The Future Looks Bright for Indie Writers and Publishers

As 2009 winds down to a close, I can’t help reflecting on a year that surely has to go down as one of the most disruptive and transformational periods in the world publishing industry.

For much of the year the industry was buffeted by the global economic recession sparked off by the near meltdown of the world financial system. For print publishers and bookstores it’s been rough. Hundreds of workers at publishing houses were laid off, several indie bookstores were forced to close down and the Borders UK bookstore chain has all but gone belly up.

In the midst of the turmoil, the IT sector working in collaboration with online bookstores unleashed a slew of electronic book readers on the world, most notably the Amazon Kindle, along with a number of other related inventions.

Internet Archive introduced BookServer, an open platform designed to allow publishers, booksellers, libraries, and authors to make their books available directly to readers through their laptops, phones, netbooks, or dedicated reading devices.

Renowned scientist and inventor, Ray Kurzweil and his company K-NFB Reading Technology Inc designed new e-reader software targeted at both the general e-reader market and the blind.

Google is fighting to secure the right to digitize millions of out-of-print books to create the world’s biggest online library. It also announced plans to partner with publishers in 2010 to deliver e-books to anyone with a Web browser.

The list goes on. Every one of these initiatives and innovations are underpinned by advancements in Internet technology. The two primary constituencies who stand to reap the most from the technological revolution are readers and authors. Barriers erected between them are gradually coming down and they now have tools at their disposal that make it easier to connect and interact with one another as never before.

Moreover, the evolution of virtual communities like Smashwords and Book Oven have taken the revolution a step further. In a way that could hardly have been envisioned a generation ago, writers are being afforded new ways to circumvent the gatekeepers and present their work directly to readers. This development is significant.

Over the years, the conglomeration and consolidation of publishing houses and bookstores, coupled with the powerful interventions of literary agents (many of who were editors and marketing execs at some of the world’s leading publishers)  have restricted new and aspiring writers’ access to publishing opportunities. The books we read and our knowledge and images of the world were largely being decided (and continue to be determined) by a limited, incestuous collection of cliques with power bases, for the most part, beyond the reach of writers in the developing and “Third” world.

Now the internet is changing the game and providing writers with new options to consider in their quest to get published.

Incredibly, we have come to a point where many publishing experts, including legendary figures like Jason Epstein, the former editorial director of Random House, and a highly-esteemed 50-year publishing veteran, are sounding the death knell of the business model that the world’s print publishers have employed for decades and continue to cling to – all because of the combined impact of digitization and the Internet.

Fascinating as these new developments are, what must not be overlooked are the factors that ultimately gave rise to them; the power of the human will and the creative potential of vision. This potent mix lies at the core of creations like Amazon and Internet Archive. It simmers in the leonine hearts of Jeremy Poynting and Hannah Bannister of Peepal Tree Press, the UK publishing house that continues to wave the flag for Caribbean, Black British and Asian writers and poets against tremendous odds.  Ditto the Jamaica-based Ian Randle Publishing, Macmillan Island Fiction, and a handful of tenacious, if struggling, small presses in the Caribbean and Africa.

Similar forces are at work in the creation of Smashwords, one of the up-and-coming publishing ventures that bear watching, not just because of its innovative approach to book publishing, but for the same reason that we have been fixated on companies like Amazon and Microsoft – because of the vision, resourcefulness and charisma of their leaders.

Two and a half years ago when he emerged on the publishing scene, Smashwords CEO, Mark Coker boldly declared his intentions to develop a “free online publishing platform” to allow “any author, anywhere in the world, to publish their work online in seconds.”

He’s done that.  Since it was launched in May 2008, Smashwords has reportedly facilitated the publishing of over 5,000 ebooks from 2,300 independent authors and publishers around the world. You can use the system to publish, promote, distribute and sell books online as multi-format ebooks free of charge. They can also be downloaded to other reading devices including the iPhone, iPod Touch, Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader or IRex Iliad.

It turns out that literally any author with a computer and internet connection can use the Smashwords platform to publish and promote their work. What’s more, they have the option of doing so as an ebook or in print.

It soon became clear that Coker’s ultimate goal was to eliminate the gatekeepers and push for the full democratization of the publishing process. As he himself explained, he wants to “change the future of book publishing” and help create a future where every author can be published and be given a fair chance to reach their audience and become “captains of their own destiny.”

Coker’s business decisions bear the hallmarks of one who has seen the promised land and believes firmly in his vision of change.

In November Smashwords acquired the assets of BookHabit, an ebook publishing platform for independent authors based in New Zealand. BookHabit had 340 authors who collectively had published over 600 books. The two outfits had a lot in common. Like Smashwords, Bookhabit wanted to give “discovered and undiscovered writers a conduit to the reading world” and give readers “a place to explore”. They felt confident that “authors fed up with publishers’ rejection slips, and readers hunting for new material” would welcome the initiative. Both companies were launched in 2008.

Following its takeover by Smashwords, BookHabit’s authors, books and customers were given the option of migrating over to the Smashwords platform but were not obligated to do so. The authors who did so continue to retain ownership and copyright to their books.

Clare Tanner, founder of BookHabit was highly supportive of the deal. “This acquisition benefits the BookHabit author community by offering broader sales and distribution opportunities, especially in North America. Smashwords makes it fast and easy for authors to publish multi-format e-books, readable on all the popular e-reading devices. I’m pleased to help our authors take full advantage of the free publishing, marketing and distribution tools offered by Smashwords,” said Tanner.

Shortcovers Deal

In touting the acquisition as offering the Bookhabit writers “broader sales and distribution opportunities” Tanner, wittingly or unwittingly, signaled the unfolding of a crucial aspect of Mark Coker’s plans, namely to “… bring all the world’s indie authors together in one giant online bookstore”.

Coker took another decisive step in that direction after signing a deal with Toronto-based Shortcovers, an e-reading application owned by Indigo Books & Music, for the global distribution of Smashwords ebooks. Shortcovers will distribute the ebooks in 189 countries. It operates a mobile and web-based e-reading service and prior to the deal it was reported to have had well over a million downloads. It has apps on the iPhone, BlackBerry, Palm Pre, and Google Android smartphones.

Smashwords is offering its authors and publishers royalties of 46.75 percent of the digital list price of their book sales on Shortcovers, nearly 10 times the royalty rate they earn on print mass-market paperbacks, and 4 times higher than royalties on hardbacks.

Amazon reportedly offers authors 30% of the revenue generated from its Kindle store.

Commenting on the partnership in an interview with BNET Media, Coker said, “The idea for us is that we will now be much better at helping small and independent authors and publishers find a global audience. That is what is so exciting about this partnership to us.”

He added: “One of the problems with eBooks over the past decade has been that they have been tied to specific devices, like the Kindle. So part of Shortcovers’ strong advantage is it is moving the library to the cloud, making It fully portable. This is good for readers, but also for authors and publishers. They (Shortcovers) are really ahead of the curve with this. That, plus being neutral as to device.”

Shortcovers is preparing to expand into some new countries that have “strong domestic collections of books” in 2010.

Sony and B&N Partnership

Smashwords is also partnering with Sony and Barnes & Noble. Its deal with Sony allows its authors to upload their e-books into Sony’s portal, the eBook Store, where users can purchase and download them.

The Sony e-reader

Likewise, Barnes & Noble will be a key affiliate distributor of Smashwords titles. This means both companies are poised to increase their market share and give Amazon a run for their money. Currently you can download books from Barnes & Noble and read them on an iPhone, iTouch, Blackberry or PC or Macintosh by downloading the B&N e-reader software appropriate for the device

According to BNET Media, “Coker sees these partnerships with the big book distributors as a tipping point in his declared war to transform the traditional book publishing industry.” Coker admitted as much.   “Historically the means of production and distribution were controlled by big publishers. Now we’re putting these tools in the hands of authors,” he told BNET

One of the Smashwords authors, YA romance-thriller writer VJ Chambers has commented on her experience with the publisher and it is well worth reading.

As the Smashwords author base expands, it is possible that its free-for-all self-publishing format could result in an influx of substandard, poorly-edited work. Which begs the question, will there be a need to introduce some sort of winnowing mechanism to separate the wheat from the chaff. If there’s too much of the latter there is the risk that readers could gradually be turned off from the site.

Coker is not worried. He believes that the answer is to let the readers decide the value of the author’s work. He has no qualms whatsoever about eliminating the gatekeepers

“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.”

His words evoke an intriguing image of readers arrogating to themselves the discriminating power once enjoyed almost exclusively by editors and literary agents.

By now it must be clear to the likes of Amazon that, where Smashwords and other similar publishing ventures are concerned, they can’t afford to take their eyes off the ball now that the scramble for market share is taking place on a more level playing field.

So far Coker has not moved to incorporate a literary award as part of the Smashwords project. It would be interesting to see what effect such recognition for quality work would have on the market.

No doubt we live in exciting times as far as publishing is concerned, not least of all for Caribbean writers who have been disadvantaged and sidelined for so long. I look forward eagerly to see what 2010 brings.

Update: Shortcovers has split off from parent company Indigo Books & Music Inc. and has been rebranded Kobo Inc.  

Who owns dedicated e-book-readers in the U.S.?

2 responses to “The Future Looks Bright for Indie Writers and Publishers

  1. Pingback: Global Voices Online » St. Lucia: A Year for the Books·

  2. Mark Coker is no different from the owner of Amazon, his interest lies in making money, a natural thing for any normal human being to do. So, he, like Amazon, doesn’t care about the reader or the writer as long as stories are published on his site, a sad tale but true.

    In my opinion and in other words, there has to be an e-book – paper book site that does seperate the wheat from the chaff, an expensive undertaking for the author, but could – not would – ensure better book sales.
    I was thinking of Readwave.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s