Now How Much Would You Pay?

For years I’ve resisted joining our local branch of the California Writers Club, but I’ve started to feel that being snobbish isn’t helping me, so I sent in the form and the check. At today’s meeting, my first, there were close to 50 people. Nice people, I’m sure.

The presentation was by a woman who owns (I guess) and operates a “hybrid” publishing company in the area. I’m not going to name her or her company, because I might accidentally say something unflattering. Anyway, this isn’t about her company specifically. It’s about what hybrid publishing is, and what it’s not.

She gave the group some background on the changes in the publishing industry over the past 20 years, which have certainly been massive. Basically she was positioning hybrid publishing as a new phenomenon halfway between the Big Five publishers on the one hand and self-publishing on the other. If you’re an aspiring writer, getting in the door with one of the Big Five is all but impossible. Self-publishing is very practical indeed, and you can do it as cheaply as you dare, but you’ll be a very small fish in a very big tank, jostling fin by gill against ten million other fish. I mean “authors.”

The idea behind hybrid publishing is that rather than going it alone, the author hires a company to do some of the heavy lifting. Typically, hybrid publishers don’t get submissions from literary agents; they deal directly with the authors. If you’ve struggled to interest an agent in your book, that’s good news.

The type of service a hybrid publisher provides may differ from one company to the next; if you go this route, you’ll want to shop around for a company whose services match your needs. In addition, of course, you’ll want to talk to a few of their current authors to find out whether their promises can be trusted.

In the Q&A session I suggested to the speaker that all vanity publishers will tell you that they’re hybrid publishers. I asked her how she would differentiate her company from a vanity publisher. She doesn’t call those outfits vanity presses, she calls them “service providers.” That’s fine, but of course her company provides services too. The concrete thing that seems to set companies like hers apart from a mere vanity press is that her list is “curated.” What that means is, they only publish X number of books per year. They reject some of their submissions.

This is a legitimate distinction, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. The fact that your publisher rejected some books before accepting yours is not actually going to help you sell books. What’s going to help you sell books, if anything does, will be the promotional effort you put in — and her company doesn’t do promotion. They seem to have a sales force, though the website is a bit vague about whether the sales people are their own, or whether the sales people work for Ingram Publisher Services. But in any case, the fact that a publisher has sales people is not going to create demand for your book, not in any direct way. The buyer at Barnes & Noble does not care how enthusiastic a sales person is when recommending a book by a completely unknown author. The buyer wants to hear about authors who have great reviews in respected publications, who are doing book tours, who have been interviewed in media outlets … that’s the stuff that will catch readers’ attention. The sales person for your publisher is not going to do any of that.

The company that our speaker runs charges authors $7,500, half on signing and the other half when the book is “shipping” digitally. That’s a lot of money, and it explains why they work directly with authors, not through literary agents. There isn’t an agent in the world who would offer a client a negative cash flow opportunity like that. An agent gets 15% of the advance against royalties that a publisher offers the author. If your advance is negative, the agent wouldn’t make a nickel on the deal.

It’s not entirely clear from their website what your $7,500 buys you. It includes cover design and interior layout. It includes proof-reading. It includes digital distribution to a variety of e-book and print-on-demand distributors, not just Amazon. And it includes those sales people, whatever they’re doing. It doesn’t include editing or promotional activities, however: The editing is extra.

Tonight I sent the speaker an email with some questions about their services. I’m not ruling it out! I can afford to pay that kind of money, if I can be certain that I’m getting my money’s worth. On the other hand, I can get a swell book cover for $600 or so, and I can do my own interior layout in InDesign, for which I pay $20 a month. If I wanted to, I could roll up my sleeves and learn how to distribute to Barnes & Noble and other online retailers, probably without spending a nickel, except maybe on a bottle of aspirin.

The kicker, for me, is that her company charges you $35 to submit a manuscript. Well, actually, to submit the first 20 pages. If they had a downloadable copy of their author contract on the website, I’d be more willing to consider paying that modest reading fee. But I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. A company that wants $35 to even consider your work had better be up-front about what you’ll be getting into if they say “yes.”

Another thing to think about: Her company pays authors, uhh, I can’t find it on their website at the moment but I think it’s 60% of the net on print books and 70% of the net on e-books. Now, that sounds good if you don’t know what “the net” means. With a self-published print book, Amazon deducts their printing cost and then pays you, I think, 70% of the remainder. In other words, Amazon is already paying you 70% of the net. If this hybrid publisher then takes their cut and gives you 70% of what’s left, you’re getting 70% of 70%, which is actually 49% of the net. You’ll make more money self-publishing directly through Amazon. Sure, you’ll have to do a little extra work formatting your files and so forth, and some writers would rather have a hybrid publisher handle all that messy stuff. That’s fine. But as an author, you need to know which side of the bread has the jelly on it, if you see what I mean. Getting dazzled by big numbers like 70% is not being smart about the $7,500 you invested.

This type of service arrangement may be absolutely the right choice for some people. All I’m suggesting is, you need to go into it with your eyes open. Thinking that because your book is published you’ll soon see the money rolling in is extremely naive. The money will roll in, if it does, because of the promotional work that you put into it. I’m sure bad books, when promoted energetically, can sell well. I’m also sure that a wonderful book, in the absence of promotion, will not sell. The sad thing is how many authors write bad books, hire a hybrid publisher, and then find themselves, at the end of the year, thousands of dollars poorer with nothing to show for it.

One thing our speaker said that I think was very wise was, “You need to be clear about what your goals are.” If your goal is to sell lots of books, you’re going to have to do your own promotion. The hybrid publisher is not going to do that for you.

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5 Responses to Now How Much Would You Pay?

  1. Catana says:

    Okay, you wanted to be polite, but I fail to see how that “hybrid” publisher differs from vanity publishers. In fact, some vanity publishers at least claim to promote your book, and they do claim to edit. If this publisher states up-front that she doesn’t, then what the heck *does* she do?

    No legitimate publisher charges just for an initial read. And how many of the 20-page submissions are even accepted? Seems like that part alone is a windfall for the company.

    That presentation alone would make me question the value of your local branch. Does the person who chose that speaker endorse her? The choice certainly implies endorsement. Are they even aware of the scammy nature of the company?

  2. midiguru says:

    Thanks for the comments. I’m inclined to agree with your conclusions. As a brand new member of the club, I have no idea how the monthly speaker is selected. This may not have been a typical speaker/presentation, and I’m not sure I want to start off by immediately raising questions about the process — but perhaps I’ll fire off a friendly email to the program coordinator. You do need to understand that most of the membership consists of wannabe writers with marginal skills. These people are never going to write anything that a real publisher or agent would even remotely consider. On that basis, a reasonably honest, up-front vanity publisher who is based in a nearby city (and happens to prefer to call herself something different) may be a delightful opportunity for a few of them.

    • Catana says:

      But my point is that she *wasn’t* a reasonably honest up-front publisher. She knew exactly how “honesty” to dole out in order to seem concerned for those writers. Why do you think she prefers “service providers?” She uses that term rather than vanity publisher because it helps her distance herself from the kind of sleazy publishers some of the more aware wannabes would be concerned about. Even if some of them do recognize how few services her company really offers, “vanity publisher” won’t instantly enter their minds. If you can change the vocabulary that people use, you can control how they think, particularly about you.

      I agree that most of the people in your group will never be anything but wannabes, which makes them the ideal feeding ground for people charging outrageous prices to do precisely nothing for them. I doubt that one in ten knows that there’s almost no chance of getting their investment back from book sales.

  3. midiguru says:

    I’ve reached out to the club’s program coordinator to ask if she was aware of the nature of the speaker’s business model. I also sent an email directly to the speaker asking some detailed questions about the services she provides. We’ll see what happens next.

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