In The Hothouse Of Publishing, Our Terminology May Need Pruning


Let’s Give ‘Hybrid’ Back To The Botanists

It’s not as if the industry! the industry! doesn’t have enough transition to contend with.

Oh, what a lovely disruption we’re having, and at a time of upheaval like this, we’re going to see changing phrases, new jargon, and updated iterations of various terms come and go.

  • Not all that long ago, the term platform had to be explained to many authors. You wouldn’t think that it’s a hard one to understand, in the sense of the expertise, authority, and community engagement that might translate into a readership for an author. Even political parties’ platforms — each plank a premise of the party’s mission statement — make good sense in conceptual relation to authors’ platforms. So if you’re a world-renowned topiary artist, then what you do with those clippers becomes your platform and your fans will be your readership, buying your book about shrubs shaped like squirrels. I’ll pass, but I’m sure others will love it.
  • Brand has also been curiously troublesome for many writers, especially those with little business background. Not all writers understand easily that they, not their books, are their brand. You see this in the mistake many authors make of tweeting as their book titles with their book covers as their avatars. No, your books are your products. You are your brand. And it’s your name and face we need to see on Twitter, not your title and cover art.

But one phrase that has flowered quickly and logically in digital publishing — looking as sturdy as a potted palm — is hybrid. In much of publishing, a hybrid is a writer engaged both in self-publishing and traditional publishing.

There are many such folks. Although we may not have been using the term at the time, Stephen King became a hybrid more than a decade ago with the self-publication online of — handily enough — The Plant. As David D. Kirkpatrick wrote in the New York Times in July 2000, The Plant “describes a vicious vine that terrorizes a small publishing house, extorting human sacrifices.” Even then, the industry’s fear of digital disruption was obvious. The headline: Stephen King Sows Dread in Publishers With His Latest e-Tale.

And garden-variety wisdom today says that smart authors evaluate each project on its own merits to decide whether it has the best chance of reaching its likely readers through traditional publication or through self-publishing.

Easily understood, the term hybrid may not be every author’s favorite but it’s quite clear and has been in wide usage for years.

So what’s up?

Promontory’s Promise

In looking over speakers headed to Charleston for the PubSense Summit writers’ conference, March 22-24, you’ll find Bennett R. Coles on the list. He is publisher of Promontory Press. And in a pre-conference blog post, Coles announces The Third Way — Hybrid Publishing.

By this, it turns out, Coles doesn’t mean publishing both in traditional and self-publishing scenarios. Coles writes in his piece for the conference:

In the hybrid model, the author and publisher both make an investment in the book, sharing the financial risk and splitting the revenues much more evenly.

Well, that’s not “hybrid publishing” in the sense of an author both traditionally and self-publishing.

If anything, what Coles is describing in his PubSense article sounds like what literary agent April Eberhardt has for some time referred to as partner publishing. She describes it, in this article for She Writes Press, this way: “A partner publisher…works with you to develop all aspects of your book in accordance with your goals and wishes, and then publishes it, for a fee.”

Eberhardt also goes on to name another phrase, package publishing: “You choose a company with one or more preset packages, choose the package you wish, pay a fee, and receive printed books.” This is, of course, the core idea of a so-called vanity press and not what Coles and Promontory are doing.

Happily, I’ve been in touch with Coles and found him quickly responsive and eager to reconsider his phrasing. He’s ready right now for a better term. And the case turns into an object lesson not only about our morphing terminology these days but also about the array of arrangements authors may find waiting for them.

Coles tells me:

I agree that “hybrid publishing” is a vague term, and I’ve also heard it used as you describe it [to refer to an author both self- and traditionally published]. As Promontory has moved out of our West Coast roots [British Columbia] and into the wider world I’ve realized that we need to find another term to describe what we do — I just didn’t know what that term was.’

Coles and I are in agreement that we don’t actually know what to call the approach he’s using. It might be what Eberhardt has described as partner publishing, but on the other hand, there are some key points to consider in his approach. They may distinguish it as something else.

He lays them out to me this way, and I’ve bulleted them o ut them for clarity:

  • I want to be clear that our model is not self-publishing at all in the sense that we do not make money from author fees or that the author carries all the risk of publication.

  • Our publishing model for any book is traditional in the sense that we the publisher take on the majority of the risk for any ‘hybrid’ title — in our definition — and we only make money if we sell lots of copies.

  • We are absolutely not an author services company and we only deal with authors and titles which we intend to publish in major stores and distribution channels.

  • We also do traditional publishing in the regular way.

I’m reassured to hear Coles say that “we the publisher take on the majority of the risk.”

He likens it most closely to his core business — traditional publishing, telling me:

Basically Promontory Press is a traditional publisher. Period. However, as an author myself I always hated the catch-22 situation for a first-time author in that they can’t get picked up by an agent or a publisher because they haven’t been previously published. When I set up Promontory I wanted to figure out a way to give more first-time authors their shot while steering completely clear of self-publishing.

Here at Promontory we assess submissions in the traditional way – basically, for quality and salability. Sometimes we’ll get a submission which is great quality but from an unknown author with no outside marketing “extras” to bring. In my opinion it’s precisely these authors who need to be taken care of, and so in addition to our traditional contracts with our “safe” authors, I developed this other method whereby we can accept riskier authors who deserve that shot but for whom I can’t make the traditional business case.

Coles is making a coherent case for a special arrangement here. And Promontory’s approach may be great and might work very well for you and/or for any author reading this. Yes, I’m concerned that the terminology is confusing. But that doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with the actual model, just that I’d feel better if its offering couldn’t be confused with another context. As when Michael Bhaskar of Canelo recently declared, “Enough disrupting!” I’m saying, “Enough confusion!”

But Coles didn’t set out to confuse things, and he’s gracious about discussing it and wanting to find a clearer way to describe his approach.

Any publisher, after all, has a perfect right to name its model whatever it likes. I’d just advise authors that when they encounter a new term or an unusual use of a familiar one, that’s a reason to slow down, ask questions, determine beyond any doubt precisely what is being said.

‘We Make Our Money From Book Sales’

Based in BC’s North Saanich, Coles’ company offers on a FAQ page a helpful set of points to explain more about what the company does. I’m excerpting here:

  • We don’t just accept any book for automatic publication – we are dedicated to ensuring that every book we publish meets a professional standard for quality. We do this both to maintain our reputation as a quality small press, but also to give you the author the very best chance to succeed by ensuring your book is ready for market…

  • [If sharing the cost of publication] we will clearly lay out beforehand what the costs will be for you to help us cover the production of your book. [You] get exactly the same level of high-quality sales, marketing and distribution support as our traditional authors. We don’t ever publicly differentiate between the two types because once the books are ready, there is no difference.

On the site, you also learn that Promontory doesn’t hold the publication rights for an author’s book in this way of working, “although we do borrow the distribution rights for as long as you’re with  us.”

‘I’ve realized that we need to find another term to describe what we do — I just didn’t know what that term was.’
Bennett R. Coles, Promontory Press

And this route to publication — the author sharing expenses with the publisher — is something that we know some authors are happy to explore. For example, Anjali Mitter Duva published her Faint Promise of Rain in something of a similar approach with She Writes Press and described it at the 2014 Muse and the Marketplace conference in Boston as a very satisfying experience.

You’ll find that the “How It Works” page at She Writes Press makes many of the points that Promontory makes. In She Writes’ case, however, the service is sold as a package, at $4,900, as an all-inclusive arrangement.

And in all of this, the part you can be completely sure about is the need for attention; for being sure that everyone involved in a publishing discussion is clear about what’s expected. A lot of this plays into the discussions we’ve had in recent days about literary agencies, another sector in which experimentation is becoming critical.

In any publishing arrangement, never be afraid to ask questions until you’re absolutely sure of what you’re being told. Authors without agents — and that covers most self-publishers today — must become increasingly careful. In the Promontory instance, for example, Coles says that when the shared-investment approach is at play:

I’m frankly quite happy to call it traditional, as it is identical at its core to what’s always been done, but I know full well that it’s something different and new.

For the author, the critical thing is to get everything in writing. Ask any publisher you’re working with what happens if the house fails to do any part of what it has promised it will do. If you’re going to be putting money into the deal ask exactly what happens if you’re not satisfied with one or more parts of the program. When you get answers, get them in writing and make sure they’re part of the contract.

I recommend that authors follow the work of author Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware. There, you’ll learn what writers are encountering in an era when new overtures are being made to them almost daily. The vast reach of the independent author movement has created a marketplace irresistible to many people, not all of them on the up and up. And the responsibility lies with each author to be aware, follow strong resources, react and revisit anything that seems not right.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to discussing the way we describe some of these newer approaches during the PubSense Summit in Charleston. Coles will be participating in a free master class on how to prepare for the conference on March 22; in a session on “The Book Distribution Chain: Fact vs. Fiction” on March 23; and in a panel with me, “What’s Trending: Projections and Postulations From the Pundits” on March 24.

Maybe one of the most important things to get from this instance is that the current climate can make things as baffling to a publisher as to authors. As Coles puts it:

I’m beginning to realize that we may indeed be the only publisher doing exactly what we do.

Now all he has to do is figure out what to call it.

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