Where Art And Business Meet Marketing for success and avoiding contract pitfalls
By Penelope Jensen and Mark London
While Mark Levine enjoys writing, cooking, and rollerblading, he is also the CEO of Click Industries, Ltd. His e-commerce company provides small business entrepreneurs and creative individuals (artists, writers, and musicians) with affordable products and services to help with the business start-up process and the protection of business assets and intellectual property. He co-founded Click Industries, Ltd. in 2000 after spending nine years as a corporate, entertainment, and intellectual property attorney.
Mark graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with dual majors in political science and journalism, and later earned his law degree from Georgetown University. In addition to The Fine Print Of Self-Publishing, he is the author of several scholarly works and two novels. Of note, is Levine's law review article, Home Office Deductions: Deserving Taxpayers Finally Get a Break, which was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992. His first novel, I Will Faithfully Execute, was published in 2000, and was read by former President Bill Clinton. It was also awarded his publisherís Book of The Year Award for 2000-2001. His second novel, Saturn Return, is a coming-of-age novel that examines who we are, where we're going and who we're meant to be with.
As a self-published author himself, Mark understands the difficulties that new authors face when publishing their first book. He wrote The Fine Print Of Self-Publishing to help simplify the confusing and potentially treacherous world of self-publishing. The idea for the book arose from his experience representing several writers who were led astray by dishonest self-publishing companies. The Fine Print Of Self Publishing has helped more than 2,000 authors choose the right self-publishing company, saving them hundreds and thousands of dollars in upfront book publishing fees.
He's smart, he's friendly, and we are very fortunate that he took the time to let us pick his brain for this interview.
IN: The Fine Print is touted by self-publishing industry experts as a "must read" for any writer considering self-publishing. What prompted you to write it?
Mark Levine: A college professor who had signed a horrible contract with a self-publishing company contacted me and asked if I could help him get out of it. My first impression upon the review of the contract was that someone would have to be crazy to even think about signing it. It then dawned on me that if an extremely educated individual like the professor, in his zeal to get published, wasnít paying attention to what he was signing there had to be thousands of other authors doing the same thing.
IN: The Fine Print analyzes and ranks the contracts and services of 48 major self-publishing companies, and it provides legal advice to writers. What techniques and tips can you share with our writers regarding researching in depth nonfiction topics?
ML: I think you have to really know the topic first. Writing what you know makes a lot of sense when it comes to nonfiction. I wrote and negotiated hundreds of commercial contracts and have the ability to break down the legalese into terms that make sense to someone with no legal training. Had I not had this knowledge and ability, I would have never written the book. When you intimately know a topic, it makes it easier to understand who the audience is and how to market your book to them.
IN: You have also written a couple of novels. What significant differences do you find between writing fiction and nonfiction? Which is more difficult?
ML: I suppose it depends on the type of nonfiction. For me, The Fine Print was an easy book to write. Having written many scholarly works at the graduate school level and hundreds of legal briefs, writing a book explaining publishing contracts was easy. The research was tedious and organizing all of the material was time-consuming, but the actual writing part was smooth. Fiction, while more enjoyable for me, involves much more creativity and wordsmithing. Because I donít outline my fiction in great detail, I never really know when the book will end.
IN: Who have been the most influential people during your writing career and why?
ML: Certainly, all of the teachers and professors along the way who validated my writing. Other than that, I would say itís the people who read the very early versions of my first novel.
IN: Other than legalities, what are the greatest challenges facing new writers on the path to becoming successful authors?
ML: Learning how to market their work. When you walk into a bookstore and see the sea of books or to a book fair and see tables of authors all hoping for a sale, it can be discouraging. Sending out letters to reviewers and media outlets is an approach I no longer believe is effective or very relevant. Yes, a good review can help, but Iíd rather spend my time and money getting interested readers to consider my book. In the end, itís about book sales, not glowing reviews that nobody reads. Our approach to book marketing is to simply harness the power of the Internet and drive people already interested in the topics and themes of my books to websites where they can buy the book. Click Industries, Ltd. works with many writers in creating cost-effective online marketing campaigns.
IN: Law, contractual fine print, and legalities are normally quite dry reading. What techniques did you use to accomplish writing such an absorbing, informative, entertaining book about the topic?
ML: I always try to write things in a way that arenít boring. I wish I could say something more profound. My style, especially in nonfiction is to tell it like it is. If a publisher is really bad, I want a writer to know that, if, despite my book, they sign a contract with them, then they are insane. People have responded well to this style. It may not work for every book, but I think it works here because Iím one of the people Iím writing for.
IN: When one of your new books is launched, how important are touring, readings, and book signings to help ensure success and book sales?
ML: I think those things are fine, but the effort expended to put them together isnít worth the return, especially for small unknown authors. One thing that does work though is if you develop a network of friends in a particular city on a site like MySpace. You get them talking about your book and buying it, and then you set something up in that city. Again, you are spending $0 to get people interested in you and your book. A tour makes sense when planned like that. But, overall, I think oneís time and money is best spent doing cost-effective online marketing.
If I go to a book signing in a bookstore in town X, I have to hope that the visitors to that store that day have an interest in my book and that they will buy the book. I would have spent a lot of money to hope to sell a few books. Letís say Iíve written a historical novel about the Revolutionary War. I can than advertise on terms like ďBattle of Bunker Hill.Ē When people are searching that online, they will see an ad for the book and be taken to a page on my site that discusses how the Battle of Bunker Hill relates to my book. Thatís the kind of targeting of readers I think works best.
IN: As owner of Click Industries, Ltd. (http://www.clickindustries.com/), an e-commerce company with nineteen websites that provide some excellent writing resources, what time management advice can you offer to writers to help balance their writing life with the requirements of marketing and promoting their work online?
ML: Writers have to decide whether or not they want to learn the nuances of online marketing themselves. It takes years to perfect it. However, it can be done. When you publish a book, I believe that you need to set aside a certain amount of money to market it and you canít be so concerned with how fast you can get a return on that expenditure. Getting your name and book exposured is part of the cost of business and may not pay out initially. Writers who wisely spend money will create long lasting marketing tools (for example, an optimized website, and an effective pay-per-click campaign) that will continue working for them for years after the expense was made.
IN: You have specialized in e-commerce for many years now, what is your position on Patent #6,044,362, which is successfully forcing companies utilizing electronic commerce to pay a rumoured license fee of $250,000.00, and do you believe it will adversely affect writers and online book sellers?
ML: Iím not an expert on this, but from what Iíve read, this patent will not work the way the patent holder wants due to the crippling effect it would have on Internet commerce. There will be years of litigation before anything would be decided. Plus, it would probably affect companies that provide the payment processing services more than businesses like ours. So, any fees would be spread among millions of users.
IN: As a successful journalist, author, and intellectual property rights lawyer, when you are faced with having to sign a contract from a publishing company, what clauses in particular are the ones you suggest authors pay most attention to?
ML: The term and how to terminate the contract. How printing costs and royalties are calculated. Finally, authors must demand that they own all rights and upon termination get the digital files that they paid the publisher to create.
IN: What advice do you offer for writers about the merits or pitfalls of taking writing classes and attending conferences and writing seminars?
ML: I think meeting people in the business is good. Writing classes can certainly help you focus on your craft, and hearing what other writers do can spark the creative juices. Weíve attended several book fairs, and the best thing about those is that they demonstrate what not to do. For example, at a book fair last week of mostly local authors, our table had tons of visitors because I was giving away free mood rings (played into the theme of my novel Saturn Return). So, while the rest of the people had a bowl of candy, I had cool rings and a sign that asked ďWhat mood will the author be in if you take a free ring and donít buy his book?Ē.
IN: Any final general writing advice to our readers?
ML: Write what you love, not what you think you can sell. Also, when it comes to marketing your book, smash the box to make sure you donít have the option to ever think within it again.
IN: What's next for you?
ML: Glad you asked. After the success of The Fine Print, I discovered a way to create the utopian self-publishing company, Mill City Press (www.MillCityPress.net). The company doesnít mark up the book printing costs (our authors pay the exact same thing we do at Lightning Source) and the authors keep 100% of their royalties. The philosophy of our company is that if youíre going to spend money, spend it on things that will actually help you sell books and not on lining the pockets of a publisher. We treat each book as a mini-ecommerce company and create customized online book marketing plans for every author. We help authors create optimized websites, put together cost-effective pay-per-click campaigns, market their books on Myspace, Friendster, and five other social networking sites (in fact, we have a full-time person who does only that).
The Fine Print, Bridgeway Books, July 2006 I Will Faithfully Execute, Bookbooters.com, May 2001 Saturn Return, Bascom Hill Publishing, Ltd., April 2006
Penelope Jensen considers herself a citizen of the world, aligning herself at this moment with the purposes of IN, where you'll find her writing articles and interviewing authors, among other things. You can reach Penny at: PenJen@inorbit.com
Mark London is a Toronto based freelance writer and associate editor of IN who has been with the FWO-Int'l from the early years volunteering much of his time in assisting young writers' careers. Email: Mark London