So You Want to Be a Publisher.


Whoever came up with the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” never saw hybrid publishing coming. In a world (and web) where indie publishers are as boundless as the sea in Colridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner[1], and where, like the poem, most perish, small publishers starting out today cannot afford to lean on publishing practices of the past where individuals focus on but one component of the industry; they must be competent in a variety of skill sets if they are to survive.

First, to define the term “indie” or “small” publisher. The scope from which these terms are currently used can be vast. “Independent publishing — that is, publishing whatever an individual or small group think is worthy of dumping their time and money into — is nothing new…”[2] New? No, but today definitely more abundantly diverse than in the past; from rudimentary, single-novel, self-publishing authors to multi-million dollar enterprises that fall short of “the big five” traditional publishing houses. While those at either end of the scale may find this discussion useful, this paper aims particularly at publishers starting out or looking to adapt to today’s changing technologies and who plan to offer enough of a catalogue to make these suggestions beneficial to their process.

And then to define hybrid publishing and its processes as this will be the direction of this paper. This form of publishing differs from both traditional publishing and from what we’ve mainly seen from fixed-layout e-publishing to date in its workflows and outputs “in which both print and electronic editions of the same basic content can be published in a parallel or complementary fashion.”[3] It is more than providing PDFs of the print version for electronic distribution, it is about producing files that will reflow on any platform, for any device; the majority of the process moving through a single workflow.

Returning to skill sets, understanding and implementing new tools as they emerge will be a vital component of remaining relevant to the publishing conversation. Small publishers need to understand that “you have access to tools, distribution and best practices knowledge to publish ebooks faster, smarter and less expensively than large publishers.”[4] From analytics to design, from workflow tools to distribution, these tools can be found for every aspect of their business.

To counter, publisher Spencer Madsenon argues, “Just because you know how layers work doesn’t mean you’re a graphic designer. Just because you’ve got a DSLR doesn’t mean you’re a photographer. Wherever you have the opportunity to work with a professional, take it. Helvetica isn’t the only font out there and there are people who make fonts for a living. Make sure the cover art you go with looks good online, since that’s where you’re selling it.”[5] That’s all fine and dandy, and of course as a publisher you are trying to produce the type of work you are happy with and that you feel will sell, and it’s great if financial resources allow this type of outsourcing, but “small publishers are under a great deal of pressure to keep project costs low, often due to smaller budgets.”[6]

Now there are aspects of Madsenon’s argument that hold true for even smaller-budget presses. This is where self-evaluation comes in. Let’s use Madsenon’s photography example. Does an individual’s high-school photography class, and their DSLR, give them enough of a base knowledge with which to work and provide quality photography for their needs? Or are they better served spending two hours online searching for and buying a photo from a stock image provider like Shutterstock at five photos for $50? Or how about analytics? Does one learn the Google ropes through tens of hours of tutorials or pay a service such as Chartbeats at $9.95/month to oversee their site(s)? The point here is that nobody knows everything and that sometimes it makes more economical sense to outsource, but the less a small publisher has to to this, the more operating capital stays in the company coffers.

Production workflow is one area that can get costly, and thus should be a skill area indie publishers learn moving forward. Hybrid publishing complicates this is even further because “going electronic or hybrid, requires changes in the way you work during the publishing process, from delivered manuscripts to final publication. The software tools such as Microsoft Word, and Adobe InDesign, were created for the world of analog print and desktop publishing. Although it is possible to create electronic publications from these formats, in most cases this will be a painful, slow, inefficient and expensive process. Small publishers need to take a DIY approach using technical alternatives.”[7] These technical alternatives include Open Source document conversion tools like Pandoc and Calibre, the basic markup language, Markdown (soon to be CommonMark), and EPUB, the publication format that specifies and documents the things reflowable publications need to include: content documents, style sheets, images, media, scripts, fonts, and more.

Now while it doesn’t work for every type of end product (for example, interactive children’s books and the like), “the easiest and least expensive method of hybrid publishing is to convert the source text to Markdown, manually edit the Markdown into a well-structured document, use Pandoc to convert Markdown to EPUB, and import EPUB into Calibre for final adjustments and conversion into other ebook formats (including Amazon Kindle)”[8]. Becoming familiar with a small number of tools can do much of the heavy lifting of hybrid publishing. Does it sound easy to us non-coders? No. Does it sound fun? Probably not for most. But to push through where others remain stagnant, to look at discoverability with the eye of an opportunist rather than as a challenge, to not meet the same fate as many a traditional publisher, gaining the skill sets of hybrid publishing is what’s needed to stay relevant.

“Hybrid publishing will sooner or later confront them [traditional publishers and PDF-only e-publishers] with the need to re-think traditional publication formats, editorial and production workflows, and distribution. The changes required may well be greater and more extensive than initially expected.”[9] But it is not only these skills that should be kept in-house whenever possible, small publishers must expand beyond production workflow skills to marketing, basic website design and maintenance, and all other aspects of the business they can get their hands dirty in. When to and not to outsource is a question nearly as old as business itself. In an industry with historically low profit margins, much of the choice is often reduced to necessity. But the ability to learn things we want to know has never been closer at hand.

Small publishers need to be the ones pushing, the ones making waves. “What small presses should consider is creating a workflow that is both structured and flexible enough to cater to the variety of demands of publishing within a hybrid publishing strategy. A strategy based on publishing across different media while keeping the main part of the work in-house rather than outsourcing it.”[10]

It may be a difficult road to familiarize oneself with multiple tools never before used, and include elements like metadata as it “is significantly more important in the context of hybrid publishing than it is in traditional publishing. Carefully applied metadata will ensure that the publication can be found online in databases and bookstores such as Amazon.”[11] But that’s what it’s going to take if you want keep ahead of the competition.

Unfortunately there is no ‘magic wand’ that will turn a print book design into an electronic publication at the touch of a button. [12]

Yeah. No one said it would be easy.





 [1]  Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, (New York: Dover, 1970)

[2]  Diamond, Jason. 25 Independent Presses That Prove This Is the Golden Age of Indie Publishing, Oct 1, 2013, web.

[3]  Institute of Network Cultures. web.

[4]  Coker, Matt (Founder, Smashwords), Ebook Publishing Gets More Difficult From Here: How Indie Authors Can Survive and Thrive, 11/21/2014, Huffington Post: Books, web.

[5]  Madsenon, Spencer. I Made the Mistake of Starting a Small Press and So Can You, Mar 12, 2014, The Toast, web.

[6]  Institute of Network Cultures. web. 8

[7]  Ibid., 9

[8]  Ibid., 85

[9]  Ibid., 7

[10] Ibid., 89

[11] Ibid., 103

[12] Ibid., 7