Smashwords Founder Mark Coker

- by Dara Girard

Tell us about yourself and your company Smashwords.

I’m the founder of Smashwords, a free ebook publishing and distribution platform for indie authors and small publishers.  We help 7,000 authors around the world publish, produce, distribute and sell over 16,000 original ebooks.

Authors upload their finished manuscript as a Microsoft Word .doc file, formatted to the requirements in our Smashwords Style Guide, and then we automatically convert the book into nine ebook formats and make it immediately available for sale at a price set by the author. If the book meets certain easily achievable mechanical requirements, we add it to our Premium Catalog, which is what we distribute to major online ebook retailers such as the Apple iBookstore, Sony, Barnes & Noble and Kobo, as well as mobile app platforms such as Aldiko and Stanza.

The service is free.  We earn our income by taking a 15% commission on the net, and we pay 85% of the net back to the author. Our commission works out to about 7.5-10% of the retail price.

Why did you create Smashwords?

My wife and I wrote a novel a few years ago, and despite representation from one of New York’s top literary agencies, we were unable to sell it to publisher.

Publishers questioned whether there was a large enough commercial market for the book.

After some consideration and research, I decided it was unacceptable that a small handful of publishers could exercise such monopolistic control over what’s published, and what’s not, what gets in book stores, and what doesn’t.  I imagined there were millions of other authors such as myself who had poured their heart and soul into their manuscripts, only to have their work languish unread and unpublished in a dusty attic or forgotten hard drive.

Most publishers make acquisition decisions based on perceived commercial merit – if they think your book will sell, they’re interested. Yet even the smartest people in publishing can’t accurately predict what’ll be a hit and what won’t.  They make their best guess, put in their best effort, and let the market judge.  Readers ultimately decide the fate of any book.

And what about masterpieces for which the entire commercial market is only 300 readers?  Are these books any less worthy of publication?  I think not.  Great books come from unexpected places, not cookie-cutter molds.  The publishing industry’s decisions are made through a narrow commercial filter, which inadvertently squelches the artistic expression of millions of talented writers.

Publishers can’t take risks on every author.  I can.

My background is in Silicon Valley, so once I understood the scope of the publishing problem, I recognized an opportunity to fix the problem with technology.

My original vision for Smashwords was to create an automated, self-serve ebook publishing platform.  Authors would upload a manuscript into our system, and the system would generate a sellable, multi-format ebook on the other end.

This is what we launched two years ago.  In the time since, we’ve continually enhanced the technology.  Last year, we enhanced the platform to support multi-author publishers as well as indie authors, and in the last ten months we’ve transitioned to become a full-fledged ebook distributor to the large ebook retailers such as the iPad iBookstore, Sony and others.

How did you come up with the name?

It’s a double entendre, capturing this idea of yin and yang.  Smash implies both creative destruction and success.  As most serious authors will tell you, the process of writing can be emotionally painful as the writer works to wrangle their words into submission.  Writing is almost a violent process.  It would be interesting if you could anthropomorphize your words and stories and ask them how they felt about constantly being hacked to pieces, rearranged and cut to satisfy the author’s vision (Hmmm, maybe a good story idea for one of your readers?).  The other side of “Smash” is more optimistic.  It connotes success, like smash hit, or a job well done, such as when something is referred to as “absolutely smashing.”

For our logo, the upward thrusting fist holding the book symbolizes the indie author revolution, and a celebration of the book.

There is a lot of confusion between vanity publishing and self-publishing. How do you differ from the many vanity presses out there?

Awesome question.  I think it’s time for the world to retire this notion of vanity publishing.  The “V” word has become a stain on the face of indie publishing.  Let’s face it, publishing as an industry and as a practice is rooted in vanity.  It’s vain for an author or publisher to believe their work should be read or celebrated by other people.  They may be right or wrong.

The height of vanity, in my opinion, is perpetrated by authors who refuse to publish their works unless those works are blessed and published by a traditional commercial publisher.  These folks should really ask themselves why a publisher’s validation is so important to them.  Isn’t a reader’s validation more important?

Readers typically don’t pay attention to the name of the publisher on the spine of the book.  They pay attention to the author and the story.

Self-publishing is all about the author being their own publisher.  Self-publishing is a process of liberation.  It’s the author taking control over their own destiny, and accepting personal responsibility for their own success or failure.

The “V” label is most commonly applied to publishing services firms, such as maybe an Author Solutions or CreateSpace, that earn money by offering paid services to authors.  To the critics of these services who would brand them with “V”, I say get over it.  Use them or don’t use them, but don’t criticize your fellow author for using them.

In early 2009, I blogged about how the risk of publishing is shifting from publishers to authors – http://blog.smashwords.com/2009/04/future-of-book-publishing-risk-shifts.html There should be no shame in an author investing their own money to hire a professional book cover designer, an editor, a proofreader or a marketing consultant, and no shame to pay for a print run.

It’s also incumbent upon this author-turned-publisher to invest their money wisely.  Some of the paid services may offer great value, and others are rip-offs.  Buyer beware.  Do your research and get references from your fellow authors before spending a penny anywhere.

Do you find that ebook authors face the same marketing challenges as print authors?

Yes, definitely.  It doesn’t matter if you’re selling a print book or a digital book, they’re both extremely difficult to sell.  Marketing is the biggest challenge.  A book must compete not only against millions of other books, but billions of other pieces of written and multimedia content on the Internet vying for your target readers’ ever-shrinking eyeshare.  How do you cost-effectively reach all your potential target readers, and convince them to invest the time and money to read your book?

Most authors don’t have thousands of dollars to hire a PR person, and even if they did, they should think long and hard about whether such large expenditures can be recouped in book sales.  Most books will not sell well enough to justify such expenditures.

Indie ebook authors have another arrow in their quiver that the large publishing houses cannot match, and that’s the ability to offer books at low cost.  Since indie authors can earn royalties anywhere from 40-80% of the list price of their book, it means they can offer their book for a lower price yet still earn more income per sale than they would from a traditional publisher.  When you lower the cost of your book, you expand the affordability of the book to a wider audience.

One Smashwords author, Brian S. Pratt, earned over $4,000 from a single Smashwords retailer in the month of June, and more than that in July.  He prices his books under $6.00, and also offers the first book in a series for free.  His experience is atypical, but it speaks to the opportunity for authors to leverage low price as a competitive marketing tool.

What led to the creation of “The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide”?

For many writers, book marketing is akin to mysterious voodoo black magic, something they don’t understand and would rather not deal with.  Yet next to honing their craft as a writer, the next most important responsibility for every author, especially the self-published author, is to become their own best marketer.  The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide offers over 25 ideas that authors can implement to reach more readers.  All the ideas cost nothing, other than the author’s investment of time.  It fits with my general philosophy of offering a platform and service that empowers authors.  Authors should do as much of their marketing as they can.  Book marketing should start before the author puts pen to paper, or finger to keyboard.  If you wait until a week before your book is released, you’ve disadvantaged yourself.

How can Smashwords serve authors in ways that traditional publishing can’t?

First, in all fairness to traditional publishers, they offer authors a lot of benefits we don’t offer, including book advances, editing, cover design, distribution of print books into brick and mortar bookstores, and (if you’re lucky) publicity support.  Because Smashwords is a publishing and distribution platform, we provide authors self-serve tools that help them act as their own publisher.  The author retains all rights to their book and earns 85% of the net sales.  Most authors use us as their ebook transaction processing platform and fulfillment service.

While any author could conceivably save their book as a PDF file and offer it for sale on their web site, such an offering represents a poor choice for readers.

When a reader purchases a book at Smashwords, they gain permanent access to the book in any ebook format, readable on any e-reading device, all for one price.  This also allows the author to outsource the customer service to Smashwords.

What do you think of digital rights management (DRM)?

Can you imagine buying a paperback book, only to learn you can only read it in bed but not on your couch or the beach?  That’s DRM.

I think authors are smart to avoid DRM.  DRM is a form of copy protection.  It limits a customer’s ability to enjoy your book.  If a customer buys your book, they shouldn’t need a password to open it, and they shouldn’t be restricted by what device they can read it on.   Our books are not DRM-infected, and this is one of many reasons Smashwords is so popular with thousands of ebook buyers.

How can authors educate themselves about the digital market?

I think by reading our Smashwords Style Guide (how to format ebooks) and our Marketing Guide, authors will get a good introduction to ebooks.  Beyond that, we provide many online education resources at Smashwords.  I would also encourage authors to read blogs such as Teleread, edited by Paul Biba, which offers some of the industry’s most comprehensive news coverage of ebook publishing trends.  Other great blogs are Ebooknewser and GalleyCat, edited by Jason Boog, and Self Publishing Review, edited by Henry Baum.  I have links to these and other blogs I follow over at the Smashwords Blog (worth reading too!).  Finally, for those who want to read a good ebook on how to leverage social media to market your book, check out Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual Volume 2, available at Smashwords.  Dan is the father of self-publishing and a great friend and mentor to all indie authors.

Finally, there are many great online communities where authors can network with fellow authors, and meet readers.  Here, I’d recommend MobileRead and Kindleboards.

What inspired you to write the article “The Scam of Private label Rights”?

At Smashwords, we’ve always required that if you’re going to publish a book with us, you need to be the original author or the exclusive digital publisher or distributor.  At one point, I started to notice a few scammy-looking books appearing at Smashwords.  They had ugly 3-D covers without author names, and the formatting was horrible, as if the author had just cut-and-pasted their book into a Word document.  Upon further examination, I discovered that the content inside of some of these books appeared elsewhere on the Internet under other authors’ names.

The first time I confirmed this, I immediately concluded the book was plagiarized, so I deleted the person’s account and sent them a message asking they never publish with us again.  The person wrote back and told me they had subscribed to some $25/month service in Australia which offered them a huge library of pre-written ebooks they could publish in their own name.  This was my first exposure to these “Private Label Article” and “Private Label Rights” services, which I consider scams.  Once we learned the tell-tale signs of these books, they became easier to identify and delete.  But then I learned that one PLR company in particular was encouraging its subscribers to publish their garbage on Smashwords and Amazon.  This led me to warn authors about it in a post over at the Smashwords Blog, and then months later, I updated the piece for Victoria Strauss’ Writer Beware site.  Here’s the link to the updated version that was first published on Writer Beware: The Scam of Private Label Rights Article.

Can you tell us how your partnership with Book View Café came about?

I actually read about them last year in Teleread.  I remember I was at BEA in New York and I thought they looked like an ideal publisher for Smashwords.  We had just enhanced the service the same month to support multi-author publishers, and I was impressed by their focus on publishing a small list of professional writers.  I dropped them an email, and in a short time we were working together.  You can view their publisher page at Smashwords here.

Is there anything else you would like authors to know?

I think there’s never been a better time to be an author.

Authors hear a lot of doom and gloom about the decline of publishing, and while I agree traditional publishers face challenging times ahead, authors have more opportunities to reach readers than ever before.

Book selling has always been driven by word-of-mouth.  The Internet is a word-of-mouth catalyst.  If someone loves a book, they can tweet it to their 5,000 friends on Twitter, and within seconds the author receives incredibly powerful viral promotion.

A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation to a group of NYU students, titled “How Indie Ebooks Will Transform the Future of Publishing” (click to view the presentation).

As I shared with them, I think we are on the verge of a renaissance in publishing as the forces of self-publishing and ebooks collide to offer authors and publishers more opportunities to reach readers than ever before.

The distribution of ebooks is becoming fully democratized. I’m humbled to know Smashwords has played a small role in helping this day come, and I’m excited by a sense that after two and a half years, we’re still only getting started.

We will see radical change in publishing in the next three to five years.  Within five years, and probably sooner, I think ebooks will account for at least 50% of all trade book sales.  Reading is moving to screens, and this opens up exciting possibilities to introduce millions of new readers to the joys of books.

21 comments

  1. Awesome blog! Talk about comprehensive. A couple of observations. A friend and I were discussing what Smashwords actually looks like and where its located. I envision a machine resembling a coffee roaster that takes up a spare room in your house.

    Sorry. Had to have a little fun there.

    On a more serious note, do you keep track of sales in the various genres and if so, where do you see the strongest sales? Anything that surprises you, perhaps an unmet reader need a handful of writers are filling?

  2. Hi Vonna,

    Smashwords actually has an office in Los Gatos, Calif (where I’m writing you from now), though most of our operations are virtual and I’m rarely here in the office.

    It’s tough to pinpoint by genre. Our two best selling authors do science fiction and fantasy, though we probably sell more romance overall. Erotica is popular, but so are how-to books. In the end, it really comes down to the author’s marketing and the ability of their book to resonate with an audience.

    mark

  3. Thanks for the great interview!

    Putting my books on Smashwords is one of the best writing decisions I’ve ever made.

  4. Great post! I’ve got to include this one in my weekly roundup. I’d heard of Smashwords but really didn’t understand what it was all about. Mark Coker does a great job of explaining his product as well as forcing writers to consider non-traditional options.

  5. Mark,
    Strange you should publish this interview on the Ninc website, an organization for which most smashwords authors do not qualify.

    http://ninc.com/join_ninc/qualify_market.asp

    What are you trying to do by this?

  6. No doubt Smashwords is revolutionizing the publishing industry. Now the crowd can play the role of editor as the best books rise to the top with higher rankings ala Trip Advisor.

  7. As an author, I can report that Smashwords is great. I love being able to publish my ebooks on several different ebook stores without having to learn a lot of different formatting requirements.

    Mark and his crew are a pleasure to deal with. They answer questions promptly and are creating a great way for authors to put their work out there in front of more readers.

    (PS You can check out my profile page on Smashwords with my spiritual ebooks including a free ebook of spiritual poetry at http://smashwords.com/profile/view/Nirmala )

  8. Gerald, as a longtime Ninc member and someone who occasionally convinces industry pros to blog on our site, I want to address your comment. For one, Mark was approached by a Ninc member. He didn’t come knocking on our doors.

    In addition, just because a publisher doesn’t ‘fit’ within Ninc criteria doesn’t mean Ninc members shouldn’t become knowledgable about what outside the box publishers provide. The publishing world is changing faster than any of us can keep up with, and we owe it to ourselves to become informed about those who are part of that change.

  9. @Vonna, our office is here in Los Gatos, Calif., but in terms of what it looks like, it’s an ordinary office. Our technology is actually hosted off-site, and it comprises a lot of software that powers our ebook publishing and distribution and platform. In terms of sales by genre, it’ll all over the map. Two of our best-selling authors do sci fi & fantasy. Thrillers and Romance are also popular. We publish and distribute everything, from single short stories to epic novels, as well as anything you can think of in non-fiction and poetry. To sell well, it all comes down to your marketing and your ability to write a book that resonates with your target audience.

    @Gerald, Vonna did a great job of answering the question. I’ll just add that the rules of publishing are changing quickly, and I think it speaks well for this organization that one of its members so kindly invited me to share a little about Smashwords with fellow Novelist Inc members. I welcome the opportunity for closer collaboration between Smashwords, Novelists Inc and any other organization that helps authors advance their careers. We’re all committed to reaching readers with great books, so I think there’s much we can achieve together working toward these common goals.

  10. As a Smashwords author, I appreciate Mark Coker and his willingness to do these interviews and appear on blogs to share about the new options Smashwords is offering for authors, readers, and publishers.

    I agree that the face of publishing is changing and those who do not get on board will be left behind. Even those traditional publishers who can see the ‘writing on the wall’ are beginning to hop on this fast moving train.

    And who better to decide the merits of a book than the readers?

  11. Great interview, Mark!

    I LOVE this line about DRM: “Can you imagine buying a paperback book, only to learn you can only read it in bed but not on your couch or the beach?”

    Also, I think my issue with author services companies isn’t whether or not what they are offering is “scammy” or “vanity.” It’s simply that it hurts the indie author’s bottom line. When you can learn a little something, or outsource to individual human beings who can meet your needs better, it’s just better for your business.

    Having said that, if an author decides to use LuLu or AuthorHouse, or whatever, I don’t think they are bad or stupid, but they aren’t going to make as much money, and they won’t be able to price their book competitively with what NY pubs price the same book format. And that’s important.

  12. The dh and I are recent converts, but we say thanks daily for this service. I do traditional paper publishing but also have some ‘niche’ books that deserve to see light of day. So, again, thank you.

  13. Really interesting piece. Thanks!

  14. I put two short stories on Smashwords recently. The instructions were easy enough to follow, and I like having a place for some things that don’t fit anywhere else. I’m hoping to get my recently remaindered novel up there, just as soon as I confirm I have all the rights.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  15. Fascinating blog post! I have a whole new perspective on Smashwords. I’ve heard your company’s name mentioned on the NINC loop recently and wondered exactly what everyone was talking about. Now I know, in detail. Many thanks for the excellent overview. (I was appalled and amused by the whole Private Label Rights issue, something I’d never heard of before.)

  16. Great blog. Thank you, Mark. It seems there is an endless amount to learn about *new* publishing, and any light cast on it is very welcome.

  17. Mark,

    Thank you for keeping us authors so well informed and up-to-date on e-books and the future of publishing. I’m proud to be a Smashwords author.

    I’m with you; readers should have the chance to decide whether a book is good or not. After all, those are our buyers and our fans.

    I appreciate your integrity and willingness to help new authors get a start. Keep up the good work!

    God bless you!

  18. Thanks, Mark, for sharing how you started Smashwords! I’m glad you did this and am grateful to have this option as an author! I love having a ebook on Smashwords.

  19. Mark thank you for starting Smashwords. Its a great concept, and I love your attitude.

  20. Mark,

    I can’t say enough good things about being an author who works with Smashwords. It’s exciting and liberating, but gives great purpose to your work when you see the reach you can achieve online!

  21. I’m a Smashwords author. Thanks for addressng the issue of spam-ebooks, I’ve read about them elsewhere. Good interview.