February 2014 by Brooke Warner In 2012, when I co-founded She Writes Press with Kamy Wicoff (founder of the social networking site SheWrites.com), we thought “hybrid publishing” best described what we were doing. Like others in the in-between space, we’re neither a traditional press nor a self-publisher. Our authors pay for production and manufacturing, and they keep 70 percent of net sales on the back end. We vet submissions and distribute through Ingram Publisher Services. And our authors come to the table with strong marketing and publicity campaigns.
Perhaps because hybrid publishers have existed for such a long time, I took for granted that the hybrid space was not only well explored but also well defined as territory for companies that are decidedly not vanity presses. Two years ago, I didn’t expect to have to defend our model, or to have to stick up for the press as much as I’ve had to—both to online critics who find the author-subsidy model unfair or unseemly and to industry professionals who insist on categorizing us as a self-publisher. As our press evolved, we landed on the term partnership publishing, originally because that’s what our authors preferred, but also because it’s a more accurate description of what we do. The authors get all the benefits of creative collaboration and a hand-holding relationship that has traditionally been the cornerstone of a small-press experience, and, in exchange, they pay for production and manufacturing but also keep ownership of their project and earnings. Our vision was simple. We set out to ensure quality by vetting manuscripts and helping women’s voices be heard. But a simple vision doesn’t necessarily make for a simple process. Amazon barred us from making metadata changes on its site on behalf of our authors, and our books were constantly listed as out of stock or low in inventory there. I finally broke down and called Ingram Publisher Services after seven months of fighting an impossible battle. We needed distribution if we were going to survive. So although we never set out to be a traditional publisher, we’ve made move after move to inch closer toward a traditional model by necessity.
Challenges in an Uncharted Area
Coming out of a 14-year career in traditional publishing, I figured it would be easier than it actually has been to occupy an in-between space, and I’ve been surprised to discover just how uncharted partnership publishing is. I suppose this is because hybrid publishing models like ours have often been housed inside traditional presses, with no public discussion about what the authors are paying for, or about when a partnership publishing deal has or hasn’t been struck. This presents a bit of a quandary for a company like She Writes Press, in that we made a conscious decision to be transparent about being author-subsidized. And while many respected industry leaders have acknowledged that our model is the way of the future (cutting edge, even!), those same individuals are stuck in a dichotomous understanding of the industry—traditional publishing versus self-publishing—in which the only qualification for what makes a press traditional, and an author traditionally published, is that the author doesn’t pay for any aspect of publication. On the plus side, and despite the inevitable struggles in nearly two years at the helm of a nontraditional model, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a few developments. For instance, I initially feared Ingram wouldn’t see what we were doing as qualifying for traditional distribution, but IPS understood our model’s nuances and was willing to take a risk because of our vetting process. From the get-go, our submissions process has been a primary focus. I came to She Writes Press after having spent eight years as executive editor at Seal Press, where I rejected too many good books to count—because they were too literary, or because the author didn’t have a strong enough platform, or because the subject matter was too niche. Countless authors whose work deserves to be published cannot or will not be supported by traditional houses for the reasons mentioned above and many others. This means that partnership models are emerging in response to an important need—not as a way to profit because more writers want to get published. I encounter a lot of aspiring authors (mostly through conversations on social media) who feel that traditional publishing is completely closed off to them. These are savvy, talented writers who want to avoid mistakes and horror stories they’ve heard from self-publishing authors who rushed to publish too soon, or who regretted putting themselves in the hands of full-service companies that function more like mills than presses. What these writers want (and, I would add, need) is an old-fashioned press experience with a team that values relationship, creativity, and collaboration. What we as a press want is to be able to publish work because of the merit of the writing. We are publishing writers who are being rejected by bigger houses because their writing isn’t commercial enough or because they don’t have 10,000 Facebook fans, or because the work is too similar to some book by a celebrity author published three seasons ago. As we see it, this is advocacy publishing.
Needed: A New Label
The challenges we and others face in the hybrid publishing space include coming up with a term for it that will stick. We need something different from self-publishing, because we are decidedly not offering our authors free rein to publish how and what they want. And we do not want simply to be lumped into independent publishing, since that term is often understood to embrace all small presses and self-published authors. And we need to overcome existing definitions and the way they lock certain models in or out. As generally understood, using Wikipedia’s words, self-publishing is “publishing without the involvement of an established third-party publisher,” and vanity publishing involves “a publishing house in which authors pay to have their books published.” And yet I know self-published authors who used established third parties to help them publish (as they well should), and I’ve read author-subsidized books so beautifully written and produced that they could not have come from vanity presses. As the democratization of publishing progresses, with all the growing pains such broad-scale change brings with it, many savvy authors are opting into alternative nontraditional publishing models for a bigger slice of the revenue pie, or because they feel that is the best way for them to get word out about their books. And presses like ours want and deserve a categorization that sets us apart from companies that function more like printers than publishing companies. CreateSpace and IngramSpark are amazing services, but they don’t vet for quality, which means their products are only as good as the team behind the books. Countless other full-assistance self-publishing companies are run by people who don’t seem to care about books; they offer cover design and editorial services, but they’re not doing what Guy Kawasaki, author of APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, calls “artisanal publishing,” which measures up to an artistic standard rooted in a deep and long tradition. These full-assistance companies undercut our efforts, since the outside world doesn’t see the difference between them and presses like ours whose principals are working to create alternative models, and who care about good work being published and honored. If partnership publishing is to fill current needs in the world of publishing, we need to start with an honest conversation about the fact that the sole determiner of a book’s merit or legitimacy is not whether the author has paid for any part or parts of the publication process. And reviewers need to be part of that conversation. There are a lot of us out here—publishers and authors alike—who don’t feel we should have to prove legitimacy, or pay for reviews, or be barred from applying for certain prizes or contests, when our books speak strongly for themselves. We don’t want to be ghettoized or made to feel we’re not good enough because we’re honest about economics. In short, it’s time to stop denigrating activity in the in-between space that we and others occupy, and time to stop punishing transparency about it. Sharing the risk makes good business sense for publishers and authors alike, and She Writes Press is proud to be among the growing population of partnership publishers.