As recently as two years ago, the name Mark Coker would hardly have rung a bell in the US publishing industry.
Originally from California, he’s a longtime * angel investor and an advisor to technology and media startups. A technology-savvy innovator with an evident bold, go-getter streak, Wall Street first got a taste of his chutzpah when he forced companies and investors to sit up and take notice after he got riled up by the policy adopted by publicly-traded companies of denying individual investors access to their conference calls
“One of the companies I owned denied me access to their earnings conference call because I was an individual investor. They said their call was only open to analysts. I did a little research and learned that at the time, 80% of all public companies had a policy of excluding individual investors from their call – even the replays,” Coker disclosed
In frustration, he sold his shares in the company and used the profits to create a website called BestCalls.com that showcased the earnings conference calls of companies that welcomed investors. His ultimate goal was to open up conference calls to investors, large and small. Today, the majority of public companies in the US provide all investors access to their conference calls. Coker’s work as a campaigner for fair disclosure was a catalyst for the SEC’s ground breaking Regulation FD. In 2003 BestCalls was sold, by which time it had become a profitable business with over 50,ooo members. It’s now owned and operated by the Nasdaq Stock Exchange. http://www.bestcalls.com/dyn/show.cfm?o=qa
Coker’s reenactment of the David vs Goliath tussle might have ended there, except that, once again, he got pissed off, this time by the publishing industry. He and his wife recently colluded on a novel entitled Book Tube that explores the dark side of Hollywood from the perspective of the cast and crew of a fictional soap opera. Their agent, Dystel & Goderich struggled for two years to sell the book but couldn’t get any of the major commercial women’s fiction publishers to take it up. They questioned its commercial potential.
“ You can imagine how frustrated and disappointed we were, after having spent thousands of hours researching, writing and revising our book, only to be denied the opportunity to reach our audience,” said Coker.
A friend advised him to try the route of self-publishing.
“I decided to take his suggestion several steps further. While I respect the need for publishers to vet titles for commercial potential, there’s something inherently broken about a system that rejects titles through this narrow lens. What about brilliant long-tail works with potential audiences of only 100 or 500? The publishing industry can’t support these. Publishers also cannot accurately predict which titles will become huge hits, and which will flop, so they routinely overlook great works.”
Coker expressed frustration with the centuries’ old publishing system which he said allows too much power to be “concentrated in the hands of too few people whose business interests don’t always align with the interests of authors and readers.”
So he put his money where his mouth is and got set to take on the system. In May, 2008 he created Smashwords, an ebook publishing and distribution platform. https://www.smashwords.com/about/team
“I envisioned a free online publishing platform that would allow any author, anywhere in the world, to publish their work online in seconds. We’d eliminate the gatekeepers and let the readers decide the value of the author’s work. Such a system would hold the author fully accountable for the quality. If the author was too lazy or incompetent to invest the necessary effort to produce a quality book, their book would quickly disappear into irrelevance, as it should. If their book was truly a work of value, they’d have a fair shot at connecting with a readership.”
The Smashwords platform allows authors and publishers to publish, promote, distribute and sell their books online as multi-format ebooks. All Smashwords’ services are available free of charge. The books can be read online using Smashwords’ online readers, or they can be downloaded to other reading devices such as the the iPhone, iPod Touch, Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader or IRex Iliad, or to other ereading devices.
They can be sold in the Smashwords.com bookstore, and are also distributed via multiple online channels, including major online retailers such as Barnes & Noble. Smashwords books are also promoted via a growing network of Smashwords affiliates and, according to Coker, they will be made compatible with more reading devices in the future.
Authors do their own document formatting using any word processor that outputs Word-compatible files. You simply follow the instructions spelled out in The Smashwords Style Guide. The document is then uploaded, usually in .doc format, into the Smashwords file conversion system and is automatically converted into an array of different e-book formats. These then appear on the book’s sales page. Authors also receive their own individual webpage in the Smashbooks catalog cost-free, along with reference links to their other books within the catalog. The site offers tools for search, discovery and personal library-building when you register, and new features are added continuously based on feedback from members.
Essentially, authors are responsible for doing their own editing, cover design, and marketing. Smashwords organizes the distribution end. They have an alliance with Wordclay, a print-on-demand publisher, to cover the print end of publication. They also have distribution deals with the Sony Reader store and Barnes & Noble who are now in a head-on fight with Amazon for control of the ebook market. Arrangements are being made to allow sales of the printed version of books from the Smashwords catalog.
You can use the Smashwords site to publish and promote novels, short fiction, poetry, personal memoirs, monographs, non-fiction, research reports, essays and, according to Coker, “other written forms that haven’t even been invented yet.”
The participating authors and publishers are given complete control over the sampling, pricing and marketing of their written works. They also retain full control over how their works are published, sampled, priced and sold.
Smashwords encourages its authors to allow potential buyers to read sample portions of their work free before committing to purchases. Readers can also create digital libraries of purchased and sampled works, publish reviews (including YouTube video book reviews) and bookmark their favorite authors, publishers and works.
Coker says over one thousand “serious writers” publish on Smartwords, including many who have been previously published in print through mainstream publishers, or have had their works published in well-respected literary journals. In May 2009, the Smashwords platform was expanded to support publishers who want to publish and centrally manage two or more authors. They simply upload their books as Microsoft Word .doc or .RTF files and the system converts them into multiple e-book formats ready for immediate sale online at a price set by the publisher. Coker says dozens of publishers use the Smashwords system.
“A primary mission at Smashwords is to help make publishing more rewarding for the world’s indie authors and publishers, and more affordable to the world’s readers … There are no hidden fees. We earn our revenue by taking a cut of all net sales on the site. The cut is 15% of the net for sales at Smashwords.com or on Stanza, and 18.5% for sales that were originated by affiliate marketers.”
All author contracts with Smashwords are non-exclusive. The author retains all ownership rights to their works, and is still free to publish their work elsewhere if they choose. They can remove their works from the site at any time but cannot take back works that have already been purchased or sampled by readers.
Some users have suggested that the Smashwords site could do with more graphics and the book covers could be better displayed. Coker who is open to suggestions has demonstrated that he is quick to take them on board and make adjustments as needed. He has promised to have the covers featured more prominently in the future. He said he’s also working to bring artists into the Smashwords fold and forge a connection between them and the writers.
By and large, bloggers and literary commentators are full of praise for Smashwords
“Finally, someone has figured out how to bring all of the pieces of the puzzle together into a publishing platform that substantially meets the needs of writers. Smashwords has established an important model for future book publication and sales … With this remarkable array of features, Smashwords certainly ranks as one of the most important developments in publishing in recent years,” says Thomas B. Colvin, a writer, former History and English teacher and ex-Information Officer at the Asian Development Bank, on his blog Becoming a Writer – Seriously. http://becoming-a-writer-seriously.com/wordpress/2009/03/16/smashwords-the-essential-piece-of-the-puzzle/
“Smashwords launched with one of the most author-friendly electronic publishing platforms in all of the world,” gushed the ‘Fiction Matters’ website.
But inasmuch as Smashwords provides authors with a useful and unquestionably dynamic vehicle for marketing and selling their work, the million-dollar question is, can they make a lot of sales and generate some meaningful returns using the system? Coker is quite candid in his response.
“Probably not. How’s that for an honest answer? Although ebooks are the fastest growing segment of the book industry, they still only represent about two percent of overall book sales. Authors should publish their books on Smashwords not because they’ll make a lot of sales today, but as a long term investment in their writing career, and at the same time they should also self-publish in print,” said Coker. eBook authors face the same marketing challenges all authors have always faced. By publishing digitally on Smashwords, however, authors and publishers can expand their potential readership by leveraging the power of viral marketing to reach more potential readers with less effort.”
Coker has grand ambitions.
“With Smashwords, I’ve set my sights much higher. I want to change the future of book publishing. I want to help create a future where every author can be published, where every author is given a fair chance to reach their audience, and where every author becomes the captain of their own destiny. I want to expand cross-cultural literacy and bring all the world’s indie authors together in one giant online bookstore. And in the process, I want to build Smashwords to become a large and profitable business.
“We’re creating a digital publishing platform that can one day serve hundreds of thousands if not millions of authors around the world … Our success won’t happen overnight. Our revenues are laughably small now.”
Smashwords and similar self-publishing community sites are intriguing on two fronts. They allow writers to come together in a centralized and focused space from where they can make their work easily accessible to the public, assuming that readers can be induced to visit the site regularly. It can also be a budding ground for new and aspiring writers and gives them the opportunity to attract the attention of readers, providing their work is up to scratch and of very high quality.
Regardless of whether writers go the royalty or self-published route or employ the print or ebook format – especially new writers – getting their books off the shelves and into the hands of readers is guaranteed to be an uphill task, except if they’ve already made it into the bestseller league.
Ultimately, as many writers and book editors have attested, word-of-mouth is the touchstone; it’s what helps to grease the wheels of literary progress.
It’s hard to resist pondering whether a literary “space” such as that offered by Smashwords could serve the interest of Caribbean and other marginalized writers – especially considering that using it costs virtually nothing (at least for now) and it gives writers, at the very least, some level of visibility.
However, there’s something else to consider. Although Smashwords offers writers several valuable tools and solutions, one service they do not offer is editing – a function that is crucial if a book is to have a fair shot at success. Granted some badly-edited and even unedited books have managed to break out and gain impressive sales. But no writer who is seriously seeking success – literary or commercial – can afford to underestimate the importance of proofreading and editing. As Peepal Tree Press’ marketing manager, Hannah Bannister observed in an interview with Caribbean Book Blog (the preceding post) “… sometimes new writers are in too much of a hurry for publication.”
Hugh McGuire, the creator of Book Oven, another community resource website for writers, factored in the need for editing when he developed the site. Users can upload their work to the site and have other members of the community proofread, edit, or comment on it. Book Oven was built for writers, editors, designers and small presses and the services if offers are free. Hugh McGuire is a former engineer and the founder of LibriVox.org, a maker of free public domain audiobooks. LibriVox is one of the world’s most prolific audiobook publishers, with a catalog of over 2,500 works in 29 languages, and the venture is run entirely by volunteers. If nothing else, the Book Oven proofreading/editing system may well be an indication of where literary community websites are heading. http://blog.bookoven.com/2009/08/04/opening-the-book-oven/ Also see http://itc.conversationsnetwork.org/shows/detail4239.html
With physical books still accounting for the majority of book sales, print publishing still remains the preferred path for most writers. Increasingly, though, the trend is for writers to try and get a foot in both the print and ebook camps and make the best of both worlds. Like it or not, the book trade is evolving and ebooks and digital self-publishing are here to stay. They will continue to grow side by side with regular print publishing.
More info about Smashwords:
*An angel investor (also known as a business angel or informal investor) is an affluent individual who provides capital for a business start-up, usually in exchange for convertible debt or ownership equity. Wikipedia