Interview: Mark Levine on Self-Publishing

PhotobucketWhen we heard about entrepreneur Mark Levin’s book, The Fine Print of Self Publishing: The Contracts & Services of 45 Self-Publishing Companies Analyzed Ranked & Exposed, we were immediately intrigued. We don’t know a lot about self-publishing, to be honest, but we know the idea of it appeals to many of you, including our own Ray Rhamey. How does one go about having their work self-published? Are some companies more reputable than others? What, exactly, does a writer need to be aware of — and beWare of?

(Would you like a copy of Mark’s book for yourself? Read on to find out how you might be eligible.)

We’re thrilled that Mark Levine took some time out to talk to us about his book and about self-publishing in general. Enjoy!

Q: What inspired you to write The Fine Print of Self-Publishing?

ML: A fellow author published by the publisher of my first novel contacted me and asked if I could help him get out of a contract he signed with a self-publishing company. The contract was awful and gave this company the rights to the author’s book for the term of the copyright (the life of the author, plus 70 years). This author also happened to be a professor at UC-Berkley. I figured if a guy this educated was signing a contract just to get published, there were probably thousands of writers out there in the same boat. That one incident was my market research before I wrote the first edition of The Fine Print in 2004.

Q: What’s your background, what do you do now?

ML: I was a lawyer by training, but was very entrepreneurial and wanted to own a business. In 2000, I started an Internet company, Click Industries that did online business filings (corporations, copyright registrations, assumed business names, etc.). That company has grown an expanded to 35+ websites across many different fields, including book publishing. In addition to running Click, I’ve published three books (including The Fine Print).

Q: Do you think e-publishing and self publishing will increase or decrease in the future, and why?

ML: Self-publishing is only going to increase. What happened in the record business is now happening in publishing. Traditional publishers no longer have a lock on distribution channels, so authors like me can cut them out and deal directly with buyers (website sales, etc.) as well as bookstores and libraries (through distributors). Traditional publishers take fewer and fewer new authors every year. These publishers are now seeking out successful self-published authors since those authors already have proven sales and reader bases.

Q: What do you see as the benefits of self publishing and e-publishing? And is your book self published?

ML: The benefits are the author is in control. If the author is working with a self-publishing company that actually has real distribution, etc., the author has to give up some control over cover design, layout, etc. to make sure that the book presented to buyers is commercially viable. But, overall the author is in control and should the book start to sell well, the author has many options available to him or her. My book is published by a publishing company that my company is an investor in.

Q: There are obviously disadvantages as well; your book focuses on scams you might find in the world of e-publishing and self-publishing. Do you think there are more problems when you choose this route over traditional publishing? Why? And just how common are scams?

ML: There are few scams where a company takes your money and disappears and that is not what I mean in my book when I discuss scams. I mean more of the sales techniques (used mostly by the bigger self-publishing companies) to get people to spend a ton of money, a lot of it on things that won’t help an author’s book (e.g. an ad in the back of the NY Times Book Review that has a thumbnail cover and brief description of the author’s book along with those of 10-15 other authors). Also, some of these publishers mark up the printing costs so high (100% or more) that it makes it impossible for the author to make any money publishing. My book reveals all of that information on each publisher. I wouldn’t say there are any more scam artists in self-publishing as there are in traditional publishing, you just hear about it more often.

Q: What are the top five contract scams out there?

ML: Huge printing mark ups, high publisher royalties, advertising gimmicks that don’t work (e.g. printing up 500 posters of your book — what are you going to do with them?), phone sales tactics like telling authors they are losing money in royalties each day they don’t sign up, contracts that give the publisher some interest in the other rights the author owns in a book (e.g. movie rights, etc.)

Q: What kind of “services” might you be offered by a disreputable publisher?

ML: Here are a few:

1. Not providing what the contract or website says they are providing.

2. Book marketing tactics that don’t work like the ads in the back of the NY Times and email blasts to 1,000 media contacts. There aren’t 1,000 media outlets that would be interested in your book and companies that do this are just spamming the same people over and over.

3. Charging to get the production files of your book back if you decide to publish elsewhere later. Without the production files, you can’t make changes to the book that you’d have to to reprint under your own company name or with another publisher. You paid for these files, so a company that makes you pay more than $100 or so to get them back is ripping you off.

Q: You have a list, the five signs you may be falling prey to a publishing predator. What are those five signs?

ML: Everything covered above. But, the number one sign is when a company keeps hounding you for the sale, your rip-off radar should go up.

Q: What sorts of things should you look for in a good self-publishing company?

PhotobucketML: Your readers should go to and download the “Author’s Bill of Rights” for free. It’s spelled out there in detail.

Q: What sorts of myths and misconceptions abound in the world of self- and e-publishing?

ML: That self-published books aren’t good. In fact, some are fantastic. But, all self-published books get lumped together by people. So, the horribly written book, that was never edited, and where the author insists on a ridiculous cover design get compared to books that have a defined audience, are well-edited, look professional, etc. Plus, those in traditional publishing trash self-publishing. It used to be because of there institutional elitism, but now it’s because they see the future and the future is not their antiquated publishing model.

Q: How did you go about writing your book? How many publishing companies and contracts were reviewed? What were the criteria for being included?

ML: This is the third edition, but the first one in which I had a researcher contact each company just as any author would. The only difference was that I told her what questions to ask. She did the initial review of a company (much of it based on my previous review, but with updates on pricing, contract terms, new services, etc.) and then I would ask her to follow up with additional questions. I then wrote the final version on each company. We reviewed 45 companies in this edition. The only criteria is that the company be a publisher and not just a printer.

Q: Tell us about your “fake book” experiment. What was it, and what were the results?

ML: There are some self-publishing companies that claim to be very selective on what they accept. So, for those companies, we created a book of poetry written by a dog and submitted it. At least three companies that claim to take only a small percentage of submissions, accepted it.

Q: What should every author who wishes to be self- or e-published know?

ML: Every author should know these things:

1. Know the audience of your book. It is not everyone, despite what you think.

2. You must have your book edited by a professional book editor. Friends who are English majors don’t count.

3. Realize that books don’t magically sell, just because you put it out there and it’s on Amazon.

4. A book is like any other product, if you don’t invest any money to market it, don’t expect a lot of sales.

5. Understand that books take time to catch on, especially self-published ones that don’t have huge marketing budgets. If you can’t afford to perhaps never get you publishing investment returned in full from book sales, don’t publish your book. You are entering an arena as competitive as music, movies, television, etc…

6. Have realistic goals. My first goal with every book is to make back my money eventually. Then once I do that, my next goal is to make enough extra each month from sales to go out for a really expensive dinner. I don’t sit around dreaming about being on Oprah. Instead I spend my time working on getting people to buy my books.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add — some final words on e- and self-publishing?

ML: It’s great when you approach it with a good book and a good attitude.

Thanks so much, Mark, for an enlightening interview!

Readers, if you’d like a copy of Mark’s book, please leave a comment below. One lucky winner will be chosen by random and announced next week. Write on!



Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between aspiring novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton in January, 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~40 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter, or join our thriving Facebook community.


  1. says

    Interesting… I’m not against self publishing for any reason, but I do think there are a lot less quality assurance practices in place in that field vs. traditional publishing, and that’s where a lot of the stigma comes from. However, as Mr. Levine says, it’s not going anywhere, so I think the quality levels will improve with time, hopefully giving a lot of writers a chance to get their work out there when they otherwise might not have had the chance.

    Is it strange for me to admit that I sort of want to go the “more difficult” route of traditional publishing, at least at this point in my career? I feel like I need the validation… it’s sort of just how I was raised.

  2. says

    There is a time to dream, and a time to research your intended book. Then there’s a time to write it, to take a breather, and after which to self-edit it. If you intend to make money on its merits, you should have been working on that in the background the whole time spent so far. Presumably also by now you have alloyed the dream with reality, and your expectations with practicality.

    Time’s up! There’s a new wave in the great “out there” that you might have chanced upon, called “Open Source.” There’s still time to catch it — and since you are being both creative and entrepreneurial it’s completely up to you how you ride that wave. Does that scare you? If so, take the old way. If it excites you, go for it! It’s a whole new and ‘nother world out there in cyberspace.

  3. says

    I think his points about the publishing industry starting to mirror the record industry, are interesting. It’s a sentiment that keeps cropping up over and over, so I definitely think the next decade is going to see a real legitimizing of self-publishing as an option.

    Though one thing I think it’s important to mention is, even using POD technology, things like and author house are not one’s only options for self publishing. You can start your own micro-press, and outsource all aspects of book design and editing, and get your printing done through Lightning Source. It’s still print on demand. You still have access to distributors: Ingram, Baker and Taylor, and Amazon. Though one might want to use CreateSpace for Amazon, simply for the “in stock” listing and for the fact that you take home much more percentage wise per book.

  4. Jcat says

    Slogging through the jumble of self-publishing options has been overwhelming and daunting for me. There’s still a stigma where self-publishing is concerned. If I take this route, I want to find the best possible match for my novel. Thank you for doing the research.

  5. Cheri says

    This was a very informative interview and I appreciate the fact that Mark has done the research. I’ve heard both positive and negative comments on self publishing and looked into a few, but now the hard work has been done for me, I’ll just look for Mark’s book.

  6. says


    Cleanly shaven, dressed in a tuxedo and ready for work I opened the day’s mail. Today’s postal booty contained bills, a Victoria Secrets catalog, and an SASE with a rejection slip telling me, “Sorry, but there is simply no market for joke books.”

    I stabbed the rejection on the letter stake in my office (convenient and cathartic) and drove to my night job. The first couple I served at the bar was talking about taxes so I smiled and hit them with a couple of trinkets from my recently rejected joke book, A Man Walks Into a Bar…. :

    A man walks into a bar with an alligator on a leash. He says to the bartender, “Do you serve IRS agents here?”

    “Of course.”

    “Great. I’ll have a Bud and get a coupla IRS agents for my gator.”


    How are dealing with the IRS and wearing a condom similar?

    With both you are screwed with no sensitivity whatsoever.

    “We love jokes,” says the couple, “but we can never remember jokes.” I’ve worked 30+ years in the restaurant biz, joking and bullshitting my way through shift-after-shift and whenever I tell two or more consecutive jokes I ALWAYS get the above response: We can never remember jokes….

    We’ve all heard: The map is not the territory but on this night it really hit home. Here I am, working five nights a week in a restaurant, serving upscale clientele with disposable income that, I know from experience, not marketing surveys, enjoy jokes of every type—from silly to sick—confess to not being able to remember jokes, and yet the publishing powers that be insist that there is no market for joke books.



    There is a lingering perception that self-published books are like the world’s tallest midget. Even though they are printed and sold successfully (see sidebar), self-published books are perceived as inherently inferior: as the world’s tallest midget is, still, just a really, really, really short person. If they were “real” books, wouldn’t they have been published by a “real” publisher?

    Good question.

    The publishing industry itself has, for years, consciously perpetuated this notion of inferiority by dubbing the self-publishing industry: Vanity Press.

    The book (A Man Walks Into a Bar…) I was attempting to sell is a comprehensive, encyclopedic volume of jokes. In the restaurant biz you are constantly hearing new jokes. Twenty years ago I started writing them down on bar napkins and beer mats which resulted in, as it reads on the book’s eventual back cover: “The definitive single-volume collection of modern American adult humor.”

    It had become obvious (after years of submitting book proposals) that no agent would agent the book and no publisher would publish it. So I began research into what types of self-publishing were available, and, how much it would cost.


    If you have $10,000 dollars stashed in your messy sock drawer you can go on-line, find a Vanity Press publisher, pay them and mail away your manuscript. They will proof the manuscript, format it into book form, and produce a handsome volume all ready for you to market. (more on that later)

    But in my messy sock drawer I have enough spare change to (maybe) spring for lunch at the local taqueria, a foul tip baseball hit by Willie McCovey that I caught at Candlestick in 1967 and, well, socks.

    I researched which publisher offered what. There are a plethora of legitimate and affordable self-publishers, but man, I was broke. I’m working fulltime as a waiter and my two published novels were selling like George Bush campaign memorabilia in a Baghdad mosque. I happened upon Café Press, who publish you for free, but you have to upload the manuscript in PDF format. I understand this is easy on a Mac but my computer doesn’t have this capability so I kept surfing and scrolling various websites.

    Then I found Lulu Press.

    They will publish your book for free. As a point of copyright law, when you work with Lulu, YOU are the publisher and retain all rights. They offer, again at a price, editing and formatting services. But they also have an informative FAQ page that refers you to Internet sites offering self-publishing techniques and advice.


    I went to Lulu’s testimonial page and, to the company’s credit; they printed a few not so complimentary letters. One letter excoriated the company for producing a shoddy and inferior product. I looked up the book and read a sample. The margins were ragged, the text ran into the book’s gutter, and it looked like an 11th hour junior high school project. But another book’s sample chapters couldn’t be distinguished from a Random House Vintage Contemporaries edition. The margins were crisp, every new chapter started on a facing page, the front matter (dedication, copyright, table of contents) imminently tasteful and professional.

    Obviously, if you uploaded skunky material it would stink and if you uploaded a gem it would glimmer.

    So it was time to subject my 1,100 page A Man Walks into a Bar…manuscript to an extreme makeover.

    The first thing I did was print it out (cost for an 1100 page manuscript, paper and ink cartridges, about $45. Ouch.) and proofed the hell out of it. Then I sent the monster to my poor critique group. They sent me chapters from novels in progress and I sent them each 350 pages of misspelled, smutty, indecent jokes. (I owe them dinner. Dinners.) Then I applied their corrections and proofread the book again.

    This took about three months and as it turned out, was the easy part.

    I downloaded all the “Manuscript Transformation” information from the recommended sites and I couldn’t make it work. Formatting the manuscript for publication had become a HUGE endeavor. I called a few friends and they said, “Simple, go get Quark.”

    Quark is a program specifically designed to manage gutters, margins, pagination, headers & footers, etc. but costs $800.


    Instead I hit the Internet (the electronic equivalent, I’ve decided, of a garage sale for discounted merchandise and emotions) and I found an article in the Publishing Marketing Association newsletter by Aaron Shepard entitled, Yes, You Can Use Microsoft Word to Set Type That Looks Professional.

    Happy days are here again!

    But I couldn’t make Shepard’s advice work, either. I was at a loss, particularly when it came to pagination, calculating gutter offset, and proper design of the front matter. Then, following Shepard’s advice I read a fantastic and informative book by James Felici, Complete Manual of Typography. (This book isn’t optional. You need to understand why you’re manipulating the text. And, self-publishing is not a snap. I liken it to tending a backyard garden: a lot of work, but it’s your garden, and you really don’t want to cut corners.) After studying Felici’s book I was ready to proceed, but my manuscript (nearly 200,000 words) was so hefty and unwieldy that computer commands took TIME TIME TIME to execute and even longer to correct.

    And I made a heapin’ helpin’ of mistakes.

    Then my wife suggested I publish the book chapter-by-chapter: separate books for Doctors and Lawyers, Blondes, Religion, Dirty Johnny, etc. Each chapter was 9,000 to 15,000 words so I worked on a series of short (70-120 page) joke books. This took the pressure off and allowed me to familiarize myself with the process of turning a Word document into a formatted book, simply by doing it again-and-again. I also learned (through repetition) the Lulu process of designing a cover, placing a blurb on the back cover (tricky), and pricing the books. All of these skills were necessary to turn the Big Daddy, 1100 page manuscript into a viable volume.

    So a process that I thought would take a month or two took seven months, countless hours on-line, but resulted in 11 little books and one 700 page book in print.


    The new Print On Demand (POD) technology is incredible and opens up new avenues for all writers. By printing a book only after it is ordered the start-up expense of printing a first edition run of 20,000 books is avoided and will provide unpublished (and published) writers a new “in” to publishing.

    But what about the marketing a “legitimate” publisher provides?

    They do indeed provide marketing. The publisher of my first novel provided none; the publisher of my second, less than none.

    I’m not blaming them; I just wish it were different.

    But their marketing attitudes (again, understandably but lamentably linked to their purse strings) are like someone who does 25 push-ups, 35 sit ups, runs twice around the block and says, “There. I’m in shape. I’ll never have to exercise again!”

    To expect more marketing support (unless you are already famous and bankable) from a publisher, I’ve learned, is naïve and foolish. When your book is published, legitimate or Vanity, the responsibility of marketing is ultimately yours.

    At Lulu you can spend $34.95 and receive an ISBN number for your book which will list it on Amazon and allow your local bookstore to order, stock, and sell your baby.
    But beware!

    Amazon takes a 20% commission off the published price and that will bump your book out of the normal book buyers comfort zone. At Lulu my big book lists at $26.95, which I think is fair for a book of that size. If I paid $34.95 for the honor (I didn’t) of having it listed on Amazon the tome would have to be priced at around $43.00 (before shipping) and I’d earn $4.12 per book. Without the ISBN, after Lulu takes their 10% cut off the pre-royalty price I make $6.82 per volume. It’s nice to be listed on Amazon, but realistically, no stranger is gonna plop down $50 (with shipping) on a book that doesn’t even have any pictures.

    After further research, it’s obvious that I needed to explore and utilize new avenues of on-line marketing. My next adventure is to establish a “Joke of the Day” blog, visit related sites in the Blogosphere and try to market my menagerie of mirth in that manner.

    Quick recap: You brainstorm the book. You research it. You outline it. You write it. You rewrite it…. You edit it. You format it for publication. You self-publish it. You promote it. You market it. You sell it. And then, and only if it’s successful, do you have a shot at a major publishing house and any hope of national marketing support and distribution.
    You know, I really hadn’t anticipated this much peripheral bullshit when I checked the little box next to Writer on Career Day at St. Vincent’s High School in 1971.


    With the advent of POD it’s a new world (we truly aren’t in Kansas anymore) and writers aren’t stymied by the dilemma of depending on a lucky break or paying thousands to self-publish.

    A well written book, properly proofed, formatted and published using POD technology might well have all the grace and grandeur of the Emerald City. But a sloppily written, self-indulgent, error laced book—although in print with a shiny, shiny cover—will do nothing more than reveal the short, sad, impotent wizard behind the curtains.

    While I am pleased and proud of my self-published encyclopedia of filth and scatology, I really don’t know if I’d self-publish fiction.

    When I’m writing a novel I am absolutely the worst judge of its worth.

    My joke books fill a niche market that publishers (I’ve been told time-and-again) refuse to believe exists, and the books, like Aesop’s tortoise will be successful slowly and eventually. But fiction and other genres are so tricky and subjective.

    Don’t simply take your memoirs or poetry or novel or collected short stories and assume that they are viable books simply because they are book length. Never trust your own judgment: most newborns look like Peter Lorre but all mamas think their babies are beautiful, angelic little gifts from heaven.

    So it is with our books.

    More often than not, objectivity is numbed when reading our own stuff because, dammit, we’re human. Utilize critique groups. Re-re-re-read. When you think there are no typos, set it aside for a month and go back to it.

    Then do it again.

    I ordered proof copies of each of my Lulu joke books so I could read them ONE MORE TIME before I offered them to the public.

    I’m glad I did.

    The final proofing before publishing at Lulu is done on your computer screen which is difficult. While proofing an actual book you can hold, many glitches, oversights and boo-boos will suddenly appear. Ordering a proof copy gives you ONE MORE CHANCE to not make an ass of yourself. Readers are, rightly so, quite critical: don’t give them fuel with misspellings and shoddy grammar. Most readers are also non-writers and they think writing a book is as easy as scarfing down four bowls of Alpha Bits, sticking your finger down your throat, and typing out the regurgitated gift bestowed upon you by your Muse. They have no appreciation for the process and effort of writing. Respect your reader, order that proof copy and scour it for slip-ups. Make it perfect.

    Lulu’s software, on the bright side, makes it easy to upload a corrected PDF file to an existing cover. It’s a pretty zippy arrangement, so use the built-in ease and flexibility to your advantage.

    The main drawback, personally, in self-publishing is that it’s not writing. In the time I spent researching and implementing these publishing procedures I could have cranked out the first draft to another novel. But, the world is changing and it is wonderful that writers like us who must look up to see the bottom of the literary food chain can, with an investment of time and elbow grease, see our books in print. And as Gene Perret says, “Admit, though, that no one cares as much about your writing as you do. So, once again, it’s your career; you take charge of it.”


    I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the books printed by Lulu. On three books I used stock covers that Lulu offers, and for the remainder I used a simple, austere, classy (without a doubt the classiest thing about these filthy little volumes) single color covers. For more photographically and computer savvy folks Lulu offers the option of uploading a custom made one-piece cover with your own art work or photography. Again, amazingly, the process is free.

    But the thing that surprised me the most about self-publishing was sales. I contacted oodles of people who were interested in my jokey-jokey projects and they lapped ‘em up, ordering direct from my on-line storefront. I’ve honestly made enough money in the past six months to retire tomorrow and live comfortably for the rest of my life.

    Provided I die next Tuesday.



    John Grisham, A Time to Kill was originally sold out of the trunk of his car.
    William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. This classic volume was self-published in 1918 for use at Cornell University.
    Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn. Yes, Sam Clemens self-published the original edition of this great American novel.
    Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass. Self-publishing for poets has had, through the years, fewer negative connotations.
    Tom Peters, In Search of Excellence. He sold 25,000 self-published copies in a year; Warner jumped on it and sold 10 million more.
    L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics. Originally self-published, it’s been in print 45 years and sold 20 million copies in 22 different languages.
    Irma Rombauer, The Joy of Cooking. Self-published in 1931 and sold to Scribners after its initial success. Today, still sells 100,000 copies a year.
    Richard Nelson, What Color is Your Parachute? Twenty-two editions, 288 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, 5 million copies sold.
    Ken Blanchard, The One-Minute Manager. The self-published edition quickly sold 20,000 copies before being sold to William Morrow. It’s now in 25 languages and has sold 12 million copies.

  7. lafreya says

    My agent and I are finding out that the only thing tradition publishers seems to believe African America authors can or should write is street lit, romance and erotica. We are going to try small presses but I’m not holding my breath because their catalogs don’t reveal much diversity either. I’m thinking self-publishing may be my only way to get decent literary books about African Americans out in the world. Thanks for this information.

  8. says


    I just pulled the #8 out of a hat, which means Lafreya, commenter #8, has won a copy of Mark’s book. Congratulations!

    Thanks, everyone, for great comments.

  9. says

    “John Grisham, A Time to Kill was originally sold out of the trunk of his car.”

    Yeah. His author copies from a commercial publisher: Wynwood. Self-publishing is still for losers. Always was, despite the microscopic exceptions.