As you may or may not know, I am an author who has gone the "traditional" route, in that I am represented by a literary agent, and under contract to one of the Big Six publishing houses (or, er... what are we down to now, "big five"? "big four"?). But I've been trying to devote a few entries here to learn a bit about how other authors go about publishing in this rapidly changing marketplace.
Something that came up in my exploration of various non-traditional publishing routes was “hybrid publishing.” I knew very little about it, but was lucky enough to have my questions answered by Sophie Weeks, an extremely kind, smart, creative colleague I know from graduate school who has since gone on to champion indie and self-published authors. She runs Good Karma Promotions, which you can visit here.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far in my inquiry into the world of indie and self-publishing, it’s that this route best suits those writers who possess a sharp sense of business acumen and marketing skills, or – if they do not – are savvy enough to hire those who do.
Q: In writing my second book, I went through several rounds of edits with my editor. These rounds usually included a 2-page editorial letter outlining general feedback, a marked-up manuscript suggesting line edits, and either a phone or in-person meeting. How does this compare to hybrid publishing? And I assume, with regard to your friends who’ve self-published, they must rely on friends, colleagues, or workshop groups for this editorial advice? Do you have any examples of what worked well, or sense of anything lacking?
A: In my experiences with hybrid publishing, the quality of editing can vary greatly. I've worked with wonderful editors who not only had certifications but also a passion for helping writers improve their books and would become very invested in the process, and from them I've received very much the kind of feedback you describe. But I've seen some people who take advantage of the lack of structure to do completely substandard work. In situations where the author has some say in what editor they work with, I strongly recommend getting an editing sample. People who write clean copy are the most likely to lose out because a lazy editor won't go the extra distance to fix infelicities that aren't necessarily incorrect. As for those who choose self-publishing, they can and should hire a professional editor. There are lots of talented, competent editors who do freelance projects (I am occasionally one of them!). A lot of the negative reviews that I see on indie books are related to sloppy editing. There's absolutely no reason to let easily fixable problems sink a project.
Q: In traditional publishing, royalty rates for authors are typically between 10 – 15% for hardcovers, 7.5 – 15% for paperbacks, and 25% for e-books. Kindle Direct Publishing promises their authors “up to 70%.” What are some typical royalty rates in hybrid publishing?
A: One thing to note is that most hybrid sales are ebook sales. There are print copies, but very few authors make much money off those. So print royalties are almost irrelevant. I see in general somewhere between 30% and 50% as standard in hybrid publishers; a good rule of thumb is that the more you pay in the beginning, the higher a royalty rate you will receive in return. So some hybrid publishers will charge for editing or design expenses, even within a selective acceptance procedure, but they're more likely to pay the higher royalties like 50%.
Q: Does the writer have to pay the cost of printing copies in hybrid publishing? Is there an initial print run, as there is in publishing, or is it print-on-demand?
A: This varies very much from house to house, but good places will offer professional formatting and uploads at their own expense. Print on demand is very much what makes hybrid publishing possible as opposed solely to ebook publishing. Without traditional publishing's machine working behind you, it can be impossible to predict which books will sell and which won't. I've seen awful books do very well, and amazing books fall with a thud.
Sales and Distribution
Q: Obviously there are a number of online forums to buy and download a book, and both self and hybrid publishing have access to such things. But when it comes to sales and distribution of physical copies, I only know the procedure very generally, and only in terms of traditional publishing: Sales reps send a catalogue around and/or hold sales meetings, and everyone from mom-and-pops bookshop to Costco places their respective orders (speculating on what they think their customers will buy). I’ve always been under the impression that this is where traditional publishing more or less has the market locked down. Does hybrid publishing have any access to get their books on the shelves?
A: Yes and no. They can get books on shelves—they can make their books available through Ingram at standard discounts as fully returnable, which mean bookstores can order them under the same terms they would order books from traditional publishers. They can get their books reviewed in Publisher's Weekly. The challenge is the returns. Bookstores order high quantities and then send back what doesn't sell. If you're a small publisher without a warehouse, this process can actually equate to losing money. For this reason, many hybrid publishers seek bookstore placement selectively, if at all.
Q: In hybrid publishing, what are some of the things a marketing manager does to promote an author’s book? You said you have some friends who have been successful in self-publishing. What, in your opinion, are the top things these folks did to market their books?
A: Social media is generally the most important tool that marketing professionals use to get hybrid and self-published books out there. The problem is, the efforts that work can be very difficult to distinguish from those that don't. From the statistics I've seen, Twitter is probably still the most effective mechanism for authors to engage with potential readers, with Pinterest moving up fast, especially for authors of women's fiction. But you really, really have to know what you're doing or else social media can become a black hole that takes up time and money without providing valuable returns. There are a lot of affordable blog tour companies out there that will theoretically help you find reviewers for your books, but I could not recommend most of them as good value for the money. They often will organize a number of “spotlights.” Spotlights are blog features that only include the cover, buy links, synopsis, and sometimes an excerpt. They are more or less useless, and lower-quality book blogs will use them as a substitute for original content.
I strongly suggest that authors going an indie route find a way to get their books listed on NetGalley to engage potential reviewers, even if it involves paying money out of pocket. It's important to get plenty of reviews early in the process, otherwise nothing else you do matters. If you get a potential reader engaged enough to click through to your book's Amazon page and they see two reviews, they're unlikely to buy unless they're deeply engaged in the premise.
The people I know who have been most successful at self-publishing are the most professionalized. Indie authors have a tendency to undervalue their work and not do the hard work of making sure they have the best possible support in editing, design, and marketing. If you would not feel confident selling your editing, design, or marketing skills to someone else, do not rely on those skills for your book. Don't rely on the magical powers of social media to make things happen for you. My Twitter feed is full of authors trying to leverage their following into consumers, but doing so badly. A constant stream of buy links with no engaging quotes or copy attached will get you unfollowed fast. On the other hand, authors can do very well when they talk about issues of the day; take time to create fun, quality graphics; and have conversations with people.
I also think a free novella or short story can be a valuable way for authors who write series to find new readers. But I see that done badly too—some authors will slap up a ten page “story” that has no resolution or interest unless you buy the novel it's associated with. That's not a way to make people want to read more of your work, it's a way to make them curse you. There really aren't any shortcuts. You have to do a lot of things, and you have to do them all well. Back in 2011, when the self-publishing boom started, you could jigger your Amazon ranking with free days and get paid sales to follow. But electronic publishing has reached a point where the fast fixes and tricks don't work anymore. I'd strongly recommend all independent authors read Twitter for Writers by Rayne Hall and Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant for explorations of techniques that will continue to be helpful no matter how the industry changes in the short term.