No, no, don't go away. You may not be interested in self-publishing, because you're already published by Random House and you're number three on the charts -- but even so this book contains some useful and interesting information on the general shape of publishing today; and on, perhaps, some future trends.
Mark Levine, the author of The Fine Art of Self-Publishing, is a man with a background in law, including dealing with intellectual property. He currently runs Click Industries, an e-commerce company which offers services to writers, among others. He has written several scholarly works and two self-published novels. The idea for his latest book arose from his experience in representing, as a lawyer, several authors who had been 'led astray by dishonest self-publishing companies.'
It's worth noting, at the outset, that The Fine Print of Self-Publishing is published by Bridgeway Books, which is a division of BookPros. And BookPros, I think, might reasonably be described as the Rolls Royce of self-publishers, if indeed 'self-publishing' is the right term for what it does. I suspect it may not be. But more of that in a minute.
The sub-title of Fine Print is 'The contracts and services of 48 self-publishing companies -- analyzed, ranked and exposed.'
The book begins with a couple of introductory chapters, in which Levine is, perhaps, a shade too positive about the benefits and advantages of self-publishing. He points out that, in due course, traditional, mainstream firms will be quite glad to see you if you sell several thousand copies of your self-published book. What he doesn't say is that only a tiny percentage of self-publishers will sell hundreds of copies, never mind thousands.
However, Levine does not make excessive claims for those who take his advice. 'I can't promise stupendous book sales,' he says, 'or even modest profits. What I can promise is that you won't get scammed and fleeced.' Which is fair enough.
Chapter 3 lists 'the nine qualities of a good-self publishing company.' Not surprisingly, since his book is aimed at authors, Levine looks at these issues very definitely from the point of view of the customer, and in places I think he is a little hard on some of the companies he criticises. They are, after all, in the business of making a profit.
The next chapter is a discussion of many of the legal terms and clauses which are likely to be found in a typical self-publishing contract. This is a very sound analysis. True, Levine does tend to write as if every author is shortly going to get a six-figure offer from Random House, and will want to get out of her self-publishing contract quickly and cheaply, but we will forgive him that. The plain fact is, however, that some of his recommendations about re-negotiating standard clauses are only going to be relevant to one writer in 10,000.
Levine is particularly wise, I think, to stress the importance of the warranties that the self-publishing (or traditionally published) author is required to make. History relates that quite a number of self-publishers are over-reliant, shall we say, on the work of others; and, as the current UK fuss about the April Ashley biography reveals, professionals can sometimes borrow too much too. This can get everyone into trouble.
All of that takes up the first 50 pages of a 215-page book. We then get four chapters which deal, respectively, and in detail, with outstanding self-publishing companies, pretty good ones, publishers who are just okay, and -- capital letters -- PUBLISHERS TO AVOID.
I'm not going to attempt to summarise them all here. There are, it seems, 48 firms referred to in all, and many of them are firms that I'd never heard of before. However, among the outstanding firms are Booklocker, BookPros, Infinity, iUniverse, and Lulu; plus several other firms unknown to me.
The final chapter, on publishers to avoid, is short. Levine says frankly that it's harder to get into this chapter than into the 'outstanding' list, because he is not in the business of ruining people's livelihoods. However, any publisher who refused to send him a copy of their contract is in here, as are some whose contracts were 'absolutely horrible.'
Well known names on the nasty list includes AuthorHouse and PublishAmerica. In the case of the latter, Levine was given a contract by 'one of the many furious authors who've been published by PublishAmerica'. And, after reading the contract, he says, he understood 'why this publisher doesn't want anyone to see it.... Consider yourself warned.'
In a brief conclusion, Levine argues that the first-time author published by Random House, and the self-published author, are in exactly the same boat. 'Sure, the other guy brags to his friends about his "publishing deal", but that's where the difference ends.' Both authors, he claims, are largely responsible for their own marketing.
This is an oversimplification, but it contains an element of truth, and to help either of these authors on their way Levine provides links to a number of marketing resources.
All in all then, Mark Levine has produced a remarkably valuable book, which contains much good sense, some excusable optimism, and a clear road map for getting a book into print without having to re-mortgage your house. He has done a substantial amount of research, and in some cases has even visited the firm's office to take a look at the operation himself.
So far as I can tell, the book deals exclusively with American companies, and UK readers would have welcomed some analysis of firms such as Matador and the Book Guild. But the principles remain broadly the same in both countries.
To end, it is I think worth devoting a little further thought to the company which Levine chose for himself, BookPros. Because BookPros, like the UK's Book Guild, strikes me as operating in a very smart way (from the company's point of view). And, if the company does what it claims, then it's not such a bad deal for the author either (in my opinion), though it is pricey.
Acceptance of a ms at BookPros is selective. 'BookPros only takes on books it believes it can promote effectively. So a book has to be a real gem before this company will consider it, as it will not promote books to its media contacts that aren't of a similar quality as those it is representing from major publishing houses.' BookPros, you see, began in 1994 as a firm of literary publicists, and only moved into self-publishing, printing and design in 2005.
Given the fact that there are demonstrably quite a few books of a totally professional standard which have been unable -- for a variety of reasons -- to find a home in a mainstream firm, there is material available for firms like BookPros to pick from.
To go with BookPros will cost the author somewhere between $6,000 and $40,000, depending on the package chosen. But you can't just buy your way in. Levine asked Mike Odom, the president of BookPros, if he would publish a lousy book for $50,000. Odom said no. 'We'd lose all our credibility in the industry if we did.'
BookPros, I suspect, is one of the leaders in a style of operation which will become increasingly common, and increasingly successful, in the future.
Problems with this book: minimal. There's no index, at any rate in my 'unedited review copy'. And that's a great pity. The book has narrow margins but a decently sized font and some leading, which means that it's easy to read. I found only one questionable statement of fact, but even that is qualified. Levine says that the only publisher he knows who will let you use your own ISBN is Booklocker; but I think Lulu will do that too, in certain circumstances.
For further info about this book, visit its web site. Should you be interested, Mark Levine's two self-published novels are I Will Faithfully Execute and Saturn Return.