Pay-to-Play Publishing

In a comment to a post titled The Measures That Matter yesterday, TPV regular, Felix J. Torres, made a couple of comments in response to questions that PG though would benefit any who didn’t read them in the earlier post.

Comment 1

It’s Pay-to-Play publishing.

Not quite Tradpub, not quite vanity…or at least the honest ones are. The problem is it’s closer to Vanity that tradpub and it’s hard to tell the honest operators from the scam artists.

The idea is they offer one-stop publishing services for hire for authors unwilling or unable to manage the process themselves, typically because they want the “all-important” B&M shelf space. Which, yes, would be important to established legacy authors but… well, to a total newcomer without an installed base POD is a whole lot cheaper, albeit with a lower margin.

A hybrid publisher might offer editing, formatting, graphics, and the connections to China to order up a traditional print run…all paid up-front by the author, either in cash, a piece of copyright, or both.

Easy to see why they struggle to prove their bonafides, right?

And the OP is right: it is an old business model that harks to before the nineteenth century, when authors would pay a printer to run a batch of pbooks for an upfront free. Over time, the printers started doing more and demanding more and became what is now the legacy publishing business that has been mostly taken over by the multinationals. The smaller players that are getting hit the hardest by disintermediation seem to have reverted to the older model to try to stay afloat.

Personally, I don’t think there is enough money in today’s markets for the model to work for honest operators.

At the low end sales will be too low for a fair distribution so one or the other (most likely the author) will get shorted. At the high end, sales will be high enough the author will have enough leverage to negotiate a non industry-standard contract with an advance somewhere, instead of having to pay. What remains is mostly a narrow band of legacy midlisters dropped by the BPHs, successful Indies willing to pay to offload the backend workflow, and… Well, Dreamers with cash…

The idea is that you have to spend (lots of) money to make money but the assumption that B&M access is essential isn’t real. The payoff is limited and in most cases not justifiable for newcomers.

Comment 2

Sure they can [be hybrid publishers].

They can try, anyway.

As the OP points out, it’s a bad term but they haven’t come up with anything else to explain it.

An author is a hybrid if they send some books down a traditional publishing channel and some through non-traditional channels like direct sales, KDP, KU, D2D, Lightning source, etc. “Hybrid” refers to their distribution channels and revenue sources.

A publisher is hybrid if they earn some of their money from selling/licensing books and some from the author. “Hybrid” publishing refers solely to how they get their money.

An honest Hybrid publisher might split the cost of getting a book to market 50-50 with the author and, likewise, split 50-50 the net revenues (after warehousing and returns, pulping, etc), if any.

The risk is the “if any”.

An honest hybrid publisher that takes on too many “less than popular” titles might find themselves making 90% of their net from Author payments instead of from the minimal book sales. Depending on their bookkeeping, that might put them out of business or make them an accidental vanity press.

It’s slippery turf on both ends.

Publishers want to minimize risk and one way to minimize it is to not only pay minimal or non-existent advances but to actually “share” their costs with the author. How the costs and revenues are shared and how discriminating they are in taking on “partners” to share them with is the distinction between a hybrid press and a vanity press.

As with everything publishing related, the devil lies in tbe details.

It’s just a different minefield for authors to navigate, different risks and different trade offs. And, more often than not, another game that it is safest not to play because there is no significant difference between a scammer and an honest but incompetent operator.

29 thoughts on “Pay-to-Play Publishing”

  1. I’m an indie author who is expanding into the indie-micro-publisher business, but the primary goal is not the getting of books into B&M stores, necessarily.

    Instead, I have some colleagues (and have run across many more) who would be indie if they could be: some are trad-published but have been dropped, some are writers who don’t know how to move forward, and so forth. All are incapable of going full indie themselves (too old, too sick, not technical enough, etc.)

    I think there really is a place for this sort of business. The publishers risk some up-front time (edit, format, distribution) and some fairly small direct costs (covers, copyright, PCIP) and take advantage of all the systems already in place for their own books, and the author shares the risk, but in a sane way: no advance from the publisher, no up-front fees from the author.

    Instead, the authors take an indie-style risk — they earn as they go, dependent on sales. Royalty splits for the publisher start medium and then go down to small for the long term; contracts are short term with auto-renews and easy exits; and disbursements occur the same month the publisher receives them from the retailers.

    I don’t see the harm in this. There’s no reason every author in the world has to go full indie on their own, or else languish in the despair of trad publishing as their only choices short of vanity presses or giving up.

    It’s not necessarily for the large offset runs and full B&M distribution, but there’s no reason that has to be part of an (unrealistic) package.

    • It’s not that the business model is totally unworkable, but a matter of risk assessment.

      Even if the terms sound reasonable, how does the author determine what he gets for the money? The article cited originally makes the point that even honest operators have no accepted way of proving their buy in. Their customers must operate on faith.

      It’s a lot like other personal services business where one contractor can be a gem and the next a disaster. But in many of those businesses there are regulating bodies and consumer agencies and laws? Where are the consumer protections in publishing? Blatant fraud requires redress via lawsuit and more often than not end up in NDA territory. Publishing is anything but transparent regardless of the path you take to market.

      The model may very well work for some people but I seriously doubt it will work as well as either full Indie or full tradpub. Half measures rarely work out as well as a full commitment.

      I’m just not convinced that a business model whose practitioners face the challenges the original article admits to is mature enough to bet one’s future career on.

      But people are free to try anything they want to try. It’s a key feature of open markets; the freedom to succeed comes with the freedom to fail. Whatever path people take, they should at least understand the possible failure modes of that path and the full price of failure. It’s what makes “informed choice” informed.

      • Where are the consumer protections in publishing?

        When a supplier steps into the market, he’s not a consumer. It’s a harsh environment, and nobody is interested in protecting him from his own poor business decisions.

        God Bless the free market, for those devilish details are so very important.

        • Isn’t that a bit too Laissez Faire for this century?

          By that standard, vanity presses are perfectly fine. Suppliers feeding counterfeit or substandard components to auto makers and aircraft builders would have no liability.
          A person/business can be both a supplier of some goods and a consumer of other goods or services.

          Caveat Emptor should not excuse bad actors and healthy industries don’t circle the wagons to protect the sleazy or incompetent.

          • Suppliers aren’t consumers in any century.

            Of course vanity presses are perfectly fine. We may not like them, but who cares what we like? People make choices we may not make. So what? Some guys on a blog don’t like choices people freely make?

            Substandard components? Supplier liability is not the same as consumer protection for suppliers.

            One can indeed be both a supplier and consumer. Microsoft buys potted plants for their lobby. So, we have to look at the specific relation to determine whether one is a supplier or a consumer in a given situation. Authors selling manuscripts to publishers are suppliers.

            Caveat emptor does indeed make a distinction between consumer and supplier. Consumer protection regs limit the scope of caveat emptor. With suppliers it has a much wider range. Suppliers are not consumers and don’t get the same protection consumers do.

            Time for independent authors to give up the notion that anyone is ever going to give a hoot about them, take care of them, or nurture them.

            God Bless the free market, for it’s terrible at nurturing.

    • @Karen–
      Your model is attractive and I wish you well with it. I have been traditionally published and tried indie publishing. Contrary to the experience of most people in this forum, trad publishing has been good, indie, not so good.

      I like the shared responsibility model of traditional publishing. In general, I prefer working with partners rather than contractors. A partner, at least as I use the term, shares risks; a partner succeeds or fails as the project succeeds or fails. Contractors make their deliverable, take their fee, and leave the project behind. However, for an author without a substantial back-list and a track record of successful productivity, finding capable editors, designers, and publicists to go “on shares” is nearly impossible.

      (I have to insert my personal business experience and philosophy: I firmly believe that in any well-run and successful business, employees are partners. The day a business turns into “every man for himself” or partners begin to treat each other unfairly is the day the business begins to fail. Businesses can fail for a lot of reasons, but breakdown of the basic partnership dooms the business. As businesses become larger, maintaining a partnership relationship gets harder, but it is not impossible.)

      I think publishers have a somewhat easier time recruiting partners because they can offer partners more opportunities with a range of projects to work on, a reputation, and funding, but that does not mean that publishers have an easy time. We are in a period of change in the publishing industry. The economics of publishing are changing rapidly, the relationship between readers and writers is changing in ways that are hard to predict. All these things mean publishers have to mind their business.

      I’ll say a word about my experience as an author. I’ve had a lot of experience with devising and selling software. I’ve done enough marketing to know that I need to rely on others to get it done. I know that I am graphically challenged, although I love to dabble in it. My efforts at self-publishing have failed because when I get up in the morning, I want to research and write, not manage and execute a product offering.

      With my trad publisher, I research and write, participate with my editors, designers, and publicists to get the product out there, and I have made a little money at it. Not that much, but I’m still a beginner.

      As an indie, I find myself lacking motivation, doing stuff that I don’t relish, and not getting any money to make up for my trouble. Working with a publisher can be a pain, but not as much of a pain as being an independent. That’s my situation. I admire successful indies, but I’ve taken my reading and I doubt that I want to become one.

      Which gets me around to saying that a model like Karen’s sounds viable to me. Many risks, there always are, but the scale is good for current conditions, and it appeals to authors like myself.

        • Actually, I’m looking for new partners. I’ve decided to write something considerably less technical than my previous books and, as much as I like my old publisher, they are not the right place for my current project. I’ve discussed the with my editor and I can see that it won’t work. Their editorial and marketing/sales team could not get behind it. The wrong skill sets and contacts.

          I’ve got a proposal in the works and I will be shopping it around. I’ve singled out a few agents to discuss it with.

          It’s a risk. Finding a person to represent yourself is always perilous and in the chaos of publishing today, it’s doubly perilous. However, I don’t have a long string of acquisitions editors on my contacts list. So I have two challenges: find candidates who actually have those contacts, then convince them that my project is worthwhile, and determine for myself that they are worthy partners.

          And it won’t end there– I’ve worked enough projects to know that success comes from managing your partners as well as you manage yourself.

          Not easy is right!

          Thanks for wishing luck. I’ve always needed it.

          • Yes, managing the partners is essential.
            There are few “fire and forget” processes in the business world. The horror story of a botched pbook launch from a few weeks back should serve as a textbook example of what can happen if you don’t ride herd on a project. Or, in some cases, can’t.

            The really annoying thing is there are honest competent operators in publishing but you can easily identify them because of the wagon circling and FUD by the establishment.

      • As businesses become larger, maintaining a partnership relationship gets harder, but it is not impossible.

        One of the huge steps forward in economic history was moving from the partnership to the corporation. That allowed people to marshal and deploy far greater resources than any partnership could.

        For larger projects, the partnership was often limited to one project, for example a ship going to China. People bought partnership shares, shared in the proceeds, and then disbanded the partnership.

        Corporate ownership allowed larger projects, and an ongoing series of projects that wasn’t limited to partners’ participation.

        Religious doctrine and derivative usury laws made it very difficult to move beyond partnerships, but once the Church’s hold was broken in the West, corporations emerged and took off.

        The Muslim world is far behind the west in dropping religious prohibitions, and there’s a good case to be made that failure to do so is why the Muslims lost the economic lead they enjoyed over Europeans.

        God Bless the free market, for corporations thrive.

        • My experience is that successful corporations are a collection of partnerships under the skin, not necessarily financial, but in the sense of shared responsibilities and accountability. When I was leading large groups, I always found that fostering a sense of shared responsibility was vital to the success of the group. Get people to be responsible and accountable and you can work wonders.

          The modern US-style corporation is a wonder for aggregating capital, but I haven’t seen that they are inherently good at directing human potential to take advantage of the capital they have acquired. I am astounded that corporations succeed against the headwinds of waste and inefficiency fostered by a cutthroat atmosphere and unwillingness to take both responsibility and accountability for success. And then the corporation tries to solve the problem with the thing they do well: upping the budget with another round of capital shifts without addressing underlying problems.

          In limited ways, that’s what I see happening at B&N and traditional publishing. Instead of encouraging their people to figure what is wrong and fix it, they just shift budgets, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic hoping the stock analysts with upgrade them to a “buy” so they can aggregate more capital to make mistakes with and stay alive for another quarter.

          • Not all corporations are the same.
            Corporate culture varies all over the place and the bigger the organization the bigger the internal conflicts.

            The biggest are the line of business/profit center vs cost center/institutional groups wars, but there are also fierce wars between “peers” groups for corporate funding on both sides of that divide. Rivalry displacing partnership. Not good at all.

            Managing the relationships between the competing interests within the megacorps can eat up the entirety of a CEO’s attention, to the detriment of the corporation. Or worse, there is the case of Sony during the Springer years, when the unit chiefs would nod and totally ignore the CEO’s orders, culminating in the disastrous launch of the PS3 that ended up costing the company $16B (dollars, not yen) over four years.

            During the 90’s Corporate Reengineering “fad” it was even argued, with some success, that companies were better off adopting an internal market economy to manage the inter-unit rivalries.


            The problem being that in some companies it brought the whole “quarterly results” mentality inhouse.

            No silver bullets.

            Big companies are inherently chaotic; some of the more successful just shrug and embrace it through tactics like annual reorgs, “gladiator culture”, or allowing duplication of services as the price of corporate peace.

            One of my all time favorite SF books is Harry Stine’s (writing as Lee Correy) SKY DRIVER.


            He literally wrote what he knew about the corporate politics in the aerospace industry, circa 1980. The core conceit is about the development of a reactionless drive but everything else in the story is real world. All the jockeying for funding, backstabbing, betrayals of big business on display in service of a nice and readable story.

            Good research if you don’t have experience in that millieu.
            Because little has changed in the 40 years since he wrote it. Then again, human nature hasn’t changed much either.

          • Sure. There are all kinds of inefficiencies. But for larger ventures history has shown they work better than partnerships.

            It was a simple idea. Transferable interest.

          • My experience is that successful corporations are a collection of partnerships under the skin, not necessarily financial, but in the sense of shared responsibilities and accountability.

            Without equity interest, there is no partnership. That’s what the move from partnerships to corporations was all about. It allowed the mobilization of resources in a way that had not been done in the past.

            In a corporation, there are owners, employees, and vendors. They may all benefit from a given set of circumstances, but they are not partners.

            We can highlight all kinds of shortcomings of various corporations and books about executive stupidity. But corporations do what partnerships cannot.

            In terms of directing human potential to take advantage of the capital they have acquired, I see a magnificent machine in front of me that lets me blather on with just about anybody in the world. I get on another machine and fly around the world. My knee gets examined by an machine juggling a bunch of magnetic fields. And I get in a machine in my driveway and proceed to a gas station at 50mph where I buy fuel some corporation got from way down under our feet.

            I attribute most of that to human potential channeled through a corporation.

            And while I enjoy all that, folks will tell me how poor corporations are at doing it. Could be, but they are much better at it than partnerships proved to be.

            • The Internet came from Department of Defense. Computers themselves came from code breaking and artillery aiming calculators funded by the army and navy. I worked for an aerospace firm for a few years. If it weren’t for government subsidies and regulations, I don’t think there would be an aerospace industry. All the best engineers were working on DoD and NASA projects. MRIs were invented by a professor, not a corporation.

              I think we are talking past each other. From the inside, I have never seen a corporation work without extensive partnerships within the corporation. Inside every corporation I’ve worked for, the invisible hand is replaced by the opinions of the stock analysts. From my friends in Amazon, Bezos uses a different strategy, but in the end, they still live and die by stock prices, not the marketplace for the goods and services they sell. Milton Friedman said that was the way it was supposed to be.

              • The origins you speak of are of course true. But those folks didn’t deliver the products to billions. Nor did they do all the subsequent research that took the zillions of steps from DARPA to the machines on my desk. DARPA didn’t produce the machines, write the operating systems, develop all the programs, integrate it all, finance it, and deliver it to consumers. Corporations did. Partnerships did not.

                And there is no stock price without providing services to the marketplace. Friedman was right. And billions of people buy corporations’ products because we place great value on them. That’s why there is a stock price above zero.

                Corporations took us beyond the limits of partnerships.

      • @ Democritus Jr.

        “With my trad publisher, I research and write, participate with my editors, designers, and publicists to get the product out there, and I have made a little money at it. Not that much, but I’m still a beginner.”

        My $0.02 on this:

        1. You have no control over your creations with Trad Pub. Just look at the predatory contracts they offer. And the measly royalties paid out twice yearly and with no visibility on actual sales or royalty accuracy. (And then there’s the payments made directly to the agent, who may be embezzling.)

        2. You could make MORE money going indie. Maybe money doesn’t mean much to some, but I’m certainly into it for the money. And the more the better.

        For these reasons, I’m indie. Yes, I have my own publishing company, which I set up to publish my own stuff (and perhaps a few other writers personally known to me at some point in the future).

        I hope your path works well for you, but the loss of complete control over your creations is a huge red flag for me. I’m totally responsible for my own success… or failure. Going Trad Pub diminishes author responsibilities (and also income!), something that some find attractive. I find it repulsive.

        There’s that old saying: “If you want something done, and done right, do it yourself.”

        • I think you may be overgeneralizing. Not all publishers are the same. My trad publisher pays quarterly and they provide a breakdown of the distribution of my books. It’s as transparent as Amazon KDP and Createspace– I have to assume neither one is lying to me.

          And not all traditional contracts are predatory. I have my own lawyer review my contracts before I sign, like I do all significant contracts. I contribute a manuscript, my publisher contributes design, editing, distribution, and some marketing, more marketing than I would do for myself. At every point, I have veto power, although the contract obliges me to cooperate with my publisher, which I regard as a reasonable business arrangement.

          I’m all in favor of indie publishing, I think it is wonderful that independent publishing is less capital intensive and less difficult now. Some authors have been mistreated by some publishers. But that does not mean that all publishers are bad and independent publishing is all good. The ease of independent publishing gives author’s more leverage over publishers than in the past. That’s a debt all traditionally published authors owe to the indies.

          As for your old saying, mine is “If you want something done right, find someone who can do it right and take steps to align your interests.” When I try to do everything for myself, nothing gets done right.

  2. FWIW, I agree that this is a good summary. My interest as an author runs to certain corners of nonfiction, far removed from the commercial genre fiction market where indies thrive. The hybrid publishing model can in principle make sense, but I decided that in practice the window where this was a good idea is narrow, and it is hard from the outside to tell who are the good actors and who are the bad.

    So far as it would make sense, it is where the book as a physical object matters. The do-it-yourself platforms are aimed at pure ebooks or POD paperbacks. This works for straight-up narrative prose of the sort where you begin on page one and read through to the end. There are other sorts of books out there, and bringing a professional designer into the process is a good idea. As for access to distribution networks, even apart from the importance or irrelevance of B&M stores, it would be a great leap of faith to suppose that a hybrid publisher will help you with anything more than nominal access, or that it would fit well with bookstores’ business models.

    • Exactly.
      Art books and photography books, chapter books, anything heavily illustrated are all areas where pay for play could pay off…if you could trust the “partner”.

      And the publishers know it: their model is too similar to the vanities and their industry has been tarred by the BPHs. They need to put distance between themselves and the Manhattan Mafia.

    • As to the B&M side, well that is a whole different and long discussion but the short version is that most bookstores can’t carry even a tenth of the new books published in the US in one year to say nothing of millions of books available via Ingram or, ahem, Amazon.

      The numbers game can be useful in tempering expectations.

        • Half a million new books a year trying to flow through 30,000 or so slots per store. There’s a reason velocity and pre-existing fanbase are critical.

          For all the talk of how online moves 60% of all pbooks sold, implying B&M still moves 40%, there’s no readily available breakdown of those percentages for new releases vs backlist, big name vs midlist vs newcomer for either.

          I’m most curious to see how the sales breakdown for the “everywhere books”, both new and old, vs everything else. The way the publishers act, it might be as high as 80% big names.

  3. “Hybrid Publishing” is merely a rebranding of what used to be known as “Subsidy Publishing” – i.e. where the author pays some or all of the publishing costs. (In practice, they usually pay more than 100% of the publishing costs.)

    Many vanity presses have also rebranded as hybrid publishers to confuse authors.

    Publications like Publishers Weekly have given a huge assist in that rebranding by giving glowing coverage to the likes of She Writes Press and Austin Macauley – who just happen to be big Publishers Weekly advertisers.

    Case in point: the author of this article is Brooke Warner, founder of She Writes Press – where it costs over $5,000 to publish a book.

    Brooke Warner is also the chairperson of the IBPA, which drew up the meaningless hybrid publisher guidelines that are nothing more than a smokescreen for charging authors obscene sums like this.

    And thus the circle is complete.

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