Mark Coker - Founder of Smashwords - An Interview - Behind the Scenes
Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, joins us on Night Owl Reviews!
Mark, please share a little about your background and how Smashwords came to be.
Prior to Smashwords, I ran a PR agency serving Silicon Valley technology companies ranging from hot garage startups to large multi-billion-dollar companies.
About ten years ago, my wife and I wrote a novel, Boob Tube, which explores the wild and wacky world of daytime television soap operas. My wife is a former reporter of Soap Opera Weekly magazine, and is now an entertainment blogger for the Huffington Post. It was our experience trying to find a publisher that opened my eyes to the world of publishing.
Despite representation from one of the best literary agencies in New York City, publishers refused to publish our book because previous soap opera-themed novels hadn’t performed well.
After much contemplation and research, I realized that publishers aren’t in the business of publishing books; they’re in the business of selling books. They’re looking to acquire books they think have the greatest commercial potential. The problem, however, is that they can only guess. They really don’t know what readers will buy until readers see the book. As a result, they reject thousands of great books each year. Back in the dark ages of publishing, prior to five years ago, publishers shattered the dreams of hundreds of thousands of writers each year, because without a publisher, and without their print distribution to brick and mortar retailers, it was nearly impossible for any writer to reach readers.
I imagined millions of rejected writers around the world. I thought it would be cool if I could figure out a way to make their dreams come true. I thought it would be cool if I could create an online publishing platform that would allow me to take a chance on every writer. I wanted to give writers the freedom to publish at no cost, and I wanted to give readers the freedom to decide what was worth reading.
In 2008, we launched Smashwords, a free ebook publishing platform. In 2009, we became an ebook distributor serving the major retailers. Today, we’re serving over 60,000 writers around the world, and we’re distributing over 200,000 ebooks to major retailers such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Sony. Many of our authors routinely hit all the major bestseller lists.
What was your biggest hurdle in creating a publishing platform that offered an excellent opportunity to Indie Published authors?
There were many hurdles to overcome, though there were two that had the greatest chance of derailing us.
1. Stigma - When we launched Smashwords in early 2008, self-publishing was seen as the option of last resort for authors. There was a lot of stigma attached to self-publishing, and nowhere was this stigma greater than in the minds of writers. We were asking writers to do something they didn’t want to do. In 2008, 99% of all writers aspired to be traditionally published, not self-published. I believed that the stigma was unfair and unwarranted. The way I looked at it back then was if you believe in the potential of all writers, you must believe in self-publishing. So one of our challenges was to help writers believe in their own potential, because if writers were unwilling to self-publish, it would have been impossible for us to build a business helping authors self-publish ebooks. Today, the stigma of self-publishing is disappearing, while the stigma of traditional publishing is increasing. I think we’re just a year or two away from reaching a point where most writers aspire to self-publish as their option of first choice. What a difference five years makes!
2. Startup costs – Smashwords was self-funded by yours truly. We did not have the benefit of venture capital. I mortgaged my home to get this off the ground, and then in late 2009, I borrowed more to keep it flying. I wouldn’t recommend anyone try to follow my example. Most startups fail. Smashwords had everything working against it. I bet my personal financial future on this crazy idea that every writer is special, and every writer has a right to publish. Luckily, my bet on authors was not misplaced. We hit profitability in late 2010 and haven’t looked back since. We’re over 20 employees now and solidly profitable.
Does Smashwords help with author promotions?
Authors are responsible for the bulk of their promotions, though we do provide tools to help authors promote and sell. The first tool is the Smashwords platform itself, which creates for every author an author profile page, and attached to the profile page is a social media-enabled promotional page for each book. One of our most popular promotion tools is the Smashwords Coupon Manager, which allows authors to create custom coupon codes they can use in their promotions. In June, we added support for preorders, which enable an author to get their book listed for sale at Apple, Barnes & Noble and Kobo as a preorder. With a preorder, a book accumulates order reservations, and then on day one of the official “onsale” date, all the orders credit and it causes the book to spike in the bestseller lists. Finally, we put a lot of effort into helping authors learn best practices for successful, professional publishing. I’ve written three free books on e-publishing, and each focuses on best practices. There’s The Smashwords Style Guide, which teaches an author how to professionally format and publish an ebook. The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide teaches authors how to market their book at no cost, and how to build an author platform. My third book, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, identifies 29 best practices for reaching readers.
How does an author maximize their sales on Smashwords?
It’s important that the author realize their job is to act like a professional publisher. My three books above will give them the foundational knowledge they need to become a professional publisher. Beyond that, the most important aspects of success can be boiled down to four secrets.
1. The Book – The best marketing secret is to write a book that markets itself on the wings of reader word of mouth. It’s not enough to write a good book. Good books don’t sell well. The author must write a super-fabulous book, one that gets reader reviews of 4 ½ to 5 stars. It needs to be a WOW book. WOW books are the books that get the “WOW” reader reviews. The author must take the reader to an emotionally satisfying extreme. It’s not enough for a reader to simply recommend your book to their friends. You want them to command their friends to read it.
2. Wide Availability – The book cannot be discovered and purchased if it’s not findable at every major retailer. Some authors make the mistake of listing their book at one retailer only. Distribute your book to every retailer (Smashwords is an ebook distributor, so Smashwords can help here!), and don’t ever remove your book from a retailer for any reason.
3. Cover image – The cover image is the first impression you’ll make on a potential reader. You can write a super fabulous book, but if the cover isn’t super-fabulous, you won’t reach many readers. A great cover makes an emotional promise to the reader. It says, “This book will give you the reading experience you desire,” and then it keeps that promise. The author must know who their target reader is, and then must create a cover that that makes a truthful promise backed by a quality book.
4. Price – Indie authors have a lot of flexibility on price. Lower priced books generally get more readers than higher priced books. Most indie ebooks are priced $4.99 and below. $2.99 and $3.99 seem to be the best price points for indie authors. FREE is a powerful permanent price point for series starters, or for temporary promotions.
Smashwords offers an author the opportunity of sampling their book for readers to try before they buy. What do you think is the best percentage to put as a sample read? Does the length of the book play into that number, such as a novella vs. a long novel?
For novellas and full-length novels, I think 10-15% is usually good. Some authors do 50% or more. Obviously, if a reader reads all the way to 50%, they’ll probably want to purchase the book to read further. Yet many readers never read books they intend to read. This is why I think it’s better to hook them with the first 10-15%, and then go for the sale.
Does Smashwords have a forum or community for authors to interact with readers?
The official Smashwords Facebook forum is located at http://facebook.com/Smashwords There are also unofficial forums popping up on Facebook and elsewhere.
Can authors use the ISBN#s generated at Smashwords on books they chose put up at sites such as Barnes and Noble without the book being pulled from Smashwords?
Smashwords provides free ISBNs as a benefit of using Smashwords distribution services. Authors shouldn’t use Smashwords ISBNs for books they plan to upload themselves to different retailers. If their intent is to upload direct, they’re better off buying their own ISBNs from Bowker. A better option, though, is to simply use Smashwords to deliver the book to Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo and Sony.
Do you work with third party reviewers on each book that is downloaded to Smashwords, or do you select certain books? If the books are selected, how is the determination on what books to request reviews on made?
All of our reviews are provided by our community of book-buying readers. If a book reviewer requests a review copy of one of our books, we’ll try to accommodate them but will first obtain the author’s permission to give their book to a reviewer.
Would you explain the affiliate program and how authors can benefit from it? Does an author need do take any special steps to enroll?
Smashwords offers an affiliate program that allows authors and affiliate marketers to earn commissions of 11% or more if readers they send to Smashwords purchase books written by other authors. The terms of the program are outlined in detail at https://www.smashwords.com/account/affiliate I think every author should take advantage of it, though keep in mind that it’s not the road to riches. Unless you’re pointing a significant number of readers to Smashwords, you’ll be hard pressed to earn hamburger money. On the other hand, the program is incredibly simple, and only takes minutes to set up.
Click here to learn how to publish and distribute an ebook with Smashwords.
Columnist Lizzie T. Leaf: Award winning author, Lizzie T. Leaf enjoys writing Paranormal/Fantasy with a twist of humor and heat. Her Magical Love series is available in print and eBook at Passion in Print and other sellers. Beyond Magic, the first book in the series won the 2012 AOE Best Paranormal/Fantasy/Sci-Fi. The DEAD series is available through Musa Publishing where she also has two Christmas novellas, the Contemporary Fantasy, Forget the Mistletoe and Making Christmas, the LRC Best Historical winner and the 2012 Aspen Gold Best Novella winner. Re-releasing June 2013, two expanded Erotic Contemporaries, Barely Legal and Educating Amber.