A Conversation with Smashwords Founder, Mark Coker
My guest this week on the BIG SCARY BLOG is entrepreneur Mark Coker, founder of SMASHWORDS, which has become the go-to place for e-publishing during the current revolution in the publishing industry. Mark and I had a very candid conversation which should be of interest to everyone -readers, writers, editors, agents, and booksellers.
JONATHAN MABERRY: What inspired the creation of Smashwords?
MARK COKER: It started based on my own experience as a writer, and then grew into something much larger.
My wife and I co-wrote our novel Boob Tube a few years ago. It’s a roman a clef about the daytime television soap opera industry (my wife is a former reporter for Soap Opera Weekly Magazine). Despite representation by one of the most respected literary agencies in New York (Dystel & Goderich), every major publisher rejected our book. The common thread of feedback was that previous soap opera-themed novels had not performed well, so publishers were reluctant to take a chance on it.
I realized there were hundreds of thousands of other talented writers around the world who could not get published simply because publishers questioned the commercial potential of their book. I imagined the millions of people over the last couple hundred years who took their unpublished works to their grave. It’s sad on so many levels. Not only were their life-long dreams of publication never fulfilled, but readers were denied the opportunity to discover an untold number of classics. How many potential masters on the level of Charles Dickens or Mark Twain have been lost for all eternity simply because a publisher didn’t publish them?
At the crux of the problem is that publishers publish for reasons different than writers write. Publishers publish books to sell books, thus if they don’t perceive commercial potential, they’re reluctant to acquire a title. Most writers write because their heads will explode if they don’t. I think it’s dangerous to judge the value of books by commercial potential alone. Left unchecked, publishers may one day publish only celebrity books because celebrities have platforms.
I ultimately came to the conclusion that traditional publishing was broken for authors, readers and publishers. Publishers aren’t able to take a risk on every author, nor would most want to take such a risk if they could.
My idea for Smashwords was to create an online publishing platform that would allow me to take a risk on every author. We set out to offer free ebook publishing services so any writer, anywhere in the world, could instantly publish an ebook at no cost. We let readers decide what’s worth reading.
We launched in 2008. By the end of that first year, we published 140 books. That number grew to 6,000 by the end of 2009, 28,800 by 2010, and now surpasses 70,000 titles. We’ll reach 100,000 in the next five months.
JONATHAN: Smashwords is very quickly becoming a go-to destination site like ‘Ebay’, ‘YouTube’ and ‘Amazon’. What is it about Smashwords that’s catching the e-pub world’s attention?
MARK: I think writers are drawn to us because we make it fast, free and easy to publish and distribute an ebook. We’ve built a robust publishing platform that only gets better with time because we’re constantly working to evolve it with better technology, more useful features, and new retailers. We spend 100 percent of our time asking ourselves, “how can we better serve our authors?” Our authors are passionately vocal about what they like and what they don’t like, and we listen closely to their suggestions, complaints and kudos. Our growth has been driven by word of mouth. It’s all been about happy authors telling their author friends about us.
JONATHAN: What makes Smashwords fun for you?
MARK: It’s knowing that we’re helping writers realize their dreams. We’ve broken down the barriers to publication and distribution so every author can realize their dream of publication. Some of the emails we receive from thankful authors would bring tears to your eyes. We’ll often hear, “Thanks to Smashwords, I’m writing again.” Whenever I hear that, puts an instant knot in my throat because I know what it feels like to pour your heart and soul into something only to have someone slam the door in your face. I also know what it feels like to be given a chance. We give authors a chance.
JONATHAN: Can you share a couple of Smashwords success stories?
MARK: Oh boy, where to start. The biggest successes to me are the folks who realize their dream of publication, regardless of commercial success. It should be stated that very few ebook authors achieve commercial success. This holds true for traditionally published authors as well, most of whom maintain day jobs to support their writing. We make it easy to publish and distribute, but we don’t make it easy to sell books. It’s the responsibility of the writer to write books worth reading. That said, we do have many authors who have achieved commercial success with our platform. All the credit goes to the author, so it’s not due to any magic on our end other than us making it fast and free to get the book published and widely distributed. Most of the biggest names in indie publishing are using us for some or all of their distribution. .
A A couple names: I love the story of Brian S. Pratt, a writer of epic fantasy novels. I interviewed him for the Smashwords blog last year (click here for the interview). His first quarter at Smashwords two years ago, he earned $7.82. Many authors with less conviction might have hung up the keyboard at that time and given up. Brian persevered. He figured as long as people were buying, he’d keep writing. In the fourth quarter of 2010 he earned over $20,000. This year his numbers are much higher and he’ll easily break $100,000 in earnings. This, from an author who couldn’t get an agent or publisher, and by his own account was living below the poverty level as a single father of three. Brian’s also a really smart self-publisher. All his books are full-length, he writes series, and he gives the first book in the series away for free. He honors the reader with great stories.
Another success story is Shayne Parkinson, a writer of historical fiction in New Zealand. I met with her and her husband Roger (who also publishes at Smashwords) last October in Auckland. She told me how New Zealand publishers wouldn’t publisher her books because they told her no one outside of New Zealand would care to read historical fiction set in New Zealand. Rubbish! A good story is universal, and Shayne proves this. Shayne’s a great writer, and although she’s not a household name yet, I think we’ll continue to see her break out in a big way. It’s great to watch her sales tick up each quarter as more and more readers discover her.
JONATHAN: Everyone has an opinion about the future of e-publishing.What’s yours?
MARK: Ebooks are the future of publishing.
Many big publishers are starting to report that ebooks account for 20 percent or more of their annual sales, up from under one percent just a few years ago. Smaller independent publishers are earning more from ebooks. Among most indies (self-published authors), ebook sales already trump print. Most self-published authors find that they’re selling hundreds of ebooks for every print book they sell. Brian S. Pratt, mentioned above, and Amanda Hocking, another Smashwords author, have both publicly stated they sell over 1,000 ebooks for every print book.
For the next several years, ebooks will likely continue to be the fastest growing format in publishing. Within two years, the unit volume of ebooks purchased will exceed 50 percent of all sales, and within three years I think dollar sales will exceed print, industry-wide. Most indie authors who are doing ebooks and print books have already experienced the crossover.
The power of publishing is shifting from publishers to authors. For the last couple centuries, publishers controlled the printing press and the access to retail distribution. They determined which writers became published authors, and which authors received distribution. Now, thanks to ebooks and democratized distribution, any author anywhere can get their book quickly published and distributed. Rather than earning the traditional 5-12% of list price as their royalty, indie authors earn up to 5-10 times that.
Thanks to the ease and accessibility of indie ebook publishing, we will see more books self-published. Five years from now, I predict most NY Times ebook best-sellers will be indie authors. If I do my job properly, many of them will be utilizing Smashwords for some or all of their distribution (at least that’s my goal!). In the meantime, we’re already seeing Smashwords authors scaling the retailer-specific best-seller charts in their genres, and a small number have already broken out into the NYT and USA Today best-seller lists.
The high-profile successes of indie ebook authors such as Amanda Hocking, Nyree Belleville (writes as Bella Andre and Lucy Kevin), John Locke, Julie Ortolon, Joe Konrath and others inspire other authors to consider the advantages of self-publishing. I think over the next few years the inspiration provided by these early trailblazers will lead many big-name authors to leave their traditional publishers, or change their relationship with the publisher. Authors are beginning to ask, “what can my publisher do for me that I can’t already do for myself?” If brick and mortar bookstores continue to fade, and if the ebook format surpasses print, then the pressures on authors to leave their big publishers will increase.
I think the bigNew Yorkpublishers will have a tough time over the next five years. The world still needs publishers, though, because not all authors want to assume the responsibility of being their own publisher. It’s tough work to be a great publisher! The opportunity for publishers is to do for authors what authors cannot or will not do for themselves. For a publisher, that means editing (helping the author turn their good book into a super-great book), print distribution and marketing.
More big name traditional authors will start demanding to retain their digital rights. Here, it helps to have a great literary agent, because publishers are reluctant to acquire a book without digital rights. I think literary agents have an important role to play in the ebook revolution. The best agents help their clients maximize their commercial success, whether that success is found by self-publishing a title as an ebook or working with publisher, or straddling both worlds. I blogged about what this trend means for agents and authors here: http://blog.smashwords.com/2011/08/literary-agents-indie-ebook-roadmap.html
For writers, I think there’s never been a more exciting time to write and release books. The market opportunity is wide open. Ebooks need never go out of print, so indie ebooks have more time to reach readers. Great books will find readers. Indie authors have the opportunity to outpublish the big publishers with faster time-to-market, lower prices, broader distribution and closer relationships with readers. If readers of this blog are interested to learn the best-practices of the most commercially successful indie authors, I captured their secrets here: http://blog.smashwords.com/2010/10/seven-secrets-to-ebook-publishing.html
Thanks for inviting me to share my thoughts!
Suggested ebook publishing resources:
Smashwords Style Guide (how to format and publish an ebook) – Required reading for all Smashwords authors, and provides a good overview for all authors on how ebook formatting is different from print formatting.
Smashwords Book Marketing Guide(how to market any book) – This free guide is useful to all authors, even those who don’t yet do ebooks.
How to Publish at Smashwords – Good collection of links to the above and other on-site resources