Monday, March 3, 2014

Is the Hybrid Author the New Black?

By Merrie Destefano

Publishing is a wonderful industry. Nothing can give you the same adrenaline rush as when you see your name in print or when you stumble across your book in a nearby Barnes and Noble. Unfortunately, publishing is also terrifying and fickle. It can make you feel validated (think bylines) and overwhelmed (think deadlines). There may even be times when you wonder why you chose writing as a career (think unanswered e-mails sent to agents/editors, bad reviews and poor sales).

Believe it or not, you can experience all of these things within a single day—sometimes, even within a single hour. And then, right about when you’re ready to give it up and get a job with a steady monthly income, someone will come along and tell you that your story/book/article made them weep or laugh or think about life in a new and amazing way.

As a published novelist, my first experience with the roller coaster ride of book publishing came when Borders closed in 2011. Several of my author friends and I had books releasing at the same time, and most of us worried whether we'd be able to earn back our advances. You can imagine our distress when the chain of Borders bookstores began to close, almost one by one across the country and, as a result, our newly released books came tumbling back as returns. It was frightening.

One minute, I was a starry-eyed novelist, excited about the release of my second novel (Feast, with HarperVoyager). The next, I was consumed by bookstore returns and plummeting sales figures and the fear that my contract wouldn’t be renewed.

A cycle began then, one that would last for years and still continues today. My author friends and I began to write more books, we began to write faster, we began to write in different genres, we began to write spin-off novellas and prequels and sequels, we began to write for print and digital imprints and anyone who seemed interested in our work.

You could almost see the sign on our collective back that said, We Will Write For Food.

Then, probably not surprisingly, one by one we began to self-publish. Not all of us and not all at once. Just a book or a novella at a time, as if we were all looking over our shoulders at The Publishing Powers That Be to see if we had angered some great and mighty god. (We hadn’t.)

We didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of a new trend, or perhaps a new era. It was the birth of the hybrid author.

Today, almost everyone I know is a hybrid author. We all have our own little stack of traditionally published books, and we seek to publish more of those, but we also have our own shiny little stack of self-published books.

Some of us have done better than others with this new business model. One author I know now makes approximately $10,000 to $12,000 per month on her self-published books alone. Another very well-known fantasy author, who spoke on the same panel I did a few years ago, confided that she had procured the rights to her backlist and then self-published them. She is now earning about $10,000 per month on those books.

The reasons for becoming a hybrid author are varied and I probably couldn't even list them all, but I'll try.


1. You have a traditionally published series, but for some reason the last book in the series, or the last two books in the series—which you may have already written–don’t get picked up by your publisher.

2. It's been a long time between contracts and you're concerned that your readers might forget about you. Meanwhile, you've written one or two books that your readers might enjoy.

3. You're between agents, you have one or two really good books languishing on your computer hard drive, and you'd like to see if you can make some money off them.

4. You write romance, but you have also written a really cool science fiction YA novel. Except no one seems to want to publish it, even under a pen name.

5. You have a great career as a novelist, you speak at events, you win awards, but somehow you still can't pay the bills with the amount you earn from traditional publishing. So you decide to augment your salary with a line of self-published books and novellas.

6. You want more creative freedom. You want to edit your books as much or as little as you want, publishing as often as desired (some traditionally published authors have to wait 3 years for their books to be published, while others are expected to turn in a new book every 6 months). You want to choose your own covers and tailor your own book tours and promotional strategies.

A few successful hybrid authors who began in self-publishing and then ventured into the traditional arena include Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking and Joanna Penn, while two authors who successfully began in traditional publishing and then ventured into self-publishing include James Scott Bell and Natalie Whipple.

The door swings both ways.

I decided to self publish my young adult paranormal romance, Fathom, when I was between contracts and between agents. The manuscript had garnered a few admirers along the way, and at least one editor had liked it enough to take it to pub board, but it was a book about Celtic legends and selkies, not mermaids. So, in the end, the marketing team didn’t get behind it and the editor had to pass.

Still, I loved that book. It had a gothic, almost haunting quality to it, and I wanted other people to read it. I couldn’t bear to let it gather cobwebs on my hard drive while I continued my agent search.

So, I created my own imprint, Ruby Slippers Press, then I formatted my book for both digital and print, and designed my cover (I studied fine art in college and worked for years as a graphic designer and illustrator before becoming the editor and publisher at The Word For Today). Then I put my book up for sale on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Did I get rich, like my successful hybrid author friends? No. But I did feel validated and the book has gotten good reviews.

If I learned anything, it’s that the publishing door is only closed if I think it’s closed.

I still haven’t given up on my dreams of being traditionally published again. But I do believe one thing. The hybrid author is here to stay, it’s a way of life and it’s a good way of life.

In my opinion, the hybrid author is the new black.

But I want to hear from you. What do you think about self-publishing and traditional publishing? Do you think they can work hand-in-hand?

Award-winning writer, graphic designer and illustrator, Merrie Destefano’s published work includes Afterlife and Feast (both with HarperVoyager), Fathom, The Plague Carrier and Waiting For Midnight (with Ruby Slippers Press), and How To Draw Zombies (Walter Foster). She’s also the editor of Victorian Homes magazine and founding editor of Cottages and Bungalows magazine. She is the founder and owner of Ruby Slippers Media and Ruby Slippers Press, and her website is here.


  1. I just love that cover. And I suspect you will do mighty fine being an indie... :)

    1. Thank you, Mir! I appreciate the kind words! <3

  2. Ditto on the cover. Very nice!

    "Will write for food." Heh heh.

    I just came off a free promo weekend. I was thinking about all those free downloads this morning, and I realized...there's my marketing budget. I have no marketing budget. However, traditional houses that do have marketing budgets are essentially doing a lot of work for free (or worse actually). They are marketing for food. When I realized that, I felt my outlook transform a bit (in a good way.) :)

    1. That's such a good point, Jessica! I know HarperCollins did a lot to promote my books, more than I ever could have done on my own. And the free giveaways authors do on Amazon definitely qualify as part of your own marketing budget. Too bad they're not tax deductible! Your book, THIS QUIET TYRANNY, looks amazing, BTW. I downloaded it this weekend too and look forward to reading it!

  3. Hybrid is a great option - authors under contract or going into contracts with publishers have to be careful of the competitive works clause unless they use a pen name to self-publish. That's a tricky one!

    That cover is beautiful!!!

  4. So true, Jamie! Contracts can be very tricky. I couldn't self-pub a full-length novel when I was under contract, but I could do a novella.

    Thanks for the cover compliment! <3 Rachel helped me with it. (She's so talented!)