I previously wrote (and scratched) a rather wordy post about hybrid authors that weaved in and out explanations and clarifications and overall exasperations. Rather than put anyone through that, though, I've decided to take a more direct approach.
SELF-PUBLISHING is an investment in yourself. A self-published author is one who is the sole investor in the publishing of their work.
TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING is when someone else invests in you. A traditionally published author is one in whom the publisher is the sole investor in the publishing of their work. The investment may be upfront, in advance, or it may be later through marketing, publicity, editorial, and other brand building and distribution efforts.
HYBRID PUBLISHING is when you invest a little and someone else invests a little. A hybrid author is one who invests in their work while a publisher invests in it, as well. The partial investments may be upfront, in advance, or it may be through shared use of eventual profits.
Overly simplified to that level, it seems as though there are more hybrid publishers out there than we traditionally put under that label. Sometimes, though, it becomes a question of how we define the traditional publisher's role as an investor and whether we define time and effort into investment costs. Or perhaps, we qualify it as an unstated ratio (i.e. as long as the publisher is covering 95% of the marketing and publicity, one is not considered a hybrid author for contributing 5% of their own costs and efforts, as well).
Different contracts specify different royalty splits. Different publishers invest in different things. Different publishers also expect different levels of investment to be provided by their authors (being available for conferences, staying active on social media, maintaining a web presence, purchasing their own books for promotional engagements that the author would like to explore). Where an author draws the line between hybrid and traditional publishing, then, should be a discussion you have with your potential (or current) agent.
To that end, I've put together some questions you could use or draw inspiration from to formulate your own:
POTENTIAL DISCUSSION POINTS
What about a publishing company that doesn't invest any upfront costs, but also doesn't charge you anything to be published through them?
Is/are a cover and editorial services enough for your agent to feel like they still qualify as a traditional publisher?
Does it matter if they do print runs or POD?
What if the only investment they do comes from the profits you make through your own selling efforts?
Does a lack of book distribution efforts disqualify them as a traditional publisher, even if you aren't required to invest anything, and they were the ones who invested in your work, through cover design and editorial?
Would it make a difference if their budgeted investment was only a percentage of the book's earnings, with no risk beyond what has been earned?
What if the traditional publisher doesn't require you to invest anything in your publishing, but it's investment to those cover designers and editors is a portion of your royalties, meaning there is no monetary investment of the publisher beyond that sharing of (potential) profit?
Do the design and editorial services count as an investment by the publisher, even if the investment is not a monetary one paid in advance to the designer and editor?
As long as you're making a profit without any investment requirements, does the behind the scenes business model being used matter when deciding whether to term a publisher as traditional or hybrid?
How does your agent (or potential agent) view the separation between traditional publishing and hybrid publishing? Is whether a publisher has an editorial vetting process the only qualifier that matters?
There's a reason that some agents only do deals if their authors are offered an advance; but, there's also a reason that many agents assist authors even when there is no advance being offered. Some of the reasons can be unearthed by knowing where your agent falls regarding the questions above.
Publishers are there to help you realize your dream. They want you to be successful, but they also need to be successful. When you view them as businesses assessing risks and looking for ways to counterbalance the unknowns, there are many publishing business methods that may make you tilt your head and wonder, but aren't as unsound or wrong as they first appear. Likewise, sometimes it's better not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Or is it?
Understanding the business model that your potential publisher operates under (to the extent that you can confidently ascertain), and how you define a traditional investment (time, effort, money, all three) can help you assess the actual value you're being offered by a publisher, and that's a good discussion to have with your agent, as well, to make sure that you each have the same expectations in regards to your role as an author. How hands-on you expect your role as an author (and their role as an agent) to be in regards to pre- and post-publication should be a discussion that comes up before you've committed to it.