SP#1: Death, Taxes and Self-Publishing

The Fine Art of Self-Publishing by Mark Levine
Because I critique literary manuscripts, people sometimes ask me about self-publishing: what do I think of it?; should they do it?; whom do I recommend in terms of publishers?

I have about fifteen books on my bookshelf by clients and friends who have self published.  I have just about come to think of self-publishing like death and taxes.  Yet I really don’t know much about what is involved.  Maybe it’s time I found out, at least a little.

I started with a book called The Fine Print of Self-Publishing: Everything You Need to Know About the Costs, Contracts, & Process of Self-Publishing (Fourth Edition) by Mark Levine (www.bookpublisherscompared.com) .  The first seven chapters are very useful and then Chapters 8 – 12 contain detailed info on various self-publishing companies, ranked from  “Outstanding” to “Some Pretty Good” ones, to “Just Okays” to the bottom of the barrel, “Publishers to Avoid” (and one in a category by itself, “The Worst of the Worst.”)  I’m not sure why anyone would want to read the details beyond the “Outstanding” list.  I mean, are you going to research and choose a “just okay” self-publisher?

Mark Levine is the CEO of Hillcrest Media Group, Inc. (www.hillcrestmedia.com) here in Minneapolis, the center of the universe.   Hillcrest Media seems to be a small empire of self-publishing, including book marketing, publicity, distribution, and ebooks.  He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (that’s good) and Georgetown University Law Center (we won’t hold it against him).  Looks like a nice guy on the cover (could be a serial killer though).

So he wrote the book, so to speak, at least this one, on self-publishing, and I do think he knows a lot about it…this coming from someone who knows almost nothing.  As with so many things these days, I learned things I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

The book’s strengths, besides surveying the various self-publishing companies, lie in some straight talk about the realities of self-publishing; in the things you should look for in a good company; and in analyzing the contract you might enter into.  Folks, this self-publishing business is not easy or simple.  It involves ACTUAL MATH and you have to read long contracts.  Levine’s book will definitely help you make more informed decisions.

He has some good, common sense advice which was helpful to hear.  “Self-publishing is a lot like going to Las Vegas. There is a high probability that you will spend money and never see it again.”  You can’t go into this thinking you’ll make money or recoup your expenses.  Maybe you will, but don’t count on it.  “If you are calculating to the penny how many books you need to sell to recoup a $2,000 investment, don’t self-publish your book.  Whatever you spend is an investment in you as an author.  Please look at it that way… You need time and money to market your book….Never spend more than you can comfortably afford.”

Here are Levine’s “Nine Qualities of a Good Self-Publishing Company:

  1. A good reputation among writers
  2. Fair publishing fees
  3. Generous royalties without any fuzzy math
  4. Low printing costs and high production value
  5. Favorable contract terms
  6. Fair policy regarding the return of your book’s original production files
  7. Fairly priced add-on services, such as marketing and copyright registration
  8. A standard offering of an ISBN, EAN bar code, and LCCN (Library of Congress Control Number) as part of any basic publishing package
  9. Availability through at least one wholesaler, and listings on major online retailers.

He discusses each of these areas and provides stuff you really need to know even to begin to research various self-publishing possibilities.  He also discusses contracts and gives notable provisions of the publishing agreement for the companies he surveys.

The book does fall short on what I consider the bug-a-boo of self-publishing, which is marketing the dang thing.  He touches on it in the last chapter only briefly and says, rightly so, that that is a whole book in itself.  “Despite the widely held belief that if you put it on Amazon, they will come, the publishing business doesn’t work that way.”  He touches on Internet possibilities for online marketing, and in his own example of self-marketing, directs the reader to two sites his company owns, www.Go-Publish-Yourself.com (why does that sound a little nasty…) and www.published.com.

By the way, there is an interesting article in the July/August Poets and Writers Magazine (the one with the four agents on the cover who look like they’re still in prep school) called “Decisions, Decisions” in which three women who recently published short story collections are interviewed about their experiences: one with an almost $20,000 advance at Broadway Books; another with a small press in which she had to buy the first 150 of her books up front; and another who self-published via an indie press she founded herself.  The interviews cover choosing a publisher, editing and production, cover design, marketing and publicity, and a category called “surprise, surprise,” about the unexpected.  It makes a good compare and contrast read about the three very different paths and gives one a head’s up about the possible pitfalls with a very small press or self-publishing.  (Okay, show of hands: how many of you would choose the $20,000 Broadway Books path… I thought so.  The advantages of going the gold standard route were overwhelming, but as we know, many are called but few chosen.)

The people I know who have self-published have been admirably realistic.  They’ve written a book, they’ve done the best they can, maybe they’ve tried to get an agent or publisher, they want readers, they’re well-aware of how hard it is for anyone to get a book published, and at some point, they just want to get on with it.  Bravo. Once they’ve come to terms with the idea that they are going to take charge, they seem empowered and relieved.

As it happens, we have two self publishing houses with good reputations here in the center of the universe: Bookmobile and Mill City Press.  I’ll try to look into these two companies and report back on what I’ve learned about them and self-publishing in future posts.  I’m reluctant to think of this as a “series” on self-publishing, but maybe it will be.  At any rate, I’ll call this post SP#1.

I’d be very interested in hearing about your self-publishing experiences.  I’d really like to know if you’ve done it and how you liked it (well, you know what I mean).

And if you have questions, let me know and I’ll try to get the answers.

7 Replies to “SP#1: Death, Taxes and Self-Publishing”

  1. Very interesting post, Paulette. Now, his book–was it self published?? I think you put your finger on the key issue he dodged in this book: marketing and fulfillment services. In a way, it's become so easy to publish yourself, but marketing the book and making it available and keeping it that way are the rub.

    I hope I can convince someone to publish my book so I don't have to go that route. I marketed books for a living for ten years, and it's a job unto itself. Presumably the best self-publishing houses act as fulfillment services, perhaps have print on demand capabilities to service wholesalers' orders. That would be a major factor for me, whether the company does that and is likely to be around and to keep doing it.

    1. Richard, hi! Mark's book is published by part of his Hillcrest Media group, so yes, he's walking the walk (and doing quite well with this book, I think). I'll be posting more about Hillcrest later.

      Marketing is definitely where the rubber meets the road in self-publishing. I suppose it depends on your goals, audience and ambition, but I'm beginning to see that self-publishing can be quite expensive! If one wants to promote and market a book, it's going to take some doing–by someone who knows what they're doing, and that takes bucks.

      I am learning stuff about the self-publishing biz…hey, just a week or so ago I thought "fulfillment services" meant where all your dreams come true…

      Thanks for writing and really, I think your memoir will find a publisher and it won't be you! best, P

  2. Welcome to SheWrites, Paulette . . . and yes, you were on Bloggers: Let's Make It Work. I've only been with SheWrites since April. I know how you feel. I've learned to hunt and peck. If I'm wrong, someone will redirect me. Ask questions, everyone is very helpful.

    And thanks for your great blog. Still need to read it through, but this is information I'm gathering. I noted the gentlemans reply before mine . . . and this is a concern of mine as well . . . Marketing!!! Anyone can self-publish with Amazon and have a book in their hands within a week. Now what does one do with a trunk full of books? My blog is related to this issue since this is my first book and I'm unknown . . . Publisher or Self-Publish?

    Stop by anytime. My memoir is on a serious subject but a topic that needs to be addressed. Again, Welcome to SheWrites.

    Nancy @ http://blogofavetswife.blogspot.com/

    1. Nancy, thanks for welcoming me to Shewrites, which I'm finding pretty dang confusing so far…as a novice. I really appreciate your writing and telling us about your blog, which is tracking your own self-publishing adventure. It has some valuable stuff for people who are exploring that option. Good luck with the book and the blog, and see yuo at Shewrites.

      best, Paulette

  3. Hi Paulette,

    Mark Levine also is the CEO and Founder of Mill City Press, where I had my book "A Moment in Time" published under their other company, Two Harbors Press. I can not even begin to tell you what I went through with them. And talking with Mark, nice in the beginning, but avoids you in the end. He is all about himself. I have had to market my book by myself, which I do not mind, although I work a full time job also. I line up my own book signings, etc. The book paid off the publishing costs and gave me extra money to give to charities, which the corporation I work for matched me on 3:1.



  4. Hi, Barbara, thanks for writing in. I think it's valuable to get your experience with Mill City/Two Harbors. I wonder if you were expected to pay extra for publicity. I really don't know. I think it's GREAT you've done that so well for yourself. It's really important for people to understand clearly what and what is not included in a independent publishing packet or contract and especially if marketing is covered –which is often where the rubber hits the road! I looked at your website and really enjoyed it. What a fascinating story you had to tell — and I love all the photographs. best, Paulette

  5. All the authors I know who are getting advances from the majors under contract are paying for their own publicists now, because major publishing publicity is now ridiculously bad, and those fees are $3,000 a month. Let's stop kidding ourselves. Publishers are no longer investing in authors who are not proven assets. So the word "expensive" needs qualifying. The real research needs that to be done is what the actual author expenses were in each of the examples above.

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