Welcome JoVon Sotak, Montlake Romance Editor

- by Lina Gardiner

Welcome to our Industry Blog, JoVon.  We look forward to reading the answers to our questions.

Out of curiosity, what do you do for relaxation?

Baking: stress baking, affection baking—even baking for forgiveness. Baking’s combination of science and creative rhythm puts me at ease. The cruel irony is that I live grain-, egg-, and dairy-free, yet nearly all of the baking I do is traditional. Luckily the people I’m surrounded by are happy to help manage my habit.

What are you reading (for pleasure) right now?

My kitchen science experiments have extended to fermentation, so my nose has been stuck in Delicious Probiotic Drinks by Julia Mueller. Foodie books aside, I love escaping into romatasy (that delicious blend of romance and fantasy). A colleague recommended Thea Harrison’s Elder Races series, which I somehow overlooked, and I’m burning my way through the second book in the series.

Is there a “next trend” in Montlake books?

At Montlake, we’re always looking to publish unputdownable romances that readers love, and at a great value that allows readers to experiment with new authors and subgenres. Programs like Kindle Unlimited and Kindle First allow us to share authors like Nancy Naigle and Terri Osburn with readers looking for something new. In terms of “next trends,” in 2015 we have our eyes on hot billionaires and mobsters. We’re also excited to see writers push the boundaries of subgenres and take familiar tropes and turn them upside down. A Dark Lure (July 2015), by Loreth Anne White adds ever more depth to her romantic suspense by infusing a chilling tale with breathtaking literary prose and rhythms. Another upcoming romantic suspense that turns a trope upside down is Camilla Monk’s debut novel Spotless—a sexy contract killer isn’t new, but a sexy contract killer with OCD? Delightful!

I’ve never met a Montlake author who didn’t say Montlake was the most author-friendly traditional publisher in the business. How did Montlake accomplish that?

We share the same customer-focus as Amazon, which means that at Montlake we consider authors our customers. Our day-to-day decisions about our business are driven by a focus on author happiness and how we might improve the experience of publishing for authors. Montlake authors seem to really appreciate that.

Do you attend writers’ conferences?  If so, which ones?

This year I personally attended RWA’s national convention and Montlake made an appearance at both RT and RWA conventions.

Are there other ways to get work in front of you other than through an agent?

In addition to agented submissions, I review self-published novels, recommendations from Montlake authors, and contest finalists.

Can you tell us about Crowd Source Platform initiative? How does a KDP author submit her books for this program? When will it be unveiled?

That’s Kindle Scout, a new reader-powered publishing program that Amazon launched on October 14 where authors can submit their full-length books and readers have 30 days to nominate those stories they want to see published. The program is separate from Amazon Publishing and Montlake, but I’m excited to see how authors and readers engage with this new publishing option. The site will soon open to readers to cast their nominations for the novels they’d like to see published.

Are there any plans to hold contests to find new authors?

Not that I’m aware of. Kindle Scout, which I mentioned above, is another great avenue for new authors to get noticed. While it’s not a contest, it’s a program where readers nominate books they want to see published by Kindle Press.

What in particular are you looking for, and what subgenres do well overall for Montlake?

Montlake publishes a wide array of subgenres and we’re always open to books that push and test the boundaries between genres. We have done quite well with contemporary romance and romantic suspense. Montlake readers have loved stories with strong, memorable heroes, like Mason Callahan from Kendra Elliot’s Callahan and McLane series. He originally appeared in Elliot’s Bone Secrets novels, and was such a strong hero that he needed his own series. We’re seeing readers fall in love with heroines who can hold their own—Tiffany Snow’s Kathleen Turner is a good example. Heather Burch’s contemporary romance One Lavender Ribbon was a breakout hit for us, and seeing how the book has touched readers’ hearts has been a career-defining moment for me (if you read the customer reviews, grab a tissue!). It’s the type of book that stays in your heart, and I’m constantly on the lookout for books with that kind of magic.

What kind of marketing push could an indie author expect to receive from Apub if they published a manuscript, i.e. not a reissue, with Montlake?

I can’t speak to the marketing plan for every original book we publish, because it will vary. I can tell you that all of our books receive customized, targeted Amazon marketing and promotions, and our authors are enrolled in and compensated for participation in audience-building initiatives like Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited.

What is the status of the Avalon authors at Montlake?  Is someone working specifically with these authors to get their books out there?

Montlake authors with books previously published by Avalon are part of our family. As with all of our authors, they have access to an Author Relations Manager who helps them to navigate the publishing experience, and they have the opportunity to directly submit new manuscripts, which are evaluated by our editors.

Is there any advice you’d give NINC members who’d like to submit to Montlake?

Even if NINC members aren’t interested in Montlake, I think this is good advice for any writer who wants to publish a book:

-       Chat with published authors to learn about their publishing experience.

-       Understand what you want in a publishing partner. Whether you’re working with an agent, self-publishing, or in the process of figuring that out, knowing what kind of help you’d like with your career and your book is the best first step.

-       Fine-tune your book. This doesn’t mean that you necessarily need to hire a developmental editor or that you need to hang on to your manuscript forever, but you may want to explore reading critique groups, or finding early readers who understand craft and can help you develop your story. Once your manuscript is out “there” (wherever “there” may be), you will want to make sure it makes a great first impression.


JoVon Sotak is an editor for Montlake Romance. As a child, JoVon would sneak books under the covers to read with a flashlight and took great, unhealthily competitive pleasure in the school’s read-a-thon, after which her family stopped pledging a per-page rate. Without shame, she brought her Kindle and the same competitive glee to a year-long Facebook reading showdown in 2010. After burying the competition in romance novels, she has not been invited back. JoVon started wrangling content more than a decade ago, first as a writing instructor and writing coach at the University of Nevada and later as managing editor for QuinStreet, Inc. JoVon joined Amazon Books in 2011 as a site merchandiser and transitioned to Amazon Publishing in 2013.


Thank you, JoVon!


Mark Coker Interview – Part 2

- by Lina Gardiner

Welcome back to our interview with Mark Coker.

-Which genres are selling best at Smashwords in 2014?

For Smashwords authors, genre fiction is #1, with romance dominating up to 70% of our bestsellers over the last 12 months. Our other bestsellers are rounded out in no particular order by YA fantasy, sci-fi, epic fantasy, mysteries, thrillers and historical.

-You mentioned (at RT in Kansas city) that books sell better at a higher price-points at some retailers. Would you care to explain for Ninc members?

Hmm… At RT in Kansas City in 2013 I presented our annual Smashwords Survey. I don’t recall mentioning that higher price points work better at some retailers. I recall saying that non-fiction supports higher prices than fiction. Could that be it? We actually haven’t explored the question of whether different prices perform differently at different retailers. You can find our 2013 survey here – http://blog.smashwords.com/2013/05/new-smashwords-survey-helps-authors.html and our latest 2014 survey here - http://blog.smashwords.com/2014/07/2014-smashwords-survey-reveals-new.html   What we did learn in 2013 and again in 2014 is that $3.99 appears to a sweet spot for our bestselling authors, especially in fiction. For the 2014 study, for the first time we looked at price points for non-fiction. We found that non-fiction behaves radically different than fiction. For fiction writers, lower price points around $2.99 and $3.99 generally earn the authors greater unit sales and greater overall earnings. For non-fiction, we don’t see the same price-elasticity. The average $9.99 non-fiction book sells about the same number of copies as a $2.99 non-fiction book. We found that as non-fiction authors increased their prices, they earned more. With fiction, authors earn more money at lower prices.

What were the most important findings in your 2014 survey?

Our most important findings related to the sales distribution curve, the pricing sweet spots for fiction, book length, series books, series with free series starters and the incredible power of preorders.   The purpose of our survey is to give authors guidance on the steps they can take to gain incremental advantage. The chief findings:

Dynamics of the Power Curve – In publishing, a few books sell well and most sell poorly. The distribution of these sales is typically referred to as a Power Curve. In the 2014 survey, we took a closer look at the sales distribution curve, shared numbers behind different rankings, and explored how authors can use the power curve to inform their decisions. The nature of curve underscores the importance of the rest of our 2014 Smashwords Survey findings. If authors can take incremental steps to improve sales rank, they receive an exponential earnings benefit as they move up in sales rank. As authors review our findings, it’s helpful to imagine the sales distribution curve superimposed on our findings. For a prime example, see the next finding on word count.

Longer Books Sell Better – Readers, measured by their book-buying, continue to favor longer books (over 100,000 words) over shorter books. As the word count declines, average author earnings tend to decline precipitously. With this knowledge, you can visualize the power curve superimposed over this finding and learn, for example, that for most authors it would probably be unwise to break a 120,000 novel into two 60,000-word books. The disadvantage of the shorter books will probably outweigh the advantage of having two books to market and sell. Of course, every book is different so writers should write to the length that best serves the story.

Fiction pricing – For the second year running, on average, fiction priced at $3.99 sold more units than any other price point, and earned the author more money. The $.99 and $1.99 price points earn about 60% less than the average earnings at other price points.

Series Books Earn More – In 2013 we introduced our new Series Manager (http://blog.smashwords.com/2013/09/new-smashwords-series-manager-improves.html) tool, which increases the discoverability of series books at our retail partners. This also enabled us to analyze series sales data for the first time in our 2014 Smashwords Survey. We found strong evidence that the average series book will earn more income than the average standalone book.

Series with Free Series Starters Earn More – We found that series that offer a free series starter earn more money overall for the author than series that start with a priced book. If series writers haven’t experimented with free series starters, now’s the time.

Books Born as Preorders Sell More – Since July 2013, Smashwords has been offering preorder distribution (http://smashwords.com/preorder) to iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. So for the first time, we examined preorder sales results in the Smashwords Survey. We found that books born as preorders sell more books than other books. There are two primary reasons: 1. A preorder allows advance book marketing, and the opportunity for the author to capture orders at the moment they’ve captured reader attention and interest. 2. At iBooks, B&N and Kobo, all accumulated preorders credit toward the first day’s sales rank. A higher first-day sales rank caused the book to rise higher in the charts, which makes the book more discoverable and more desirable to readers, which leads to more sales.

FREE Still Works, but it’s Losing Potency – We found that free remains an incredibly useful marketing and readership-building tool – possibly the best – though the effectiveness of free has dropped considerably in the last 12 months. Authors who followed our advice on free four or five years ago reaped the most reward, though we still see it catapulting author careers today. Take a look at the most-downloaded free books at any retailer. Those authors will be the bestselling authors of tomorrow if they’re not already there today.

Download the full survey at http://blog.smashwords.com/2014/07/2014-smashwords-survey-reveals-new.html

-Is it true that the average (well written-well edited) author sees more successes in sales after they’ve pubbed several books? Is there an average tipping point?

Yes, this is true. In our 2014 Smashwords Survey, when we looked at our top 400 authors, the average number of books published by each was around nine or ten titles. But averages are misleading, because a few super-prolific authors can skew the numbers. When we look at the median number of books published by our top 400 highest-earning authors (median is more representative of the typical author experience in this group), it’s a solid four titles. The median number for our worst-selling authors – those ranked #2,000 and below – was a solid one book. This makes sense. The more you write, the better you become as a writer. The more you publish, the more you learn and the more you evolve your ability to employ best practices. And the more you publish, the more opportunities you have to hook readers and develop their awareness and trust. So there’s little doubt that authors with more books have greater odds of commercial success. This advantage is amplified when you superimpose the power curve on the data because authors who gain a small advantage in sales rank gain a much larger increase in earnings.

 -What book-price is selling best in 2014?

It’s a close race between $3.99 and $2.99 for fiction. We’ll publish our next survey results in May of 2015, but I suspect $3.99 may, for the third year in a row, take the top spot in terms of author earnings and unit sales. I suspect many high-quality writers are underpricing their full-length fiction at $2.99 when $3.99 or $4.99 would make more sense. For non-fiction indie authors, we found a strong indication that they’re underpricing their works. Higher prices are often correlated with higher earnings, something that’s the opposite of what we see in fiction.

-What do you think about an author making the first book in a series perma-free?

I think it’s smart to do so. In our survey, which for three years now has looked at the impact of free on downloads at the iBooks store, we found that free books are downloaded 39 times more often than priced books. So free more than anything will help drive readers into your series. If you write full-length, and your first book hooks the reader, some percentage of readers will funnel into book two. Free eliminates the economic risk that readers take on an unknown author. Free will get your book tried, and then it’s up to your book to earn and deserve the reader’s loyalty. Free works best on super-awesome books that take readers to an emotionally satisfying extreme. A book that is merely “good” is not good enough, and will have lower conversion rates into the series. If authors are fearful to go perma-free, I’d suggest they experiment first with temporary free.

Back in 2009, Smashwords was the first to open up distribution for self-published ebooks to Barnes & Noble and Sony, retailers that were previously inaccessible to indie authors. Today, most major retailers allow direct uploads to retailers. Why should authors use Smashwords when they can upload direct?

I think the primary reason the vast majority of our authors choose to distribute with Smashwords is that we make it faster, easier and more convenient to reach multiple retailers, and we provide powerful time-saving tools to help manage the digital logistics of these books. We help authors spend more time writing and less time fussing with the upload, monitoring and maintenance of multiple platforms.

The advantage of using Smashwords becomes especially pronounced once you’re publishing multiple books. Imagine you’ve got ten books and you want to run a price promotion on all of them. It takes about 60 seconds to change the price of ten books at Smashwords, whereas it would probably take over an hour to log into four different platforms and effect the same change. If you want to upload a new version of your book or cover, or update your book description, you do it once in the Smashwords Dashboard and that changes ripples out everywhere. Smashwords provides authors access to exclusive tools and distribution channels that can’t be found anywhere else. We’re committed to developing tools and capabilities that help Smashwords authors gain a competitive advantage over other authors. We’ll never stop pushing the envelope to serve our authors.

What do You Make of the Ongoing Dispute between Amazon and Hachette?

The dispute saddens me. It has led to ugly divisiveness in certain quarters of the indie author community where indie authors are turning against fellow authors, indie and traditionally-published alike.

Amazon and Hachette are engaged in a business dispute that most industry watchers believe is centered around agency ebook pricing. I blogged about it back in May at the Smashwords Blog (http://blog.smashwords.com/2014/05/amazons-hachette-dispute-foreshadows.html ). At the heart of the dispute is a simple question of control: Should authors and publishers control pricing and margin, or should retailers control pricing and margin?

Everything else is a distracting sideshow. In this case the sideshow actors have hijacked the debate by fomenting a rage-fest against large publishers, against the media, against fellow authors, and against anyone viewed as a critic of Amazon or a critic of their rage-fest.

It has created a polarization within the indie community where any author or group of authors – notably Authors United – that questions Amazon’s business practices is bullied and shouted down. Ugly is the best way to describe it. It’s made all the uglier and more disappointing to me because the sideshow is led by some good people for whom I have much respect.

I see interesting parallels with the rise of the Tea Party political movement here in the U.S. Regardless of what anyone thinks of the Tea Party, it brought together well-intentioned people who had intersecting and passionate interests related to big government, taxation and free enterprise. The passions were stirred by fear-mongering and demonization of “the other.” Fear leads to irrationality and extremism. What many early Tea Partiers didn’t realize was that big corporate interests such as the Koch brothers were pulling strings behind the scenes, and standing to benefit greatly by the demonization of government.

This war of words won’t end well for Hachette, publishers, authors or Amazon. Civility has been lost. There will be no winners here.

-Is there anything you’d like to share with Novelist Incorporated members?

Thank you, Lina, for inviting me to participate in this interview. It’s an honor. I’m a big fan of NINC. I appreciate NINC’s dedication to helping authors publish with greater professionalism and success. We live in a golden age for publishing where every author enjoys exciting possibilities that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. There’s never been a better time to be a writer. NINC members have an opportunity to seize the day, own their future, and shape a better tomorrow for publishing and the culture of books. Never quit writing and publishing!


BIO: Mark Coker founded Smashwords in 2008 to change the way books are published, marketed and sold.

In the six years since its launch, Smashwords has grown to become the leading ebook distributor serving indie authors, small presses and literary agents. Over 80,000 authors from around the world publish and distribute nearly 300,000 books at Smashwords.

In June 2010, The Wall Street Journal named Mark one of the “Eight Stars of Self-Publishing.” In March 2012, MediaBistro named Mark one of the “Five Ebook Experts to Watch.” In June 2012, Forbes profiled Mark in feature story titled, Apple’s Biggest (Unknown) Supplier of E-Books. In both 2013 and 2014, Forbes Magazine named Smashwords one of America’s Top 100 Most Promising Companies.

Time to Say Goodbye—and then Yes!

- by Charlotte Hubbard

Emma_Blooms_At_LastWhen I began to write EMMA BLOOMS AT LAST, the fourth book in my Home At Cedar Creek/One Big Happy Family series, a lot of story pieces were already in play. I had created the world of Cedar Creek, Missouri, with its mercantile, a carriage shop, a couple of eateries, and several homes. I had also introduced Abby Lambright and James Graber and had kept readers wondering if they would ever marry! In book three, AMANDA WEDS A GOOD MAN, I had also introduced the extended Brubaker family with eight kids, four adults, a dog, and all the stuff that arises from combining two families.


And yet one element of the writing process was different: for personal and professional reasons I had decided not to pursue another contract with this publisher, so I knew going in that EMMA would be the final book in this series. Not only did I need to tell a compelling story about Emma, I also had to wrap up the major story arcs my readers have been following. I had to say goodbye, so I could move on and say yes to other things—and that’s exactly what Emma Graber must do in this book, as well!


Poor Emma, however, must deal with a goodbye that’s much tougher than mine, because early in the book her mother dies. Eunice Graber, the glue that has held her family together, simply doesn’t wake up one morning—and if you’ve lost your mom, you understand that Emma is enveloped by a sense of loss that will never totally go away. Already a homebody, Emma will use her mother’s passing as a strong excuse for not going out when flashy, confident Jerome Lambright invites her to have some fun.


An unexpected job offer from Sam Lambright turns the tide, however: as a preacher, Sam insists that Abby will no longer work in the mercantile now that she’s a married woman. Everyone in Cedar Creek knows Sam will have a lot of trouble replacing Abby, and some of them—including Abby and Emma—have their doubts about Emma’s ability to work in the busy store as the Christmas season begins.


Yet an inner voice prompts Emma to give it a shot. For years she’s kept the books for her brother James’s carriage shop, so her record keeping skills are sound. She’s quite surprised when Jerome compliments her for taking on the job in the store, and she eagerly tackles Sam’s ledger and sending in the orders to restock the store—tasks she can perform in the workroom, because she’s in mourning and isn’t permitted to work out among the customers.


It takes an emotional melt-down to show Emma and those around her that she hasn’t allowed herself time to grieve her mother’s passing. Everyone is shocked about the seemingly minor issue that tips Emma over the edge. Yet as time passes, Emma’s dat Merle also warns his daughter that she needs to get a life—doing something besides hovering over him. As the story progresses and Jerome finds ways to spend time with the Graber family, Emma comes to appreciate Jerome’s enthusiastic nature (she even confronts the ex-fiancee who shows up with her mother, trying to win Jerome back. Now that’s a funny chapter!).


Jerome has changed his ways, as well, learning how to coax Emma from her cocoon of shyness instead of coming on like a fire truck. It doesn’t hurt that he takes her on a romantic moonlit sleigh ride and bares his soul, allowing Emma to see that he, too, has his share of doubts. As a man who’s backed out of two previous engagements, Jerome sincerely doesn’t want to become a three-time loser nor does he want to hurt Emma by rushing into another bad match.


And in the end, EMMA BLOOMS AT LAST. She says goodbye to the shy, retiring young woman she had been and says yes to a future as Jerome’s wife and helpmate. For me, saying goodbye to this series I’ve written as Naomi King has provided a chance to write two new Amish series as Charlotte Hubbard (my real name) for the publisher that’s been putting out my Seasons of the Heart series and seems better able to market and sell my books. So I get a happy ending from making a major change, just as Emma does.

It all works out.

Mark Coker Interview – Part One

- by Lina Gardiner

Welcome to the Ninc Industry Blog, Mark. We’re so pleased you were able to join us.

Quote: “We are all on a journey. None of us know with absolute certainty what happens next. All we can do is position ourselves for the future we prophetically or delusionally imagine. History will judge us all. Those who position correctly will be rewarded. Those who aren’t prepared will face the harsh realities of the future marketplace.

Every one of us holds the power to change the course of history by taking actions today that enable the future we desire. Our actions mirror our aspirations, which means the future of publishing will be determined by our collective and sometimes competing aspirations. Readers are our gatekeepers.”  From: Mark Coker’s 2013 Book Publishing Industry Predictions – Indie Ebook Authors Take Charge


-Mark, growing up, did you ever imagine yourself as a pioneer? One might say you’ve become the Johnny Appleseed of self-pubbed books.

Yikes! Pioneer? I’m now turning multiple uncomfortable shades of red and we’re just getting started! When I think of a pioneer in self-publishing, I think of Dan Poynter, author of the Self Publishing Manual. For 30 years Dan’s been advocating self-publishing and teaching writers how to think and act like professional publishers. I’d like to think that what we’re doing at Smashwords is building upon a foundation that Dan built. We’re leveraging the power of ebooks and democratized ebook distribution to empower more authors to achieve the potential that Dan envisioned for every writer.

I’m much more comfortable with people doubting me than anointing me a pioneer. Three years ago, I had a fun conversation with Donald Maass in which I told him I thought he was underestimating the impact self-publishing would have on the publishing industry. Without skipping a beat he said, “…and I think you’re delusional.” I could only smile. When people doubt me or criticize self-publishing, I don’t get angry or take offense. They just don’t understand yet. They will understand in due time. Writers know this.

You can’t doubt the potential of self-publishing without doubting the talent of writers, and that’s a doubt that’s truly delusional. I appreciated Don’s delusional label because it was layered in delicious nuance. The label, coming from a doubter, said so much about the starkly different value systems that distinguish traditional publishing from the new world Smashwords is working to build for indie authors. I see a future where the power center in publishing shifts from publishers to writers. It’s happening already.

If I got one thing right with Smashwords, it’s the philosophical DNA that distinguished us six years ago and has guided us ever since. At a time when publishers viewed most writers as unworthy and unpublishable, we took the stance that every writer has a right to publish, every writer has value to contribute to the culture of books, and readers deserve the freedom to decide what’s worth reading.

When I started Smashwords in 2008, self-publishing was seen as the option of last resort. It was seen as the option for failed writers. Few writers aspired to self-publish. Traditional publishers at that time – and even most unpublished writers – believed in a false mythology that only publishers had the wisdom to decide which books should be read by readers.

The epiphany that led me to create Smashwords started was my realization that the traditional publishing industry had become toxic to the future of books. I love publishers and the people of publishing – don’t get me wrong – but I felt that the conventional business model of publishers was broken. It was failing to serve authors and readers. Publishers are running a business, and must publish books that sell otherwise they can’t keep the lights on. Therefore, they’re forced to publish books they believe have the greatest commercial merit. But despite their talent and best efforts, at the end of the day publishers can only guess what readers want to read.

Great publishers have the capacity to add great value to books, and for this reason I’m not anti-publisher. Yet the dirty little secret of the publishing industry is that ultimately they can only throw spaghetti against the wall. Readers decide what’s worth reading. Publishers select and publish many great books but they probably reject an even larger number of great books.

Prior to the rise of ebooks, books rejected by publishers were lost to humanity, because without a publisher it was nearly impossible to reach readers. I think publisher fixation on commercial merit is a myopic, inadequate and ultimately destructive filter by which to value books.

So if we did anything pioneering, it was to have these crazy delusional ideas that every writer had a right to publish, every book was valuable to mankind, and readers should choose what they want to read. These ideas don’t seem so crazy any more.

Whereas traditional publishing was unable and disinterested to take a risk on every author, I saw an opportunity to build a publishing platform that would give every writer a chance, and at no cost or risk to the writer. Rather than serving as editorial gatekeepers, we’d serve as publishing enablers. We ceded the editorial gatekeeping responsibility to the collective wisdom of readers.

Most reasonable people in 2008 probably thought it was crazy delusional for me to mortgage my house and try to build a free publishing service selling books from authors that no smart publisher wanted to publish in a format (ebooks) that readers weren’t buying (ebooks accounted for less than 1% of the book market when we launched Smashwords). It’s all worked out okay. Our authors sold over $30 million worth of books at retail last year, and 60% of that went into the author’s pockets. With over 300,000 books published by 100,000 authors, Smashwords is now the world’s largest distributor of indie ebooks. Last month INC Magazine named Smashwords http://blog.smashwords.com/2014/08/inc-magazine-names-smashwords-to-inc.html to their INC 500 list of America’s fastest growing private companies. We were the #1 fastest-growing media company on the list.

Credit for this goes to our authors who had the courage to believe in themselves when the conventional wisdom did not. Indie authors have arrived. Today and every day, and ever-growing number of writers aspire to self-publish as the option of first choice.

Although the stigma of self-publishing is disappearing as indie authors scale the bestseller lists, the industry still fails to fully comprehend how self-publishing will reshape the publishing landscape.

-What were your expectations (career-wise) after you graduated from the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley? Was writing and/or publishing part of that dream?

In early 1987, about 18 months before I graduated, I founded a monthly ‘zine called the Ridge Roach while I was living in a student-run housing cooperative called Ridge Project. I invited my fellow 142 residents to contribute original poetry, short stories, gossip, artwork or anything I could duplicate on the copy machine. Once a month I’d print it all up at the copy shop and distribute it. I recall feeling so awed and impressed by the talent of our residents. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the founding philosophy of Smashwords never would have come to me had it not been for my experience founding and editing the Ridge Roach. The experience also started a lifelong interest in media, journalism and writing.

Also around 1987, my father founded a garage startup called Coker Electronics. He wrote one of the first email software programs for personal computers. On a lark, my dad printed up business cards for me that read, “VP of Marketing and Sales.” I was in the business school at that time and studying marketing. In my spare time I worked for him. The idea of selling software was intriguing to me. Software was just digital bits, and people would pay for it. We’d take his computer program and publish it on a 50-cent floppy disk that we’d sell for $99.00. It was a potentially lucrative business if only we could sell the software. That was the challenge. He didn’t give me a marketing budget so my job was to make the telephone ring without spending money. I started calling and emailing computer industry journalists asking if they wanted to write stories about our software. I remember a reporter asked me to send him a press kit. “What’s a press kit,” I asked. I had no clue. “It includes a press release and product fact sheets,” he answered. I asked him what a press release was, and what he wanted to see in a good press release. By asking questions and understanding the needs of journalists, I learned how to get free press coverage for the company.

It was incredible fun working for my dad. It was so much fun that I almost dropped out of U.C. Berkeley to pursue his startup full time. Luckily, better sense prevailed and I graduated. After graduation, I worked with him in the garage for another three years. The business failed to take off but the experience was priceless. Failure is a gift if you can learn from it. Next, I found a job working for a Silicon Valley PR agency that specialized in technology startups. Within weeks, I found myself advising Silicon Valley CEOs on how to leverage PR to build their businesses. It was great fun working with such brilliant people.

After about 18 months, I left to start my own PR agency which was called Dovetail Public Relations. I ran that for several years and for a brief time it grew to become one of the ten largest Silicon Valley PR agencies. When the dot com bust hit around 2001 it decimated the business. By that time I was burned out on PR. Also around this time I met Lesleyann, my wife-to-be. She was a former reporter for Soap Opera Weekly magazine. She told me wild behind-the-scenes stories about the soap opera actors she interviewed. I suggested she write a book about it. She suggested we write the book together so I jumped at the opportunity. Like many people, I had always harbored a secret dream of writing a book one day, though I never thought it would be a novel about soap operas!

That novel, Boob Tube, was ultimately repped by Dystel & Goderich. Despite their great efforts, publishers refused to publish it. Previous soap opera novels have been commercial failures so publishers were reluctant to take a chance on it.

So it was my failure to publish Boob Tube that led me to conclude the publishing industry was broken and it was my job to fix it. A bit delusional, yes. :)


-In high school what would Mark Coker have been voted most likely to do after he graduated?

I kept a pretty low profile in high school though people who knew me knew I had a passion for business and wanted to start my own company someday. I started reading Forbes, Fortune and the Wall Street Journal in high school which made me an oddball even among my friends. I always found myself hungry to learn strategies for business success. So I suppose they would have voted me, “Most likely to start a business.”


-Who gave you the best advice regarding your decision to start Smashwords?

I remember the come-to-Jesus meeting when our awesome agent told us he had done everything he could to sell Boob Tube to publishers and it was time to give up and part ways. He had invested two years taking our novel twice to every publisher and the publishers didn’t want it. Our agent suggested we consider self-publishing. He was ahead of his time! I had already starting thinking along the same lines after having read Dan Poynter’s Self Publishing Manual. After much contemplation I decided print self-publishing was unsatisfying. Ten years ago book publishing was print-centric, and unless you could get your book into bookstores there was little hope in reaching a lot of readers. I had no desire to fill our garage with unsold books. Publishers held the power to get books in book stores. But it was our agent’s initial idea that led me to consider alternatives, and that led me to investigate ebooks. Ebooks felt familiar to me given my experience in software. This led me to this crazy idea to build a platform to enable free ebook publishing for all writers.

For three years starting in 2005 I worked on the Smashwords business plan. I devoured all the information I could read about ebooks and the business of publishing. I read hundreds of posts on online message forums where writers shared their frustrations with publishers and self-publishing. The writing of David Rothman of Teleread was an especially valuable source of research for me. To assist my research, I worked part time as a reporter for VentureBeat, a Silicon Valley business blog. This allowed me attend expensive tech industry conferences for free and learn the latest best practices for launching Internet startups. It was free research, not to mention it was incredibly mind-opening to learn from so many smart Internet entrepreneurs. I also learned to be a better writer.

During the early stages of the business planning process, I didn’t share my idea with many people. I had a pure vision for what I wanted to create and I didn’t want to corrupt my vision by trying to solicit approval or validation from anyone. I imagine many writers go through a similar periods early in their creation process where you don’t want the purity of your vision corrupted by outside influence.   You just want to finish writing. As I neared launch, I invited three bloggers whose writings had inspired or informed me to view an early alpha version of Smashwords. These bloggers were David Rothman, Joe Wikert and Eoin Purcell. They were the first three to see my baby! And then around March 2008 we opened Smashwords to a private beta for writers. Their feedback was invaluable and prepared us for our public launch in May 2008. Ever since 2008, our development has been guided by our authors.


Please stayed tuned for PART 2 of Mark Coker’s fascinating interview (the 15th of October.)



BIO: Mark Coker founded Smashwords in 2008 to change the way books are published, marketed and sold.

In the six years since its launch, Smashwords has grown to become the leading ebook distributor serving indie authors, small presses and literary agents. Over 80,000 authors from around the world publish and distribute nearly 300,000 books at Smashwords.

In June 2010, The Wall Street Journal named Mark one of the “Eight Stars of Self-Publishing.” In March 2012, MediaBistro named Mark one of the “Five Ebook Experts to Watch.” In June 2012, Forbes profiled Mark in feature story titled, Apple’s Biggest (Unknown) Supplier of E-Books. In both 2013 and 2014, Forbes Magazine named Smashwords one of America’s Top 100 Most Promising Companies.