The Ace in the Hole – Going Hybrid

There’s been a lot of talk about hybrid authors in the last few years, and I’ve noticed that a number of authors who’ve had real success with their traditionally published works have also chosen that option, as well as writers who are just starting out. A hybrid author, for anyone who’s not familiar with the term, is one who has some books published traditionally — i.e. by a major publisher that only works with agented authors — and also self-publishes some of their work.  (It doesn’t mean a wicked fairy turned the writer into a Toyota Prius.) 😉

It’s certainly always been my plan to pursue traditional publication for all of my novels. Maximizing the exposure as well as the recognition for every book is very important to me.  (It also matters when it comes to things like the chance of being nominated for major awards.)  But around the same time that I started seeing frequent references to the hybrid author concept, I also discovered — from perusing writers’ forums, blogs, and other online resources about writing — that the traditional route to publishing has become even more uncertain.  After all the years of being told by countless people that if you’ve written a really good book, it will definitely sell, it was a big blow to find out that it isn’t necessarily true.  The reality is that no matter how good a book is, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll find an agent who wants to represent it.  This is because an agent may honestly love your manuscript but decline to take it on if they don’t feel it’s commercially viable enough to sell to the publishers — and the big publishers have become extra cautious for purely economic reasons.

When I learned this, I realized that having the hybrid option out there — and knowing that it has become more respectable and more widely accepted — is the ace in the hole. By that I don’t mean something secret that you’re holding back, but something you can fall back on if things don’t go as planned, especially when you’re undertaking a risky venture. And it’s a backup plan that makes all that uncertainty less nerve-wracking, because it means that if you’re unable to sell a book you really have confidence in — perhaps only because the agents or editors are too worried that it may not have broad commercial appeal — it doesn’t have to be relegated to the proverbial trunk after all.

Both eBooks and POD (Print on Demand) publishing are instrumental in making self-publishing viable for authors, because setting up books in those formats and making them available to purchase can cost next to nothing (although it may involve a bit of a learning curve if you want to do it well). I understand the perspective of those who see big companies like Amazon as part of the mechanism that over-commercializes everything — which contributes to the value placed on books being determined by their profit-making potential, rather than by any measure of intrinsic worth.  However, the flip side is that the economy of scale available to a huge corporation is part of what makes things like POD publishing accessible to everyone.  That, in turn, makes it possible for artists to fight back against the system by giving them the option of putting their work out into the world themselves. So it’s certainly a complicated situation (and I hate to see big businesses pushing out small businesses, like independent bookstores, as much as anyone), but the upside has to be the variety of options we have now.

One issue that muddies the waters further is that the ease of self-publishing means a staggering number of books are put out before they’re ready, whether they simply suffer from poor editing and presentation, or whether the author is so green that their writing is years away from being presentable. And all of those sadly unprofessional books that clutter the market can be seen as giving self-publishing a bad name.  So this contributes to the reason that many still refuse to give self-published books the same respect as traditionally published ones.  But, as I’ve seen pointed out numerous times, there have always been plenty of lousy books put out by the big traditional publishers as well!  And one positive thing that can be done is to educate authors and help them understand that it’s not to their benefit to rush into self-publishing (or querying agents, for that matter) before they’ve put in the time to acquire solid skills — and before they’ve gotten honest feedback from others confirming that their work is truly ready for publication.

Another warning authors may hear is that if they put a book out and it doesn’t sell well, potential agents and publishers considering their other works may be put off by their low sales record. But to be honest, I would be skeptical of anyone who took a hard line on that subject, because it seems both unfair and illogical.  Common sense would dictate that any reasonable person would take into account how the book was put out and what kind of publicity and distribution were involved.  If it were self-published or published by a small indie press that expected the author to do all the publicity themselves, even if it only sold half a dozen copies it might be no reflection on the quality of the book at all.  It might be a really good book, and the author might be a really good writer.  But they might also be someone who couldn’t sell a bucket of water to a man whose pants are on fire, in which case it would be quite unrealistic to blame the lack of sales on the book itself!

Obviously if an author already has an established fan base from previously published books, or some other kind of solid platform that ensures they’ll have readers lined up, it makes choosing to self-publish less of a risk. And there are plenty of other factors to consider as well — for instance, if the author has contacts with others who have the skills to help with editing, proofreading, cover design, or marketing and promotion, it can make the whole process much easier, as well as making it less of a gamble.

Of course, whether or not one has those advantages, this isn’t a decision to be taken lightly, nor an excuse to cut corners and publish work that isn’t of a professional quality. But when you also consider that we could miss out on some wonderful stories that don’t make it through the traditional grind for reasons that have nothing to do with whether readers would truly enjoy them, having another option is definitely a positive thing.  So while there’s no question that there are many issues that have to be weighed in making that decision, there are times when self-publishing may be the best choice for a particular book.

In my next post, I’ll explain why it seems the best route for one of my novels (or three, depending on how you look at it), and why I’m taking advantage of this option sooner than I’d imagined I might when I first learned that it could be a legitimate alternative.

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