Must a Writer Go Hybrid for a Higher Income?

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about author earnings—self-published, traditionally published, and earnings from what writer Bob Mayer coined “hybrid writers.” I think that the chart that started it all (and the report’s data has since been questioned by a variety of writers, notably Hugh Howey), is this one from Digital Book World’s Dana Beth Weinberg last December:


Hybrid writers do come out pretty well on the chart.  And I’ve seen similar data on various other charts I’ve seen.

I worry about this.  Being a hybrid writer has worked for me…so far.  It’s a good gig…if you can get it.  But I feel like things are shifting a little bit already (as it always seems to in this business).

For one thing, my income was a lot more balanced between my Penguin books and my self-pub books in 2012.  Then in 2013, my self-pubbed income far outweighed my trad pubbed income (66% self-published income).

I do think starting out being published by a traditional publisher have helped me in some ways.   But notice the ‘buts’:

I feel like I got a solid introduction to mystery readers and name recognition.  But—this was a Big 5 publisher with an already-established group of avid readers for a popular subgenre.  There are dedicated readers (and we love them) that will read all the cozy mysteries Penguin puts out every month. They even know the pub schedule for these books—they always release the first Tuesday of the month.  This helped me get a toe-hold…no question.

Would I have gotten the same boost from a smaller publisher?  I can actually answer that question—no.  My debut novel was a 2009 mystery from Midnight Ink.  It didn’t take off and the series was dropped by the publisher, although the book has since become a much stronger-seller than that first Penguin book in 2010 (because I’ve self-published four sequels to the Midnight Ink book since then).

I had excellent developmental and copyediting and learned a lot from my editors.  I was able to apply that to my self-published books.  But—I know other traditionally published writers who have not had the wonderful editors that I’ve had.  They really gained nothing from the experience.  (In fact, I had one dud, myself.)  Besides, there are excellent freelance editors to be had.  Yes, you have to pay for them out of pocket, but a well-written, well-edited book has the potential to recoup money paid up-front.  Digital publishing’s long tail means that over the years, the book can potentially find an audience and pay back our investments.

I had distribution to physical bookstores and libraries.  This also helped gain me new readers.  But—I think distribution of physical books is becoming less important.  I know that my ebook sales are higher than my print sales…every month.  Even for my traditionally published books.

Frankly, my self-published book prices look amazing next to my trad-published book prices on my Amazon author page.

You’ll notice I don’t mention marketing support as a benefit of traditional publishing.  :)

You’ll also notice that I don’t mention cover design and formatting as a benefit.  I do love my trad covers. I think they’re intricately drawn and clever with the hint of danger in the cozy setting.  But I can buy an awesome cover, myself.  Formatting is something I hand off  and get back a day later.  It’s not a deal-maker for me to stay with trad pub for these services, although it’s a nice bonus.

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

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

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.

Why I’ve continued being a hybrid so far:

I had someone in the industry ask me last week why I’m still a hybrid (I signed another contract extension last August).  Mainly I continue working with my publisher because I love the characters and my readers love the characters… it hasn’t seemed like a great idea to stop writing the series.

Random Observations:

I’m thinking—if you really are going to query publishers for the above benefits, it might help you more if you went through a publisher who gets you good distribution and a decent advance and no funny business in the contract (a Big 5, if you can swing it…and do watch that contract.  Especially with a Big 5).  A larger publisher will likely trump a smaller one in terms of distribution reach and establishing a large reader base.  You should get the same level of editing at many smaller publishers as you would at a larger one, though.

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.

Assisted self-pub: This is for the folks who are interested in trad pub because of the cover design, editing,  and formatting.  I was recently asked if I’d be interested in having a publisher to do my self-publishing for me—a package that would include the covers and formatting, etc.  I wasn’t, actually.  Not if it means giving up part of my royalty.  I can subcontract out that work myself, and I have a team in place. Now if I had no time because I had a demanding day job or had really overwhelming family obligations or just knew I’d never be self-published if I didn’t buy a package…then I’d do it.  I’d just be very careful about how much royalty I was giving up or what the terms were.

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.

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.

Thoughts on this?   I’ve just dumped a bunch of opinion out there and just personal experience out there…everyone has different needs, so my approach won’t fit for everybody.  At least we have choices, right?

(Visited 235 times, 1 visits today)

86 thoughts on “Must a Writer Go Hybrid for a Higher Income?

  1. I don’t have personal experience with a traditional publisher. I’m still open to trying new things, including traditional publishing (which would be new to me). I learned a lot from my freelance editor and cover designer, and will use them again on my next book. I would definitely think long and hard about signing rights away, especially now that I’ve gotten high royalties from indie publishing.

    As always, I appreciate your honest discussions!

    1. Julie–And you wouldn’t always see a sneaky contract with a trad publisher…but the standard boilerplate contract does seem to have non-competes right now. We could always sign a one-book contract or a series contract that doesn’t stretch years into the future, just to see how that works for us.

  2. I think it depends on the writer, and the genre, and the books in question. I also think that right now, writers who are already established in traditional publishing have the best of all possible worlds if their contracts don’t get in the way of self-publishing.

    But the industry is changing so fast. Will the next generation of writers — those who aren’t established in traditional publishing — be in a strong of a position with traditional publishing? Will it be easier or harder to break in? What will the contracts be like?

    The other thing that’s changing is that it’s the hybrid writers who are breaking new ground. I know pure indies like to believe it’s them, but it’s the hybrid writers who are bringing the audience to ebooks. They’re really the ones setting the stage for what readers expect.

    The hybrid authors have really created this market. And as more and more traditional authors make the jump, and as the market matures, that is changing the market itself. It actually builds the self-publishing market — and I expect that hybrid writers will lean more and more toward the indie side of the equation.

    At the same time, we have to acknowledge that some of the pure-indies are would-be hybrid writers — they just haven’t been accepted yet. In traditional publishing, you don’t see that large number of writers who make no money at all. (Or very little.) They are invisible. In indie publishing, they aren’t invisible — so that throws off the numbers.

    All I know is that it will continue to be an interesting ride.

    1. Camille–Good points. Yes, depends on genre. I should have made a proviso in the post–for *commercial fiction* writers. I really think literary might need more support from a publisher.

      I think that writers who are interested in being a hybrid for *non* financial reasons (validation, because Mom dreamed of seeing our book on a shelf at B&N), will obviously find plenty of good reasons to choose trad publishing. And those who choose trad/hybrid thinking that they’re making a good choice for stronger income aren’t necessarily making the wrong choice…but they’ll need to make sure that continues being the right choice through the years. Especially the newer writers, as you mention. And those contracts…watch them.

      As you mention, I think the hybrids did contribute a good deal in bringing the market to the self-publishing authors. I’ve been relieved that more trad published mystery writers haven’t jumped over to self-pub (selfishly) because it has meant more concentrated income for me. But I do think they’re making a poor decision not to try self-pub.

  3. Hi Elizabeth – that’s a really thorough overview – as I’ve no experience, I can’t add anything .. but I’m sure this post will resonate with a great many people. Fascinating to read and to read your thoughts and ideas …

    Cheers Hilary

  4. Not sure I’d ever want to take the self-publishing step, so good to know I don’t have to.
    The royalties from my eBooks are definitely much higher than my physical books. I don’t buy print books, so that doesn’t surprise me at all.

  5. Excellent post. As a writer who started small pub and has remained there, there is always the illusion that big pub holds all the magic beans- like you said, the edits, the covers, and a business plan. And let’s not forget the validation of large pub. As an insecure writer, some days I wish I had that stamp of approval.
    Thanks for giving me much to think about!

    1. Elizabeth–There is that illusion, but…reality is a little different. :) Now–proviso here–it does depend on what you write. If we’re talking about a blockbuster style James Patterson type book…you’ll get tons of support and marketing from your Big 5 pub. But as a midlist writer like me, or if you write mystery, romance, SF/F, YA (non-blockbuster YA…not Hunger Games/Divergent), then there’s a limit to what you’re getting back.

      Honestly, I really feel like readers don’t notice who my publishers are. They don’t seem to notice which are my self-pubbed and which are my trad-pubbed (as reflected in their emails, anyway. Sometimes they’l fuss about the trad pub prices, but don’t seem to realize why there is a price different in my series.

      1. When I first began querying, I had the opportunity to get advice from the amazing Dixie Browning. She wrote for trad pubs for years and I got the sense from her that not being in the block buster category (though doing quite well by most standards!) left her feeling quite used up and resentful. The numbers game seemed to kill her joy of writing, which saddened me because I loved her books. She published the last contracted book and told me she would never write again, and hasn’t.

        Her wisdom has made me content where I am, usually only feeling the tug to go bigger when hanging out with other writers- then the peer pressure sometimes gets to me, but I refuse to kill the joy I get from writing stories. No amount of money or recognition is worth that.

        1. Elizabeth–I do feel that sense of competition, or of “I’m not doing well enough” is incredibly damaging to writers…and we’re so much more sensitive in many ways than others. I just try to ignore it because I know I’m on a separate path. I have a couple of good friends who have made the NYT list several times and I’m very proud of them. It’s not the path I’ve chosen or taken. The only time I think that insecurity manifests itself with me is when I ask my editor “are y’all happy with the sales?” Because nobody wants to feel like they’re going to get dropped or fired from a series or whatever. But if they’re happy, I’m happy. And doing my own thing makes me happy, too..where I call the shots and ask myself, “am I happy with what I’m sending to readers?” Those readers are my first priority and if I start looking at figures too much…it’s easy to lose sight of the readers.

  6. Elizabeth – Thanks for your candid thoughts on this. As your post makes so clear, a lot of one’s experience as a hybrid has to do with the kind of publisher one has and how well one can establish oneself as self-published. It’s all a highly individual experience I think. And you’ve given us all a good and important reminder to pay attention to what’s happening. Things change quickly in the publishing world.

    1. Things change *so* quickly, they really do. Fortunately, with publishing, nothing has to be an all-or-nothing proposition–we can try a little of everything. Different publishers, self-pub, different genres, different platforms…

  7. I’m becoming a hybrid author this year. It’s hard explaining to people that publishers generally don’t help with promotion unless you’re already one of their big name authors.

    I’ve got no plans to go completely self-published, since working with a publisher as well means I get free editing, cover design, and distribution for those books.

    I wonder, though, will publishers have to start putting more work into marketing as the benefit to being traditionally-published comes more and more down to a cost issue for the author?

    1. Paul, I think publishers are going to have to give writers more bang for their buck. Not that writers are *paying* trad publishers to be published, but in the sense that our time is worth money and (possibly) more income (certainly higher royalty rates) if we self-pub instead of choosing trad pub. So what are we getting in return from those trad publishers? Clearly, covers, editing, and formatting–but is that worth the amount of income the publishers are garnering from our income?

      So maybe, instead of marketing, a higher royalty percentage or better ebook terms?

  8. As I am nearing completion of my novel, I know I am going to have to start thinking about all of this, but frankly, it makes me dizzy. This is so helpful to me because I think I was still holding onto the illusion and magic of an agent and a traditional publisher being the “best” option. Now I’m not so sure.

  9. Great information. You know I’ve never believed in closing doors (trad. publishing). I’m glad you are for now still doing that. An agent and trad publisher are still in my dreams, but I realize that self-publishing is a great direction to take.

    1. Teresa–Absolutely! And if a trad publisher is your dream (it was mine, for sure, years ago), then it’s definitely worth it. I think we should just continue to assess whether we’re doing continues working for us. I’m usually slow to assess that type of thing.

  10. The very hardest thing about starting out self-published is reaching one’s potential readership. Howey, Konrath, etc. are inspiring–but they had a fan base from trad pub before they went indie. It’s a huge advantage. If I were to be offered a trad pub contract, I’d be forced to seriously consider it just for the chance to get a readership large enough to help me live modestly while writing the next book. But it would feel a little bit like signing a contract with the devil, because I’d be paying ad infinitum for the editing, cover, etc. (expenses that are fixed and one-off for each book if I publish myself), face restrictions in what I can write and when, and have little to no flexibility in the publishing schedule in case of health problems (no spring chicken here). It would end up being little better than writing for a content mill!

    The real hope lies in the changes that are underway, as writers become aware of options, what’s fair and what isn’t, the quality of self-published books increases–and readers become increasingly open to digital books.

    In the meantime, I’m going to keep writing the best books I can and to write them a little faster. I’m also going to keep looking for ways of finding readers, whether it is entering contests, targeting giveaways, blog tours (what the heck are blog tours, anyway?) or teaming up with similar writers. The odds of succeeding are probably not much worse than via trad pub, and might actually happen a lot faster.

    I hope. :/

    1. Meg–It is a huge advantage to bring over our readers from trad-pub to self-pub…no question. That’s why I’m loathe to advise anyone not to go that path…obviously, it worked well for me (at least starting out). I think, though, that this advantage might dwindle through the years and it could be a good idea to reassess where we are after the first couple or few trad-published books. Or, in my case, after 8 have released with a 9th trad on the way. :) I’m always a little slow.

      You’ve mentioned the very best plan–write the best content you can. Then you can see who bites and what you want to do. Readers usually will connect to good content, regardless of who is publishing it.

      With self-pub, I think we have more *time* to catch on with readers. My books (the physical ones, obviously) are sent back as returns to my publisher fairly quickly if they’re not selling fast enough at B&N/BAM/other stores. With self-pub, we have the luxury of patience.

  11. Wow – look at everyone coming to the party today! Great topic.

    Sales are funny things. All we know for sure is that exposure allows a customer (readers, for us) the possibility of entering a decision cycle one outcome of which is a purchase.

    But…we’re writers. We want readers and not just readers of one single work. So, content expands exposure. In theory, content delivery pipelines do not have a lot of cross-over so multiple delivery pipelines means more exposure meaning the potential of greater sales. Pretty basic.

    Your real choice as a writer is “content is job one” vs. “writer incorporated.” If you are a content mule, write, revise, edit, submit then your day job is content management. You are product. As a self-publishing company, you are much more some of which severely impacts the content generation.

    Can you do “the other” outside of the six hours of creativity we all have in crafting prose? Probably. I’m a lazy bastard and wouldn’t. Content creation would suffer – for me.

    Perspective is a funny thing. You’re an earner in your writing. That’s an entirely different perspective from most of us who earn – and always will earn – far more in the “day gig.”

    Vocational writing is far different than the professional writing to which we all aspire. I have a friend who now has his own a very successful independent film studio [ he, his family, and his small staff eat regularly and drive cars made in this decade]. One of our buddies asked him if there was much money in making movies. He said that if he did it for money, he’d be making porn. Porn is a film industry segment that is money-centric.

    I think using the ruler of income potential for a career in prose is a fundamental problem.

    Surely, you’d have gotten the night school law degree and gone to work as a public defender if this was a vocational or monetary consideration. You write for other reasons.

    Is writing a new stand-alone or launching a new series worth more to you in exposure and accomplishment than shepherding “writer incorporated” around the board room waltz? I’d say yes.

    There are characters in there to whom you’d rather introduce me to than do anything else. I’d rather meet them than admire the design of a promotional bookmark (not that I’m accusing you of being a bookmark dispensary).

    Content is king. I didn’t read all of Scalzi’s _Old Man’s War_ series because he has a great blog. I read them because a buddy said “these are good.”

    I read _Redshirts_ because _Old Man’s War_ was good. I wouldn’t have otherwise.

    I don’t really care about Scalzi’s marketing prowess or his blog – I put money in his hand because of content. How I got the content didn’t matter.`

    1. Jack–This is where my lack of business acumen comes in as I’ll try to respond to this…ha! I did used to be a banker, BK (Before Kids), in the mid-90s. An abysmal banker,though!

      Exposure is key, for sure. What’s that little axiom about a reader having to see something a certain number of times before they recognize/purchase? For me, I have a feeling that what they’re seeing is usually *me* since I’m a bigger brand (still not a huge brand) than my separate books are.

      But the biggest part of the equation, as you mentioned, is content. That means good content and lots of it. That, right now, seems to be the most important element. How do I create more content and still work at Writer Inc? For me…I spend probably 65% of my time on content, I’ll say 20% of my time at branding (content sharing, blogging, Google +, answering reader emails, newsletters–ugh…time to come up with another newsletter..etc.) The rest, I’m picking up whatever ball I’ve dropped as Writer Inc. (have I put money aside for taxes? Kept up with my expenses for deductions? Did I buy that bulk order of ISBNs? Where am I on the calendar with that cover conference I was supposed to have–did I ever write the cover copy for that thing? Is someone waiting for an email back from me approving the formatting/editing/cover?)

      But… I don’t have a day job, so I can afford to mess around with this stuff. And if I did, I’d be making a fraction of what I’m making now because I really have no business qualifications (haven’t worked in an office since early ’97) and would be someone’s admin or minding children or something.

      No, I didn’t choose mystery writing for the money…definitely. I’d have chosen a hotter genre (erotica, YA, zombies/vampires). Or–I’d have taken my writing talent into advertising, maybe. But now…*making* money, doing what I enjoy…yeah, it’s pretty nice. :)

      Long-winded answer to say….the readers don’t care a whit where these books are coming from. They care if they’re good or not, whether they’re rife with typos or not, and they care if they aren’t being regularly produced and they have to wait too long for the next one. You’re so right–content is king.

      1. I have to say I like mystery and crime, too. I wish I could stomach erotic zombie YA novels but I just cannot.

        You are much more efficient and disciplined in your day job then I am in my night job. I admire that. If I ran the day gig like I run the night gig, I’d be out on my ear. Something in that for me to take away, I think. I haven’t been treating it that way but I will now. Thanks.

        On the other hand, I am coming to look a lot more like Leo McKern in _Rumpole_than you are, so I’ve got that going for me. You haven’t touched on the importance of the book jacket photo!

        Jowls sell books! I read that somewhere. Maybe Miss Snark said that.

        1. Jack–Erotic zombie YA..ha! This sounds like it could be a *very* popular genre! :)

          Efficient, yes. Uptight, too. Working on that.

          I still have hopes of mastering a true authorly photo one day. You should see the looks of surprise on people’s faces when I say I write mysteries. I’ll have to record their reactions one day–it would make a good YouTube video. Haven’t got much in the jowl department, but I’m catching up in the wrinkle department. Darn all those tans I had when I was younger…

    2. These are good points, but don’t take into consideration a big change in trad publishing: the author is increasingly responsible for marketing and branding. Publishers rarely put much effort into marketing anything other than blockbusters.

      This means the average mid-lister is Writer Inc., whether self-published or trad-published.

      Very few trad-published authors get to just focus on content and still make a living.

      1. Meg–Very true. I will admit that the self-pub side of Writer Inc takes up most of my activity, but the trad side also drains me a bit–in terms of branding (they’re starting to follow up on our efforts at the pubs now, I’ve noticed) and the tax-related stuff. I also assist with *concepts* for covers (elements for the artist to draw in, a scene from the book), and sometimes titling. Although trad pubs never like my suggestions for titles, sadly. :)

        1. I think they must use some sort of Title Generator with algorithms. Or maybe it’s just one of those crank-handled cages in bingo halls, except instead of numbers on the balls there are key words: Murder, Death, Blood, etc. Now watch me go on a tangent….

          (oh stop it, meg, and get back to work on the plot….)

  12. I am curious why you said that you would need to stop writing the series if you stopped the traditional publishing…Does your publisher own the series or characters? If you self publish it means that you aren’t selling the book to anyone else to publish, which would seem you can continue the series under the self published route. Thanks for your always helpful insight!

    1. Hi Karlee! Thanks for your question.

      For the Memphis series that I write, the publisher not only owns the characters but also my pen name (Riley Adams).

      For the Southern quilting mysteries I write, the publisher has the right of refusal (or acceptance) of the next book in the series. If they continued wanting books, I’d keep writing for them until they *didn’t* want any more books in the series. At that point, if they turned down the pitch, I could ask for my rights to the characters back and then self-pub. I did take that approach for the Myrtle Clover mysteries (asking for my rights back) and it worked out well for me.

  13. Paul had a good point about publishers might need to offer more marketing. It couldn’t cut into the royalties though.

    It will be interesting to see what happens. The big five still rely heavily on print books and bookstores. Since bookstores are fading fast, that changes their approach. Or rather, they need to change their strategy if they are to stay ahead of the rest.

    I still think you are in a very good position. You’re established, so you can do what you want now.

    1. Diane–I think they need to consider what they can bring to the table. Marketing…writers would be all over that. None of us really enjoy that part of the business.

      As you mention, I wonder how publishers will adapt to the changing landscape–the decline of physical bookstores. Because if it gets to the point that they’re offering just digital distribution…what are they giving us that we can’t do ourselves?

  14. HI Elizabeth
    I loved this post. You put your opinions across in a very measured, open way. A pleasure to read.
    For me, there are two potential advantages of going hybrid.
    The first is the reach to physical bookstores. There’s something wonderful about browsing a real store and I don’t think that will every change. Or at least, not for the foreseeable future.
    The second is the links the publisher may have, or can support, with film makers, comic makers, audiobook narrators, etc, the people who can take your book to new places. All of these relationships can be built over time, but a publisher could possibly speed up the process.
    Beyond that, from the many stories I’ve now heard, I can’t see many advantages to going hybrid. The question of bringing readers over from trad to self is worth taking into account, but with the lion’s share of the marketing being done by the author wherever the publishing is happening, I’m not sure how much longer that will be relevant either.
    hmm, lots to think about. Great comments as well. I’m not sure about YA erotic Zombie fiction either… :)

    1. Thanks for coming by, Mike!

      I think you’re right about those two advantages. I think some of them may depend on genre, too–my cozy won’t really translate into film or graphic novels as well, but SF/F, YA…those may find an advantage there.

      I think, the way the *current* environment is (i.e.–we still have bookstores), it would work well for authors to start out being hybrid–and then make a real point of reassessing that decision at specific intervals. Sort of a “what have they done for me lately?” conversation with ourselves.

      I’m thinking we should copyright our ideas on YA erotic zombie fiction. :) Could be worth something…

  15. I really enjoyed this post. After having 3 agents and submitting 3 books, I’m quite happy to be an indie author at this point. At this point, I really have little to no desire to go with a traditional publisher, who would choose my cover art, tell me my production schedule, and keep a large portion of my income. Yes, I’m not getting the initial payout tradpub authors receive, but I am working hard marketing (as all authors have to do now, tradpub or not!) and putting out the best product I can. There is still a “glass ceiling” for indies, that’s true–certain reviewers or contests won’t consider your books–but I’m convinced that is changing SO fast it’ll give us all whiplash in a few years! Just glad to have the option to self-pub and get our books out to a readership now. Enjoy your blog!

    1. Heather–Well, that initial advance trad published authors get is usually nothing to really write home about, anyway. :)

      I think the glass ceiling you’re referring to is real–harder to get Big Reviews (PW, Kirkus…but are those really relevant anymore?) and certainly awards–but that is changing every day. :)

      1. Yeah, the awards thing–a lot of the competitions still discriminate against self-published titles, but more and more are allow them to be entries in “first novel” contests, providing the author retains all the rights.

        But when you look at the “prizes,” it gives one pause: enough of an advance to last maybe three or four months, and a contract that exemplifies the worst of trad pub practices.

        That being said, I still entered a couple, and know I’ve made it through the first round of at least one of them. I don’t know what the heck I’d do if I won either of them, though!

        1. Meg–So true–we have to be incredibly careful these days about our rights and what we may be signing away. That applies to awards as well as books.

          Congrats for making it through the first round!

  16. I am not an author but as an artist, I think it all depends on your situation and time. If you know the digital world and can make connections and market your work, then why not give it a try but if you get nowhere then it might be worth seeking out a professional.

  17. Hi Elizabeth,
    I’m a bit late to this post but have found it very informative. I’m finishing up the second draft of my cozy and have started to look at how and where of publishing. Quite frankly, it is scary out there!
    I’ll be attending a writers conference in Toronto this June and hope to learn more about the publishing part of writing there.
    Your post has shed some light on traditional and indie publishing and you’ve given me some things to think about.
    The comments and questions raised by everyone here has been great.
    Thanks again!

    1. Hi Rose–Congratulations on your progress with your cozy!

      Yes, it does seem really scary and there’s so much information to consider. But to sum it all up–we have lots of choices and many of them are good choices. We’re the ones with the content and that’s what everyone needs. :) It’s a good position to be in.

  18. I do think you have the best of all possible worlds: starting out trad, with all the help in learning the business and getting your “cred” as a writer–then branching out on your own. I know many, many trad pubbed writers going this route. Starting out as a self-publisher without a fan base is tough these days, so that trad contract (if it’s fair, and not one of the toxic ones) can be a great stepping stone.

    BTW, loved the recipes in your newsletter!

    1. Anne–I think it was incredibly helpful for me to start out trad…because I really don’t think I could have successfully self-published at the time. It was, as you say, a great stepping stone.

      And…thanks! Yes, those are on the rotation at my house pretty frequently…ha! That pink lemonade pie is *wonderful*…

  19. I’d say the benefits of traditional publishing lie almost entirely on the marketing efforts they will make for the book. If–as is the case with so many publishers these days–all they do is put it into their catalog, they are abusive “partners” who take the majority of your money while making you do all the work.

    Having been burned twice, that is now my first question with any publisher: What are you going to do to market my book? Most traditional publishers are unwilling to respond to that question at all. If I have to do all my own marketing, I certainly intend to keep the money and control, too.

    1. Pamela–The marketing I’ve received has been pretty much limited to putting the book in their catalog, sending out some ARCs to book reviewers (not every book gets an ARC, though), and sending out to the bigger reviewers. But honestly–I’m not sure who looks at the big reviewers (PW, Kirkus) to make their book buying decisions. Book bloggers are another story, but we can contact those folks, ourselves.

  20. Thank you for the post and the comments.

    You state that your trad publisher owns the rights to the characters in the Memphis series, but not the Quilting series.

    What was the difference in negotiations, and why would there be the two different types of contracts?

    Thanks again.

    1. Hi Gordon,

      For the Memphis series, the publisher sought *me* out. They had an idea for a series. They wanted the series written to certain specifications—this is called a “Writer for Hire” gig. I auditioned for the series, sending in a sample. Others did, too. Then they asked me to write it. If at any time they weren’t happy with the direction I was taking the series, they could technically have fired me and hired another Riley Adams. The best examples I can liken it to are the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series which were written over many decades and with many different writers.

      For the quilting series, it wasn’t as specific. The publisher still sought me out, via my agent. They wanted a murder mystery series set in the Southern US. They wanted quilting incorporated. They had no other specifications. I wrote it under my name, created the characters…it was all my material. So I could write (after my contract ends) another book for them and see if they want it (right of first refusal). If they don’t, I ask for my rights back to the characters and then could sell the series elsewhere or self-pub it.

      Hope that all makes sense.

  21. Hi Elizabeth. I followed a link over here from Jane Friedman’s post on The Smart Set, and enjoyed your views on the topic of hybrid authors. My first book was published by a very small independent press, as will the sequel, and I’ve learned so much over the past year and a half from the publisher, about the business of writing, and the options. But, yes, there’s a “but” for me too, my publisher has been struggling with some very serious health issues the past year, which has resulted in several delays in releases, communication, etc. I also receive NO support with marketing and promotion. I’ve also realized that I’m a bit of a control freak. Before writing, I worked for ten years in commissioned real estate and mortgage sales, so I’m used to doing things my way, on my terms, and seeing projects through to completion in a timely manner. I’d love the advantages I’d receive by working with a bigger traditional publisher, including a larger reader base, but being a hybrid author has real appeal for me right now. Your thoughts on the matter, and those of others walking that road successfully, is really important in helping me make informed decisions going forward with my writing career. I’ll be checking back here often for more updates and information from you. Thank you

    1. Debbie–Thanks so much for coming by. What you’re describing would be very frustrating…if you’ve got books ready to go and there’s a delay on the publisher’s end, you risk losing readers. And if you’re used to basically running a business as an independent contractor, then you would likely be very schedule-driven. Even in the bigger publishers, there can be delays. The publisher once waited so long to see how sales were doing for a Memphis series book before offering me a contract extension that nearly two years went by. And the lack of support for marketing is definitely something you’d face with a larger publisher, too.

      So glad the post was useful for you–best wishes as you move forward with your career.

      1. You hit the nail on the head, Elizabeth. The long wait times may be business as per usual for many larger publishers, which would probably still drive me crazy, but having the sequel sit in limbo during long wait times is a real concern for me. Because the cause is illness-driven by the publisher, I often feel guilty pushing her to get to the next stage. As a writer just starting out, losing hard-won readership is really where it’s at, and you’re right, I’m very schedule-driven. Unfortunately, for this current book, there’s little I can do about it. My answer to this problem has been to start work immediately on a new WIP, in an entirely new genre – topic for another day. I’m now 3/4 finished the first draft, and it helps me stay sane with all the hurry up and wait. :)

        1. Debbie–I know some trad-published authors will put up short stories or novellas with their series characters in the interim–just to keep things fresh and in front of readers. Might be worth a try?

  22. I think being a hybrid or not sort of depends a lot on genre, but also on what one’s reach is without a publisher. If a person has spent years and years building up an audience online or in the real world, then being Hybrid probably won’t make much of a ripple on one’s level of success.

    The other consideration is if one does sell a lot in print, but one’s audience isn’t big into ordering online. Then maybe a print only deal might (and I am throwing a lot of weight on that word) be advantageous. The other option is to partner with a publisher for distribution only, selling stock for them to distribute so that it improves their brand and they can use the book in groupings with their own titles to boost sales. In return, the author has a chance to reach a broader audience and make new fans who will them look to see what else the author has written.

    1. Angela–It’s a valid point. I really, at this point, couldn’t recommend that writers who write literary fiction, for instance, consider self-publishing–unless they can’t find a publisher. The nice thing about commercial fiction is that there are readers who avidly consume books in their favorite genre. As long as you can get on their radar and you’ve got a good book, you really don’t need a publisher to connect you with readers.

      And another good point. I sell well in print (not as much as digital, though)–I have an older readership and many haven’t made the switch yet. I still do get emails from readers who are looking for the Myrtle Clover series in bookstores (and they won’t find them there–only at Amazon). The demise of bookstores (unfortunately) will ultimately speed up the switch to ebooks for dedicated readers who can’t get books any other way. And, as you mention, print only deals might work well, too.

  23. I think you are reading too much into the graph. What the graph does not show is how much a hybrid author gains from self publishing. What it does show is most authors don’t make a living from writing–it is a power curve giving the few at the top most of the income. The authors that have been traditionally published, and this includes hybrid authors, do far better. Is there something in the process of traditional publishing that shifts the odds, or is the absence of the filters of gatekeeping skewing the data? Do books of like quality fare as well? Hard to tell. What we also don’t know is the error in the graphs–if we choose another year, how much does that change?

    I think you are doing this the right (write) way. You are looking at your sales and making a decision based on what is happening. The wild card is what do the traditionally published books do? There are some intangibles from that association? And is it bring in new readers to your self published works–if you have more self-published titles, they should be a larger part of your revenue, but do your traditionally published books gain you new readers? It is great advertising as it actually make you money twice–when you get the royalties and the new reader.

    The other thing to realize is your great wealth of experience. You have certainly learnt and applied that. Not all authors actually learn the publishing business. I think taking aggregate data from a large pool in a profession (and a very diverse one at that) and trying to use that for an action for an individual is really hard. And sometimes the choice is not there–you just can’t call up Random Penguin and announce they have been chosen the official publisher of your next book (Congratulation!). I think what the data do point to are the growing number of revenue streams for authors if they want to pursue them. This is great.

    1. William–Exactly. Data is hard to come by and difficult to read. Hybrid authors may be doing better, but is that because they’re more experienced writers? Are they doing better because their *self publishing* is making them a lot of money?

      I’ve asked myself the same questions you’ve posed. Are my publishers bringing me readers to my self-published books? Or is it the other way around? I do know that sometimes the readers of my self-published books ask what else I’ve written (email/FB questions) and I direct them to my traditionally published books. So I’m sending sales their way, too. That’s why non-compete clauses baffle me (and, well, they infuriate me too…but that’s another issue). Why would any publisher want to shut down our ability to write/self-pub books? The more real estate we have on an online or physical bookshelf, the better the discoverability chances.

      The best part, as you state, is that we have additional options for revenue. And the more avenues we open, the better. You’re right–sometimes we don’t have a choice whether we can be traditionally published or not, but we have choices in the self-pub arena. It took me a while to learn that. So we should consider print/POD, audiobooks, Nook, Kobo, library distribution through Overdrive, Oyster, Scribd…whatever we can do to put ourselves in front of more readers.

      Thanks for coming by, William.

  24. You bring up a valid point. If you’re expected to do the marketing yourself with trad, then what really are they offering? You hear about publication dates being pushed back because of lack of author platform but what are they offering to help you build it? Great and informative post thanks!

    1. Maggie–Thanks for coming by! What comes under “marketing” by traditional publishers is shelf placement (sort of like cereal manufacturers purchase shelf placement at grocery stores), a listing in the publisher’s catalog, and review copies to reviewers. But these are just not as important as they once were when we all bought our books at physical bookstores and read newspaper reviews.

  25. Or do hybrid authors appear to be doing better than trad pub authors because the former outnumbers the latter (this is basic multiplication)…

    Consider too: would-be midlist and top ranking titles with a trad pub. To hedge financial risk, the trad pub will expend x amount of resources to manufacture, promote, and sell each title. The amount of resources expended on each title depends on the title’s likelihood to garner a break-even profit. Despite the likelihood to sell more top ranking titles, the percentage of profits to each author is the same (consider both authors are making a debut). By sheer volume of sales, the top-ranking author will outpace in profits her midlist counterpart. What is more, regardless of publisher, the midlist title will acquire roughly the same number of sales. Therefore, the midlist author would be better off self-publishing – where she can retain her entire profit from book sales and closely gauge her COGS (costs of goods sold) – rather than receive a lower profit percentage from a trad pub for the same number of book sales. In other words, the above graph should not be ostensibly read as whether trad pub or other markets are more profitable to the author, or whether trad pub is an altogether losing deal, but as which economic model – trad pub or otherwise – makes the most business sense.

    1. Kay–Very valid points. Especially regarding midlist. And self-publishing, as we always hear, has a long-tail–profits continue for years and years.

      Or…what if hybrid authors appear to be doing better because they had a backlist of books that they were able to prepare for self-pub quickly? I think that might be an element that could be overlooked. Many trad published authors have been in the business for decades…and have a great backlist. So maybe they’re making so much money because they have a large quantity of self-published books.

      I would add that the self-publishing process makes better business sense because there are no bookstore returns. When a reader wants a POD book that a self-published author produces, they buy it and the copy is printed and mailed out. In the traditional model, the publishers send out a set number of books to the stores. Then the stores frequently return them a few months later. In addition, the trad publishing model is very slow…self-publishers are able to hook readers and keep them hooked by a steady stream of books. In trad publishing, that process takes a year (or even longer…in my experience).

  26. Fascinating coverage of a constantly shifting landscape. Great to get some different experiences & views. One thing that seems not be considered is that traditional publishers are covering all the costs, and risks, from editorial through design to sales & distribution. This seems to get lost in ths and other discussions around the trad vs self publishing debate. The other advantage, less tangible, as many have recognized here, is the amount learnt by working with professional editors etc. That in itself is a huge benefit courtesy of . or at the cost to, the publisher.
    Looked at purely from a business perspective I think it’s important to recognize that a traditional publisher is investing in an author with an unknown return at the outset. Most traditional publishers view the relationship as a partnership and in many cases as a nurturing & often incubating relationship. As in any partnership the engagement needs to be mutually beneficial.
    An ever evolving topic with many pros and cons.

    1. Sarah–Thanks for coming over and for offering your thoughts on this!

      Yes, that’s the most common argument I’ve heard that trad publishers absorb all the costs and risks. The counterargument I’ve heard to this (and I don’t claim it…might be Konrath) is that that basically equates to a loan that the author pays back later via meager royalties. I just put a book out myself on Monday and I’ve already recouped my cover, formatting, and editing costs…but I do have an established readership. And how did I get that? How much of that readership was due to my trad published background? Impossible to say.

      Working with professional editors, for me, has been the very best part of the experience. But even I had a dud in the group (no longer working with that editor and it was only for one book). Editors’ abilities can vary widely in trad pub. I had one to change all my third person POA on a page to first person…and my entire book was written in 3rd. Ack.

  27. Wow! I feel as if I just finished Thanksgiving dinner. There’s so much to learn and it takes people like you to put it out there. Thank you for the pertinent info. It makes me realize I have choices and traditional is good if you can get it. It’s about the name. As a marketer, I know the effort lies on my plate and I see how moving into hybrid after traditional is a smart move. Many Indie presses are good and easy to work with and some do a lot to help their writers.
    Thank you for the lessons. They are priceless…

    1. Nancy–Isn’t it great to have choices? And to know that we don’t have to remain with the choice we made, either–we can switch back and forth. We can assess and reassess as our situation and needs change. It’s fluid but it’s all looking wonderful for writers, moving forward. Everyone needs our content.

  28. Another excellent and thought-provoking article, Elizabeth. We’ve been discussing this topic in a few writer’s groups. There may be one other advantage to being traditionally published, and that’s eligibility to participate in panels at some of the big conventions. The Malice Domestic Convention, for example, restricts panel participation to traditionally published authors. As those panels offer an excellent venue for recognition and audience reach, it’s a bit disheartening that indie authors are excluded.

    I appreciate the arguments that many such venues restrict participation because, perhaps, they don’t have the necessary “gate-keeping” resources. I’d like to think there are creative solutions to this. (And we are creative people, right?)

    Academic conventions are equally concerned about quality. They manage the gate-keeping tasks with peer reviewers (no pay, and frankly a lot of work for those of us selected/recruited) to ensure participants’ work reflects our rigorous standards for academic publishing. I’ve heard genres other than mystery (romance, for example) have opened participation to writers from myriad publishing venues.

    Let’s hope the industry continues to evolve toward a more inclusive entity that celebrates quality writing from multiple venues!

    1. Susan–I was thinking about that today…when will conferences, panels, big reviews open up for self-publishing writers? It’s a shame that so many conferences spurn indie writers.

      I did speak on a panel at Malice once, although it’s been probably 5 years ago. Malice is special because it’s a reader conference, as you know. So there really is an opportunity to connect to readers and find new readers for series. That being said, I feel a .99 sale or a free promo can offer a tremendous, worldwide exposure to new readers for only the cost of lost sales revenue. I did stop going to conferences to spend more time with my children–and because I found them expensive.

      The academic conventions’ insistence on gate-keeping would be incredibly frustrating. I hope that changes soon!

  29. Thank you for this well-thought out post on the topic of trad vs self vs hybrid publishing.

    I know you said you’re just throwing your thoughts and personal experiences out there :) but I think it’s great and incredibly useful to hear the views of someone who has first hand knowledge of all three modes of publishing, so thanks again for sharing.

    What you’ve said in this post echoes what I’ve heard Konrath, Gaughran, Eisler, Rusch, DWS, and many others say as well. Trad is in trouble, hybrid will work for some authors, self-publishing will work for even more authors. Not everyone is going to be widely financially successful and most won’t ever be able to give up the day job; there is much to be said about the luck factor in addition to the hard work factor in this game.

    I used to chase the trad dream. With what I know now of the publishing industry (thanks to the great blogs mentioned above, as well as the fantastic explanations offered by The Passive Voice and Rusch on the minefield of rights’ grabs that are traditional publishing contracts), I would be cautious if I were ever approached for a trad deal. I would most definitely get the contract looked at by someone like The Passive Guy. And I wouldn’t go all trad. I would still self-publish.

    1. Thanks for coming by the blog, AD. So glad the post was helpful for you.

      Yes, I think trad is in trouble, although they definitely have time to reverse some of their business practices and change their model. But the problem is that it’s such an unwieldy industry that it doesn’t respond well or quickly to issues. I think they’ve missed some real opportunities for success, too.

      One of the worst clauses is the non-compete clause. Those can usually be found in two different areas of a contract. But there are other bad terms, too–Passive Voice Blog is a great resource.

  30. Thanks, Elizabeth, for this great post. Your candor and optimistic tone are refreshing. And, as always, deep gratitude for the links you share on Twitter. You’re a great resource for writers. Judy Christie

  31. Thank you so much for this blog. I’ve been trying to “plan” my publishing future (!) and the information in your post and follow-up comments is so helpful. I wouldn’t have thought a hybrid path was the one I’d take when I began writing ten years ago, but that is the way I’d like for it to go. Being aware of contract provisions in order to preserve that option sounds essential. I admire what you have been able to do and thank you for sharing the wisdom you’ve gained.

    1. Ellen–The contract is vital, for sure–especially looking for those non-compete clauses. I’m so glad you found the post helpful and good luck to you on your publishing journey!

  32. What are your thoughts on going hybrid for authors who don’t write genre books? I’d love to see the same income chart broken down into genres, because most literary, upmarket women’s fiction, and historical fiction writers I know say they sell print books 4-1, sometimes more.

    1. Heather–I’d like to see a chart like that, too. I think I’d want a good handle on my reader demographic, if I put a lot of focus into print. I have a much older (generally speaking) readership, but many of them have switched over to ebooks (reluctantly) because they can increase font size and because their local bookstore closed. If I did choose trad because of print, I’d keep a close eye on my sales and the general market (are bookstores closing? At what rate? etc.) during my contract period in order to make an informed decision about my next step.

      What has been the most difficult is the lack of data writers have to work with. I know…only because I’ve heard word of mouth…that YA, SF/F, horror, romance, and mystery are selling well digitally. No word on literary, upmarket women’s fiction (which is, perhaps, given as gifts?), or historical fiction.

Comments are closed.