What The Hell Is A “Hybrid” Author, Anyway?

“Hybrid author.”

Sounds like we were made in a lab. A squirmy worm-mote in a test tube. Growing at an alarming rate. Genetics forged from a hundred different authors — Joyce, Woolf, Dickens, Rowling, King, a dash of Lee Child, a squirt of Neil Gaiman, an injection of Danielle Steel. A thousand books in our blood spinning, whirling, forming a helix-pudding of raw literary puissance. We swell. We burst from our enclosures. We run amok. We form tribes.

We create, and then we destroy.

Okay, maybe not.

The “hybrid” author is not so exciting as all that, I’m afraid.

The hybrid author merely looks at all the publishing options available to her. She is told she is supposed to check one box and move on — “Stay within the clearly-marked margins,” they warn. “Check your box, choose your path, then shut the door gently behind you.” But the hybrid author checks many, even all the boxes. The hybrid author refuses to walk one path, instead leaping gaily from path to path, gamboling about like some kind of jester-imp. She says no to coloring within the lines of a traditionally-published or a self-published drawing.

She opens all the doors. She closes none of them.

“Do one thing?” she scoffs. “Do all the things!”

Then she mutters something about “fucking the system” and she takes a poop square in the eye of The Man, whose expectations for her were far too restrictive. His poop-eye is deserved.

The term “hybrid author” is getting lots of traction these days (though I’ve been using it for over a year at this point — and, if I may toot my own boobies, I’ve been suggesting authors “do both” since 2010), and I think as a term and an idea it’s going to only grow. Diversity is good in biology, in the people with which we surround ourselves, in investment portfolios, in pretty much everything. And so it is with writing and publishing: diversity is a winner. When one door closes we’ve already pried open five others and maybe a window and some fucking duct-work, too. The hybrid author is squirrely. Flexible. Better. Faster. Stronger. ROBOT.

Okay, not a robot. (And not “better,” either, before you get your nipples in a twist.)

Still, here’s the thing: for all the talk of how awesome it is to apparently be a hybrid author, a lot of authors still lean one way or the other. And that’s totally normal, by the way, because it’s not like you can perfectly bisect the publishing world into equal portions. Just the same, it’s a thing to be aware of, because you’ll still find proponents on both sides of the fence who give lip service to a hybrid approach but at the end of the day wear biases on their sleeves.

(A recent post by Barry Eisler based on a conference keynote makes a strong case for the hybrid author while also noting the complexities of how publishers handle digital distribution. Though I’d argue he muddies the waters and shows his biases by removing nuance and simplifying publishing as being nothing more than a paper distribution system, ultimately kind of hand-waving away editing and cover design and marketing as non-essential functions. It’s this kind of dismissive attitude that fires up the self-publishing base but still does a lot to suggest traditional avenues are in some way inferior. That said, I choose to focus on Eisler’s point that this is no longer an either/or world, which I totally dig.)

Hell, I’ve been accused of “pouring cold water” on self-publishing at the same time I endorse it. Which I’ll agree to, though I pour I think just as much cold water on traditional publishing too because I’d much rather splash you in the face with a shock of ice cubes than gently warm your nethers with hot stones and lure you into a state of false comfort.

So, in the interest of making sure the cold water gets splashed on all of you for all the reasons, let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the various publishing approaches. This is not an endorsement of any one path but only an endorsement that you should examine all paths and attempt to discover which one suits you and your books THE MOST BESTEST.

Let us begin. (And if I miss stuff, shout it out in comments.)

Traditional Publishing

+1: Money up front! Maybe really good money!

-1: Could be shit money, too!

+1: Gatekeepers ensure that material of relative quality gets through the door.

-1: Gatekeepers are also notoriously risk-averse. (And occasionally: dicks.)

+1: Access to pro-grade editors, cover artists and kick-ass marketing systems.

-1: Sometimes the marketing is left to you, poor author, because fuck you, that’s why.

+1: Likelier access to: film rights, foreign rights, reviews, actual bookshelves

-1: Holy shit, it’s fucking slow!

+1: Entrenched systems have value (i.e. “not building parachute on way out of the plane”)

-1: System does not respond well to change.

+1: Better discoverability of books published this way, so far.

-1: If your publisher shits the bed, you might be fucked.

-1: If another major bookstore chain shits the bed, you might be fucked.

+1: You will learn a lot about writing/publishing via this path; it will improve you.

+1: You will earn more respect and prestige, if that’s a thing you care about.

-1: Occasionally punishing contract clauses and low-ass royalties. Which leads to:

+1/-1: You need a good agent. Hard to get, but worth it to have.

Self-Publishing

+1: You have a lot of control over how the book exists in the world. Editing, marketing, cover design, e-book design, promo, and on and on.

-1: Money investment up front means more financially risky (may spend money, gain none). Anticipate spending anywhere from $500 to $5000 to get that book “out there.”

+1: Great percentage of the money earned stays with you (~50-70%).

-1: Significantly reduced access to film rights, foreign rights, reviews, bookshelves, etc

+1: Strong self-publishing community full of resources!

-1: Gets a little cultish sometimes, brimming with motivations based on bitter rejection.

+1: Allows you to offer riskier materials in format (short fiction, novellas, serials) or content (edgier work, genre mash-up material, weird stuff) that publishers might not touch.

-1: Some genres don’t do well self-published, yet.

+1: Some genres do fucking gangbusters!

-1: A lot harder than it looks because it means being a publishing company as well as an author.

+1: New options every day (crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, direct sales, etc).

-1: Based overly so in digital; trad-pub is still the strongest way to print.

+1: It’s as fast as you want it to be! (Just click “publish.”)

-1: It’s as fast as your impatient twitchy self wants it to be! (Don’t be so fast to click “publish.”)

+1: You retain all rights to your work!

-1: A rising tide of turd-froth in terms of self-published bilge; must rise above or die. (The often poor discoverability of new self-pub authors can be murderous.)

+1: You get to bypass a potentially archaic and outmoded system for publication.

-1: Easier to self-publish when you already have earned your audience, however small.

+1: Digital shelf-life is largely eternal, or at least until SkyNet nukes us from The Cloud.

-1: Amazon is the 800-lb gorilla here; if Amazon shits the bed, so do you; if Amazon changes the percentage split, not much self-publishers will be able to do about it.

+1/-1: No agent required, but honestly, one is recommended anyway.

At The End Of The Day…

All of this only matters if you write the best book you can and give it the right amount of time and love and nether-massage it needs to flourish both on the screen and in the marketplace. This is simplified, of course: lots of bad books have done very, very well, but really, fuck that. We also eat lots of shitty foods and drive lots of shitty cars and do lots of shitty things and “shitty but successful anyway” is a pretty piss-poor hoop to aim for, don’t you think?

If you have written what you believe to be The Best Damn Thing You Were Able To Write and you want to know what to do with it, well, hopefully  that list above will at least get you started considering how both paths are separate-but-equal and how the modern author is best-served by placing books in both “chutes,” so to speak. You do that, you gain the advantages of both (while still admittedly wrestling with the downsides, too). Further, when one ocean dries up (as it inevitably will), you are not left upon a rotting raft moored on a dead coral reef somewhere, baking to death in the sun with all the other bloated whales.

Some folks will espouse a particular magical order to this process — “Self-publish first,” they might say, even though plenty of authors published traditionally first and then used the audience built there to self-publish, even though an author like me did both paths at almost the exact same time. Blah blah blah. Point is, as always, we have many ways up the mountain. Walk as many of them as gives you comfort and confidence.

NOW PLEASE REPORT TO THE LAB FOR HYBRIDIZATION AND EAT THESE BOOKS

*scans you with ticklish gene-warping laser*

58 comments

  • “+1: Digital shelf-life is largely eternal, or at least until SkyNet nukes us from The Cloud.”
    This isn’t true only in self-publishing. The digital shelf-life of publisher’s books is also (largely) eternal.
    -Actually this is one of the stupidest pro self-publishing arguments I know, it’s not like publishers don’t publish e-books.But I guess it’s been part of the mantra of self-publishing for so long that people have stopped thinking about it…

    • ““+1: Digital shelf-life is largely eternal, or at least until SkyNet nukes us from The Cloud.”
      This isn’t true only in self-publishing. The digital shelf-life of publisher’s books is also (largely) eternal.
      -Actually this is one of the stupidest pro self-publishing arguments I know, it’s not like publishers don’t publish e-books.But I guess it’s been part of the mantra of self-publishing for so long that people have stopped thinking about it…”

      The variance here is that you don’t WANT a traditional publisher to have an eternal digital shelf-life. That’s a contract no-no where some publishers have sought to keep rights endlessly through the “never out of print” factor of digital. It’s bullshit, and it hasn’t happened to me, and I suspect any agent worth the salt will strike that down with lightning.

      But self-publishing assumes you control that distribution, so “always on the shelf” has value *only* in self-publishing.

      – c.

  • Entertaining (and insightful) post. Now if you don’t mind, I’ll just don my helmet and climb into my lead-lined duct (where I’ve stockpiled enough stolen vacuum-packed ISS rations and bottles of refreshing spring water to last me about six years if I don’t pig out in the first month) and will await the inevitable fallout from the oft-warring Trad Pub vs Self Pub crowd.

  • Maybe I’m drinking the kool-aid, but that’s not how I took Eisler’s comments at all. I took it as him saying that paper distribution is traditional’s sole value-add — meaning the one thing that somebody going indie can’t really compete with. Editing, cover design, all of that other stuff can be hired out by a motivated indie, but the sheer *reach* of traditional distribution is something they cannot touch.

    • “Maybe I’m drinking the kool-aid, but that’s not how I took Eisler’s comments at all. I took it as him saying that paper distribution is traditional’s sole value-add — meaning the one thing that somebody going indie can’t really compete with. Editing, cover design, all of that other stuff can be hired out by a motivated indie, but the sheer *reach* of traditional distribution is something they cannot touch.”

      And that’s certainly fair. His keynote (i.e. with tone of voice) may have made that more clear — it just felt to me that after what was ultimately a well-reasoned post it felt like it was trying to ding traditional distribution. Maybe he was instead spinning it as a value-add rather than a dismissive dig.

      – c.

      • “Maybe he was instead spinning it as a value-add rather than a dismissive dig.”

        Well, his second bullet-point starts with the phrase: “The primary value-add offered by legacy publishers has traditionally been paper distribution.”

        …which would seem to speak to it as a value-add, rather than a dig. Eisler in general is far more reasonable than Konrath ever is, as well, so that colored the “reading tone” I have it, too. He also expands upon it in response to comments on the above-linked post — which, given that it’s Konrath’s site, I would understand if you avoided. :)

  • Is it possible to hybridize one book? ie trad-publish a self-published book without losing control of the digital version and royalties and rights? I think somebody has done this, but who was it?

    • It’s possible, but it’s very rare from what I’ve seen, something on the order of finding a diamond in your cereal box (maybe not quite that bad, but close). Times are changing, but I can still count on one hand the times I’ve personally heard of an author who had a self-pub book picked up by a traditional publisher. Most publishers are leery of even doing that because the book’s already been published as far as they’re concerned and they’re not getting first pub rights. It already being out there means that they may not get enough sales on it to matter. Most of them even have sections in their submission guidelines stating that they do not want to see previously published works.

      But, if lightning did strike, the author could possibly fight to keep the e-pub rights in their hands. Could be a deal breaker, unless the publisher really sees something in the work and believes they can make a profit regardless. The author might have a somewhat better chance, should all the tumblers fall into place, if they have an agent to help them retain those rights.

      Your better bet would be to have an agent fight for the e-pub rights to your traditionally pubbed book (I’ve heard of that being a new contract contention, but even that win is rare at the moment), rather than going self-pub first and hoping you’re the one fish noticed and reeled in from the sea of DIY authors.

      But I’m just another pen-monkey trying to break into publishing, so YMMV.

  • As someone who just crossed over from Self-pub to traditional, I feel like I should have my own reality show. My old ways die hard. I just read a speech of Neil Gaiman where he said, “I think it’s time for us to be dandelions willing to launch a thousand seeds and lose 900 of them if a hundred or even a dozen survive and grow and make a new world.” That’s perhaps a lot of bad, wasted seed on the ground.

  • A valuable summation. Is there any way of putting a Tweet button on WordPress posts so that such as I could Tweet it to Followers? (Painlessly. As is I guess I would have to go to the website and manually copy into Twitter, as it doesn’t seem to let you cut + paste any more. ???? )

    • Ooh, at the bottom should be a SHARE THIS button (with “Tweet” as one of the options). Though I don’t know if it shows up on mobile… hm.

      *runs to check*

      – c.

    • It gets a little weary-making, but it’s good to talk about these things because the ground keeps shifting under our feet. Though mostly in favor of the author, I think.

      – c.

    • Well, do it because it feels right for you — not because it’s a proclamation I made. That said, if both worlds seem like places you could play in, hey, yeah, absolutely, try to keep both in mind!

      – c.

      • Of course.
        I tried self-pub a while back and it didn’t quite work, but I feel like I’ve seen ways it can work for me now that I’ve stuck around long enough and watched others do well with it.
        Not giving up my quest for traditional publishing, just thinking bigger. Thanks for this.

  • In the end you have to do what works for you, period. Your financial circumstances, your life, you choice. No one else can do it for you and if they say they can guarantee anything, run!

  • *scans you with ticklish gene-warping laser*

    I am perversely reminded of the “Sleeping lasers” in The Andromeda Strain. ;)

    As far as the post…I think its pretty well established that the rise of ebooks has made being a hybrid author possible. And as ebooks go, so will they.

  • “We also eat lots of shitty foods and drive lots of shitty cars and do lots of shitty things and “shitty but successful anyway” is a pretty piss-poor hoop to aim for, don’t you think?”

    Thanks for delineating the absolute bottom, Chuck! :)

  • Traditional Publishing
    -1 — Sometimes, the “pro editor” is neither an editor or a pro, and will bail on your title in mid-edits, meaning you become the editor as well as the author. It’s frustrating as you think “But this is a traditional house…” but people are people, and douchenozzles are still douchenozzels, just with a NY address.

    I’m syndicating this post in a couple of days on Imagine That! This was a great breakdown, Chuck.

    • Yoinks, that sucks. Did this happen to you? From a Big Six or a smaller press pub?

      And it’s true — a traditional house should be ameliorating risk and handling things in-house or at least with capable and tested freelancers, but that’s no guarantee. Professionals don’t always act like professionals.

      – c.

  • Do All The Things!! I’m screaming and looking like a panel out of Hyperbole And A Half (who I dearly miss). Love the +1 / -1 break down. Will bookmark this post whenever I’m hemming and hawing over what to do next.

  • That was pretty fair-minded, showing both sides of the road. I tried for 7 years to get an agent. Self-publishing (with ease) came about and I jumped on, but if some big NY deal came along I would grab it and try it on for size. And down the road I may write a book that I feel might be a NY book and I would try again with the query letter/rejection cycle.

  • Traditional publishing is a game without a shot clock. Slow. Epically slow. While I agree that certain aspects of self publishing are fast, gaining sales is slow. You have to fight for sales. Yes, I’ve injured potential customers but it takes a tough person to read crime fiction let alone pay for the privilege.
    I sold a book recently on a cold call to a man I’ve never met. He may review the book. The review will not appear in the New York Times. To speed things up I’m going to call everyone in America with this simple message: buy my book and step lively about it. What are you waiting for?

  • I’m happy with my publisher for the time being. But as I become a better writer and can devote more time to the work, I want to work my way up to releasing more books in a given year than I think any one publisher would be willing to commit to for a single author. So branching into self-publishing will have to be a part of that plan.

    With two 4-month old babies and a full-time day job, I’m happy to take this time to learn what I can about self-publishing so that when I do become a hybrid author, I know what I’m doing and not leaping into it blind.

  • I truly believe that hybrid is the way of the future. When I was deciding whether to go with an e-first line or self-publishing, I really felt like I needed to have some experience working with an editor, copy editor, art department, etc. before I felt confident enough to forge a path in self-publishing. It’s important to me to put out the best product possible because “shitty but successful anyway” is not a hoop I’m aiming for. Working with my current publisher has taught me invaluable lessons that will help me throughout my publishing career, no matter where it leads.

  • Thank you for your +/- system of comparison. While others have missed your balanced take on publishing a book, I think you’ve got one of the best takes out there. I don’t understand the massive bifurcation in the publishing world rather than finding the best route for each individual author and book. For me, I’m just going to drink a massive amount of 18-year-old single-malt scotch and flip a coin! ;)

  • I don’t have any strong feelings one way or the other on this issue. I’ve gone both routes and there are advantages and disadvantages to both. But I absolutely love the way this is written. Very entertaining style you have that in some ways reminds me of Matt Taibbi.

    Oh, what the heck. I’ll give my two cents worth while I’m here. Follow the advice about just turning out the best work you can. Have fun with the process. Take chances. Turn out something you’re proud of. Take care of that, and everything else will work itself out.

  • As a reader–and an ebook only reader, I appreciate the fact that in 5 years, I will be able to buy an ebook that most likely would be out of print. Over the years, I’ve gone back to many a favorite only to be unable to replace a lost copy.

    In addition, there are chidren’s books that I would have loved to introduce my grandson to which I’ll never be able to find. Hopefully he won’t have the same problems with his grandchildren.

  • A very fair and even minded article. I totally believe that hybrid is THE way to go but the truth is not many people will have the choice to do so. The prerequisites to hybridization are:

    1. To get and agree to a traditionally published deal (not an easy thing to do in its own right)
    2. Have an entrepreneur spirit and fully embrace wanting to “do it all.”
    3. Educate yourself on “the business side of publishing” – Distribution, formatting, etc.
    4. Be able to produce a well packaged book (that compares toe-to-toe with those coming out of New York)

    When you look at the pool of those with a book (or books) burning inside them and divide and separate them through each of these filters the number of people left over really is a very small %of the original whole.

    • May 31, 2013 at 8:04 AM // Reply

      I’m hoping to go the hybrid route eventually. I’ve just been picked up by a romance publisher, but I also have some things that aren’t romance and some others I’ll want to publish myself because they may not be something traditional publishers will want to take a chance on. Thankfully, I have some local talent sources for art and editing help and I may be able to get some of that cheaper than I would normally. Also been working on a game plan and reading up on self-publishing.

      Michael – loved Theft of Swords, by the way. Maybe one day I’ll be able to scrape up enough cash to get the others.

      • Congratulations on getting picked up and I applaud you on making a game plan for the self-publishing stuff. If you don’t already – do some lurking at “The Writer’s Cafe” on kboards. There are some very knowledgeable self-published authors there who are really generous with their advice.

        Glad you enjoyed Theft of Swords, I don’t need the cash…go get copies from the library. Besides the print books the audio publisher I’m through is very active in that venue, and Hachette just recently opened distribution of ebooks that way.

  • This was a great article, stumbled upon it when I was looking for the definitive “Hybrid Author” guide. Seems to pretty much do the trick! Thing is, I recently got an agent (on the back of a publishing deal with Little, Brown) and this agent is very focused on women’s fiction and romance. Which is fine, since that’s what the book is, and I’m beyond delighted to have found representatin. But I also have a Mythic Fiction series I’ve been writing for some time, and it’s proving very difficult to find a home for it in the trad publishing lists. I’m keen to get it out there, and read, not expecting to make any serious money off it, so my agent and I have discussed me self-publishing that series while continuing to build my career as an author of romance. Consequently I feel I have some backup, but am about to take a big leap into the scary world of self-publishing too! In all, a great post, bookmarked, and thanks!

  • Thanks for this pro and con list and the various comments. A great source of advice as a new boy starting on the journey.

  • “The variance here is that you don’t WANT a traditional publisher to have an eternal digital shelf-life. That’s a contract no-no where some publishers have sought to keep rights endlessly through the “never out of print” factor of digital. It’s bullshit, and it hasn’t happened to me, and I suspect any agent worth the salt will strike that down with lightning.”

    I’m surprised it hasn’t happened to you, and I disagree that any agent worth their salt will strike it down. The fact is that EVERY big-five contract is written as “life of copyright” which means till you die + 70 years. Sure they have an “out of print clause” but the bar is set so low as to be practically meaningless (and impossible to negotiate to reasonable levels). I’ve talked to many agents and authors comparing the bars at various houses and they are all laughable. In my contract as long as at the book sells at least $9.16 a week I’m “in print”….yeah right. I’m not saying that is reason not to traditionally publish. I’ve signed three English language contracts and more than a dozen foreign ones so it’s a price I’m willing to pay in certain circumstances.

    But to the more important issue of the article as a whole – I agree with you. A smart and savvy author should evaluate each route for each project and pick and choose. I’m hoping there will be even more choices in the future. I’m ecstatic over selling my print and audio rights while maintaining my ebook rights…something that I thought would never be within my reach. My kickstarter did a nice job funding my cover design and editing PLUS providing a nice advance…the only difference is it came from readers rather than publishers. My big-five published series are selling well and gaining me an audience, and while the cut they take is deep, it was worth it to reinforce my brand.

    I do think that the big-five better adjust the egregious ebook royalty split, or they’re going to find more authors like Sanderson and Goodkind who break ranks to break out to hybridize.

  • “Maybe I’m drinking the kool-aid, but that’s not how I took Eisler’s comments at all. I took it as him saying that paper distribution is traditional’s sole value-add — meaning the one thing that somebody going indie can’t really compete with. Editing, cover design, all of that other stuff can be hired out by a motivated indie, but the sheer *reach* of traditional distribution is something they cannot touch.”

    That’s also how I took his comments…and why the print-only deals of Howey, Andre, Hoover, Sanderson, and myself are so prized. I’m hoping to see more of these, but I suspect that they won’t be coming from the larger publishers…still a smaller publisher with good distribution can step in and fill the void if they don’t.

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