The Fine Print of Self-Publishing (Fifth Edition) by Mark Levine | Book Review

The Fine Print of Self-Publishing

A Primer on Contracts, Printing Costs, Royalties, Distribution, E-Books, and Marketing

By Mark Levine

(Bascom Hill Publishing)

Paperback (268 pages), $16.95

eBook (PDF, ePub & MOBI), $9.99

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Since 2004, Mark Levine, author of several editions of The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, has been rolling around, wrestling in the dirt and trying to make sense of the perilous and changing world of self-publishing and service providers for authors. The first edition of The Fine Print was published back in 2004 and it was the first serious book to directly tackle the contracts of many known service providers in the field, as well as providing comparisons on pricing, quality, depth of service, and critically defining the core things every author should look before working with a service provider. Though many books have subsequently been published over the past ten years, few have ever become essential reading for authors in the way Levine’s The Fine Print has carved its way into the self-publishing community as the go-to essential toolkit.
A lot has changed in the intervening years. Self-publishing has now experienced a mass explosion and you can’t talk about the publishing world (trade houses, small presses, or the service provider industry) without mentioning the growth and impact of e-books. Notwithstanding all that, Levine is now president of Hillcrest Media Group, operators of Mill City Press (a US-based provider of services for self-publishing authors), and a number of other publishing imprints. When the fourth edition of The Fine Print was published in 2011, Levine chose not to review and examine Mill City Press against its competitors, but the company is mentioned in the latest edition.
One of The Fine Print’s big selling points in previous editions was its comparison reviews and guides, and I’m sure many readers of those previous editions quickly thumbed through to particular providers, whether they had already contracted the services of that provider, or were considering the provider as a possible future option. The new edition won’t allow that so easily, instead it provides a series of comparison charts in a number of critical areas, like file ownership, customer service feedback and wholesale print costs.
Levine, through running his own service provider company—combined with having to live up to the same gauntlet and lines he drew in the sand for quality and excellence for other service providers—has shifted from the direct review and comparison approach to providing an essential toolbox and road map for self-publishing authors.The new edition includes much more detail and general guidance about what makes a suitable service provider. It struck me that the intervening years of experiencing in the self-publishing industry has introduced a more measured approach and maturity in this edition. Where previous editions would take providers to task and nail them to the wall, Levine is also happy to provide experiences and circumstances when authors can be downright foolish and uncompromising. This fifth edition, like the previous four, still leaves other so-called self-publishing guides like scattered stones on the side of the highway.
None of the previous editions were ever intended as manuals or how-to guides for authors stepping into the self-publishing arena for the first time, and this one is no different. What Levine provides is an essential knowledge toolbox, and he has rightly identified a lack of knowledge about what to look for in a good self-publishing service provider as the main reason leading many authors down a rocky road of bumps and pitfalls. The definite shift in this edition reflects an industry with an ever-changing and sometimes confusing array of providers, combined with the problem of trying to review and rank every company or service in a single volume. It’s an arduous and futile task. Levine uses the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu to demonstrate his reasoning behind the fifth edition of The Fine Print.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.~ The Fine Print – Introduction

Where previous editions saw Levine wearing his attorney’s hat, today he wears the hat of an industry insider batting on the side of the self-published author. Better to apply sound and relevant advice that can be applied now and in the future.
With any non-fiction book focused on a particular field, readers will always have a tendency to jump straight into the parts that most interest them from the get-go, rather than always reading cover to cover. I still think some readers of previous editions will be disappointed that the detailed company reviews and rankings are gone, but that’s the first and perhaps hardest spoonful of medicine Levine delivers in his introduction.

The Fine Print of Self-Publishing used to take a more down-in-the-weeds approach, examining nearly every service by major self-publishers in detail. The problem with that approach was that many of the specific service offerings, namely publishing packages, changed in scope and/or price by the time the book came out. Over the various editions of this book, I’ve found that the printing markups, contract terms, and other core indicators of a publisher’s author-friendliness remained the same. Thus, I’ve been able to do a better apples-to-apples comparison on objective factors of self-publishing companies, such as royalties, and whether the publisher returns production files. This updated version of the book gives you more tools than ever before to compare the companies you’re interested in. This version teaches you how to analyze self-publishing companies—whether the company appears in this book or not—by looking specifically at the following concrete, measurable aspects of a self-publisher.~ The Fine Print – Introduction

These measurable aspects are:
1. Author’s ability to set retail price
2. Publisher’s printing mark-ups and author discounts
3. Author/Publisher royalty splits
4. Publisher’s policy regarding the return of original production files
5. Author’s ability to gather information prior to submitting his/her book
There are eight lengthy chapters following the introduction; including everything from the basics of self-publishing to the dos and Don’ts; a checklist on manuscripts and distribution; examining what makes a great self-publishing company; the fine print in self-publishing contracts and terms of service; e-book publishing; and marketing and comparison of companies. The book concludes with a number of checklists and sided by side comparison charts specifically examining the areas of royalties, author discounts and returns policies.
There are times in the book I felt Levine skews the traditional publishing world and rather strays into the territory of self-publishing myth and belief with some statements. Clearly, he is not a believer in the ‘grey poupon’ corridors of traditional publishing, but I would like to have seen at times a more balanced reflection of that poupondom!

Self-publishing can have several different definitions depending on who you ask. People who work in traditional publishing say that if an author paid any money to publish his or her book, the book is self-published. But the traditional publishing world uses that definition only when it suits its needs.~ The Fine Print – Chapter 1, The Basics of Self-Publishing

Traditional publishers often make new, unknown authors pay most, if not all, marketing expenses associated with the author’s book. So, to those in the hallowed corridors of “Grey Poupon” publishers, a book is self-published if the author pays for editing, formatting, or cover design—but the book is not considered to be self-published if those expenses are covered by the publisher, even if the author is made to pay some or all of the marketing expenses.~ The Fine Print – Chapter 1, The Basics of Self-Publishing

I’m not sure I would agree that traditional publishers ‘make new, unknown authors pay most, if not all marketing expenses.’ More like sometimes than a definite often. I’ve certainly heard of authors with traditional publishers being referred to a paid PR agent or publicist. Any author—and not just newbies—can discover there is a cost to marketing with a traditional publisher. Sure, many publishers now expect authors to take a very active part in marketing activities (practical or social media activities), and the cost of time and travel is not always covered by a publisher. Marketing budgets and advances for published books and the number of titles taken on are declining—true. To my mind, all authors—like it or not—pay for publishing and marketing in some way, whether upfront as in self-publishing, or by the concession of rights and lower royalties at the back end after every book is sold.

Levine, a few pages later, makes it clear that traditional publishing may be right for some authors but the decision must rest with the author.

Even if you traditionally publish, you will likely pay for some expenses associated with publication and/or marketing. If you’re going to spend money regardless of how your book is published, is it better to control the process, the result, and your potential earnings? Only you can answer that.~ The Fine Print – Chapter 1, The Basics of Self-Publishing

Chapter five is an excellent hands-on step-by-step guide about taking your manuscript through to provider and can be applied to many chosen providers, and that is also the strength of many of the chapters, including the chapters on profiling a great self-publishing company and marketing. Chapter six (on e-book publishing) was an exceptional read and a much-needed addition to previous editions of the book. It’s also a must-read for any self-publishing author—even for someone like me who carries out formatting on behalf of authors—and though thorough and technical at times, it’s a serious study that explains what often distinguishes professionally designed and formatted books from ones formatted by authors and hastily loaded to digital retail platforms.
Too many books I read in this area skim over the positives and negatives of new print technology, particularly POD (print on demand), demonstrating a lack of understanding, and at times, create more confusion than explanation. This is where Levine’s experience of running his own publishing and self-publishing companies really comes to the fore—carefully explaining the use and relevance of POD, while making the distinction with short run digital printing and offset printing. If anything, I think he could have still further expanded these sections because of their relevance and impact on distribution and marketing. I always tell authors that while POD is an excellent way to minimise some publishing costs, when it comes to any form of traditional marketing and distribution, POD can be like trying to sell a car without letting the perspective buyers actually see the car.
Following a full read of the book from cover to cover, which is what I would recommend first (footnotes included!), I suspect the checklist appendices and comparison charts are going to be the most thumbed pages of The Fine Print. The fifth edition doesn’t cover quite as many providers as previous editions and a couple of the charts look somewhat incomplete with information either ‘unknown’ or ‘n/a’. The footnotes illuminate a great deal more the difficulties the author had in obtaining transparency and accuracy of data with some of the companies and there is as much a story to be told in the footnotes of pages as there is in the text body. The chart for Author Royalties for 3rd Party Sales and the one for Production File Return Policy particularly suffer from this, but to be fair to Levine’s thorough research—and from carrying out similar studies and comparison checks on providers myself—I suspect the missing data is as much down to the relevance or transparency of some companies’ websites and proactive responses. One of the more intriguing charts involved a Communication and Feedback test where Levine and his researcher asked a series of probing questions of 26 providers and graded (A-F) the level of customer support and response received.
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 education of authors into what to look for from a great self-publishing provider. As I’ve indicated above, it’s important when authors grasp a copy of this book in their hand that they are not purchasing a ‘how to self-publish’ book, or expansive reasons and arguments why they should or shouldn’t self-publish, but rather a book that enables them to identify good quality services and avoid the common trappings and pitfalls of selecting a provider once they’ve decided self-publishing is right for them. Levine offers some guidance on whether the self-publishing route is right for all authors, but this is not the book’s primary focus by any means.
Overall, The Fine Print has established itself as the must-read for any author considering self-publishing. It’s an invaluable toolkit and road map that will guide and equip you with the right information before taking those first important steps. Levine’s ten years of experience, first as an author, then as a publishing company CEO, provide him with an understanding of the needs of authors, combined with an insight into the publishing industry, top to bottom. This fifth edition extensively explains how to make your self-publishing journey a financially smooth and emotionally rewarding one.

Critically, the new edition also addresses some shortcomings in previous editions—an overemphasis on print over e-book, and a bias towards assisted publishing services at a time when many self-published authors (certainly in the USA) are gravitating to DIY publishing platforms.
[The Fine Print of Self-Publishing by Mark Levine (Bascom Hill Publishing) is published this month in e-book and paperback edition.]

Mick Rooney – Publishing Consultant

If you found this review or article helpful, but you’re still looking for a suitable self-publishing provider to fit your needs as an author, then I’m sure I can help. As a publishing consultant and editor of this magazine, I’ve reviewed and examined in detail more than 150 providers throughout the world like the one above. As a self-published and traditionally published author of nine books, I understand your needs on the path to publication and beyond. So, before you spend hundreds or thousands, and a great deal of your time, why not book one of my personally tailored and affordable consultation sessions today? Click here for more details.
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