The Fine Print of Self-Publishing

The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, The Contracts & Services of 45 Major Self-Publishing Companies — Analyzed, Ranked, & Exposed, by Mark Levine (3rd edition) Hillcrest Publishing Group, Inc., 2008

Anyone considering using one of the many online Print-on-Demand (POD) services available today would do well to read The Fine Print of Self-Publishing by self-publishing author and attorney Mark Levine (only an attorney could risk writing a book like this). This is a critical guide to the legal and economic pitfalls of POD with the names of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Actually, he ranks the services according to 4 basic categories —1) outstanding, 2) pretty good, 3) okay, and 4) publishers to avoid. He examines over 40 companies, including Booksurge, LuLu, CreateSpace, Arbor Books, iUniverse, etc. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t compare them in a uniform way. That said, this is a useful book that can no doubt says authors from making some expensive blunders, including loosing control of their life’s work.

On the down side, he doesn’t discuss Lightning Source, a subsidiary of Ingram Industries Inc. a good guy in the world of POD and a company used by many of the companies he reviews. It is the sister company to the wholesaler Ingram Book Group. They are said to produce around 100,000 books a week. The reason for Levine’s omission is, I assume, that Lightning Source only works with publishers. That said, most of my self-publishing clients use Lightning Source. Anyone who self-publishes, is in effect, a publisher, so why not act like one and go about business in a way that makes the most economic sense? The other services are really for people who can’t or don’t need to get published with a traditional publisher and who do not want to be bothered to do the work on their own — i.e., the work of getting a designer, their own ISBN, etc. In a few cases, as Levine points out, you can still profitably use some of he companies Levine reviews for POD even if you have the book prepared through a different provider or series of providers—which is really your best option with POD.

Because Levine is critiquing services that offer additional services like design and pre-press layout, as well as the printing, he doesn’t really address true “self-publishing” in most instances. Most of these services are actually a POD version of what is better known as vanity presses.

This seems to be reason he spends a fair amount of time complaining about how these companies don’t actually give their clients the production or press-ready files when the job is completed, except in some cases, companies that charge large fees (over $1000 for copies of the press-ready cover and interior page files). Oddly, none of the companies give a satisfactory explanation for why they with-hold the files. I suspect it’s because the sales representatives are unaware of what’s going on in the company legal departments that craft the policy.

One likely reason is the complexity of font software license agreements. Companies purchase 3rd party font software licenses to create the files and are not allowed in many cases to distribute the fonts even embedded in PDF files excepting when the files are being sent to a printer. In some cases font software licenses are not so restrictive. Fonts can be embedded in PDF that are distributed, sometimes without additional fees, sometimes with (Emigre fonts for example require royalties for ebooks/PDFs). That is, these companies simply don’t have a license agreement that would allow them to give up the files.

POD companies have eliminated the headache of sifting through hundreds of changing font license agreements for the few exceptions that effect PDFs by simply issuing a policy to withhold all the files. Smaller companies and design studios usually provide a list of the fonts (i.e., omitting the fonts) so that clients can match marketing materials. Font costs for a single book project can range from $20 to over $2000. Design studios continually invest in new font purchases, costs that are not passed onto clients in a proportional manner. Nonetheless, even design studios today rarely hand over source files. There are other reason besides fonts. One is the proprietary nature of how the files are put together. You may think, surely production methods are straight out of the application manuals and there’s no secrets in that. But the reality is that most design studios get handed badly composed files all the time with pleas for help. Usually the project has to be re-done. And finally, if the files are altered after being made press-ready, they may fail at the press.

A few other details: On page xiii, take note of the conflict of interest between Levine’s own business and the services he critiques. No index. And perhaps, most important—keep in mind that there’s no way the author can keep this %100 up-to-date as companies often change their contracts, some for the better and some for the worse.

Even with that said, I still recommend the book. This book will open the eyes of many who are new to self-publishing.