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Review: The Fine Print of Self-Publishing by Mark Levine

The Fine Print of Self-Publishing should be required reading for anyone considering self-publishing, publishing through a small press, or publishing through a “traditional publisher” which requires the author to contribute to the publishing or marketing, or requires that they purchase books at “cost”. Seriously. Reading this book could save you thousands … if you remember a few things that he doesn’t mention. Like the number one rule of publishing:

Money flows from the publisher to the author.

Now we’ve finished the public service announcement, let’s get back to the review.

The author is the owner of a self-publishing firm, and the book is very much from that perspective. I’m not convinced by his explanation by of the difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing, but he defined what he meant, and that was sufficient to give the context for the rest of the book. I’m also not convinced by his underlying belief that authors need outside help in producing a professional product, that they are unable to do it themselves. I agree that everyone needs an external editor and/or proofreader, as no one can fully edit or proofread their own work, and people who aren’t trained graphic designers need to pay for a professional cover design. And an author may well decide to outsource tasks such as formatting.

But I don’t believe that a “self-publisher” is the best place to obtain all these services. I’ve read books from several of the self-publishers referenced in this book, and while the formatting in all of them was professional, the cover designs were of variable quality, as was the editing (one was, in my opinion, 150 pages longer than it needed to be, which priced the book out of the market).

What Levine didn’t do was give an author looking to self-publish any reason to outsource the publishing rather than do it themselves using freelance contractors. He points out that all the self-publishers he refers to (other than CreateSpace and Lulu) outsource the printing to Lightning Source. Yet a savvy self-publisher can deal directly with Lightning Source and avoid the printing markups which seem to be a major way these “self-publishers” make money.

This, for me, was one of the key strengths of  The Fine Print of Self-Publishing: a clear analysis of how “self-publishers” make money not just from being paid to produce the book, but from the ongoing sales. The author also takes readers through the real meaning of standard contract terms, including royalty calculations, and the relationship between printing markups on selling price—and how excessive printing markups produce a book that’s priced too high to sell. He also covers some of the “marketing” activities these organisations offer, with some idea of the relative cost and benefit of each.

One of the disadvantages of any book examining the current state of a market is that is can get outdated quickly. The Fine Print of Self-Publishing is no exception: one of the featured publishers (WinePress) has already gone out of business since the book was published three months ago (there’s probably a lesson in there about the reliability of some of these firms).

There are also a couple of areas where I would have liked to have seen more information, specifically with regard to one publisher mentioned in the book. While they don’t charge for publishing, they do require authors to contribute $4,000 towards marketing the book … but don’t say what that $4,000 buys. Personally, I’m not going to even look at spending that much without knowing exactly what I’m getting for the money. In fairness, the company wouldn’t disclose their contract without having a manuscript—something the author couldn’t exactly provide, given the nature of this book—so that’s not the author’s fault. But I’d really like to know what an author gets for that money …

The other thing Levine doesn’t cover are the firms who publish for free, but require authors to purchase a set number of their books. Based on the printing markup figures used in the book, the cost of 1,000 copies could easily exceed $10,000. These companies are, I believe, especially deceptive, as they often claim they aren’t self-publishers or vanity publishers, but traditional royalty-paying publishers (only they don’t pay royalties on the books the author buys, and what’s more “vanity” than requiring the author purchase 1,000 or more copies of their own book?).

Despite what looks here like a laundry list of complaints, I do believe any author considering self-publishing should buy and read this book. While the author never comes out and says “use Company X not Company Y”, the analysis makes it pretty clear who are the best options. It also provides a basis for the savvy author to calculate figures such as print markup for other companies not featured.

Buy the paperback and a new highlighter pen. You’ll need it.

Thanks to the author and StoryCartel for providing a free ebook for review.

Marketing 101: Price

This article is part four in my series on marketing, following posts on planning, product and place.

What is the right price for a book?

If you are accepted for publication by a trade publisher, then they will set the recommended retail price for your book. The actual retailer may discount that price, so you need to understand whether your contract pays royalties based on RRP, or actual selling price.

Looking at the Christian novels on my bookshelf, most are priced at $12.99 (all prices in this post are quoted in US dollars unless stated otherwise), with some priced at $11.99, $14.99 or (rarely) $15.99. Category romances are less expensive – Barbour 4-in-1 novella collections are $7.99, and Love Inspired are $5.99.

Now, obviously, I’m based in New Zealand, so the retail price I pay for books includes shipping from the US. Most full-price novels are NZD 24.99, NZD 27.99 or NZD 29.99, with some small-press books priced slightly higher than this—which means they might miss out on my purchasing dollar because I perceive a NZD 33.95 book as ‘too expensive’ – especially when I consider the price of e-books.

Ebooks

I own both a Kindle and a Kobo, so can purchase and read e-books from all the major online sellers. New release Christian fiction generally retails for $8.99 to $9.99 on Amazon – or less than half the price of the ‘dead tree book’ at my local Christian bookshop. Some authors have pre-launch sales where the book might be available for as little as $2.99—a bargain.

Older Christian books by established authors often cheap as well—$3.99 and $4.99 are common prices (and the author may be getting a bigger royalty from that than from the full-price dead tree version). Kindle evangelist Joe Konrath (who reportedly makes $50,000 each month from Kindle sales) believes that the ebook pricing sweet spot is just $2.99. At this price he makes $2.04 off each sale, compared to $2.50 off the sale of a trade-published $25 hardcover or $0.75 off a trade paperback. David Gaughran makes similar points, pointing out that different strategies will lead to different price points (e.g. maximising readers vs. maximising profit).

Why is this important? If choose to take the self-published route, you need to understand what the market price is, and what your strategy is. If you are considering publisher through a small trade publisher, make sure their retail prices are competitive with the market.

Self-publishing

As a self-published author, you need to understand you have to charge less than this. Why? Because these tight economic times mean readers have less to spend, so they are more likely to spend their money on a known author—who will pay $17.99 for a book from an unknown author, when you can buy a bestseller from a well-known Christian author for less?

This is where the economies of scale and marketing presence of the trade publishers can have a positive effect. I might not know who Carrie Turansky is, but I can see that The Governess of Highland Hall is published by WaterBrook Multnomah, who publish a lot of excellent Christian fiction. On that basis, I am prepared to spend money on a book by Carrie Turansky. But I probably wouldn’t spend money on an unknown author from an unknown publisher without having had the book or the author recommended to me. Which brings me nicely to the subject of the next post … Promotion.

Marketing 101: Place

Where do you sell your books?

Trade Published

If you are trade published, whether through a major or small publisher, the publisher will be responsible for distribution. They will ensure your book is listed with the main distributors so bookshops can order it on a low-risk sale-or-return basis. They will ensure Kindle and epub versions are available with the major online retailers (including Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble).

It is their job to negotiate with book sellers (whether independent bookshops, book chains or general merchandise stores) to stock your book. They will work with the big online retailers (Apple, Barnes & Noble) to promote your book. This is the huge benefit of a traditional publishing contract with a major publisher: they will have established relationships with the major chains, which means your book is more likely to be made available in stores or be given prime positioning online.

Note that vanity publishers will tell you they distribute through Ingram, so any bookstore in the US can order your book. That’s true. But just because they can doesn’t mean they will. It usually means a shop will order your book if a customer specifically requests it, but only then, because the vanity publishers don’t necessarily offer books on a sale-or-return basis (as the major publishers do. This is one reason retailers are happy to purchase books from those publishers: because there is no financial risk).

Self-published

If you are self-published, you will be responsible for all distribution, include deciding where you would like your book will be sold, negotiating with retailers, and setting up accounts with online retailers.

If you’ve used a print-on-demand service such as CreateSpace, Lightning Source or Lulu, your POD printer will send the book to whoever ordered it. If you chose the cheaper per unit method of offset printing, then you will have upwards of 1,000 books sitting in your garage (or lounge!), and you will be responsible for fulfilling all orders.

If you also have an ebook (as you should) version, you will also need to arrange conversion of your book into the required formats. The general advice for self-publishers is to publish directly to Amazon, and to use Smashwords to distribute to other retailers (such as Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, Sony, Google and Diesel, although you may want to submit to Apple separately). Of these, Amazon is probably the most important.

Why Amazon?

There are several reasons why most self-publishers choose to publish through Amazon:

Royalties

Amazon royalties are as high as (or higher than) any other ebook distributor and they are paid on a regular basis (although you do have to earn a minimum of $100 in royalties to be paid).

Customer Interface

Amazon is easier to browse and easier to search as a customer, which means customers spend more time there and buy more. The other online retailers have an inferior interface, and Kobo is particularly bad, even if you are searching for a specific author. When I used to shop at Kobo (in the days before you could buy a Kindle in New Zealand), I’d still using Amazon for searching, then would search on title and author for the book at Kobo. Even then, I’d only find it around half the time—which represents a lot of lost sales.

Amazon Associates

Amazon has an affiliate marketing programme that pays for referrals on paid books, including ebooks. This encourages book bloggers and websites to include Amazon affiliate links in their posts, to drive web traffic (and sales) to Amazon.

Customer Recommendations

The Amazon site and recommendations are designed to show the customer the books they are most likely to buy, regardless of publisher or price. Other sites (such as Barnes & Noble) are designed to show the books they want to sell—which are usually higher priced traditionally published books.

For a self-published author, this means Amazon is the one site that will promote your books for you, if you can show (through sales) that your book is something a segment of people will want to buy. Other sites will promote the books the publishers pay them to promote, or the books chosen by their merchandising teams (which are almost certainly trade-published titles).

Next week: Price

Marketing 101: Product

We are looking at the basics of book marketing. If you missed the first post in the series, you can find it here.

When considering marketing, the first and most important element is the product: your book.

The single most important thing anyone can do to succeed in any job, in any profession, is to do the job to the best of their ability. Before you release your product, your book, onto the market, it needs to be the best you are able to produce. No excuses.

Keep working at it until you get it right. This means revising, editing, getting assessments and critiques from people you trust, more revising, more editing, getting more feedback from readers, still more editing, proofreading, editing those changes, then proofreading again to make sure the editing and proofreading hasn’t added any more errors. When you are 99% sure that this is the best you can do – that’s when you seek publication, either directly or through a literary agent.

Self-publishing

If you are self-publishing, you are going to be responsible for making the decisions about everything:

  • Developmental editing
  • Copyediting
  • Proofreading
  • E-book conversion (it’s not enough to simply take a Word file and upload it)
  • Cover blurb
  • Cover design
  • Format: paperback, hardcover or e-book?
  • Print-on-demand or offset?
  • Organise an ISBN
  • Register copyright (where required)

Nick Thacker wrote an excellent blog post comparing the products and services of the three main print-on-demand companies: CreateSpace (owned by Amazon), Lightning Source (owned by Ingram, a major print and distribution company), and Lulu. It’s an excellent article, complete with photographs which illustrate the relative quality of each product (unfortunately, they also illustrate that Thacker’s interior design isn’t up to industry standards).

Self-publishing is a lot of work, but the rewards can be huge.

Small Publisher

If you are working through a small publisher, they may require you to go through one or two rounds of editing and proofreading (at your own cost) before they accept your manuscript, or they may do it all in-house. Be aware that not all small publishers understand what good fiction—and good fiction editing—looks like. They may simply proofread and not comment on issues like insufficient character development or lack of conflict, and they may not correct inconsistencies in point of view. I’ve seen books from small publishers with these faults. The books look professional—until you open them.

However, a good small publisher will take responsibility for all aspects of book production, and will produce a book you can be proud of. They will do all this at no cost to the author—remember, the first rule of publishing is that money flows to the author. If you are asked to pay for cover design, ebook conversion or for an ISBN number, the chances are this is a vanity publisher. If you are asked to pay a contribution towards marketing, your publisher is probably a vanity publisher. And if you are required to purchase a specified number of books, your publisher is certainly a vanity publisher (a real publisher allows you to purchase books at a stated discount, but does not require it).

Large Publisher

A larger trade publisher will take full responsibility for all tasks to do with the design and production of the book, although you (as the author and the person who knows the book best) will need to assist by completing the manuscript on time, completing all edits on time, and returning the final proofs when required. You may be given some input into cover design and back cover blurb, but this will depend on the individual publishing house.