The recent report published by the Society of Authors titled, 'Is it a steal? An investigation into ‘hybrid’/paid-for publishing services', makes for interesting and fairly depressing reading. Depressing for authors as it sets out the myriad ways they can be taken advantage of and depressing for us – a publishing company, established in 2014, that is a hybrid – or ‘paid-for’ publisher.
At RedDoor we’re not particularly keen on the term hybrid. It’s too loose and woolly, and open to interpretation – and therefore corruption. But it’s a label that seems to have stuck and that we have accepted – even accepting the negative connotations that come with it, hoping that our commitment to great books, great quality and great author care will ensure that the industry will see beyond the ‘paid-for’ element of our business and see what we are trying to do.
Please bear with me as I am very well aware that any publisher trying to justify the ‘paid-for’ model is usually decried and derided and the fact is that most of us would prefer that there was no place for paid-for publishing. However, the fact also is that this industry has changed beyond measure since I took my first job in publishing back in 1996 and it is my belief that we have to change with it if we are to keep the books we publish fresh, interesting, challenging, transportive and transformative.
That is not to say that the traditional industry does not publish books that are all of those things (I have spent most of my career in traditional publishing) but the pressures on our industry are immense. The cost of publishing, marketing and selling a book are eye-watering and that is before you factor in the huge retail discounts and sale or return element of our business – in the case of stock on promotion the return can happen as much as 15 months after supply. These books cannot usually go back into stock for resale and are pulped.
In 2008 I was made redundant from HarperCollins and I set up a small consultancy (The Book Guru) that aimed to help people make good choices if they were thinking about self-publishing. At the time self-publishing was becoming much more accessible, print technologies were changing and authors were aware they could do it themselves – but how? There was a lot of information out there – there still is – so how could an author know what to do and who to trust?
Occasionally an author would send me their manuscript and I simply couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been picked up. Sometimes it had been picked up by an agent but it hadn’t been placed, and the feedback was that it was cross-genre, too niche, or the author needed a better network to market to (most likely on social media). Some of these authors didn’t have the time or appetite for self-publishing and at the time, there was little to no chance that if they self-published their book it would have effective sales and marketing, in the UK and globally and they almost certainly would not have the contacts or ability to sell the subsidiary rights that can be such a valuable income stream.
I began to think that there must be a place for a halfway house. I knew that traditional publishers were becoming more and more risk-averse because of the cost of publishing, and particularly of breaking out new authors, and I knew that self-publishing services were operating more of a packaging service, creating and supplying books but not necessarily providing the broader benefits that a traditional house could offer.
I wanted RedDoor to be a place for authors who were just missing out on traditional deals. I wanted to commission carefully and selectively, only taking on titles that I felt had a good chance of earning back the author’s investment and going into profit. I wanted the business to have the infrastructure of a traditional house. A professional and passionate editorial team, a sales team, marketing activity, rights sales and global distribution. But in order to take on these authors that the traditional industry deemed too risky, I needed the authors to take on that risk by covering the costs of publication.
It's not new in the creative industries for an individual to back their own work. Musicians go indie and pay for their own record production and distribution, artists may pay for gallery space and promotional catalogues and many creative spaces rely on external funding to even exist. Yet in publishing, an author is deemed to have somehow failed if they pay to publish their work.
This is not a defence of hybrid publishing. The SoA is completely correct in identifying something that we all already know – that there are many unscrupulous companies out there looking to exploit authors and their desire to see their book published, for their own financial gain. My issue is that there is little balance in the report to identify where practice is good, rather than just where it is bad. Authors reading this report may now have a better idea of who to avoid but have no idea of who to trust. The implication is therefore trust no one (and in fact is explicitly articulated as, 'of all the publishing approaches available, a ‘hybrid’ / paid-for deal is the worst option a writer can take').
Encouraging hitherto vanity presses to commit to 15 key publishing principles is a nice idea in theory but it would be naive in the extreme to imagine that any of the most problematic of ‘hybrid’ publishers would ever commit to them. They simply don’t need to.
There needs to be some regulation of this part of the industry. If there is a code of practice for publishers to adhere to then they must be held to account. Industry bodies should not allow them membership, thereby denying them the cloak of credibility that they do not deserve and which is a key factor in their trickery of authors.
In May 2021 I contacted the Society of Authors asking whether:
‘…you [SoA] would be interested in working together to create a code of practice that should be met in order to call yourself a hybrid publisher.
It doesn't need to be very extensive but this whole area is so muddy that I think it could help. For example true hybrids should:
- have sales and distribution
- be active in selling rights
- demonstrate a clear marketing plan for books they publish
- publish under their own ISBN
- be clear in its publishing commitments (ebook only/ebook and print/audio etc)
- offer royalties that fairly reflect the author's investment
- be clear on its royalty rates across all platforms
- account at least twice yearly
- be entirely transparent in its financial model
- publish to a commercial standard
And so on.
I am aware that this is a contentious area but I don't think it is going away and I think hybrid publishers can offer a really positive middle way for talented authors who are just missing out on a traditional deal. I believe we are one of the leading hybrids and so I really would love the opportunity to work with you on this kind of self-regulation. I would also like to ensure that we are offering the fairest and clearest route for our authors and I'm sure they would love to be brought into any conversation.
You may already be doing this but if not, and it's something you would like to consider, I would love to chat to you.’
I resent the email a week later in case it had been missed and was delighted to receive a response to say
This is so useful and very much along the lines we are considering.
We will get back in touch when we have some first drafts for your thoughts.’
Nothing, that is, until their report was published almost exactly a year later in April 2022.
Of course this was really disappointing, but perhaps unsurprising. The Society understandably has an issue with paid-for publishing but fails to understand that in the current climate there is a need for different publishing models and that, like anything else, different methods suit different people. It is wrong to assume that if an author cannot get a traditional publishing deal that they will automatically have the experience necessary to publish their book themselves.
Not everyone can self-publish successfully. It takes time, commitment, knowledge and, often, a very thick skin. Not everyone can be their own production team, sales person and distributor. I know these services can be bought in but isn't a true hybrid publisher simply providing those services under one roof, with the support and experience of a team of knowledgeable publishing professionals? To debate whether this makes them a publisher or packager may be considered a matter of semantics but if the publisher is making careful and commercial commissioning decisions and building a small list of nurtured authors I believe that makes them a publisher.
As the SoA rightly points out:
‘The companies in question sometimes describe themselves as ‘contributory’, ‘subsidy’ or ‘partnership’ publishers, but they have much in common with what used to be called ‘vanity’ publishers.’
But they should have added ‘Not all’.
They also say
‘…of all the publishing approaches available, a ‘hybrid’ / paid-for deal is the worst option a writer can take.’
They should have added ‘Not always’.
They also say:
‘…many writers who could not secure a good-quality conventional publishing deal would have been better advised to self-publish and buy in the services they needed, such as editing or illustration work.’
They should have added ‘but this route does not suit everyone’.
It is true that many - even most - of the old vanity presses have quickly pivoted to take advantage of the more palatable term 'hybrid publishing' but it is simply not true that every hybrid publisher is the same.
At RedDoor we have always been transparent about our business model and the reasons for it. Our authors understand it and welcome the collaborative nature of our approach. We charge for the various costs of producing the book and we charge a RedDoor fee.
We are open to submissions, we consider everything that is submitted and we call in the full manuscript for those submissions we feel have potential. We read the full manuscript and, if we don't feel it is for us we will reject it - kindly I hope - with a little feedback on why we don't feel it is for us. Usually, even when a submission feels right for us we will have a lot of editorial feedback. We share this with the author, say we love the book, and ask if they would like to meet up or chat by zoom/phone to discuss the possibility of publishing with us.
When we meet with an author we are careful to explain the challenges of the publishing industry. We talk about how hard it is to sell books, how difficult it is to be seen amongst all the other books that are out there, We talk about retailer discounts and the impact they have on the income received per book. We talk about how direct sales are the most profitable and we encourage authors to sell as many copies themselves as they can - it is their stock after all - they have paid for it. In short we try to be as realistic as possible.
We also tell them what we do. We publish to a high standard. Our editorial, design and production teams (largely freelance) are second to none and our costs are based on what professional bodies such as The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading recommend. We market, sell and distribute our books via our warehouse (Central Books) and in the US via Trafalgar Square Publishing, Australia via Peribo, and New Zealand via Nationwide. And we sell rights, targeting audio, foreign rights and TV and Film.
We work with a team of scouts, agents and co-agents that sell the foreign rights to our books. We also work with a film and TV agent who works on selling these rights for us. It's true that the foreign rights markets closed down (for us at least) during covid to focus on their home markets but we have made successful sales to Czech Republic and Israel in the past few months so the signs are positive.
The Society of Authors' report talks about authors 'handing over the rights' to their work. At RedDoor the author gives us the exclusive right to publish and sell their book on their behalf and we want to exploit as many of those rights as we can to improve the author's return on investment. These rights can be reverted at any time by requesting them in writing. All production files, printed copies and design elements are the property of the author and these are sent to them on the reversion of rights.
All this is not to say that we don't get anything wrong. Some of our books don't sell as many as we would like. Some of our authors don't break even and some only just go into profit. This was exactly the same when I was commissioning for the big publishers - publishing decisions are subjective after all - but of course Big Publisher X was bearing that financial risk and not the author.
RedDoor has been going for just over eight years now. We publish fiction and commercial non-fiction and a small number of business/personal development books. We tend to publish 20-25 books a year and we're proud of every one. I defy anyone to read the remarkable Dust by Mark Thompson, or the truly staggering literary achievement that is The Fell by Robert Jenkins and say that the authors were wrong to back their work, or that we are wrong to have facilitated them.
So to reiterate, the SoA's report is an important and valuable document and has provided a much-needed investigation into the poor practices of many so called hybrid publishers. I am personally disappointed not to have received a response to my offer of collaboration in creating a code of conduct - particularly given that we have been following the code of conduct they suggest for all of our business life - but I understand that the SoA may have considered that this would introduce an element of bias. I still feel that the report falls somewhat short in its lack of positive representation within its 27 pages and it would be wonderful to see this reviewed and updated over time.
I am always open to any questions about our publishing model and practices, either in private or in a public forum. We give our authors an author handbook when they join us setting out the processes and what to expect and I'm happy to share this as well. I would welcome the opportunity to work with the Society of Authors (or any other relevant body/ies) to find ways to ensure that publishers and packagers are held to account by their code of practice, and I encourage anyone - author, publisher, reader or journalist to get in touch. I'd love to speak to you.