Mill City Press is an author solutions provider based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Originally founded in 2005, Mill City Press began with an investment from Click Industries, then owned by former lawyer in intellectual property, Mark Levine. Levine, an author of two novels (I will Faithfully Execute and Saturn Return) and a highly successful book on negotiating the minefield of self-publishing companies (The Fine Print of Self-Publishing) quickly dipped his feet fully into the author solutions business, and by 2009 he was CEO of Hillcrest Media Group, the majority shareholder of Mill City Press. Hillcrest Media run a number of traditional and author funded imprints, as well as an ebook publisher, PublishGreen and a distributor for small presses. In fact Levine’s entrepreneurial skills has helped to build an impressive array of vertically integrated businesses in the book publishing world.
“In 2005, we knew we could build a better mousetrap. Then, by October 2006, we did it. That fall we had two full-time employees and maybe five authors. Today, we have 27 full-time and 10 part-time employees. Our author list is more than 1,500 titles (in our Mill City Press division). In 2009, Hillcrest Media Group became the majority shareholder of Mill City Press. Hillcrest provided a powerful backend for Mill City Press and the technical expertise to grow and provide authors more and better services. For example, Hillcrest’s patent-pending eBook conversion and publishing system (PublishGreen.com) has been integrated into Mill City. Being part of the Hillcrest family of publishing companies allows Mill City Press to offer much more than a single-focused self-publishing company ever could.”
“We didn’t need venture capital groups, a bunch of MBAs, or the unlimited budget of a massive corporation in order to figure how to do it right. It was simple, really.”
Levine might reflect on the ease of doing things right and simply, but it’s something which has eluded many corporations and authors who threaded their way along the self-publishing path as far back as Peter Finch
‘s How To Publish Yourself
in the 1990’s, and long before then. I last reviewed Mill City Press in 2010 and this author solutions provider has developed quite a bit over the past two years while continuing to adhere to the core principles of transparency in services and providing quality books for authors at print cost with no profit mark-up and 100% royalties (a little about this later).
“It’s hard to believe that only five or so years ago, not one self-publishing company offered true 100% net royalties. Today, it’s more common. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Again, our philosophy was simple — the author is taking all of the up-front financial risk, so why shouldn’t he or she get all of the rewards? A true 100% net royalty means that after third-party sales and distribution fees (e.g., Amazon’s fee, a wholesaler’s fee, printing fees , etc.), all the rest of the money made on the sale of a book goes to the author. Many companies copied our “100% royalties” but left out one important fact — when they told their authors to calculate their “100% royalties”, these companies failed to mention that they were actually marking up the print cost by 75-150%. So, yes, authors were getting a 100% net royalty, but only after the publisher had double-dipped.”
Where MCP has really managed to get the balance right as an author solutions provider is not just offering self-publishing packages, but specifically delivering publishing programs that suit both book and author. MCP’s aim is to provide a complete publishing experience from file submission through to fulfillment and distribution, or simply services like editing, marketing or printing – whatever the needs of the author. When Levine researched companies offering author solutions services and wrote The Fine Print of Self-Publishing – he effectively wrote the blueprint of how author solutions providers should work with authors to deliver books of quality and not just publishing wishes. For Levine, an author should have the guidance, tools, expertise and opportunity to write, edit and publish the best book possible for their readers and the publishing trade, whether the book is traditionally published or an author pays for publication services. That’s a lot to live up to when you point cross-hairs at your competitors before you’ve set up your own solutions provider. In my original review of Mill City Press, while I was impressed, I still had some irks and niggles with their services and approach (particularly with book editing) and the way some fees were structured within packages.
Let us take a look at what MCP offer authors looking for all inclusive self-publishing packages
first. I’ve listed the four packages below:
Essentially, all four packages include all of the following:
Custom interior and exterior formatting
ISBN, LCCN and retail barcode
100% Royalties (from net receipts after printer, distributor and retail discounts)
Full online retail listing (25,000 retail locations)
Inclusion in Bowker’s Books in Print
Complimentary copies 5-20 (dependent on package)
Amazon Search Inside submission
Google Books Submission
Online author sales reporting
(You can log into our Author Center at your convenience to get updates on where your book is in the publishing process. You can even get real-time sales figures from your book’s sales page through MyBookOrders.com. Also, on a monthly basis, we’ll provide easy-to-read sales reports showing all retail and wholesale orders of your book.)
These are pretty much the core basics on offer from many good author solutions providers – the poor ones probably won’t include LCCN
, anything near that kind of royalty, and many still don’t include the Amazon Search Inside program or detailed author sales reporting. I’d still prefer if MCP didn’t refer to author copies as complimentary – it still infers something for nothing when it is clearly factored into the price of the package. Although, it’s at least better than referring to the author copies as ‘free’. That’s the Basic package ($1697) from MCP, and while the price looks high, it is worth considering that the cover and interior are custom designed rather than a boiler pot template. I should also point out that MCP will provide a discount on the package price of $150 or more if the author is supplying completed files (subject to spec). The author can also provide an ISBN and imprint name with no MCP logo appearing on the finished book if that is the brief delivered by the author on submission.
Let’s see what an extra $800 gets you in the Advanced package.
Customized website and 1 year hosting (Bronze – Gold, can be added to any package)
Search engine submission
Back cover sales copy written for the author (at $199 individual service – that’s about a dollar a word, ED)
Yearly book ordering fee
(Instead of marking up printing for everyone, we charge an annual fee of $99 to cover our administrative costs in handling and processing print runs of your book. If you order four print runs of your book in a year, the fee covers it. If you order ten print runs, the same fee covers it. If you don’t have the yearly book ordering fee either included in the package you order or purchased as an upgrade, we charge $23 per print run placed by you.)
(Our book returns program is for authors who wish to distribute their book through traditional retailers. Since 99% of brick-and-mortar stores will only consider a book if it is marked as “returnable”, this is important for authors who wish to have physical retail book placement.)
On balance, I think an author is getting some financial benefit from the upgrade to the Advanced package. My figures put the above additional services around the $1000-1100 mark. I would stress that there is no point in adding the Returns Program if an author is not serious about the potential of physical print sales in bookstores, and that means also pairing this with a high-end distribution service combined with a short digital print run or offset print run. I’ve always argued that Returns Programs with POD (print on demand) are counterproductive. The whole reason for POD is not to have physical stocks until a ‘firm order’ at the point of sale is received. Many bookstores still don’t stock POD books. I’d also call authors’ attention to MCP’s yearly book ordering fee of $99. This is only worth paying for if you intend keeping physical books on hand or within a supply chain throughout the year and it also addresses MCP’s reasoning not to apply print mark-ups. It is worth considering – as an aside – how many authors don’t purchase the $99 yearly fee and incur the $23 charge multiple times throughout the year. MCP maybe on to something here that other author solutions providers should take note of!
The Premium package from MCP offers two more services for an additional fee of $2000 obove the Advanced package. We are up to $3997, and this will provide:
Expanded Distribution Program
“Unlike print-on-demand distribution, Expanded Distribution involves our distributor sending copies of your book and its marketing materials to the buyers at Barnes & Noble, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor. Plus, books are sold to and stocked directly with Amazon.com and BN.com.
The biggest advantage to Expanded Distribution is that your book gets an audience with a book buyer that it simply wouldn’t get with POD distribution or if you arranged your own distribution.
You don’t need to order hundreds of books to participate in our Expanded Distribution program, as you can print as few as 75 copies.”
Website Order Fulfillment Program
“For authors who want to sell their books on their website and don’t want to deal with the potential time, space, and complications associated with fulfilling website orders themselves, we offer this convenient, affordable alternative.
What you Get:
*A custom-designed book fulfillment page on your website where customers can place orders.
*Custom designed back-end administrative console so you can log in and check your sales, inventory, and more.
*Ability to create thousands of discount codes for groups and individuals buying your book
*Monthly reports showing your sales, costs, and profits
*Books shipped to your customers within 24-36 hours (2-3 business days)
*Emails to your customers providing order confirmation, tracking information, and a link to log in and check the status of their orders
*One year of free warehouse storage for up to ½ pallet of books”
The distributor MCP refers to above is not BSP Book Group, owned by Hillcrest Media’s, but an independent third-party operation. The distributor option in the program provides a way to directly sell an author’s book to buyers in the retail trade. It’s the way books have been traditionally sold for decades and many very large publishing houses also operate their distribution wing ‘in-house’ with dedicated sales representatives. Again, as I’ve said elsewhere, and here on The Independent Publishing Magazine, publishers have more recently seemed happier to outsource every possible step of the publishing process if it makes economic sense, even when it cedes more and more control away to third-parties. And, yet, large publishers still seem aghast at why their place in the future of publishing is under threat! What Hillcrest Media do is what small presses and independent publishers have had to do, and continue to do well with niche distributors over the past twenty years. MCP price this service individually at $1299. It seems excessive for a one-book, one-author set-up, and, personally, I think it should only be considered by a well-seasoned self-publisher or an author who has built up a considerable reader-base, or, perhaps, a small niche press or authors’ co-operative for a collection or anthology.
“Every company offers print-on-demand distribution through online retailers. At Mill City, we go a step further and, for those authors who want and need that extra push, offer expanded distribution options that include pitching the author’s book to wholesalers, retailers, and libraries. Most companies don’t offer this because it’s not easy. But, through Hillcrest, we are able to connect to dozens of wholesalers and retailers, and also provide our own website fulfillment service.”
MCP say it a number of times on the website and in the company brochure – we don’t try to sell you things you don’t want or don’t need. Both additional services in the Premium package are worthy of serious consideration and investment. An author does still need to evaluate whether their sales will come from books directly sold or through the trade. The Website Order Fulfillment service on its own comes in at $499. If an author can drive reader traffic to their website, then it is worth it. Actually, the website fulfillment is really a kind of first step towards the full expanded distribution and might best be considered before adding the Expanded Distribution at a later date if demand warrants it.
Levine himself places the cost and need for services in the context of the author investing in getting the basic things right for for their book.
But, I get that a great book, just may not have the budget to do everything, so if there is a book that is of that quality, but can’t quite afford everything, we still make any of those top tier services available to them (maybe they can just afford one). I’m always conscious of what an author pays for services. And, that is why we try to make something in this more robust distribution available for authors of varying budgets. But, honestly, if you don’t have your book professionally edited, you are wasting your money on all of this anyway and should buy the cheapest publishing package available and not spend any money on expanded distribution or aggressive advertising.
If someone only has $3,000 to publish a book, I would never advise them to get expanded distribution, as their budget is too tight. An author can purchase expanded distribution, waive the assessment, get their own ISBN, publish as their own publishing company and they could avail themselves to that level of distribution, but we aren’t connected. Additionally, they couldn’t purchase any marketing services other than basic ones anyone can do. There are cases where our distributor might reject a title in a case like this and in that case, the author can’t do it and we have to refund that expanded distribution money.
Mark Levine, CEO, Hillcrest Media
For the additional cost of $1500 for these two services – on balance – it is value for money, but only if an author can convert the investment in the facilities to outright sales. Sure, you could set up your own buy links on an author website, but you have to deal with the administration and dispatch of the book to customers. Is that something you can afford the time to do if you are convinced your book will sell?
The final package is the Professional package at a whopping $5997, that’s another $2000 on top of the Premium and includes ebook creation in all formats, distribution and a basic edit up to 75,000 words. Looking at MCP’s charges for in-house editing, a book of that length will cost $1500 for a very basic edit, and that is just too high for me. A freelance editor would do a basic edit cheaper and the ebook creation (in spite of MCP’s patented and enhanced program) is also above the competition costs and what most authors would be willing to pay for an individual ebook service. You really need to weigh up value for service here against your actual needs.
Before moving on, I should also point out that MCP has in its contract something called ‘Fees and Renewal Fees’ under both the POD Distribution and Expanded Distribution programs – costing per year, per edition of book $79 and $349 respectively following the first year of distribution. While the Expanded Distribution is providing access to potential bookstore space, the $79 is more than you will find with providers like Lulu and CreateSpace to keep a POD book listed with the printers.
Royalties and Discounts
Royalties are paid to the author based on the retail price set by the author, and less print cost + a $1.50 pick and pack handling fee, a 4.5% credit card fee, and less retail discounts offered to wholesalers or the retailer. Discounts to retailers will of course vary from as little as 20% up to 55%. MCP do require an author to have at least 25 copies of their books available to ship from the fulfillment center to customers.
“We advise our authors to plan a retail price based on the highest trade discount payable. When calculating your printing costs and trade discount, plan on giving 55 percent of the retail price to online retailers like Amazon.com. That is near the top of what you’d have to pay. In some cases you may pay less, but budgeting for the highest trade discount possible is simply more realistic.”
“There are some theories that Amazon’s algorithm, ranking, etc. is based in part on how large a discount Amazon receives for the book. For example, when you visit a book’s page on Amazon and see that the book is being offered for 30 percent off, that 30 percent is coming out of Amazon’s share of the sale revenue. If Amazon gets the full 55 percent trade discount, they can do that. If they are getting a 20 percent trade discount, you know they won’t be passing on any part of that sum as a discount / incentive to prospective buyers of your book.”
Using the Expanded Distribution package with MCP will mean authors also need to have stocks placed with the distributor and will incur an additional 18% discount from the net wholesale price of the book. Further details on royalties are available here from MCP and you can find ebook royalty information here.
MCP supply books directly to all authors at wholesale cost price + the cost of shipping and this is something many author solutions providers do not do, particularly those offering books printed using POD. However, MCP also offer authors digital short run and offset printing, as well as POD. Below is a piece from the MCP website every self-published author should make themselves familiar with when it comes to choosing a solutions provider or just a book printer.
“Digital Book Printing involves the use of toner and not ink. This is similar to how a copy machine makes a copy, except with much better technology and a higher quality result. Advances in digital printing technology have greatly narrowed the gap in quality as compared to offset printing. Improvements in technology have enabled the price per book for a short run to decrease as well. Digital printing can be done by the sheet just like a copier, or with a web roll where signatures are used—just like the offset book printing process.
Even with all the new technology, the number one concern with digital book printing is ensuring a quality product. There are a lot of printers that say they print books and can do it for unbelievably low prices. Many of these printers simply do the printing and then outsource the binding of the book. By doing that, they are introducing a lot of quality control issues that can make your final product look like it’s not been professionally produced.
There are very few digital printers that only specialize in the production of books. If you get a quote that looks too good to be true, it probably is. Finding the best price, while an important factor, is not the only factor. Making sure you are working with a quality printer that specializes in book production is equally important.”
MCP offer a host of marketing and promotional services far beyond posters, bookmarks and postcards that many other solutions providers classify as marketing and promotion. Other services include press releases, online media exposure, blog tours, publicists, as well as some of the services already mentioned above as part of the publishing packages. I should also note that while MCP will design a customised Twitter, Facebook and author website, the author will still need to provide content for the website and social network pages. I’m still unconvinced about the true value of paying to have these services/pages set up, and even if you are an author who thinks there is value in having someone else do the initial design and set-up, sooner or later you will have to come to terms with the fact that in self-publishing understanding and using social media is an essential tool to have in your kit. Further detail on MCP’s marketing services and affiliates can be found here.
I stated at the start of this review that MCP is just one division of Hillcrest Media, and specifically aimed at self-published authors looking for all inclusive packages, but it is worth examining MCP and the position it has within the Hillcrest Media group. Hillcrest currently operate several different imprints listed below, one of which is Bascom, a hybrid publishing imprint, comprising of books by authors under traditional contracts and also authors who have paid some of the fees towards publication and marketing. The intention of Hillcrest is also to roll out the hybrid publishing model to their fiction imprint (North Loop Books) and health and lifestyle imprint (Crocus Hill Books), with more genre specific imprints also in development.
Hillcrest Media is unique in that we publish our own titles and selected author-funded titles together in the same imprint. A good book, is a good book. Period. We have two general imprints (Bascom Publishing Group and Langdon Street Press). We also have four other imprints that specialize in trade novels (North Loop Books), business titles (Bascom Business), children’s books (Jabberwocky), and health/wellness/lifestyle (Crocus Hill Books).
We also have four business divisions that provide self-publishing services (Mill City Press), ebook publishing and distribution (PublishGreen), book printing and distribution for small publishers (BPR Book Group), book fulfillment, warehousing, and website sales (My Book Orders).
As part of Hillcrest Media’s integrated publishing programs, books submitted by authors purchasing the Expanded Distribution service as part of the Premium and Professional packages offered by MCP (or self-published authors purchasing the Expanded Distribution service individually) are automatically read and assessed for inclusion by the head acquisitions editor, Kate Ankofski (formerly of Simon & Schuster USA). Based on the assessment, which evaluates the quality of writing, editing required and marketability, a Hillcrest imprint will be recommended, provided the author can meet the editing and marketing requirements for that imprint.
c. Editing Requirements
“All imprints in the Program require the use of Hillcrest’s editing services. The level of editing must be the one recommended in the assessment, unless Customer’s confirmed imprint is THP. THP Customers are only required to have a basic edit or have the editing requirement waived at Hillcrest’s discretion. If Customer requests to use his/her own editor, Hillcrest reserves the right to contact said editor to review his/her credentials and samples of his/her work. If Hillcrest determines that the outside editor does not meet Hillcrest’s standards, Hillcrest will inform Customer and Customer must use an Hillcrest editor in order to proceed with the Program, otherwise Customer will be published under the Mill City Press imprint (and forfeit participation in the Program). Customer acknowledges that this editing requirement is in place to main editorial integrity within each imprint.”
d. Marketing Requirements
“Customer acknowledges that some of Hillcrest’s imprints have additional marketing requirements and that, if Customer confirms publication under said imprints, he/she must purchase the marketing services required by the confirmed imprint. Marketing requirements are set forth at imprint’s page within the Customer Center and are outlined below. Any marketing services required under the confirmed imprint for Customer’s Book must be purchased prior to the commencement of the cover design step in the Customer Center. If the imprint Customer chooses requires a Platinum Website Package, that must be purchased immediately upon Customer’s decision to accept publication under the imprint set forth in the assessment. Should Customer decide not to purchase any required program for the recommended imprint, Customer’s book will be published under another imprint of Hillcrest’s choice or Customer will have the opportunity to supply Customer’s own ISBN, so long as it does not start with the prefix 615.”
This is of course high-end publishing for the serious self-publisher looking at marketing a professional book product using a combination of traditional marketing and online marketing. This may include options like having a publicist at book events, sales representatives pitching to bookstore buyers, advertising campaigns, larger print runs, and as I indicated earlier when we looked at the Expanded Distribution service, if the author is not at least prepared to have a professionally edited book and just trying to operate on a budget of two or three thousand dollars then this is not for them.
The is the most significant example of a hybrid publishing model I’ve seen, because the risk often associated with traditional publishing – that is, a publisher risking money upfront on a marketable but unproven book – is embedded within an egalitarian ethos of acquiring and promoting traditional and self-published books (part-funded) side by side in the same publishing imprint and through the same distributor to book buyers and retailers. The buyers make the decision to stock a book based on quality and marketability – not whether the publisher or the author funded the publication of the book. It sets it apart and above similar models operated by Thomas Nelson and Harlequin, where the buyer can immediately identify a self-publish-only imprint associated with a publishing house. In fact, under this particular hybrid model, both traditional and self-published authors use the same editorial, design and marketing professionals, but the lack of parity is that the self-published author is making significantly more on royalties based on their initial investment than their fellow in-house author.
Hillcrest is set to continue to roll out the hybrid publishing model to more of its genre imprints in the future and in late summer will launch a program of books in coffee shops through an 85 store chain featuring both traditional and self-published titles. Continuing its egalitarian ethos, the program will be open to any author or publisher who wishes to apply to the program. Hillcrest is also continuing to develop a large book review online website with access to 1500 bloggers and book reviewers specifically intended to place equal highlight on self and traditionally published book titles ignored by mainstream media. In 2013, Hillcrest will also launch another of Levine’s projects, Fiction.com, dedicated to promoting books of fiction and independent booksellers at very low trade discounts from publishers.
MCP’s publishing packages are more expensive than some of its competitors but there is a depth in service and quality you won’t find elsewhere. MCP books are of high print quality and design, and the favourable print costs allows authors to price books competitively for the market. There is one critical element missing from the MCP website – and that is a display of books or at least links to books. Of course, like all author solutions providers, MCP is in the business of selling publishing services to authors, but books remain the end product of those services, and for me, an author solutions provider commits a cardinal sin if books or direct buy paths are not displayed. True, authors don’t visit the websites of providers to buy books, but they do want to see samples of how their books will potentially look. Consider visiting an online company providing selling seeds to horticulturalists, or booking your next summer holiday with a travel agent – imagine not seeing a visual images of flowers, bushes, an airplane or a sandy beach?
MCP is an author solutions provider offering extensive information on the realities of self-publishing and its true costs for the serious author with every conceivable service available, right through to it’s hybrid imprints at parent company, Hillcrest Media. In reality, I would not recommend many of the high-end packages to 70% of self-published authors, simply, because so many self-published books are unfinished symphonies, and are rushed into the light of day too soon. The real value for money with MCP comes with their entry-level POD distribution packages. MCP really excels with print cost value and complete transparency. I’d suggest all self-published authors look at the MCP website and read its contract for all the charges other providers choose to hide or simply don’t disclose. The contract and terms, though extensive and at times intensive reading, are the most transparent you will find from a provider. If you are a serious author with a completed book file and cover, a fully and professionally copy edited book (with valid editor credentials for expanded distribution), and simply want your book printed – MCP may be an ideal option, and if you also have the money to invest in professional distribution and marketing, then MCP may be a perfect fit.
[Please note that some of the comments following this review were dated at the time of my last review and may not be reflective on the company after the revised review of 2012.]