Amanda Luedeke

April 3, 2014

Thursdays With Amanda: Lessons from a Bygone Hybrid Author (guest post by Erin Buterbaugh)


First, let the record show that I thought Amanda’s Underworld/hybrid author analogy last week should win some sort of prize for awesomeness; if you missed it, you should take a moment to scroll down the page five posts or so and catch up on the definition of a hybrid author and his similarity to a vampire/lycan crossbreed. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Alright, now that everyone’s on the same page— today, I want to look at someone I would argue could be described as the original hybrid author, Charles Dickens, and the lessons hybrid authors of today can take away from his experiences.

Charles Dickens, like many authors (as well as most of the MacGregor Literary agents) began his writing career as a freelance journalist, contributing articles, sketches, and stories to various London newspapers and magazines. When he started writing novels, Dickens of course followed the prescribed formula for success as a novelist and severed all his ties to periodicals, instead devoting his time to finishing his manuscript, polishing his query letter, and securing an agent.

Wait. No, he didn’t.

As you probably already knew, the majority of Charles Dickens’ work was actually first published in serial form in newspapers and literary magazines. What is less commonly known is that Dickens himself was the editor and part-or-full-owner of most of the periodicals that his work appeared in—the man virtually self-published the majority of his novels. Dickens used his position as editor of the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany to serially publish his second novel, Oliver Twist, and when he had a falling-out with the magazine’s owner, Dickens left his position as editor and started another magazine, called Master Humphrey’s Clock, written and edited entirely by himself. When Dickens, for a number of reasons which I refuse to do the correct amount of research to be able to annotate and recount with strict academic accuracy, got tired of Master Humphrey’s Clock, he moved on to start Household Words, a magazine he both edited and half-owned. When Dickens decided even a 50% share in the publication didn’t give him enough freedom as an author and editor, (stay with me, I promise there’s a point to this fascinating history of British literary magazines), he started yet ANOTHER magazine, All the Year Round, which he would own and edit until his death.

The moral of this long story is that Charles Dickens didn’t wait for a traditional publisher to agree to publish his novels in their entirety. In most cases, he didn’t even wait until he’d completed a novel to begin publishing it (as evidenced by several of his more meandering works, in which it’s abundantly clear to discerning readers that the man simply drew heartrending plot developments out of a hat at random to determine the course of a character’s story while he figured out how he wanted to end it).  Now, if his story ended with the serial publication of his work, we couldn’t classify Dickens as a hybrid author—he would be the 1800’s equivalent of a highly successful blogger, whose material existed in hundreds of bite-sized chunks which dedicated fans could collect but which were unwieldy and generally didn’t enjoy a life beyond the initial readership of the magazine. But because his works were published in book form by traditional publishers of the day after their serialization, they went on to enjoy much greater circulation, many more sales, and unmatched longevity (“so let this be said of us, and all of us,” to quote Mr. Dickens). So, let’s look at Dickens’ career arc and pick out some of the key components to his success as a hybrid author.

A successful hybrid author uses traditional publishing to find his readers (or to prompt his readers to find him).

Charles Dickens won over his initial fan base with his traditionally published work—writing for established magazines and papers with an existing readership and a means of distribution allowed his work to reach a much greater readership than if he’d begun with a self-owned-and-edited paper. He didn’t have to figure out how to sell his stories to thousands of people, he only had to sell to one person (an editor) and then the machine of the magazine took over, distributing his words to thousands of people already identified by the publisher as being interested in reading stories. In the same way, modern publishers have systems of getting your book in front of the people who will be the most interested in it that you and I would have a hard time replicating, no matter how many blog tours we do or Goodreads ads we buy.

Once that initial group has seen (and liked) your work, however, they will start looking for you– in Dickens’ day, that group sought him out by writing letters to the publications requesting more from the author, and by buying the papers he appeared in hoping to find more of his stories. In the Internet age, readers seek you out simply by Googling you and looking to see what other material you have for sale, and that’s where having some self-published titles available can both bring in some extra money and ensnare (er, I mean, “attract”) more readers, people who might forget about you if they had to wait two more years for your next traditionally-published book to appear but who enjoyed your last book and are ready to spend a few bucks on an e-book in order to read more of your material right NOW (readers resemble 5-year-olds in a lot of ways).

In this way, as Amanda pointed out, the advantage of having both traditionally published works and self-published works is cyclical—a traditionally published book can usually find a bigger initial audience than a self-published book, and then self-published titles can help retain those readers and attract new ones, which in turn gives you better numbers to barter with in your next traditional publishing contract, which in turn can lead to better offers and more marketing, which means even more new readers Googling you and finding your self-pubbed books next time— you get the picture.

A successful hybrid author, in Amanda’s words, “produces quality work quickly.”

Though there were undoubtedly some small edits needed when Dickens’ novels were re-published in book form, he essentially wrote a chapter a week of what would come to be widely accepted as great literature for the bulk of his writing career. No matter what magazine he was writing for, whether his last book had sold well or not, Dickens produced thousands of pages of content and then published them wherever he currently had good connections/opportunity. Modern hybrid authors have to escape the mindset of writing simply to get a contract, and instead focus on writing content their readers will enjoy, so that, whether a book is ultimately published in pieces on a blog, as a self-pubbed e-book, or by a traditional publisher, it will continue to strengthen an author’s brand and attract readers, setting up future publishing exploits of all kinds to be that much more successful.

A successful hybrid author knows his rights and fights for them (and doesn’t overstep them).

As Amanda puts it, self-publishing can be a “wild west in which the rules are meant to be broken and anything goes so long as no one ends up getting sued.” Dickens was involved in several legal battles during his career, most of which were of his own initiation and in defense of his own rights. He knew exactly how much control he had over each publication he wrote for or edited, and adjusted his expectations accordingly, but neither was he afraid to cut his losses and start over when he wasn’t happy with a publishing arrangement. (Clearly. The man could have made a living teaching workshops on “how to start and in some cases immediately abandon your own magazine.”) When a disreputable magazine plagiarized nearly all of A Christmas Carol only a month after its publication, Dickens sued the magazine into bankruptcy at great personal expense.

Modern hybrid authors need to be their own greatest advocate for their rights, both so they can protect their intellectual property, and so they don’t find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit. This requires a certain amount of forethought in terms of anticipating what kinds of projects you might want to self-publish in the future and making allowances for this in contracts with traditional publishers. If you plan to use certain characters or settings in novellas, or self-publish “in-betweenquels” in a series, or want to write some short-stories featuring certain characters or settings for your blog, you’ll need to make allowances for these scenarios in your contract. As Amanda said, this is where having an agent as a hybrid author can be invaluable; your agent can help you plan a self-publishing schedule and system that supports, rather than detracts from, your traditionally published work, and will make sure you retain the legal rights necessary.

There are probably several more lessons to be gleaned from Charles Dickens’ writing career, and several more “hybrid authors of the past” it would be interesting to look at, but if I write any more, you’ll die of old age reading this and then Amanda won’t have any readers when she comes back next week. If you have any insight to share on the topic of hybrid authors, Charles Dickens, or vampire/lycan crossbreeds, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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1 Comment

  • Robin Patchen says:

    Fascinating. Like you say, I had known he published many of his works in magazines as serials in publication, and I hadn’t known he owned–at least in part–those magazines. What an interesting take on Charles Dickens and the hybrid author conversation. So hybrid authors are Dickensian lycan-vampires. Yeah, y’all are really selling it. 🙂

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