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*

71 comments

  • I recently used this article to explain to a woman hosting an editor’s group why the vanity press person they featured as a speaker could not, by definition, be a “hybrid publisher” if everyone she published paid her money and she never turned down anyone who paid her money. Anyway…

    Speaking as a reader, I gotta say if a writer is going to move from trad to self, they dang well better maintain the exact same level of quality. I’ve taken a crowbar to my preconceptions and tried to give now-hybrid writers a chance when they take their series to self-publishing, and not once have I been able to continue reading the self-published stuff. (In my case, I’m talking about cozy mysteries.) And, I do check other people’s reviews just to make sure I’m not being too critical. Nope, they notice the dragging, the self-indulgence, the obvious errors, too. Adios sales. There are just too many good books out there to read. I just can’t waste time on stuff that isn’t written to professional standards.

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