Mark Coker of Smashwords at BAIPA: Indie Revolution in Full Swing

by Joel Friedlander on May 17, 2011 · 28 comments

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This past weekend we had our monthly meeting of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA). The featured speaker was Mark Coker, founder and CEO of Smashwords.com, the independent e-book distributor.

Even before Mark got started on his presentation, even before he arrived, you could see the level of interest in the exploding world of self-publishing e-books. As more and more people arrived, president Pete Masterson had to repeatedly send out for more and more chairs to accommodate the crowd that was gathering.

In the end the room couldn’t hold any more chairs and, for the first time I can remember, it was standing room only by the time Mark Coker made his way to the front to begin his talk.

A Thorough Rundown on Publishing and the E-Book Revolution

Coker, who is also the owner of a public relations company and who spent over 20 years in PR, is a frequent speaker at publishing industry gatherings. He blogs at the Smashwords site and also on Huffington Post.

In an interesting coincidence, an article largely centered around Mark Coker and Smashwords came out in the San Francisco Chronicle just a few days before the BAIPA meeting, and included a notice about the meeting. Ilana deBare, the reporter who wrote the story, had been at a presentation I gave at the Mechanics Institute Library, and I ended up as a source for her reporting. Somehow all the connections came full circle, and demonstrated the power of publicity to fill a room.

Mark Coker of Smashwords at BAIPA

In any event, the crowd was not disappointed. Coker had a presentation of 60 slides that gave a pretty thorough rundown on:

  • the problems with how the book publishing industry works
  • why he started Smashwords to address those problems
  • how Smashwords works with authors to convert and distribute their books

Around this point he put up a slide that showed the growth of e-books at Smashwords, from 2008 when the company published 140 books, to 2011, when they are on track to publish 75,000 books this year alone.

Three Big Trends in Book Publishing

The next part of his presentation focused on what Coker called Three Big Trends Reshaping the Future of Publishing:

  1. Bookselling moving to the web
  2. Authors becoming publishers
  3. As reading moves to screens, e-books will overtake print

He talked a good deal about the economics of e-book publishing compared to print, then described the process of how books get produced, published, priced and distributed through Smashwords.

The Seven Secrets

The second half of the presentation was called The Seven Secrets to Indie E-Book Publishing Success. Here’s a rundown:

  1. Write a great book
  2. Write another great book
  3. Maximize distribution
  4. Give (some of) your books away for free
  5. Patience is a virtue
  6. Trust your readers and partners
  7. Marketing starts yesterday
  8. Architect for virality

Attentive readers will note that the Seven Secrets actually add up to eight. The “virality” secret came as a bonus. Here, Mark was talking about how books become popular, and it was very useful to have him point out that even for books that achieve widespread success, it is always word of mouth that’s responsible. That means that one person recommends the book to other people.

In the indie publishing world, there are more chances for going viral than anywhere else. Indie authors are, almost by definition, wired and connected, and many are comfortable networking online.

Throughout this presentation Mark communicated the excitment of being on the cutting edge of a huge cultural and technological shift. Smashwords is growing at an incredible rate as more and more authors move to publishing their own works.

Smashwords, as much as any single company, has made quick, cheap e-book publishing a reality for thousands of authors. They provide free e-book conversions and distribution to most e-book retialers for a very modest percentage of sales. This means that all the services provided by Smashwords are essentially free to authors, since payment comes from buyers’ payments for their books.

e-book self-publishing

Factors to Consider

There have been two knocks agains Smashwords, and in his presentation and in a talk we had after the meeting, Coker talked about how the company was attempting to keep up with demand for its services and continue to improve its offerings.

For instance, I’ve been hearing reports that when uploading new books, authors were encountering a queue thousands of books in length, causing delays in getting their books up for sale. Now Smashwords has dramatically increased their capacity, and Coker says conversions are taking place in minutes, not hours.

As far as those two areas:

  1. Conversion quality. Mark told me Smashwords has continued to improve the quality of the books that come out of the “meatgrinder,” the term they use for their automated e-book converter. It requires a carefully-formatted Word file and will produce mostly a plain-vanilla e-book. Keep in mind that this is quite good enough for most fiction. The problem comes with heavily-formatted nonfiction. We sat and looked through a print edition of A Self-Publisher’s Companion as well as the ePub version produced—by hand—by Joshua Tallent at ebookarchitects.com. Mark admitted some of the formatting would not have survived the meatgrinder, but claimed that most of it would be intact.

    Part of the problem here is that for indie authors, Smashwords will not accept third-party e-book files: everything must pass through the meatgrinder. This is one of the reasons I didn’t use Smashwords to distribute my book. The company now has a Smashwords Direct program for publishers, and they are beginning to act as distributor for a growing number of good-sized publishing houses. But for now, it’s the meatgrinder or nothing for indie authors.

  2. The other glitch in the Smashwords universe is Amazon, where they have been unable to arrange a distribution deal for Smashwords’ authors. This is not much of a problem for most authors, but you’ll have to get someone else to create a set of MOBI files (for Kindle) for you. You can then set up a Kindle account in a few minutes, upload the MOBI files, and have coverage of almost all e-book retailers by the combination of Kindle and Smashwords. And many, many authors have done just that.

The energy and enthusiasm for changing the world of publishing that Mark Coker brought to BAIPA was a breath of fresh air. On our way out, he remarked that he had given a talk to BAIPA about three years ago. At the time, there were about 15 people present, and I bet they wondered what the fuss was all about.

Now we know, and Smashwords has turned out to be the best advocate for, and business partner to indie authors in the e-book world. Look for more from this fast-growing and forward-looking company and its entrepreneurial founder.

P.S. As you know, I’m always trying to improve the way books look and work for as many authors as possible. Although I have put my book up for sale at the Kindle Store, the Nook Store and (soon) at the iBookstore, I had decided to skip the rest of the e-book retailers. After all, time is limited.

However, Mark suggested what amounted to a challenge: go through his 70-page formatting guide and produce a Word file that accurately represented my book, and have Smashwords distribute it to the rest of the e-book trade.

I don’t know, what do you think? Is it possible to get a decent book out of the meatgrinder? Should I take him up on the challenge?

Resources

You can view the entire slide show Mark Coker prepared for his BAIPA talk here:

The Seven Secrets of Ebook Publishing Success – BAIPA May 14, 2011

Smashwords Formatting Style Guide
Smashwords Book Marketing Guide
Follow Mark on Twitter: @MarkCoker

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    { 25 comments… read them below or add one }

    Michael N. Marcus May 17, 2011 at 5:14 am

    ]]Should I take him up on the challenge?[[

    Only if you have absolutely nothing else to do.

    I tried it twice and gave up twice. Anything that requires a 70 page manual is too damned complicated, especially if I can pay someone else $100 or less to do it for me correctly and quickly.

    Wordsmashing — like deerskinning, chrome-plating car parts, refining opium, cutting elephant toenails and memorizing the Iliad — are skills which are just not high priorities in my life.

    Mark Coker needs to produce software that converts Word into eBooks as easily as a conversion into a PDF. Maybe Adobe or Microsoft could do it if Mark can’t.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    http://www.Self-Pub.info
    – Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    – “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

    Reply

    ted krever May 17, 2011 at 6:00 am

    It would be a service, Joel, to the community, to see the kind of results you got going through the meatgrinder with a more heavily formatted book. But you’d have to be willing to be a guinea pig. Or maybe the canary in the coal mine. Both honorable positions but not necessarily comfortable ones.

    Reply

    S.D. Livingston May 17, 2011 at 6:06 am

    Excellent post, Joel! There’s one small point that may need clarification, though. In the second note about uploading Smashwords MOBI files to Amazon, I think that contravenes the Smashwords Terms of Service so authors might want to check that first.

    It’s #5 on the SM site, and it reads “The author/publisher is not authorized to independently sell or distribute Smashwords-generated file conversions outside of the Smashwords site or Smashwords distribution network without first receiving written permission from Smashwords . . .,” with all kinds of horrid punishments to follow (okay, not really. But you could end up forfeiting earnings).

    Another thing to watch for is that all SM versions must be noted as such in the front matter, so not sure if titles would be pulled from Amazon if that detail is ever noted by their staff or readers.

    Apologies if I’m reading the post wrong, but as a SM author I always err on the side of caution and upload my own MOBIs to Amazon.

    Love your blog, by the way!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 17, 2011 at 7:22 am

    S.D. thanks very much for catching that. I guess I was daydreaming about an ideal solution. I’ve corrected the post, and you’ve earned a free copy of one of my Quick & Easy Guides. Let me know which one you want and I’ll send it off with my gratitude.

    Reply

    S.D. Livingston May 17, 2011 at 7:47 am

    Hi Joel,

    Much appreciated, thank you! I’ve replied via email.

    Reply

    Kevin Sivils May 17, 2011 at 7:06 am

    I am with Marcus on this one. I would jump at e-book distribution through Smashwords, but I just don’t have the time to work my way through a 70 page manual. If I am going to pay someone to prepare a file, it is going to be for the Kindle or the Nook.

    To me, the best approach would be to develop a “meatgrinder” that worked from a file every author can create, such as a PDF. Not being a programmer I have no idea what that would entail or if it would even be possible, but it would make a lot of authors stand up and cheer. Our PDF files we use for POD could be used to convert to ebooks with Smashwords with ease.

    Still, Mr. Coker is providing a much needed service and he is certainly an entrepreneur. He seems like an intelligent individual and is probably very aware of the limitations of the conversion software of his company. If he does not improve it, somebody else will figure out a better mousetrap and take Smashword’s place in the ebook market.

    Reply

    AD Bane May 17, 2011 at 7:35 am

    Thanks for the post Joel!
    I think what Mark has done is pretty brilliant! but I wonder, is it really worth it? There are many indie authors who do all the same work themselves, and once you have a word file it’s not very difficult to convert it into almost any format you need without the meatgrinder. Of course it’s more work for you…

    The Seven Secrets are great! And so true. I especially like that he included patience. None of the others will happen without it!

    Reply

    George Angus May 17, 2011 at 7:42 am

    Joel:

    Yes and Yes. I say give it a whirl. I can’t say enough good things about Smashwords. I have books published there and I’ve made money formatting books for clients who were to freaked out about formatting to do it on their own. (Formatting a general fiction book is stupid-easy. From start to published usually takes just a few hours at the most)

    Go for it Joel, and let us know how it turns out.

    George

    Reply

    J.A. Pak May 17, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Thanks so much for the post. Having just used Smashwords, I’ve become a big fan of Mark Coker. BTW, you just need a Microsoft Word doc to submit to Kindle. Amazon tells you how to format it and the procedures aren’t too different from Smashwords, although Amazon’s instructions are misleading and confusing. Coincidentally, I just blogged about my ebook experiences.

    Reply

    Darby Harn May 17, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Thanks so much for this article, Joel.

    I’ve also decided against Smashwords for now, for the reasons outlined above. I’d love to take on the challenge, but it seems overly complicated. It’s important for my book to have as many outlets as possible, so I will consider the challenge.

    Reply

    Sharon E. Cathcart May 17, 2011 at 10:47 am

    I have been a very happy Smashwordian for two years now; the formatting is not *that* complicated, and the one time I ran into issues with it, Mark himself helped me figure out what was wrong and how to fix it. How many publishing house CEOs are willing to do that?

    All publishers require something different in terms of submission formats anyway. Smashwords is no different from the Big Six in that regard.

    I’d say give it a whirl; you’ve absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 17, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    Well, the ambivalence I sense in the comments about taking on the Smashwords formatting of my book mirrors my own ambivalence. The biggest obstacle for me is time: with what I have on my plate, the prospect of tackling both the Guide and the formatting itself make me hesitate. I’ll give it a day’s thought and thanks to everyone for weighing in.

    Reply

    Beth Barany May 17, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    Hi Joel, I set aside 2-3 hours one Saturday afternoon and figured it out and uploaded my docs in that time. It’s worth it. Though I went direct to Kindle and Nook, of course. I like Smashwords for my ability to give reviewers a coupon for 100% and they can download the digital copy of their choice to review my book. Sales are low there, but you never know, sales can pick up [long tail; and I've only started my ebook empire in Feb 2011], and it’s a great venue to distribute free books when I have them.

    Reply

    Linda Lavid May 17, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    In Coker’s guide you’ll find info on getting another Smashwords author to convert a book for $25. The meatgrinder converts a doc into formats used by Apple, Sony Reader, Mobi, Diesel, Kobo, HTML, and more. Coker’s book tells you how to strip out the formatting and add a linked table of contents. Essentially, all you need to do. Very doable once you take the time.

    Reply

    Christy May 17, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    I’m really sorry I missed this talk. I’m in San Fransisco right now, and I wish that I could have heard Mark talk. I like Smashwords— I know that the meatgrinder isn’t ideal, but Smashwords itself is awesome. We are in the dawning of a new age, and Mark Coker is really one of the standard-bearers. It’s pretty cool, if you ask me.

    Now, I also agree with Kevin– I have no time to do anything. So trying to get a file prepped and stripped of HTML is something that I don’t have time for. I’m already one month behind getting an audiobook ready and I have another project that’s due in a week, so… using a professional ebook formatter is a must.

    Reply

    ted krever May 18, 2011 at 8:22 am

    The Styleguide is long but only because it’s meant to deal with people who’ve no tech background at all. It’s really pretty simple reading. Formatting my second book probably took an hour and a half, tops. Once I have the Smashwords version, the Amazon version (adding page breaks and converting to HTML) takes half an hour. And I agree with Beth–the free coupons to give review copies are a godsend.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 18, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Okay, people, I feel my resolve weakening. I’ll go download the guide and have a look at it but I’m starting to think there’s no way to avoid doing this at least once. Thanks much for all the encouragement.

    Reply

    Ed Robertson May 18, 2011 at 10:35 am

    The guide looks intimidating, but it’s really not a big deal. It’s not 70 pages of nitty-gritty “Now follow steps 1-20,878 or be banished from the land”-style coding. Most of those 70 pages are devoted to introductory material, alternative methods of doing things, and situations that will probably be irrelevant to your book file.

    I had literally never used Word before going through the Smashwords formatting process. I’ve since put three books through them without any problems.

    Reply

    Linda Lavid May 18, 2011 at 9:46 am

    There is nothing to fear but fear itself. Go forth and format!

    Reply

    Kevin Sivils May 18, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Perhaps I missed this information and if so, it is probably as plain as the nose on my face, but does Smashwords offer a service for file conversion to get your file ready to go in the MeatGrinder, i.e. like CreateSpace’s Kindle Conversion Service?

    Or are their individuals out their like Joshua Tallent of eBook Architects who provide this service?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 21, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Kevin, Smashword requires a Word file formatted according to the instructions in their style guide. You must have that to publish there. The Word file is what’s used by the conversion engine (the meat grinder) to produce the files for 9 e-book formats. They maintain an informal list of other users who have volunteered to help people get their Word file ready for conversion, usually for a small fee.

    Reply

    bowerbird May 21, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    smashwords in general is wonderful!

    a few parts of it, though, suck. badly.
    and the meatgrinder is one of them…

    is it possible to get good-looking e-books
    out of the meatgrinder? of course it is…

    but is it easy to do that? not even close.

    notice how mark challenged _you_ to
    do the work of preparing your book?

    if it were really that easy, he would have
    offered to do the work himself, to prove it.

    i’m still waiting for my 100 people to sign up,
    (i have 88), but when i hit the magic number,
    i will be releasing my conversion software…

    it’s the equivalent of the meatgrinder, in that
    it creates .pdf and .html and .epub and .mobi,
    but you exercise the control, not smashwords.

    and the preparation is much easier, which i can
    prove by offering to do your book for you, joel.

    just send me your word-processing file, whether
    .rtf or ms-word or whatever, and i’ll handle it…

    because, with my app, it’s just that easy…

    -bowerbird

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 21, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    bowerbird, thanks for your very generous offer, but my book is way to heavily formatted for anyone to take it on simply as a demonstration. Here’s a better idea: I know that when you release your software it could well revolutionize authoring tools for ePub generation. Let’s see if I can help drive some traffic to your signup site to get you over the hump, then I’ll evaluate the software, too. Why don’t you leave the url here in the comments?

    Reply

    bowerbird May 21, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    here’s the signup u.r.l.:
    > http://jaguarps.blogspot.com/2011/04/blog-post_14.html

    but i’m not in a hurry to get to 100. ever since cory doctorow
    announced it and got a flock of people to sign up, the “100″ has
    been within easy reach. so i’ve just been fine-tuning the app.

    and heavy formatting is not a problem. because none of the
    e-book file-formats support fancy formatting, so you have to
    toss all of that out anyway. so if you want me to do your book,
    just say so. i’d like to go head-to-head against the meatgrinder.

    but i would probably rather do the book you were _going_ to do,
    the one that educated people about the different parts of a book.
    that one, i would think, will have greater value for many people.

    -bowerbird

    Reply

    Jaye September 13, 2012 at 7:04 am

    Terrific post, as usual, Joel. While I appreciate the heck out of what Coker has done and is doing, I think he’s making a mistake by trying to make his “meatgrinder” all things to all people. It’s not just ereaders that are getting more sophisticated, READERS are getting more sophisticated and they want more, not less. Plain-vanilla is NOT good enough (it would be like you printing books with a mimeograph machine on newsprint and stapling the pages together and saying it’s good enough). While I understand why Coker uses Word files as source files for his converters–and in some ways that’s the best part of Smashwords because it doesn’t insist that writers learn html or invest in expensive programs–I’d love to see options.

    As for the challenge, good luck. I’m in the process now of building a non-fiction file to publish through Smashwords. I THINK I know how to make Word work for me instead of against me, but only time and the auto-vetter will tell.

    Reply

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