Lego and dreams of becoming a Formula 1 driver, I’ve always immersed myself in the book and magazine publishing world. When I put the Lego away and hung up my fantasy helmet—all l wanted to do was write and see my books published. It took many years to achieve that, filled with a lot of pretentions, false starts, elation and disillusion.
I took a good hiatus from publishing after the 1990’s and returned to writing and publishing to find a very changed industry from the one I had once known. Around 2006, I realised I needed to start researching once again an industry I was going to have to grip firmly around the neck—stare into its eyes—so I might know something of what it had become. Maybe that’s the way attorney Mark Levine felt when he engaged with authors and looked at where publishing was ten years ago. It certainly made its mark on him and by 2006 the first edition of The Fine Print of Self-Publishing emerged. Around 2007, I came across one of Levine’s websites for his book, and as I was contemplating self-publishing, I downloaded the ebook version of The Fine Print (second edition) for…a dollar! It was probably the best dollar I ever spent having self-published five books up to that point.
Throw any lawyer a typical contract from an author solutions service—as well as a handsome fee—and they will happily go at it with red pen in hand and the kind of gusto you’ve never seen before. Their conclusion, when the red pen runs out of ink, will be along the lines of ‘are these guys taking the piss?’
Mark Levine’s The Fine Print of Self-Publishing has taken equal balance in exposing those self-publishing services that take the piss out of naive authors and gouge them out of money with inflated print mark-ups and pointless marketing services, as well as celebrating the companies that deliver what it says on the tin and are committed to offering authors a fair and transparent deal. It’s important when authors grasp a copy of this book in their hand that they are not buying a ‘how to self-publish’ book, or expansive reasons why they should or shouldn’t self-publish, but rather a book that guides them through the common trappings and pitfalls of selecting a self-publishing service once they have decided self-publishing is right for them. Levine does offer some guidance on whether the self-publishing route is right for an author, but it is not the book’s primary focus.
If I have a single gripe early on with The Fine Print of Self-Publishing—it comes in the introduction. By way of explaining the extraordinary explosion in the growth of self-publishing over the past few years, Levine indulges in the much quoted figures of R. R. Bowker from a report in 2010, and like many established industry analysts confuses ‘non traditional’ publishing with self-publishing.
“The biggest growth area in book publishing is in self-publishing (and short-run titles, which may or may not be self-published). The number of self-published titles has exploded since 2002, when there were only 32,639.(11) In 2008, for the first time, there were more self-published titles (285,232 POD and/or short run) than there were traditionally published ones.(12) In 2009, the number soared to 764,000.(13)”
For the purposes of this book review, I won’t explain here, but instead, direct those interested in how the figures really break down to this article I wrote, and what the more accurate amount of self-published titles was in 2009.
I’ve read other reviews of The Fine Print of Self Publishing over the past few years and many of them make the mistake of seeing the book as some definitive compendium of self-publishing services. It isn’t—and not by a long, long way. No book could live up to that. What Levine sets out to do is explain the basics of what self-publishing is; what to look for in a contract and how to spot a good one; and by way of twenty-three self-publishing service reviews, he demonstrate what is ‘outstanding’ through to those services that should be avoided and why. This is a mental toolkit for the serious and astute author—not a dummies guide to self-publishing. Levine lists what he considers the nine qualities of a good self-publishing company in chapter five of the book:
• A good reputation among writers
• Fair publishing fees
• Generous royalties without any fuzzy math
• Low printing costs and high production value
• Favorable contract terms
• Fair policy regarding the return of your book’s original production files
• Fairly priced add-on services, such as marketing and copyright registration
• A standard offering of an ISBN, EAN bar code, and LCCN (Library of Congress Control Number) as part of any basic publishing package
• Availability through at least one wholesaler, and listings on major online retailers
I seem to remember a lot more company reviews in previous editions of The Fine Print of Self-Publishing and Levine does disclose that he omitted Mill Street Press for this one because of his business connection with Click Industries, a company owned by Levine, which invested in Mill City Press. Levine also points out that Mill City Press uses a different model of publishing than many of the companies reviewed in the book. Indeed, most of the companies reviewed are predominantly users of POD (print on demand). Therein lies the crucial caveat. The better ‘self-publishing companies’, like Mill City Press, are moving their publishing models to digital short run, because they realise to properly market a book from the get-go, you have to have upfront physical stock to be taken seriously by wholesalers and retailers. For that reason, I’d like to have seen a broader spectrum of self-publishing services. There are also other companies that have ceased to exist or merged with other companies, but I couldn’t help feeling that there were companies Levine really needed to cover that reflect a changing area of publishing—companies like Vantage Press, transformed under the direction of David Lamb, and there was limited mention of ebooks and platforms like Smashwords which may become the initial first step for self-publishers in the near future.
Levine is at times brash but fair in all his analysis and reviews, and critically, he is not afraid to admit to calling it wrong at times. Tate Publishing (review coming soon) gets a serious elevation of status in this edition and Levine explains throughout the book that information for the reviews was gathered by contacting and engaging with the companies and even visiting their facilities when possible.
The Fine Print of Self-Publishing is an exceptional book that every author looking to self-publish needs to get hold of, and it is written by someone who is a qualified attorney, someone who has invested and got involved in the publishing industry, and knows the ins and outs of marketing. Levine takes just the right approach and attitude with the book – the voice is ‘show, not just tell’—it shines through on every single page. The attention to detail in some of the services reviewed is remarkable and thorough. He is not afraid to point and say ‘look at that crap’, ‘watch out for the puddle or dog shit’ or ‘take a good look at these guys – they’re outstanding’. If you are seriously considering self-publishing, then you won’t go far wrong by ensuring you have Mark Levine’s The Fine Print of Self-Publishing as a companion before you grab your hat and coat and set out on the self-publishing path.
[The Fine Print of Self-Publishing by Mark Levine is published this month]
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Mark Levine is the president of Hillcrest Media Group, Inc. Hillcrest provides book publishing, marketing, printing and distribution services for authors and independent presses. Sites owned by Hillcrest include.
Mark was one of the founders of Click Industries, Ltd. an online company that provides products and services for small business owners, writers, musicians, and other artists. The company was sold in 2009.
The Fine Print of Self-Publishing is in its 4th edition. In addition to The Fine Print, Mark has published scholarly works and two novels, Saturn Return.
Currently, Mark is working the relaunch of Fiction.com, a domain name Hillcrest purchased in 2010. To learn more about what’s going on with Mark, read his blog Publishing Revolution.