The Fine Print of Self-Publishing: A Primer on Contracts, Printing Costs, Royalties, Distribution, Ebooks, and Marketing (sixth edition) by Mark Levine is a “must read” for anyone thinking of self-publishing a book, or who has already published and wants to consider other options.
Not only does the primer cover the basics described in its title, it reveals the stark financial realities—“warts and all”—of self-publishing that many authors either do not understand or haven’t learned by doing their homework.
Chapter 8, with its apples-to-apples charts comparing publishing service providers, is worth the price of the book alone. He also explains and illustrates the standard wholesale discount structure in the book industry and how that affects a book’s retail price as well as an author’s earnings.
Here are some of my favorite comments in Levine’s book:
“While it’s great to be a dreamer, in book publishing it’s smarter to be a realist.”
He goes on to cite a Nielsen BookScan report (2004) that found:
“Of all books sold, 79 percent sold fewer than ninety-nine copies. Another 200,000, or 16.67 percent, sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 books, or 2.1 percent, sold more than 5,000 copies. Fewer than 500 books, or 0.04 percent, sold more than 100,000 copies, and only 10 books, or 0.0008 percent, so more than a million copies each.”
“The average US nonfiction book (without distinction between traditionally published or self-published) sells fewer than 250 copies per year and fewer than 2,000 copies over its lifetime. . . . [W]hen you factor in the explosive growth of self-published titles since 2004, the percentage of books selling fewer than 1,000 copies would be greater still.”
He also gives his take on distinguishing self-publishing from vanity publishing:
“What makes self-publishing different from vanity publishing is that in self-publishing, the author is publishing a book in a strategic, thoughtful, well-informed way. The author has the book professionally edited by a real book editor (friends who teach high-school English don’t count), has the cover and interior professionally designed, has a realistic approach to the process . . . has a marketing plan . . . and marketing budget . . . and intends to work hard to generate sales.”
“Marketing is typically the most expensive part of the publishing process . . .”
Levine says self-publishers should hire professional editors and designers if their books are to be well-received and commercially viable:
“A poorly edited book is a waste of your time and money. . . . Without [professional editing], your book is DOA.”
“If your book doesn’t look and read like it came out of a traditional publishing house, then whatever amount of money you spend on marketing is a waste.”
“[I]t’s easy for publishers to skew the royalty calculations in ways that on the surface seem generous, but really aren’t.”
“Printing [cost] markups affect every aspect of your book’s success. . . . The result is a book that should be retailing for between $13 and $15 selling for $20 to $22. . . . People don’t buy overpriced books, especially those that are written by authors they’ve never heard of.”
“Author Solutions companies . . . appear at first glance to have no printing markup. But, they are just pushing those markups into the royalties and/or printing markups when authors order copies of their own books. . . . Abbott Press, Archway, Balboa Press, and WestBow all take approximately a 61 percent net royalty (after backing out the trade discount and printing costs).”
“The core Author Solutions companies, iUniverse, Trafford, Xlibris, and AuthorHouse pay authors a 10 percent royalty, and often require a higher retail price than a comparable book in the same genre and page count.”
Caveat: Mark Levine has a self-interest in this (which he discloses upfront): His company, Hillcrest Media, owns Mill City Press, a publishing service provider. That said, he does not recommend that anyone choose his company over the others. In fact, he makes no recommendations. He lays out the information on costs and compensation (technically, there are no “royalties” for a self-publisher) and lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions.
As a professional editor and publishing consultant, I typically recommend that authors go the DIY route and use CreateSpace for print books (as a printer, not publisher), in conjunction with IngramSpark for broader distribution, and KDP (Kindle) and Smashwords for ebooks. However, I also realize that not everyone has the skills or inclination to do that and wants a bit of hand holding. Mill City appears to offer a reasonably priced package to transform a manuscript into a book—print and ebook—that doesn’t nickel-and-dime the author with hidden or disguised costs (there is no free lunch), as do most of the other companies offering such services.
In the past, I have recommended that authors NOT use the majority of the outfits offering publishing services—including but not limited to AuthorHouse, Author Solutions (or its subsidiaries), iUniverse, Lulu, and Xlibris. In my not-so-humble opinion, Levine’s book reinforces that advice.
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