How to Tell the Difference between a Hybrid and a Vanity Press

Sophie Playle

This is a guest post by Amelia Wiens, a fiction editor who has taken both my developmental editing courses – so I know she knows her stuff! In this informative post, Amelia sheds some light on a potentially confusing subject.

So you want to publish your novel. You probably know about the traditional and self-publishing routes, but there is another option you may not have heard of before. It’s called hybrid publishing, and it is filled with its own potential and peril. The hybrid press has a dangerous doppelganger called the vanity press and it can be hard to tell the two apart. As an insider who has worked at a hybrid press, I’ll walk you through how to safely approach hybrid publishing and figure out if it’s the right route for you.

In traditional publishing, the publisher manages and pays for all the steps in the publishing process: editing, typesetting, cover-design, distribution, and marketing. In self-publishing, the writer manages the entire publishing process and takes on the entire financial investment. In hybrid publishing, the author pays a press to professionally manage the publishing process. Like any other publishing route, hybrid publishing has its pros and cons.

Hybrid publishing pros:

  • Saves the author time. Managing a book’s publication is a job in and of itself. Hiring someone else to do it can save you time and stress.
  • Guarantees professional quality. In self-publishing, the only person in charge of quality control is the author. Most authors are not experienced publishers, and it can be hard for authors to meet professional standards of quality in every step of the publishing process. A professional press can increase your publication quality and make your book more appealing to bookstores.
  • Has lower barrier to entry. While good hybrid presses are still selective about what they choose to publish, it is still far easier to get published with a hybrid press than a traditional press.
  • Gives higher royalties. Since the author takes on some of the financial investment, the author also receives higher royalties per book sold compared to traditional publishing. While the rates vary with different publishers and different book formats, traditional publishing royalties are around 10% net revenue. In most cases, hybrid publishing royalties should be at least 50% net revenue.
  • Maintains the author’s control. In traditional publishing, the press takes on the financial risk and has the power to say no to author changes that they think will damage the book’s marketability. Don’t get me wrong, traditional publishers still care about the author’s vision and opinions (otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen to publish the book). But traditional presses have to think about the business of publishing in order to survive as a company. When it comes down to it, they will put marketability over the author’s opinion. In hybrid publishing, the author often maintains entire control over the publishing process. A good hybrid press will inform an author about any marketing issues, but it will remain the author’s choice whether to listen to the press’s advice.

Hybrid publishing cons:

  • Author takes on financial investment. For most people, this fact alone makes traditional publishing the most appealing option – if you can manage to get it.
  • Quality can vary. A good hybrid press will guarantee professional quality, but there are still vanity presses and some bad hybrid presses out there. The most important decision for authors who take this route is choosing which hybrid press to publish with.

How to Recognise and Avoid Vanity Presses

A vanity press has the same business model as a hybrid press where authors pay the press to publish their books. The main difference is that vanity presses only care about making money off their authors, whereas hybrid presses genuinely care about their authors’ success.

Vanity presses tend to have aggressive sales tactics, hidden costs, low quality of services, and practically no distribution or marketing services. A vanity press at best allows people to feel smug and say that they published a book. At worst, they scam authors out of ridiculous amounts of money. The worst part is, they almost always call themselves a hybrid press and insist to authors that they are not a vanity press.

So how do you recognize them? First, you should know about hybrid press standards. The Independent Book Publishers Association recently released their hybrid publisher criteria. If you’re considering hybrid publishing, you should be familiar with these standards. I’ll give you specific advice for how to use these standards to figure out if you are dealing with a vanity or a hybrid press.

There are three key qualities that a hybrid press should have: quality publication standards, professional publisher-author relationships, and quality marketing and distribution services.

Hybrid presses should proudly publish quality writing and publish to industry standards of quality.

Every press receives a lot of low-quality submissions. Vanity presses only care about selling to authors, which means they’ll publish just about anything. Hybrid presses should vet their submissions and only publish works that align with their mission statement and meet certain levels of quality. Hybrid presses should also follow industry standards of publishing quality and proudly include their imprint on their books, just like a traditional press would. A press’s imprint is their logo and it’s usually printed on the book’s spine and internal title page.

The best way to check a press’s standards of quality is to get your hands on some of their books. Find the press’s online store and scroll through their covers to check for quality. Find some of their books on Amazon and see if you can use Amazon’s ‘look inside’ feature to gain a sense of the writing and typeset quality. If none of their books are listed on Amazon, you probably shouldn’t publish with them. With Amazon’s ability to print on demand, it is so easy to get a book listed there. A lack of Amazon listings usually means that the press overlooks key distribution opportunities.

If your initial search seems promising, you can email the company and ask to see some samples in your genre. The company may be willing to mail you some physical copies. With a book literally in your hands, it will be a lot easier to assess for quality and see how the press handles your genre.

Hybrid presses should maintain professional relationships with their authors.

Be sure to look up reviews of the press that are not on the company’s website. If you can’t find any, see if you can find some of the press’s authors on social media and ask them what their experience was like with the press. These testimonials can tell you a lot about how a press works with its authors.

Hybrid presses should provide quality marketing and distribution services.

Here are some such services that a press should offer:

  • Distribution to online bookstores. Distribution to online sites like Amazon should be a given. The press may also have their own online store, which is nice, but these press stores honestly get more traffic from prospective authors than readers.
  • Distribution to brick-and-mortar stores. This is harder to achieve, especially in the United States. Canada has a culture of valuing local arts, so it is a lot easier in Canada to get your local bookstores to physically carry your books. If you’re working with a Canadian hybrid press, your book should be in local stores like Chapters Indigo and other regional stores like Winnipeg’s McNally Robinson.
  • e-Book distribution. If the press is publishing an e-book version, they should list it on most of these platforms: Amazon Kindle, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play Books, and Scribd.
  • Assistance with book-launch. Your hybrid press should help you plan and advertise your book launch, which in Canada usually happens at a local bookstore.
  • Create marketing materials. Presses can create marketing materials for you such as event posters and media kits. Media kits are promotional material that you send to different media outlets to invite them to interview you.
  • Directly market your book. Find out specifically how the press will market your book for you. Sometimes that marketing still leaves some legwork for you to do. For instance, the hybrid press I worked for would mail out three media kits to different outlets and mail the remaining twenty to the author for personal use. Get the specifics so you know what to expect.

The Last Things to Know before Agreeing to Publish with a Hybrid Press

I’m hesitant to give advice about what to include in your publishing contract because I’m not a lawyer. If you want legal advice, you should consult a lawyer. That being said, there are still a couple things you should get in writing (and likely in a contract) before agreeing to publish with a hybrid press:

  • Specific definitions of services. I’ve already talked about identifying the company’s specific marketing and distribution services, but you should also pay attention to the press’s approach to editing. The publisher I worked for provided stylistic (line) and copy editing, but no developmental editing. Make sure you know what levels of editing the publisher provides and that it’s what you want for your book.
  • Costs. Before agreeing to anything, you should get in writing every cost you will be expected to cover. At the hybrid press I worked for, there were three separate costs: the publishing package, the editing, and the print run. Since the authors chose the amount of editing passes and the size of their print run, these quotes were calculated separately. Some presses subsidy or entirely cover the print run, but some don’t. You probably won’t be able to get a firm printing quote before the typeset, but you can specify how the printing costs will be calculated.
  • Royalty rates. Again, since you’re taking on much of the financial risk, that royalty rate should usually be 50% net revenue or higher.

Alright, we’ve covered a lot of ground. Armed with knowledge of publishing standards, you’ll be much more prepared to find a hybrid press that works for you. I hope you are encouraged and now feel more confident to pursue the publishing path that works best for you and your manuscript.

Amelia Wiens is a freelance fiction editor with a passion for fantasy, historical fiction, and the experiments in between. From publishing assistant at a hybrid press to historical interpreter at a Hudson Bay fort, Amelia chased narrative wherever she could throughout her English Literature degree. She is thrilled to have finally found her place working directly with fiction writers. Though Canadian, she grew up overseas in the deserts of Doha, Qatar. She is now back in the great white north and lives in the prairies of Manitoba.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editors and Proofreaders and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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