* To all my friends and constant listening audience, Merry Christmas! I had the chance to get Mark Levine's interview in this episode. Also, because of the terrible audio of the last episode, I have included in this episode "Baby Blue" by Ethereal. I included the Podiobook promos in this episode also.
Ever wish you had a buddy who was a lawyer who could take a look at that publisher's contract for you? Even better, do you wish you knew a lawyer who would critique about 50 contracts for you -- for less than $20? Mark Levine has done just that in his book, "THE FINE PRINT OF SELF-PUBLISHING: The Contracts & Services of 48 Self-Publishing Companies -- Analyzed, Ranked & Exposed". Moreover, he's done it well, with tips and advice that every self-published author -- prospective or published alike -- should read.
DS: I found this book to be an excellent guide through the fairly overwhelming world of self-publishing contracts, of which I've seen a few myself. Thank you, Mark for joining me for this interview.
ML: My pleasure.
DS: I wanted to start be saying that you were an attorney, and you are a self-published author. When did you write "Fine Print", and what was it that made you realize that this was a book that really needed to be written?
ML: I didn't really realize that it was a book that needed to be written until I wrote it, actually. About six, maybe seven years ago now, a fellow author who was also with me first publisher got my name and contacted me and said, "Hey I signed this really bad contract and I can't get out of it. I know you're a lawyer, can you take a look at this for me?" So, at the time I had not looked at a lot of publishing contracts, but I'd looked at hundreds and hundreds of commercial contracts, and that's really what all these contracts are.
So I take a look at this contract and the first thing that comes to my mind is that you'd have to be crazy to sign this thing. In this guy's case, it happened that he licensed his copyright to them in the book for the term on the copyright. So the copyright lasts for seventy years after this guy's already dead. Now this guy also happened to be a professor at a very prestigious university out west. That's really what got me thinking that if this guy doesn't have any idea of what he's doing, then there has to be thousands of other people who really don't know and are so eager to have somebody validate their writing that they sign anything that's put in front of them.
So that's what really gave me the idea to write the book, and I didn't really know the impact the book would have in the self-publishing community until I started hearing from self-publishing companies who I just assumed had no idea who I was. It turned out that every self-publishing company has a copy of my book. The companies that were rated well, it was really increasing their business. The ones who weren't rated very high, it was killing their business.
So there were some publishers that said, "Hey, you weren't fair, and you didn't do this and you didn't do that, and we want you to fly out and see what we do and I'm going to prove to you that when you do another edition you will say something better about us."
DS: A lot of them have actually changed their contacts as a result as well, yes?
ML: That's true, well, eight pretty big ones, including iUniverse, made changes to their contracts. I said in the second edition of this book, which turned out to be the paperback version that you have, I sent an email to every publisher that I was going to cover a list of questions. After I reviewed everything, I then went back through their contracts and said, "Hey, if you don't do this, this, and this, I'm not going to be able to say anything good about your company. This is not an acceptable term for a writer in my mind." I think they all realized it, so they all made changes to their contracts.
You know, since then, I get emails and phone calls from people all the time. About 50% percent of them are thanking me for saving them heartache, and the other 50% say I wish I'd read this earlier because I'm stuck with XYZ and what do I do?
DS: Right and you did mention this is the second edition of the book. Did the first edition come with a PDF version?
ML: The first edition was only a PDF; there was no paperback. Though there was a lot of demand for the paperback, so that was really what facilitated me putting it out in paperback. You have to redo this book every year anyway, so it's worked out really well. I think the paperback version is probably better for the author who's buying the book, but for the guy selling the book it's not as good as selling an e-book. As you know, a non-fiction reference type e-book can sell for much more than the same book as a paperback with no cost. I don't know why that is, but that's the way it is.
DS: It is a fine book and it is easy to read through, and I think it's very handy to jump through it as a paperback book as well. I really enjoy e-books; I like the ability to be able to search through them, too. I was just curious if there might be an e-book version of the second edition.
ML: There is an e-book version, but it's just not available on Amazon. The e-book is only available through the website. People have an option where they can just buy the book, they can buy the book and the e-book, and book marketing tools, and certain discounts on our copyright service that we do for writers, artists, and musicians. So there are different levels that people can choose.
DS: O.K., good. Now, the title of the book is perfect because it tells you exactly what you are going to find in this book. But I wanted to make sure that I made it clear that this really does specifically deal with Print-On-Demand publishers.
ML: It does. It used to deal, in the first edition, with e-book publishers as well.
DS: That were just solely e-book publishers?
ML: That were just solely e-book publishers, yes. But there were so many publishers that were covered that I had to pare this down to have it in some kind of manageable size for the paperback.
DS: Oh, understood.
ML: I really think e-book publishing is waiting for some great e-book reader that looks and feels and smells like a book. Until somebody creates one, when that comes out, e-book publishing will be a lot different. But it's not where people are really going to publish.
DS: Well, they're not comfortable with it still.
DS: What I thought was interesting, that some of the publishers that you mentioned in the book were kind of concerned that you mentioned that they were "Print-On-Demand" publishers. Why do you think that is? Why do you think they want to be called "Self-publishers" instead?
ML: Well, I think that there is some bad connotation with "Print-On-Demand". They think it cheapens what the author's doing, or at least that's their perception. What they didn't like being called was "POD publishers", because POD is associated with some of the shadier characters in this business. But as I mentioned in the book, I'm going to call them "POD publishers" to save space, and I'm trying to make this book as affordable as possible. I'm printing it as a Print-On-Demand book, so they're going to be called a POD publisher, and it's not a very big deal.
I also think that self-publishing has evolved so much and it continues to evolve that this is going to do -- and it is doing -- to the publishing industry what has many parallels to the music industry. These large publishing companies, what they can offer a writer starts to become less and less. If a writer knows how to market their book, then the only thing that they would need a large publishing company for is for some large-scale distribution. Even then -- and I talk to writers everyday and point this out -- even if you got into Barnes & Noble, you're going to be one book in a sea of a million books. I mean, they're not going to put you up in the front when people walk in. So authors spend a lot of time with the idea that they have to get into these bookstores and that's how they're going to sell books, and I don't really agree. I think that's kind of a waste of time. I guess that's kind of off the subject.
DS: Well, no, but it's a good point, and a lot of authors these days do still see that Brick & Mortar as the goal. I think as long as you are out there promoting your book and it's something that readers can get to easily, that's the key: making it available to people.
Now, not only have you listed the most of the prominent POD publishers in the book, you've ranked them into categories. Running from "Outstanding", to "Publishers to Avoid". But in the previous edition, you had them actually numerically ranked, is that right?
ML: That's right, and that became a problem, which is why I switched to this format. Because what was happening, and it was unfair to the publishers, the thing that differentiated a 9.2 from a 9.8 -- and I'm not saying it's totally trivial -- may be that I liked their website better that somebody else's, for example. It's the sort of intangible that comes from me making that judgment and it wasn't fair. The companies began using my ranking as advertising, saying we're the best, and then they started threatening to sue each other, going back and forth, and were copying me on the emails. That's why I decided to put them into broader categories.
DS: Yeah, and it helps make finding them easier, too.
ML: First of all, anybody who changed their contract automatically got into the "Outstanding" category. Anyone who really realizes and accepts that, hey, we have to do things to make ourselves more author-friendly, and they were willing to do it, to me that says a lot. Every one of those companies made it in there. Also, what I tried to do was, of all the big companies - iUniverse, Xlibris, Trafford -- all of the real big ones, that people know, iUniverse is the best of that group. Do I think that they are better than some of the other ones in the Outstanding group? No, but if you want all of those frills -- all the bells and whistles, the slick website and all of the advertising, all of that stuff -- they're fine and they're not going to rip you off, and they're going to give you an O.K. product. I tried to put one big one in there, one Christian publisher in there; so I put the best in every category in there and the ones that changed their contracts. What I will say about iUniverse is that they have really improved their author-friendliness.
DS: That was one of the things I really liked that was your "author-friendly ratings" for each of the publishers, too. That really helps explain why you ranked them the way you did.
ML: To me, I think that's a great part of the book if you're choosing a publisher, and if you go through the part where I break down these contracts. Because everybody's contract, the general idea of them are the same. I think I did pretty good job of explaining this in ways that you don't have to have gone to law school to understand what these things mean.
ML: You can look at a contract, and look at what I wrote, and figure out what they're talking about.
DS: Absolutely. Now, while the draw of this book is definitely those ratings that you give, you give a lot of good advice and you do go into some very good detailed explanation about the key parts of the contracts that can be missed when you are going through the fine print. You also spent a good deal of time listing what you consider the nine qualities of a good self-publishing company. That was very helpful as well.
ML: Yeah, I think that's important, and now on the website I have what I call "The Author's Bill of Rights", which anyone can download for free. That kind of takes those nine things and expands on those. When I do the new version of the book, of those things that a good self-publishing company has, those nine things are going to be changed a little bit. Because now I've discovered things that are even more important.
For example, I don't recall off hand if I said as one of the nine things that if you paid to have a cover done and a layout done that you have to own that material. That's in my Author's Bill of Rights, but I don't know if it was in my top nine, but that says a lot about the kind of company that somebody should work with. I mean, if I'm paying for you to do this and I decide to leave you, I should be able to get everything, swap out an ISBN, and take it anywhere else to print that book, because I paid for it. So the notion that I might own the cover art but you own the cover, I find to be insulting. That for sure will be in there. You know I mention a lot about what the print fees are?
ML: The level that these companies mark up the print fees is outrageous, and that I'm actually going to cover in more detail, probably in the next round. What happens with these companies is that they tell the author, well you can buy the book at 40% off of the cover price which sort of implies that is what it costs to print the book. At least in my mind that is what it implies.
They don't tell you that when you are buying it at 40% off of the cover price, they still made 100% profit on the printing or 50% profit on the printing. They don't tell you that on the back end they're taking a royalty for not doing anything. I understand if someone is going to handle your fulfillment and those types of things, they certainly deserve money for that. But just giving you a page on their website that just goes to Amazon, of which they get a cut anyway, they mark up the printing on the front end, taking a royalty on the back end, and the only person making the money is the publisher. You paid them to publish, they're making it up front and on the back, and they're saying you get 75% royalty, but it's 75% of something they jacked up on both ends. So it's not a real number. In the new edition that will be covered in a lot greater detail with some real examples.
DS: Yeah, that was definitely something that stood out as something that I remember. Another important point that I remember, and I don't think it was one of your nine qualities, but it might have ended up as one of your Bill of Rights, was don't pay a dollar, until you can see the contract first.
ML: Oh, absolutely. When I go to a company's website in this industry, if I cannot download that contract easily -- that contract should be on the front page as if to say we have nothing to hide, take a look at what we do. If I can't find that and I can't find what you are going to charge me, and I can't figure out what I'm paying to print the book with you, those are problems to me. I was just on some company's website the other day that was not covered in the book, Dorrance Publishing, and when you go on their website, you can't get anything unless you give them your name and email address and let them send you packets and then you are on their mailing list for the rest of your life. That's not the way it should be. If I'm thinking of spending $1000 or $1500 on somebody, they should be happy to give me their contract; I don't need to be sold on anything until I know what it is that's going to happen when I sign on the dotted line.
I am the person who's buying the book. I am that author. I have fiction out there. THE FINE PRINT is probably not a great example because that has really taken off and it has a larger distribution and it's in the library market. I mean, it's a good example that if you have a good idea and a good concept that you can certainly sell a book. But it's probably not what the average writer is going to go through. So when you are the average writer and you have a World War II novel, it's that person that I feel the most protective of. Who I don't like to see ripped off, and don't want to be suckered into buying junk that is worthless like bookmarks and posters of your book cover. I mean that's all junk; it's worthless. Then they'll send your book out to all these people and market it. They're just sending it out and the thing is going to end up in someone's trashcan.
Anytime I hear from one of them and they tell me that I've saved them, or I get the call before they buy the book and they say "I'm thinking of going with somebody who's in my Publishers To Avoid list," the only thing I say is, "Buy this book and if you don't think it's the best $15 you spent, send it back to me and I'll send you the money back, but I promise you I'll be saving you a lot of heartache."
DS: I definitely think it's a very good investment for any author who's contemplating finding the right self-publisher to go to bat for them, basically. I mean, they're working for you; you're not working for them. So, I actually had considered, when I was starting looking at contracts, I was considering having a lawyer review some of the contracts to help me understand what was going through them. So I think $15 is definitely worth it for everything you go through, picking apart the contracts and helping to make them very clear. That's my pitch.
ML: I appreciate that.
DS: OK, well, why don't you go ahead and tell me a little bit more about the other services that you do offer on your website. Besides the book, you've got Click & Copyright, and a few other services.
ML: Well, we have a copyright service, and actually, since the book came out, and I do not mention this in the book -- and I never will mention this in the book -- after I wrote this book I realized all of the things that I complained that these companies aren't doing, that they should be doing, that I could be doing. I mean, I published my own book, I've been very successful at it, I know how to market these things.
So, what we did -- my company is not just me and a computer -- we have a staff of ten people, so it's a growing company of about thirty websites. So what I did was I created a self-publishing company that does everything that I say these companies should be doing. So for obvious reasons I couldn't mention it in the book.
DS: That's plugging yourself.
ML: Not only is it plugging myself, but the honest truth is it is better than what any of these other people are doing so there would be no use for the book. The author pays the exact print cost that we pay. There's no markup in print, and there's no royalty on the back end. None. They own all the files. All of the things I say in my Bill of Rights, that's exactly what my company does. The way we can afford to do it is that I don't have sixty or seventy people on staff. I don't have to have these outrageous markups. What we do is make, for under $900 we do everything custom in-house, the layout, and original cover design. There's no templates, none of that. We do it exactly the way we do would do it for my own books.
So anyone who reads THE FINE PRINT and calls me ends up signing up with us because they know that it's everything that I talk about. My whole idea here is that if you are going to publish a book, and you want to market the book, in my opinion there's only one way that works to do this. That is to treat your book like a little e-commerce company. That is the way to have a lot of success.
For example, I just spent all day today with one of our fantasy authors putting together his online advertising campaign. So we build websites for authors that are very optimized, just like THE FINE PRINT one is. So those things will eventually rank high. We then put together online advertising campaigns. I have one person whose whole job it is to be on MySpace and the social networking sites to promote people's books and get a buzz going about them. Those three things together -- an optimized website, an effective online advertising campaign, and generating a buzz with MySpace -- are a much better way to spend money if you want to promote a book than anything any of these other companies could possibly do. Because it's the only way to get your book in front of the people who might want to read it. That's why I don't concentrate about going into bookstores. I mean all that stuff, about going to a book signing and there will be a whole line of people. The only way that's going to happen is if you start promoting your book and you generate enough interest that someday something like that can happen.
Even in my case with my novel, I had a woman about a month ago who found my book on MySpace -- through the person who works for me doing the promotion -- she wrote me and said she loved the book, etc., then she said she was going to get her whole book club to read it. She happened to be local here in town, and then ten people ordered the book in one day. Then I went and spoke to the book club, and when I was there, and then they started buying other copies that they wanted to give away for Christmas and the holidays.
DS: That's how you do it.
ML: That's why this thing works. I just got the new website up for my new novel. I mean it just finally went up, so I've been doing that, driving the right kind of traffic to it. I didn't even have the order page up, but I wanted to see if I could make a dent in the Amazon ranking. So last night was the first night that I had ads up for my novel, and last night I was at about 650,000 on Amazon, when I woke up today I was at 30,000. Now that may not be more than 10 or 15 books, but that's still a nice chunk of books.
ML: So that's something that I'm really excited about, I believe in it and know that it works. Any author whoever calls me, they can only find us because I only advertise online. I don't advertise in Writer's Digest. The internet is so targeted I don't believe that even if I advertised THE FINE PRINT in Writer's Digest -- and I get asked all the time why I don't -- it's because I have to hope that the person reading Writer's Digest sees my ad, happens to be thinking about self-publishing a book, then from that ad goes immediately to the internet to order the book. If that chain is broken, if they think this is a great idea and they rip this page and come back later, my chance of getting that sale just went down. Because it gets filed in a drawer, they pull it out two weeks later, and they say, aw you know what, forget it. Now look at all of the screenwriters that are reading Writer's Digest, there's all sorts of people reading it, that have no immediate interest in publishing a book, and I have to be in that magazine a whole bunch of times to even have any recognition.
Whereas I can go out and advertise so that when someone searches for AuthorHouse my ad comes up. I know that when somebody types in AuthorHouse there's a bout a 99% chance they are thinking about publishing a book. If they click on that ad, it takes them right to a page on THE FINE PRINT website that says, "Is AuthorHouse the right publisher for you?" So that is a much better way to spend money than putting an ad in even a writing magazine, which is extremely targeted. So now when you think about it, if you are an author that is doing a western or a romance novel, you have to find creative ways to bring the people to you.
So, this is a new venture for our company, we hired somebody to run it who comes from the traditional book publishing world, so we have a lot of the ins to the book distributors and the book buyers. Her closest friend is a small press buyer at Ingram. So it has given our authors a lot of opportunities and we're able to put together things that make sense. Of course, the great thing about when you have a good website is that every day that thing is online it keeps aging. The more a website ages, it's like wine, it becomes better; it goes higher to the top. Even having a MySpace page set up, once it is set up, it is always working for you.
ML: If you're not out there actively doing it, people are going to have to fall upon it. But when someone falls upon it, it's there. Those are the things that always work. So all the bookmarks, and book signings were only the people you invite are going to buy the book anyway, all that effort can be put into something where you can continue to market your book for a longer period of time for less money.
So it's something that I'm very excited about and I kind of wish I could talk about in THE FINE PRINT, but I couldn't in anyway that would make that book objective. I sort of see it as, if someone buys THE FINE PRINT and they never even learn about my company, they will have saved themselves the heartache of going with a really bad company, and any company that I say is good in my book is fine and you will get a book and they aren't going to screw you. So that's the only way I can do that and keep doing THE FINE PRINT.
DS: Wow, that's awesome.
ML: I should mention one more thing, my company just bought Published.com, which is a big free directory where writers can go and put their book covers and blurbs about their book online and links to their sales page all for free.
DS: Oh, excellent.
ML: The guy who used to own it was one of the first affiliates of Click & Copyright and we've known each other for years and one thing led to another and I made him an offer to buy it.
DS: Very nice.
ML: That's a free directory and anybody can go there and it's a very high-ranking site, so a link back to your own website is beneficial to the author if they have a website.
DS: Nice. I would like to learn a little bit more about your paperback novels that you have published.
ML: My first one, I did back in 2000 and it came out with a company called Bookbooters. They were one of the first people in this industry, and in fact, back then, they used the print on-demand technology, but nobody charged. I mean this company Bookbooters, they edited my book, and they did everything. I think I only had to pay them a $60 fee or something to cover some kind of cost. These kind of print on-demand publishing things had not really come to the surface yet. Bookbooters eventually became a print on-demand company and then couldn't make it and then went out of business.
But my first novel was a political thriller and the highlight of the whole thing was that Bill Clinton ending up reading the book when he got out of office. He's a big fan of political thrillers and he wrote a great handwritten note that will be on the website and is hanging on the wall behind me right now, where he really got into detail about why he liked it and all the bad guys were Republicans so maybe he was a little biased. It's a very funny note. But that was my first novel.
DS: What is the name of the novel?
ML: I WILL FAITHFULLY EXECUTE, which will be getting a second life up here, as it is on my list of about a million things to do. My second novel, SATURN RETURN, is the one that just was released in July, or spring/summer, and it was the first book that our company did. So I was the actual guinea pig of my own company.
DS: That's the way to do it.
ML: So I didn't go out and seek agents or anything. I know how to sell things online, so there was no reason for me to go out and do that. The website turned out great, the book turned out great, and people have really liked it. It's been selling fairly well. I expect it to sell a little better now that it has a website and I'm getting some advertising for it. The only thing we were doing was the person working for me was marketing my book on MySpace. That's where all of the sales came from initially. Now that will be a little different, but that website will definitely be a good example for writers to understand when I talk about an "optimized website".
When you look at any of my websites, every page, every word, everything is there for a specific purpose. We build websites around the terms that people are searching for that coincide with my book. So like for instance, the tagline is that it's a novel about who you are, where you're going, and who you're meant to be with. So it's kind of a coming-of-age story and it follows some people in their thirties. There's a lot of dating and relationships. So I have these pages on my site, that say why reading SATURN RETURN is more fun than being on a Match.com date. I have something different for Yahoo! Personals, for another site JDate. I have a page "Fun Martinis to drink while reading the book" and "Songs to listen to when you've been dumped". So, it's a very irreverent site and it's a lot of fun and I needed that to show to a lot of fiction authors who are starting to come in here, because I can't just keep showing them THE FINE PRINT website.
So that's my second book, and I really don't know when there will be another book coming out of me.
DS: I bet you're very busy right now.
ML: I had that one and the second edition of THE FINE PRINT come out at the same time, that and running this company, it felt like I was back in school. Like I would get home and then I would have to start working on the books again.
ML: I love them, and SATURN RETURN I started writing in '97 so it took a while to get it done. I know what the next book is going to be, I just don't know when it's ever going to be written.
DS: Is it another novel?
ML: It's another novel. I mean, non-fiction is a lot easier to write, I think. Especially a book like THE FINE PRINT. I mean, you're just doing some research, and if you know how to write, and put a thing together, and make it so people can understand it. It's not easy, but writing a novel is a little more difficult, I find. It's more fun, but a little more difficult.
DS: And when is the next edition of THE FINE PRINT coming out?
ML: The great thing about this is that all I have to do is write it, and upload it, and it's ready to go. You know, I don't have to wait. I just need an editor to go through it. I expect it to be maybe in the spring. I mean it's kind of a project where I'm going to have to have someone help me, to contact the companies, compare what I wrote last time to what they are offering now. So I'll probably bring someone in here in about a month or so and have that done, then write it and it'll be done. Then when someone comes to the website, the new version will be out.
DS: Is it going to have more publishers in it, do you think, or just more details?
ML: I don't know if it going to have more, but some of the ones in here will probably fall out. I'm going to spend some time concentrating on some of these companies like Dorrance and Wheatmark that I consider to be more book printers than self-publishing companies. But so many people use those companies and have asked me about them. So those types of companies will probably make it in. I'm also going to spend some time talking about how you can effectively market a book, beyond just signing a contract.
DS: That's just the first step.
ML: I also had the Alexa ratings in the book; I will not have that in there again. Most of their traffic is people looking to publish a book, not the people buying the books. Authors have to understand that you can't just put a book on Amazon and have people find you. The exception is a book like THE FINE PRINT where people are typing in a term like "self-publishing". The book used to be only called "THE FINE PRINT", but I changed the title to "THE FINE PRINT OF SELF-PUBLISHING" when it became a paperback and it went on Amazon, because Amazon works like a traditional search engine.
ML: So I wanted that term to be in the main title of the book. So, a non-fiction book is a little bit different, especially in a niche area like that on Amazon, because people are actually searching for it. My Amazon ranking everyday is somewhere between 9000 and 30,000 which is pretty phenomenal for a book from not a major publisher. A lot of that is because people are searching for that type of a book. So when you type in "self-publishing", my book is #3 or #4 in the list that comes up. But if you have just a regular fiction book, you have to do something else, and a lot of people have no idea what to do.
DS: That's true.
ML: They buy into the "hey, we're going to send this out to all of the reviewers."
DS: That's all well and good, but that's not all of it.
ML: That's all well and good, except at the end of the day, you're going to get nothing out of it.
DS: Well thank you very much Mark, for joining me tonight. I wish you the best of luck with THE FINE PRINT and your other books and all of your projects,
ML: Thanks, Dan.
To find out more about Mark Levine and his book, THE FINE PRINT OF SELF-PUBLISHING, visit http://www.book-publishers-compared.com/.
His latest novel, SATURN RETURN, can be found at http://www.Saturn-Return.com.
To find out more about his new Self-publishing company, Mill City Press, visit http://www.millcitypress.net/.
- Heaven by Mur Lafferty (Now in Season Two: Hell)
- The Rookie by Scott Sigler
- 7th Son trilogy by J.C. Hutchins (the other J.C.)
- Billibub Baddings by Tee Morris (Coming Valetine's Day 2007!)
* Michelle and I are working on a new website that is sort of a blending of many of the other projects we work on.
- The new site will be The Procrastinators' Guilde.
- Coming soon... or later...
* I don't know if and when we will be back on TalkShoe. I've not given up on them, but I've got to find a way to improve the audio if I am to keep using the service. vEmotion is a great program for sending music out over the phone line. But I've got to have more tests before going live again to make sure the audio level is right.
** HAPPY HOLIDAYS! **
That wraps up another episode of Is This Thing On? Thanks for listening.
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