Mystery Of The “Hybrid”: Just A Phase For Authors?


A friend at Penguin—the book publisher, not the water fowl—recently tweeted about how when she fixed a typo in her LinkedIn profile, the system fired off a message to “Congratulate Colleen on her new job!” Maybe you’ve noticed this about LinkedIn. It recognizes small changes as big career moves and sends you heartfelt regards from people you haven’t seen since kindergarten.

There’s a similar thing going on among your author friends these days: you might as well keep that congratulations email ready on a template so you can fill in the name and shoot it off each time your writer buddies pivot.

Pivoting R Them. Everything is changing amazingly fast for writers. Procedure; publishing patterns; “best practices” that won’t be best in 10 more minutes; broken rules; and lady-or-tiger options—say the secret word and you either get kissed by an online promotion or eaten alive by an algorithm.

It’s one of the reasons that authors spend so much time reading each other’s blog posts. They’re searching for answers no one has. Never has so much wisdom been offered to so many by so many others who knew so little more than the first many. (And thank God Churchill didn’t live to read that mess.)

It’s almost preposterous how many writers are writing books about how to write a book—the #bookbooks, I call them. Is it a bit cannibalistic, writing these things to sell to your fellow writers? Yes, it is. We had enough #bookbooks ten years ago. They’re all here, thank you. “Why do all the ladies of my parish bake cupcakes once a month and sell them to each other?” asks Rev. March in John Updike’s The Centaur. Maybe because it’s easier to sell to each other than to strangers. And maybe it’s more comfortable to sell books to other writers than to readers?

Being human—most of them—our authors frequently wish things would hold still for a while. Stay the same. Calm down. Quit blowing up in their faces. Perfectly understandable. Upheaval sucks. The digital disruption is nothing if not heaving.

And that’s one reason that the idea of the “hybrid” author has seemed a welcome parking spot to pull into. Cut off the engine. Play both sides of the road. Settle down.

Best of Both

The idea is that as an author, you are neither all-self-publishing nor all-traditionally publishing. You are both. You’re a “hybrid.” Case-by-case basis. If your agent turns up his nose at your latest masterpiece, you just publish it yourself. So there. But if your agent likes it and can sell it to a publisher, then that’s great: all those “author services” (editing, cover and interior design, formatting, and no marketing) are done for you by the publishing house.

Authors have learned to make sure their traditional contracts allow them to moonlight in this way. Quite recently, even longtime traditionally published bestseller Peter James told me in a #PorterMeets interview at The Bookseller that he might publish online works about his series’ characters between books.

And what insights can be gathered from writerly surveys, although hotly contested at times, have tended to suggest that there is more money to be had by combining both traditional and self-publishing income as a hybrid.

For a couple of years, this concept has gained traction. The “you can do both” option appears in Jane Friedman’s writings on pathways to publishing. In one recent case, I wrote about author Shanna Svendson, who had to be persuaded by her agent, Kristin Nelson, that she could make good money by self-publishing new books in a discontinued series. Svendson is now a happy hybrid. Author James Scott Bell, known to turn out the occasional #bookbook, himself, has been a key proponent of the hybrid route as a breakthrough approach for some writers.

Everybody’s doin’ it, doin’ it, doin’ it.

Say What, Sweet Charlotte?

The hybrid=good formula has looked so stable that it may come as an unsettling surprise to some that North Carolina cozy queen Elizabeth Spann Craig now is questioning how the hybrid birdbath looks in her own backyard.

In Must a Writer Go Hybrid for a Higher Income?, she writes:

Maybe my main point is that you don’t have to remain a hybrid writer. You could start out as a hybrid author, soak up all the knowledge you can, and then self-publish afterward.

Uh-oh. What new heresy is this? Actually, it’s considerably well thought-out stuff and has drawn some 50 comments to Craig’s blog (“Mystery Writing is Murder”), which is well-read but not always so heavily yakked up.

Craig is a specialist in cozy mysteries. You know that subgenre?—an amateur sleuth, a red herring or two, and a small-town setting devoid of sex, graphic violence, and bathrooms. Probably one of the few worlds in which “brutal murder” may be too strong a term. And Craig’s cozies feature gently punning titles that help put across their tone—Quilt or Innocence, Knot What It Seams, A Dyeing Shame. Series are naturals for this type of mystery. CBS’ long-running Angela Lansbury vehicle Murder, She Wrote was about as cozy as it gets.

Craig writes both under her own name and as Riley Adams, using the pseudonym for her Memphis Barbecue series (Hickory Smoked Homicide) for Penguin’s Berkley imprint. Her Southern Quilting series (Shear Trouble) is for Penguin/NAL. Her Myrtle Clover series (Pretty Is as Pretty Dies) is a combo—it started as a production of Midnight Ink and now Craig self-publishes.

You can see Craig’s even-handed, personable tack, “y’all,” in her yes-but litany, emphasis mine:

  • I feel like I got a solid introduction to mystery readers and name recognition. But this was a Big Five publisher with an already-established group of avid readers for a popular subgenre.
  • I had excellent developmental and copy editing and learned a lot from my editors…But I know traditionally published writers who have not had the wonderful editors that I’ve had…In fact, I had one dud, myself.
  • I had distribution to physical bookstores and libraries…But I think distribution of physical books is becoming less important.

Bombshell time:

What I feel now: I’ve gotten what I’m going to get (mainly) out of the experience as a hybrid author.

Hello, New York? Can You Hear Me Now?

Somewhere in an office in Manhattan, coffee just paused on its way across the desk. An “I Heart Books” mug is being set back down.

I feel that the benefits that I’ve received are winding down.  I’ve gotten a great education from my talented editors.

Craig has written a Dear John letter.

And if anything can make the publishing establishment listen up, it might well be this: a highly successful, dependable, cozy-writing champ near the line between North and South Carolina announcing that she’s had just about all she needs, y’all, from the industry! the industry! 

Dean & DeLuca coffee is cooling fast as Craig goes on:

I’ve received exposure in physical bookstores and libraries and an introduction to a dedicated reader base.  I hate to sound like I just want to take my ball and go home, but that’s likely the ultimate direction I’m heading in.

Coffee now? Ice-cold:

Mainly, now…I feel as if my self-publishing production is slowed down because of traditional publishing.  I wince as I say that, but it’s the truth.

Okay, then. We seem to have a bye-bye here. What if the hybrid thing was no more than another roadside rest area on this endless, freaking trip our best writers are staggering through?

As always, Craig couldn’t be more careful or gracious:

I do feel grateful for my start in the business…and incredibly, incredibly lucky. I have no rancor in me at all…and I’ve loved working with the industry pros that I’ve had the good fortune to associate with. I’m speaking strictly from a business…a financial…viewpoint.

And she closes with what sounds like an echo of Hugh Howey’s commentary about the effects of survey conclusions built on questionable data. Just as he has worried aloud that authors will believe from survey reportage that traditional publishing will always out-perform self-publishing, Craig clarifies her own qualms:

It does worry me that some writers may think they’ve got to be a hybrid writer to be bringing in good income. Because the pros of being hybrid are definitely shifting. Or maybe the pros remain but there gets to be a point where you’ve maxxed out your advantage. It might not be a forever thing.

So if you haven’t had that HYBRID tatt done yet, you might get them to work on the other ankle first. Seems that even this coziest of all answers to the mystery of successful authorship may be, at least for some, another red herring.