Publishing has gone through many transformations, though not in the core of a book, which is its content. Books always have to be about something, from trivial to profound.
The changes over the centuries – and especially in recent years – have come in the way books are discovered and read. Distribution as a process sounds dispassionate, but it is nearly as important as content. Invisible for a book means not read.
Publishing has absorbed, with surprising smoothness, the ease of downloading and reading ebooks and listening to them as audios. Beginning when the Kindle was released in 2007, digitally delivered books are now and probably forever part of the reading experience. Amazon’s proprietary Kindle and Audible dominate the digital marketplace because the Bezos behemoth has been the most determined, intrepid, and price-conscious of all booksellers.
It is not altogether politic to say that the rest of book retailers – including our much-beloved independent stores – have been slow to recognize how to market ebooks with comparable efficiency and pricing. That would be existential except that most books – about 70 percent of all those sold – are still in print, hardcover and paperback. And that is where the latest distribution upheaval is underway.
Most people seem to know that there are five big publishing conglomerates: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster, which remains for sale (after a failed takeover by PRH). There are, however, also a large assortment of other publishers, from the venerable and formidable – W.W. Norton and Scholastic (the publisher of the Harry Potter books) – to the feisty and established – Grove Atlantic, Skyhorse, and the nonprofit New Press – plus university presses defined by academic standards and requiring anonymous “peer reviews” for a book to be acceptable for publication.
A major and increasingly important category of book publishers are known as “Hybrids” . In these arrangements, the author and the publisher work together – after the publisher agrees to take the project on – to fund, prepare, and release the book, usually, to a specific audience rather than to the very crowded and competitive trade marketplace of celebrity and controversial titles.
Why is this happening?
Because most of the bigger trade publishers are so dependent on sales revenue for their businesses that they are increasingly unlikely to take on books whose audience they see as too limited to be commercially successful. In the acquisitions process, books are not generally assessed on their inherent merits, but on whether there will be enough readers to make them worthwhile to sell.
Among the questions asked are: Can authors deliver publicity? Have their previous books sold? What about the sales of comparable titles?
Editors and publishers can and should acquire books they believe in, whatever the risk, but that only goes so far especially in nonfiction. The breakthrough debut novels that regularly turn up, following an auction and a seven-figure advance, are boosted by the publicity they get as a result, before they have actually been read by more than a few people.
This is why the concept of hybrid publishing is expanding and deserving of attention. Paying to have your book published was known in the past, derisively, as “vanity” publishing, and what is called “self-publishing” tends now to mean that you can get a book printed but everything else – editing and marketing – is up to the author to arrange.
My friend and esteemed longtime colleague Karl Weber has launched a hybrid publishing company called Rivertowns Books.
I asked him to describe how a hybrid works. Here is his answer:
· “Hybrid publishers” like Rivertowns Books are, in effect, service organizations that provide expertise, skill, and resources to authors in order to help them publish their books successfully. Authors generally (not always) need to contribute financially to make this possible.
· Hybrid publishers vary greatly in their business models. Each one offers a different combination of benefits and costs, which makes it a challenge for authors to choose among them—comparable to finding the ideal contractor for the specific home remodeling project you have in mind.
· In the case of my company Rivertowns Books, the main benefits I provide to authors are (1) top-flight editorial support and (2) personalized hand-holding, advice, and help throughout the life of the book.
· In my experience, more and more authors (and would-be authors) are well aware of the challenges in the traditional publishing model. This is one reason many are exploring self-publishing and hybrid publishing options.
· As I mentioned, several of my authors have previously published with traditional publishers and are turning to hybrid publishing because they find it works better for them and their books.
Karl adds that while Rivertowns is a nonfiction publisher, there are other hybrids that focus on fiction or children’s books, all at a price.
Those of us with recognized experience in publishing regularly receive queries from people who want advice on the process. If they can’t get an agent (the first suggestion) and have endured enough rejections or simply been ignored when they submit on their own, a hybrid can be the right alternative.
Recently I have seen books or announcements from, among others, Butler Books, including an especially handsomely designed biography of the writer Tula Pendleton by her great niece, Barbara Pendleton Jones; Amplify Publishing Group; Greenleaf Book Group
Xlibris which regularly takes prominent ads in the New York Times Book Review, is not a hybrid, and there are others with a similar model. They are not selective. They will produce a book for anyone and provide services from a menu of offerings.
So how are the books sold?
In a recent “Book Club” column in the Washington Post, Ron Charles answered the question this way: “There’s a vast dazzlingly diverse ecosystem of little publishers beneath the overstory of giant corporations.” He describes Small Press Distribution, which handles about four hundred independent publishers, many of which are probably some form of hybrid..
Authors who know their prospective audience and are prepared to make the effort can sell books themselves at events – what I consider the door-to-door approach – which has been used over the years to sell Fuller Brushes, Tupperware, and even encyclopedias like World Book.
And finally, there is IndiePubs, which is run by Ingram Publishing Services, which for a fee will manage everything about sales you can generate yourself, including shipping and accounting. (I intend to try this as yet another foray into publishing books from platformbooksllc.net, the imprint my wife and I founded in 2020 to explore the evolving culture of social media and distribution.)
Selling serious (sober is a less pretentious description) nonfiction has never been simple. In the early 2000s, several years after the founding of PublicAffairs, I took out prominent ads in the New York Review of Books, which I considered a target readership, under the headline “How to Buy a PublicAffairs Book,” when finding our titles in stores was a challenge.
The message was straightforward: “Just ask for them and they can be ordered.”
This approach can still work. If you want a title and it has been published with the standard numerical identifier called an ISBN – which all books are assigned – it can be ordered from most bookstores. The requirement is that your potential reader knows about the book being asked for one way or another. Making this happen is another piece of the formidable but indispensable and eternal mission of every author – and grist for another piece.
An Announcement meant to be of interest
Platform Books LLC our website has been updated (platformbooksllc.net) adding links and new material. There is also a way to buy and read our books through IndiePubs and here; https://indiepubs.com/search/?q=Platform%20Books%2C%20LLC
Excellent description, Peter, of hybrid publishing. Another route is the smaller independent press. I published my recent memoir (a departure from my usual fiction writing) with Regal House, an award winning independent press based in Raleigh, NC that distributes through IPG, Independent Publishers Group. They have licensed an audio edition, have submitted my book for various awards and sent it for review to the trade outlets. All of the rest of the marketing has been on me which they told me at the beginning would be the case. I didn’t have to put any money in but I am paid on net receipts not the list price. For an understanding of what that means when it comes to royalties, see my post THE ROYAL(TY) LESSON.