Smashwords.com Founder Mark Coker Talks Ebooks with Debbie Jenkins of AuthorShock.com
Brutal honesty, a meat grinder and how to make sure the naysayers don’t steal your dreams – Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords.com speaks openly about his journey. If you’re considering your ebook strategy you need to listen to Mark, he’s one of the main movers in the ebook world, with recent deals made with Amazon, Sony & Barnes&Noble.
Smashwords is an ebook publishing and distribution platform for ebook authors, publishers and readers. They offer multi-format, DRM-free ebooks, ready for immediate sampling and purchase, and readable on any e-reading device. At Smashwords, authors and publishers have complete control over the sampling, pricing and marketing of their written works. Smashwords is ideal for publishing novels, short fiction, poetry, personal memoirs, monographs, non-fiction, research reports, essays, or other written forms that haven’t even been invented yet.
It’s free to publish and distribute with Smashwords. The “meat grinder” turns your Word document into the most popular e-reading formats, easily, quickly and efficiently. Smashwords distributes your ebooks to a wide variety of retailers, including Sony, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
Mark Coker is the founder and driving force behind the phenomenal growth of Smashwords.com
You set up Smashwords.com in May 2008, and you just passed your 18th month of operation – how’s it going so far?
Things are going well across the key internal metrics I track of # of authors, # of publishers, # of books published, monthly sales, # of unique monthly visitors to Smashwords.com and the reach of our distribution network. Yesterday we published our 5,000th title, representing a 100 percent increase in our title count in three months. Also in the last three months, we’ve expanded the reach of our distribution network by adding major ebook retailers Amazon, Shortcovers, Sony and Barnes & Noble.
There isn’t a day that goes by when your business doesn’t come up – you’re on twitter, blogs, facebook, newsgroups – everyone loves you! Why do people feel so connected with you and Smashwords.com?
The response from readers, independent authors and small publishers and has been humbling. Readers appreciate our large catalog of low cost, multi-format, DRM-free ebooks. Authors and publishers appreciate that I created this business first and foremost to benefit them. We make it easy for any author or publisher, anywhere in the world, to instantly publish a multi-format ebook, and we provide them access to a growing network of retail distribution partners so they can put their books in front of more readers. The Smashwords business model is open and transparent. Because we don’t charge any fees for our services, we don’t make money unless the author/publisher makes money. We’re also brutally honest with our authors and publishers. We’re upfront about the limitations with our Meatgrinder conversion system. We’re constantly reminding our authors and publishers to keep their sales expectations low, because although we make it easy to publish and distribute your book, it’s up to you to get out there and market it.
The acclaim for Smashwords is by no means universal. Many people still wrongly view self-publishing and independent publishing in a negative light. Others view what we’re doing as a threat, or as an abomination of publishing. Despite the great support we receive from the communities we serve, there are still a lot of people in the publishing industry who have absolutely no clue what we’re doing and where we’re headed. For the non-believers, sometimes I feel like I’m running our business obscured by a cloak of transparency.
How important is having an ebook strategy (and getting ebooks distributed) for traditional print book authors?
Every author should develop and implement an ebook strategy today, not tomorrow. Ebooks are the fastest growing segment in an otherwise stagnant book publishing industry. Ebooks level the playing field for all authors and publishers. With print books, if you don’t have distribution into brick and mortar bookstores – if you’re not displayed on the shelves – your ability to reach readers is impeded. With ebooks, we make it possible for any author or publisher to achieve universal digital shelf space at the largest online retailers. So from an author/publisher perspective, ebooks are very liberating. Authors and publishers, however, should not abandon print. Although accurate market data is impossible to come by, it’s probably fair to say that 95 percent of all book sales today are still of print books. Print is a format. Ebooks are a format. Publishers should do both.
What is Meatgrinder, and what are its strengths and limitations?
Meatgrinder is our automated ebook conversion engine. It allows the author/publisher to upload a single source file as a Microsoft Word .doc or .RTF file and then Meatgrinder converts the book into multiple ebook formats so the book can be read on any e-reading device. Because the process is completely automated, it’s super-critical the author/publisher upload a book formatted to the specifications in the Smashwords Style Guide. It’s also important to understand we do reasonably well with straight form narrative (fiction, poetry, memoirs and other books that are mostly text), and we do less well with books that require complex layout. For example, Meatgrinder doesn’t support tables or linked Tables of Contents and footnotes/endnotes. In the next couple months we’ll start allowing some authors and publishers to bypass Meatgrinder and upload their own perfectly formatted files for certain formats such as PDF, EPUB and .MOBI.
When preparing their manuscript for chomping by your Meatgrinder, what are the 3 top things authors should be aware of?
The three top formatting tips:
- Keep the formatting simple – Envision your book as essentially plain text with only minimal formatting, such as indents, bolds, italics and paragraph returns.
- Forget (some) of what you know – Do not attempt to replicate the exact page layout of a print book in ebook form, otherwise you’ll give readers a poor experience. With paper books, you control the page size and you control where each word appears on the page. Ebooks are different. Page numbers are irrelevant. Ebooks are consumed on devices of varying screen sizes. After customers purchase your book, you should expect them to modify the formatting (font style, font size, line spacing, font color, background color, etc.) to match their preferences. By surrendering control of these aspects to the customer, you gain much more than you give up.
- Design for simple reflowability so your book’s text can easily shape shift across various screen sizes and ebook formats. If you try to introduce unnecessary complexity into your book (exotic fonts, multiple paragraph styles, unnecessary images), such complexity will harm the reading experience.
What’s the most important piece of marketing advice you can give authors using smashwords.com?
Your marketing should begin before you even start writing your book. Spend at least an hour a day networking with readers and writers on message boards, forums and social networks. Make friends, build relationships and add genuine value to the communities in which you participate. As you build your network of relationships, unexpected marketing opportunities will unfold for you by the time you release your book. Book marketing has always been about word of mouth. Ask yourself, how will you reach your first 100 or 1000 readers, and how do you reach the right readers? If your book truly resonates with your target audience, they will do your marketing for you. I wrote a free ebook called The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide to help authors market their books. Even if an author doesn’t work with Smashwords, the marketing tips are universally applicable to all authors, even print authors.
What one thing do you wish you knew when you started out in business?
I’ve been an entrepreneur for over 20 years. When I first started, I wish I was more prepared to counter the power of inertia and naysayers. When you start off in business, or you start writing a book, you must have confidence in your venture because there will always be people who tell you you can’t do it and you shouldn’t try. There’s an old lyric from the Black Sabbath song, Heaven and Hell that has always stuck with me. The song is about how all people have good and evil inside them. The particular lyric I like, which I’m probably taking out of context, spoke to the power of believing in your own dream, and how you must protect your dreams. It goes, “They say that life’s a carousel, spinning fast you’ve got to ride it well. The world is full of kings and queens who blind your eyes and steal your dreams…” When I first launched Smashwords 18 months ago, I knew we’d meet with strong scepticism. I knew, and I continue to know, that we’re doing the right thing. As long as I can continue to provide good value to our authors, publishers, retail partners and readers, we will have a place in this industry for many years to come.
What’s next for you?
Today we publish 5,000 original ebooks from 2,300 independent authors and 80 small publishers. We’re only getting started. I believe in crazy dreams. Long term, I want to add three zeros to each of those numbers. Short term, we will work to earn and deserve the trust and confidence shown to us by our authors, publishers and retail partners. We’ll work to expand the reach of our distribution network, grow sales, build new marketing tools for our authors and publishers, and improve formatting quality.
Is there anything else you want to tell people?
I invite every author and publisher reading this to come publish and distribute with Smashwords!
Contact Details & Free Stuff For Smashwords.com
- Download the free, Smashwords Book Marketing Guide – this is invaluable not just for ebook sales, but for general marketing advice.
- Download the free Smashwords Style Guide – you must read this before designing your books for ebook distribution.
- Have a look at some of our ebooks here: BookShaker Ebooks At Smashwords.com
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