get $8,520. If my paperback sells another 4,000, I get the same $19,400 I got from the first 4,000 copies. So, with 8,000 copies sold of the hardback book at full retail price, the author gets a grand total of $18,520, while my little paperback novel gets me $38,800!
Now, did you notice I said I’d be surprised if I sell 4,000 copies of my book? I’d be insanely happy to sell that many copies, but it’s up to me to do the marketing myself, and I can’t sit around trying to market my book all day when I’ve got bills to pay! And this is where the knee-jerks swoop back in with their next big fat stupid myth about traditional publishing.
Myth #2: A Big Traditional Publisher will Market My Book for Me
The knee-jerks wrongly assume their traditional publishing dream means the big traditional publisher with tons of resources and an entire marketing department will market their book for them. They envision the big publisher getting their book on the shelves of thousands of bookstores all over the country. They think the publisher will spend substantial sums of money to promote and advertise your book. They imagine the publisher will help arrange a book tour and book interviews for you with various media outlets. That’s the dream the knee-jerks think traditional publishing offers, but they’re wrong. Does it ever happen this way? Of course, it does, but certainly not for a first-time, unknown author.
Lesson #2: Unless You’re Already Famous,
You’ll be the One Marketing Your Own Book
No traditional publisher in their right mind is going to gamble all those resources the knee-jerks dream of on an unknown author. A big traditional publisher is only going to bet that kind of money on what they are reasonably certain will be a sure thing. All that lovely marketing mentioned above is only for authors with a successful track record on several books, and I mean like a super-successful track record. Unless you’ve already got a ginormous social media audience and well-established fan base, it will be up to you as an author to market your own book. It’s always been this way, but the knee-jerks keep dreaming and hoping these simple truths won’t apply to them for some reason.
The Timeframe Involved is Another Important Factor
I checked out one person I went round and round with on social media who was dissing hybrid publishing in favor of their traditional publishing dream. This person was very adamant that anything different from traditional publishing or self-publishing must be some kind of scam, especially if it’s a hybrid publisher who wants money up front from the author. This writer has completed the first draft manuscript for their first novel. I don’t know how long it took them to write it. The author is now sending out query letters to hopefully land an agent to represent their work. How long will it take to find a literary agent? Who knows! It might take weeks, months, years, or they may never land an agent. As a first-time author, they simply won’t get a foot in the door of a big publisher, or possibly any publisher. And from my perspective, given everything I’ve mentioned above, I wouldn’t want to land a crappy deal with a big publisher just because I’m too stubborn to see it’s not all it’s cracked up to be!
What I do know is that I wrote my first draft manuscript in five months, then entered the publishing phase and saw my book published five months after that. I went from zero words to a published novel in ten months. And my out-of-pocket expenses were a grand total of $300. I wonder where the first-time author querying for agents is now nearly a year later? I’m guessing no closer to being a published author than they were before
It could take months to find an agent. It might then take months for the agent to find a publisher willing to take on the book. It will be several more months before a contract is finally negotiated and signed. Then it will be several more months (at least) of book editing. And even after all that it will still likely be another year before the book is released. It’s sounding like two or three years at best, and that doesn’t even count whatever time the author spent writing the first draft! Here’s my personal takeaway: As a first-time author, I wanted a publishing experience that gave me full control over the rights to my creative work, allowed me to have plenty of input into the book production process, provided structure, support, and professional-grade book production services, and allowed me to be the sole beneficiary of any profits the book generates. That’s simply not how traditional publishing works, which is why I chose to work with a fantastic hybrid publisher called New Degree Press.
A Few Good Sources from My Research