A Writer’s Life: My take on Hybrid Publishing

I had meant to write this yesterday, but I’ve been busy.

The latest news is that my novel, Tiny House, Big Mountain, was (sort of?) rejected by Rootstock, a so-called Hybrid Publisher located in Montpelier, Vermont. I liked the look and sound of the publisher, but I’m also very wary of publishers that blur the line between traditional and vanity presses. I know from past experience that I just don’t have the interest or inclination to be my own publicist. It’s not that I’m unwilling to promote my book, but I don’t want the book to succeed or fail according to my own ability to publicize or market. That’s a real job, like being a good writer, and I know my limits. Does the author want to be marketing the book he’s written or writing the next book?

I’ve been reading a number of web sites that discuss hybrid publishing and many of them state that the difference between a hybrid publisher and a vanity press is that the latter will publish anything while Hybrid Publishers are choosy. To me, that’s mostly a difference without a distinction. If an author is going to spend thousands of their own dollars to publish a book, who cares whether the one they’re paying is “choosy”. A hybrid publisher will offer you an almost complete package—usually starting at around $5000—that includes professional editing; professional book design and layout; the purchasing of ISBN numbers; “promote” the book in the “Ingram Advance” new-release catalog; and make the book available through independent booksellers and online outlets like Amazon and Kobo. But you can accomplish the same thing through a vanity press by hiring your own professional editors and book designers. You can purchase ISBN numbers yourself—they’re easy and cheap. Listing a book with “Ingram Advance” appears to be something vanity presses also offer.

But anyway, I write almost because the one thing they won’t do is market or promote your book unless its “in partnership“. And here’s how I interpret that: I hybrid publisher doesn’t have any (or very much) skin in the game. It’s the reason they can afford to be so generous with royalties. If your book doesn’t sell all that well, then they’re not the ones out $5000+. You are. Everybody but you, the author, has made money—the editors, the book designers and the hybrid publishers themselves (have all taken a cut of your $5000+). To the extent that they will make more money if your novel is a bestseller, it’s in their interest that your book succeed; but the less money they invest (gamble), the lower their risk and the higher their potential reward. Think of it this way, hybrid publishing is like investing/gambling with someone else’s money. There’s little to no downside for them if they lose so long as they don’t risk their own money. That is, inasmuch as it’s in their interest that an author’s book succeeds, it’s even more in their interest not to gamble on the book if it fails. That’s why they say they will partner with you. By partner they mean that they will guide you in how to best spend your money—not theirs. That guidance may or may not be effective, but here the difference between a hybrid publisher and a vanity press, in my judgment, grows exceptionally thin. If you think you’re a good publicist and marketer, then partnering with a hybrid publisher may be a great choice, that needs to be stressed, but then the same might be said of a vanity press.

My own preference, at this point, is to work with a traditional publisher who has some skin in the game. They have presumably invested thousands in getting my book ready for the shelf, have paid me some kind of advance (if small), and are not going to get that money back unless they publicize and market my book. That is a true partnership. I’ve taken a risk and so have they. I’ve given them exclusive rights to my book and they’ve paid me money for those rights. Now it’s in both our interests to see the book succeed.

But getting back to my sort of rejection by Rootstock. They suggested I needed a significant developmental edit—of the entire book—based on only having read roughly 6% of the novel—or the first 30 pages. They further stated that at just under 109000 words, the novel was too long (again, without having read the actual novel). So, they’re objection to the word count is not based on any structural knowledge of the novel but simply because they don’t like the word count. Period. So, they’re less concerned with the novel’s integrity than with publishing exigencies. I don’t take that as a good sign. I write “sort of” because they then recommended some affiliated editors and possibly re-submitting.

Now I found that curious.

Here’s why: As part of their package Rootstock offers professional editors.

  • We provide a professional editor for your book, as an essential step to a quality publication.
  • We provide a professional proofreading of the final manuscript.

So why are they suggesting I hire an editor, presumably the self-same editors they offer as part of their package deal, before re-submitting the book? My guess is that they either don’t want the book or are ambivalent; but they’re not opposed to feeding business to editors they already work with. They want me to pay an editor or associated editor X hundreds of dollars so that it doesn’t come out of their $5,500 publishing budget. What that suggests is that they’re making money from authors rather than readers.

Needless to say, the whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

But, take what I write with a grain of salt. If you’re looking to publish your own novel, you should do your own investigating and come to your own conclusions.

A writer’s life.

So for those of you who dream of writing a novel or of publishing an already written novel, here are my experiences so far.

On the 1st of January, 2021, I completed my novel.

When I first researched novel word counts, I read that most novels were considered to be true novels at around 100,000 words, and so that’s what I aimed for. I’m lucky to have a pretty good feel for narrative and word count while writing. My actual novel came to just under 109,000 words. I thought I did well. Then I discovered other sites, like Writer’s Digest’s Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post. There I discovered that an ideal novel length is between 79,999 to 89,999 words. A novel between 89,999 to 99,999 words is “generally good”. Novels between 100,000 to 109,999 might be “too long”.

Damn it.

Now I’m straddled with a novel that might be too long. I might be able to cut down the novel but everything is tied together in such a way that it’s not simply a matter of removing blocks of text. It’s more like a game of Jenga where every block leaves a hole and the whole is more likely to collapse as a result. The undertaking would not be minor and the novel would inevitably lose some of its richness.

So, we’ll see; but that might already be a strike against me.

I submitted my novel to agents starting in the first week of January. I’ve heard back from none of them. I submitted to a second round of agents in March and they’ve also chosen to pass me over (or that’s my best guess). Just today, and for the entire day, I started a third round of submissions. I think I’ve done a much better job writing a query letter and synopsis. Once again I consulted Writer’s Digest based on the recommendations of another agent’s site—How to Write Successful Queries for Any Genre of Writing.

I also submitted the novel to a Hybrid Publisher in Austen, Texas (Greenleaf) and one in Montpelier, Vermont (Rootstock). I didn’t expect to be accepted by Greenleaf. They seem primarily geared toward easy money makers—self-help and ten step books. Among the questions Greenlead asked in their submission form was a multiple choice question asking if I’d like to spend anywhere from $5000+ to a $100,000+ on the publication of my own book. My first thought was: If I had a $100,000 to spend on a book, I sure as hell wouldn’t need to be a writer. My second thought was: I think I’ll choose the $5000+, tight-as-the-god-damn-bark-on-a-tree, Vermonter option. Just last week they politely declined my novel. I’m still waiting to hear from Rootstock.

To be honest, I’m not sure I see the difference between a hybrid publisher and a vanity press. As far as I can tell the only difference is that a hybrid publisher is selective in their choice of authors. But so what. Unless a Hybrid Publisher has skin in the game, then it’s hard for me to see what incentive they have to market a book they haven’t paid for. The investment is entirely the author’s. Conversely, it’s in a traditional publisher’s interest to market your book. They’ve presumably given you an advance, even if a small one, and have spent as much (if not more) money getting your book edited and in print. Whereas a hybrid publisher may offer you upwards of 65% on royalty (because it was your money that paid for the book after all), 65% on a book that isn’t marketed or sold is less than 6% of a book that has the marketing power of a major publisher behind it.

So there’s that.

But I have more to learn about Hybrid Publishing and if Rootstock offers to take up my novel, I’ll have a list of questions ready to go.

I’m already thinking about my next novel. I have some ideas but nothing settled. A novel between 79,000 to 89000 words seems like child’s play after writing 109,000 (which publishers apparently consider a thousand short of War & Peace) and I can write 10,000 words on a good day (and upwards of 10 on a bad day). I’ve read that publishers are less interested in the novel they buy than the novel you haven’t written. The thinking goes like this: If you’re a debut novelist, then your first novel is the ice-breaker. Your first novel makes your name but rarely makes the NYTimes best seller list. It’s the next novel that’s the potential money maker (after the marketplace has been primed). On the other hand, if you’re first novel is a best seller, then they’ve already locked you into a follow-up. So, in a sense, what agents and publishers are really interested in is your nonexistent second book.

So, note to self, get started.

Also, I see all kinds of references to publications that list agents, like this one—the Guide to Literary Agents 2020. And yet, in all the reviews, I invariably read that a significant portion of the information is obsolete and/or out of date. I’ve been searching for agents online and so far I’ve found online listings to be far more reliable and current (for obvious reasons). With age, I’ve grown skeptical and suspicious of any individual or group trying to make money off writers who are trying to find publishers—including publishers like Writer’s Digest (and that’s based on personal experience).

All that said, I remain an abject failure. Even a glorified vanity press has turned me down.

If anything changes I’ll let you know.

upinVermont | May 25th 2021