Hybrid publishing is real. Here’s why you should consider it.

Hybrid publishers like Ideapress, Greenleaf Book Group, and Mascot Books are invisible to some folks: agents and traditional acquisitions editors whom I’ve interviewed can’t seem to see them. But for many authors, they’re a realistic publishing alternative, and may even be the best choice.

The third alternative

Authors who haven’t studied the alternatives imagine that there are two ways to get in print.

There’s the traditional way: you write a proposal, possibly get an agent to help, pitch publishers, and hope they’re interested. If you get an offer and take it, the publisher pays you advance money up front and edits, publishes, prints, and distributes the book. That can take more than a year, but you’ll get a nice logo on the spine of your book with a picture of a penguin or a wave.

If you can’t make it that way, you could try self-publishing. You write the book (possibly with the help of an editor that you hire), pay somebody to lay out the pages and do a cover, and submit it to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing or Ingram Spark. You get no advance, because you are the publisher. If somebody buys a copy, Amazon or Ingram prints it and binds it as soon as it’s ordered. While Ingram can get your book listed for distribution, bookstores probably won’t order it. So your book is really only available on Amazon.

Hybrid publishing is a third way to get into print, with some elements of both self-publishing and traditional publishing.

What is hybrid publishing?

In hybrid publishing, you pay a publisher to publish your book.

This method has had a bad reputation in the past: “vanity publishing” was the derogatory way traditional publishing folks described a process where authors paid to have a book published. Anybody who pursued vanity publishing obviously wasn’t serious and probably couldn’t interest a traditional publisher.

But today’s hybrid publishers aren’t interested in vanity authors. They’re looking for authors who want more control over their own books, and are willing to pay up front for that privilege. And for some authors — especially those with substantial online platforms and speaking careers — that’s a good deal.

I have a fair amount of experience with hybrid publishers. Greenleaf Book Group published a book I cowrote, The Mobile Mind Shift. Mascot Books/Amplify published two books I ghostwrote: The Age of Intent and Marketing to the Entitled Consumer. Rohit Bhargava’s Ideapress Publishing has published excellent books by people I admire, including Charlene Li’s The Disruption Mindset, Laura Gassner Otting’s Limitless, and Todd Caponi’s The Transparency Sale. Lifetree Media will publish a book I’m editing, The AI-Powered Enterprise. And I’ve interviewed and been impressed with the people who run Page Two Books and Scribe.

In my author survey, authors who worked with hybrid publishers were happier with their publishers than those that were published traditionally Why? Let’s look at what’s different between the two methods.

  • Hybrid publishers aren’t gatekeepers. They won’t publish just anybody — you still need to prove you have a plan to write and promote a decent book. But if you can pay, they’ll consider you.
  • They’re faster. Hybrids don’t have a “fall list” or a “spring list.” They’ll slot you in as soon as you want — typically within six months of when you complete your manuscript.
  • They providing editing. Based on my experience speaking with business authors and their publishers, traditional publishers generally expect you to deliver a publishable manuscript and take a very light touch on editing. If you need more editing than that, a hybrid publisher will supply it. (That’s the work I’m doing right now as a contractor for Lifetree, for example.)
  • They produce a quality product. I defy you to distinguish The Disruption Mindset, The Transparency Sale, The Age of Intent, or The Mobile Mind Shift from any other book you’d buy in a bookstore. The quality of the content, editing, layout, printing, binding, and artwork are comparable. (In fact, for the two books I published with Mascot, the cover artist was the same woman who had designed my covers at Harvard Business Press.) And my experience with the process of production (copy editing, page layout, printing) at hybrid publishers was typically better and faster than what I got from traditional publishers.
  • They’re more economical for author copies. At a hybrid publisher, author copies are available for the cost of printing and shipping. At a traditional publisher, you’ll get a discount, but you’re still paying a lot for your own book (in fact, author copies are part of their profit calculation). Traditional publishers frown on you selling your own book, while hybrid publishers encourage it — some will even help you set up a Web site and fulfill orders for you.
  • They’re more responsive. At a hybrid publisher, you are the customer. They treat you that way. At a traditional publisher, the bookstore is the customer. You’re an important part of the process, but the level of service from the publisher can be disappointing. (I’ve heard a lot of whining about publishers from authors.)
  • Hybrids can actually be more profitable for authors. A hybrid publisher pays a far higher per-book royalty than a traditional publisher. If you only sell a few thousand copies, you’ll make more money from the traditional publisher’s advance. But if you sell 30,000 or 50,000 copies, you’ll earn back the money you paid the hybrid publisher and actually come out ahead.

Let’s be clear: there are downsides to hybrids as well. Their imprint carries less weight and reputation. It’s harder to get your book reviewed. It’s harder to get onto bestseller lists (although Laura Gassner Otting’s book with IdeaPress did make the Washington Post bestseller list). Traditional publishers have better distribution — they’re more likely to get you visibility in places like Barnes & Noble and with overseas distributors — but keep in mind that B&N is a tough place to break into for a new business author in any case. You can get into airport bookstores with either type of publisher, but those bookstores charge a significant fee for placement, and you’ll probably have to pay that fee yourself regardless of what kind of publisher you use.

And, of course, with a hybrid publisher, you’re going to be on the hook for an initial investment, typically at least $20,000. That’s a hard financial pill to swallow when you compare it to a traditional publisher who will pay you up front, provided you can get an offer from them.

One final point about hybrids: they are not all the same. Scribe Publishing (formerly Book-in-a-Box) is less selective; it cranks out a lot of books. (The Independent Book Publishers Association wouldn’t even classify it as a hybrid on that basis.) Forbes Books focuses on building “thought leadership” and charges significantly higher fees. Lifetree and Ideapress perform intensive coaching and editing processes and are more like partners. Mascot Books/Amplify is ramping up and, based on my experience, delivers excellent service at a fair price; in competitive situations, it often wins. So if you’re considering a hybrid, pitch several, ask for references, talk to your author friends who use them, and compare.

Why hybrids are invisible to many in publishing

I’ve spoken to two agents about hybrid publishers. One said they rarely come up; the other was confused about what a hybrid publisher is and seemed to think they only publish ebooks.

I’m not surprised that agents don’t see (or don’t want to see) hybrids. Agents make money from a percentage of advances and royalties. Hybrids don’t pay advances. An agent doesn’t want to pitch a publisher who won’t pay an advance.

The publishers I spoke to basically said, “We don’t compete with those guys.” They imagine that hybrid publishers serve a different audience and set of authors than they do. I’m not so sure about that.

Among authors I work with and connect with, hybrid publishers are very much in the discussion. Many of these authors have large web followings with podcasts, blogs, YouTube channels, or newsletters. They have speaking careers. They have money. And they know they can move a lot of books throughout their own channels, and that having a book will boost their standing in those same channels. They’ve done the math and they believe the hybrid investment is worth it — and in many cases, could even pay off in the end for them.

These authors know that their relevance online is more potent than their placement in a table in a bookstore. They expect their book buyers to acquire their books at a conference, at a speech, on their site, or in response to a mention on one of the online properties in their author platform.

This doesn’t describe every author. But for authors in this class, hybrid publishing is a realistic way to get in print. They won’t hear about it from their agent or their traditional publisher, but they will certainly hear about it from their professional friends who’ve published books this way.

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