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.
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:
- Bookselling moving to the web
- Authors becoming publishers
- 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:
- Write a great book
- Write another great book
- Maximize distribution
- Give (some of) your books away for free
- Patience is a virtue
- Trust your readers and partners
- Marketing starts yesterday
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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?
You can view the entire slide show Mark Coker prepared for his BAIPA talk here: