Hybrids and Scams

So, ‘weekly’ blogging my arse. Apologies for just how late this post turned out to be, folks. A close family member went to hospital to have a routine operation – something that, these days, is even more of a logistical nightmare than usual – and after a few days of complications, setbacks and jaw-droppingly alarming developments, is finally back home with us recuperating.

Normal service chez nous seems to have finally resumed, and my excuses for delaying this post have inevitably run dry.

When I first committed to writing one blogpost every week, I don’t think I anticipated a) just how much effort would go into actually making the content [each post, so far, has usually taken at least 3 hours to plan and write up] or b) how hard it would be to actually come up with new ideas each week. Or at least, ideas that would not only be interesting, but also broad enough to spin out over a whole post.

As much as I like talking about the process of writing and novel preparation, I’m still fairly new to this entire gig generally, so I’m not exactly a great authority on the subject to begin with. Similarly, there’s only so much I can waffle on about my own work before I inevitably have to unveil some of it… and my novel is, I’m afraid to say, a good few months off being ready to publish.

I was hoping I could release the novel’s Prologue to celebrate the site reaching 1000 hits, but the hitcount has jumped enough in recent weeks that I’d have to release it far sooner than I’d hoped if I did that (as the gap between that and the whole novel’s arrival would be too long).

But as it happens, this week’s topic fell right into my inbox, when I got an email from an old publisher I’d approached waaaay back when I’d been trying to break into traditional publishing.

I monologued at great length in my last blogpost about the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing, and why I’d gone resolutely for the latter. But for many months before that I’d tried my hand at getting past the traditional gatekeepers – firing off application after application for pretty much every literary agency I could find on the first 20 pages of Google. Amongst those names, I ended up chancing upon a handful of publishing houses who turned out, against all odds, to directly accept unsolicited manuscripts to be potentially published, even if you aren’t represented by an agent.

Being the naïve little bean I was at the time, I had no idea why.

In that last post I mentioned a couple of those publishers by name – Pegasus and Austin McCauley – and I can confirm that I did fire off a draft to both of them. But in the end, it was another similar publisher that got back to me with a very surprising announcement indeed:

Shock! Delight! Surprise!

And then I kept reading.

And when I asked to see the contract they proposed I sign, I was hit with this little bombshell:

Bruh.

I mentioned hybrid publishing in the last blogpost, but I only very briefly touched down on it. For this very reason – that untangling just what ‘hybrid’ publishing is, and why it’s a bad idea, is a meaty enough issue to fill a post by itself.

Last post I also poked fun at the episode of Peep Show where Mark Corrigan gets his magnum opus – a poorly-written business book with a lamentably shitty premise – preyed upon by the laughably-named ‘British London’, the seediest one-man vanity publishing racket you could imagine. As his equally clueless best mate Jez chimes in at one point, as they approach the company’s ‘office’ for a poor attempt at retribution, ‘it looks like the only publisher that could also do you an MOT.’

A face you can clearly trust…

Hapless Mark – who at this time works as a sales rep for a low-end bathroom fitting shop – ends up forking out £2000 for a shoddily-bound set of printouts. The cover art is botched, the typeface runs into the spine of the book, and there are enough errata – including his own name – to make him a laughing stock in front of everyone he knows.

While the whole sequence is mined very crudely for laughs, this is the sad reality for any author innocent – or desperate – enough to fall prey to a vanity publisher.

Most people, to their credit, are savvy enough these days to be able to spot the tell-tale signs of a disreputable publisher. From a lack of professionalism on their website, to the over-the-top promises they make about your work, to the simple fact of making authors pay money to get published and dissuading them from asking any questions about what they’re getting into – falling victim to the seedier, more blatant predatory presses (or, as I like to call them, ‘preditors’) isn’t as shamefully easy these days as it used to be.

There are also many good resources online, for those who prefer to do their own due diligence. Justpublishingadvice, the SFWA and the self-publishing school all have frequently updated lists of scam and vanity publishers, and a casual Google search can find you many more.

But it isn’t as simple as that.

The definition of a hybrid publisher, a self-proclaimed ‘hybrid’ between traditional and self-publishing, is… hang on. I’ll just screengrab it.

It isn’t particularly easy to enforce these rules – not across however many thousands of publishers there are in this country, let alone abroad – and so it’s fairly easy for a vanity publisher to call itself a ‘hybrid’ publisher, while still using the same scammy tactics. As I’ve talked about on previous blogposts, self-publishing can be a handful, but is ultimately not hard once you’ve got your head around all there is to do. So if a ‘hybrid’ publisher offers you the best of both worlds – the lack of gatekeeping from traditional publishing, while also offering to do all that self-publishing malarkey themselves, taking that burden off you – you can see how a slightly star-struck author might easily fall into the trap.

I was fairly blasé about getting in traditional print in the first place, even before I sent off that final round of applications, so I wasn’t massively moved either when I read their ‘acceptance’ of my work, nor when I found out the sordid truth about their methodology a couple of hours later. But a less experienced writer – or simply anyone desperate to get their work out there by any means necessary, so long as it happens now – may not have been quite so ready to see the wood for the trees.

It’s a shame. Truly. I’ve known a fair few authors – through AuthorTube, and various other avenues – who’ve started out on the self-publishing trajectory, only to opt for hybrid publishing for purely innocent reasons (most often, so they can focus on just writing and leave all the editorial and publishing duties to a third party) only to realise their supposed publisher is a preditor, and that they’ve got into something they didn’t understand, having usually lost a great deal of money.

Because a hybrid publisher may look perfectly reputable. It may have shining examples of its published work, or a long list of testimonials from its authors. It may have certain ‘standards’ for the work it receives, and may have its editors work to improve your writing. It may even encourage you to do your own research about them, to come across as far from a preditor as can be.

But here’s the thing.

A traditional publishing house – with its gatekeepers – makes its money from selling books. To do this, they’ll be selective as hell as to what they choose to publish (almost always, authors represented by agents), they’ll have their in-house editors work their magic, they’ll design cover art they think has saleable appeal, and they’ll market the book as much as they can, or deem appropriate.

A hybrid publisher, like a vanity publisher, makes money from authors paying them money.

And that’s it.

They may make a good product. They may even make an amazing product, through editing and art design. They may even market it, depending on how generous they are or how legitimate they wish to appear. But books aren’t their main source of income. Not even remotely.

So once you’ve paid them their hefty pound of flesh, and the book is out there, they won’t give a damn.

Admittedly, for some people, that may be all you want. To simply have a book to hold in your hands, sit on your bookshelf or lie in your bag to pull out at parties. And fair enough. Everyone gets into writing for their own reasons. It wouldn’t be fair of me to judge you for that.

But if you’re looking to make any sort of career out of writing, this is not a route you can afford – financially, or professionally – to go down. If you look on Amazon, you can rank books and authors in order of how successful they are via copies sold. Authors who publish through hybrid presses, nine times out of ten, barely make it above the millionth most successful in their (sub)genres.

I’m not going to say that every single hybrid publisher out there is a preditor. The boundaries between the two, as I’ve shown, can be a little blurry. But I will say – based on my own experience – that I’ve never encountered a hybrid publisher who didn’t turn out, in some way or form, to either be a straight-up vanity press, or some sort of scam moneywise. A lot of them don’t even call themselves ‘hybrid’ either, which in my opinion is even more duplicitous. From the website, you would take them for any reputable traditional publishing house.

The tragedy is some hybrid publishers may even have good intentions. They may actually not be preditors, and may even genuinely consider themselves to be bone fide publishing houses, even though they charge money to publish just the same. They’ll try to make as good a book as can be, even if they’re business model is really not something a professional writer should ever be involved with.

There’s a brilliant blogpost on this subject by Nick Alimonos, which sums up the argument far more eloquently than I ever could. Here, he documents his own encounters with Olympia Publishers, a seemingly respectable publishing house that just happens to accept unsolicited manuscripts straight from unrepresented authors. What follows is depressing, farcical, and when Olympia themselves tried to respond to his poor coverage of them, frankly a little sinister.

But if you take one message from this post; if you really don’t want to try for traditional publishing, be careful how you go about any other alternatives. As hard as self-publishing is in terms of effort, don’t be tempted to take shortcuts in the process. Not unless you know exactly what you’re getting in for. And even if the words ‘hybrid’ or ‘vanity’ don’t feature in their description, if they offer to take manuscripts directly from you instead of through an agent, then that’s a colossal red flag right there.

Unsurprisingly, I politely turned down the contract that company sent me. In the name of whatever professionalism remains in my soul, I’ve redacted their name from all of my screengrabs, although to be honest I’ve no idea why. Everything I’ve read about them online has shown me how dishonest, and toe-curling, their business practices are, and just how bad a call it would have been to sign that contract. A true preditor, if ever there was one. No matter how shiny and legitimate they seemed at first glance.

After a lot of research online – mainly reading a lot of bleak stories about peeved authors 3 grand out of pocket, whose offer emails all featured praise for their work sounding eerily similar to my own – one very damning truth became apparent.

Despite the claims in their initial offer, it became pretty obvious that no-one they’ve approached has ever been offered a traditional contract.

As ways of sweetening a poison pill go – straight up lying to make the hybrid business model seem a little more amenable – that’s really enough to erode the last of my goodwill.

And in case you needed any more convincing, when I had another brief perusal of their homepage, I couldn’t help but notice this in their very top menu:

An entire page on your site, devoted to vehemently denying you’re a vanity publisher?

Wow.

That’ll be all for today, folks. I hope you’ve enjoyed my beleaguered return to blogging. I’ve got a few little announcements coming up – Legion That Was may still be some way off yet, but I’ve got a few other projects in the pipeline, which may be smaller, but may well be available sooner.

For now… thank you for your indulgence. And watch this space 😉

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