What’s in a Label?
Publishers’ self-definitions are blurring the distinction between hybrid and traditional modelsIn 2022, the industry reached a new level of frenzy around how we talk about publishing models. Jane Friedman, who has been updating her helpful “Key Book Publishing Paths” chart since 2013, has a new category and a new caveat in her 2022–23 edition.
A few years ago, I thought it was easy enough to say there were three paths to publishing: traditional publishing, hybrid publishing, and self-publishing. That framework is far too simplistic, however, in an industry with a lack of regulation about who gets to call themselves what.Though we’ve long had to deal with confusion around co-opting labels (i.e., who gets to call themselves “indie”?), the new co-opting game is more troubling—with companies labeling themselves as they please without regard for whether they meet the criteria. Trying to secure a place at the top of the hierarchy is human nature, however, and, with increasing numbers of companies vying for authors’ attention (and dollars), the positioning and posturing is par for the course.
This past year has witnessed a growing backlash against hybrid publishing, no doubt stemming in part from the April 2022 report “Is It a Steal?” put out by the Society of Authors in the United Kingdom. The authors of the 27-page takedown of hybrid publishing rightly identified a problem. However, they misdirected their criticism by attacking the hybrid business model itself rather than the bad actors who have co-opted the label.
The reason for co-opting a term in the first place is because that term has gained legitimacy, and hard-working hybrid publishers have indeed been working for years to make serious gains in a notoriously exclusive industry.
Although the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) created a checklist for hybrid criteria in 2018 and updated it again in 2022, there is no entity that polices hybrids, and no certification program to ensure that a company that calls itself a hybrid is abiding by all or any of the criteria. And most companies don’t. So I understand the backlash, and I understand Friedman’s caveat in her updated chart before her description of hybrid publishing: “Some people in the industry consider these options to fall under self-publishing. Others do not.”
When I started She Writes Press in 2012, we didn’t have a label. Somewhat naively, I thought we could just be a press. Transparently, we never claimed to be traditional, nor did we aspire to be. But, within the first year, it was clear that we needed to distance ourselves from self-publishing in the same way we distanced ourselves from traditional publishing. We were neither, and we needed a way to talk about what we were doing.
In 2014, I landed on “hybrid,” a term that was not being widely used or talked about in publishing yet, and wrote a piece for PW noting the number of players entering this “third-way” space. I was excited by the rise of alternative publishing, thinking that collectively we’d be disrupting a traditional model that was broken, offering exciting opportunities to authors who were being shut out of traditional publishing for subjective reasons. I didn’t anticipate the swarm of business models that would emerge in the years to come, and I especially didn’t foresee that so many of them would deceive or take advantage of aspiring authors.
Another thing I couldn’t have seen coming is the co-opting of the “traditional” label, perhaps because, unlike hybrid publishing, traditional publishing is not so new on the scene. It is qualified by some pretty obvious and easy-to-quantify measures: there is a rigorous submissions process, the author receives an advance and doesn’t pay for anything, and books are distributed through traditional channels.
And yet, in the past year, I’ve come across a whole slew of publishers claiming to be “traditional” while meeting few to none of these qualifiers. One publishing company uses its website to explicitly distance itself from hybrid publishing, even though it requires a 24-month marketing investment—something no traditional publisher does. The site reads: “Unlike hybrid publishers, we’re not out to make money off you, the author; we make our living selling books.”
Another publisher I met last year claimed that her model was “traditional,” though the company offers no advances to authors, retains 50% of royalties, and has no traditional distribution, meaning that it uploads titles to IngramSpark and KDP only. Call me stodgy, but I think making titles available only through self-publishing channels should disqualify a publisher from being able to brand itself traditional.
Friedman’s chart doesn’t have a column for alternative models that call themselves traditional, but I imagine an immediate future in which it will need to in order to keep up with what’s happening. Part of the problem with book publishing is that existing labels can’t contain the variety of models popping up. And there is no governing entity to ensure that companies adhere to the criteria of a given business model. In the case of hybrid publishing, no one appointed the IBPA to develop criteria in the first place. The association saw a need, and it answered the call in order to serve its members. But the IBPA does not exist to police bad actors.
The infiltration of predatory businesses into the publishing industry is a natural outgrowth of people’s desire to be published. Beyond educating authors, there is very little that we, as an industry, can do to stop the predators.
I’m a fan of innovators and disruptors, and I perhaps operate on the naive assumption that there is room for all of us in the sandbox, as long as everyone is honest about what it is that they’re doing. I’ll never stop fighting for the hybrid model because I believe that it is codified well enough, and it is quite easy, using the IBPA’s criteria, to weed out who’s legitimate and who’s not. I try to remember when I’m frustrated by attacks or posturing against hybrid publishing that there is one thing all the legitimate players in this space want—and that’s for authors to be protected from predatory entities.
Authors do need to beware. And now we’ve reached a new threshold, which is that we must stop relying on labels as a measure for what’s on offer from a given publisher. No label matters as much as a couple of easy checks, one internal and one external. A gut check answers the question: does this company know what they’re doing, and does anything about the deal or offer feel off? And reference checks, as many as necessary, will answer the question: what are other authors’ experiences of this company?
Though labels serve a purpose, the blurring of the lines is creating confusion and chaos. The facts of a given publisher’s reputation and the quality of the books it publishes will always be the best measure of legitimacy.
Brooke Warner is the publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of six books.