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Thursday, July 24th, 2014


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Interview with Smashwords Founder Mark Coker

Looking for a great way to stand out? Consider publishing an e-book! It’s a great way to impress potential employers, show off what you know, get published or to monetize your blog. Smashwords is an ebook publishing platform that makes it easy for anyone to publish a multi-format ebook.  Authors simply upload their finished manuscript as a Microsoft Word file, and then Smashwords instantly converts it into nine ebook formats, ready for immediate sale to a worldwide audience at a price set by you, the author.  Once a book is published with Smashwords, theyprovide authors free tools to help them market and sell it.  Smashwords books are also distributed via Stanza on the iPhone and via various leading ebook retailers including Barnes & Noble. Think about it: within seconds you have your own book on your iPhone!

I got the chance to speak with Mark Coker about Smashwords and the future of publishing.

YOUNG MONEY: How many books are currently published on Smashwords?
MARK COKER: We currently publish over 2,600 books and we’re adding hundreds more each month.

YM: Do you think that ebooks are the future of publishing?
MC: Of book publishing, yes.  Four factors will drive ebooks to become more popular than print books:

1.  Price:  Print books are simply too expensive for the vast majority of the world’s literate population, and now they must compete with myriad free Internet media.  Unlike print books, ebooks have no printing costs, no shipping costs, no inventorying, and no returns.

2.  Readability:  The early adopters for dedicated ebook reading devices like the Kindle are middle aged adults.  For many adults, once you’re over age 30 or 40, your eyes go downhill.  Most print books are printed in tiny type to save on production expenses.  With ebook readers, the customer can customize the font size for easier reading.  The quality of the e-reading screens has improved dramatically over the last ten years, and the improvements will only accelerate from here.  Already, most of us read more on screen than in print.  This trend will continue.  Ten years from now, I think we’ll look back and ponder how quaint paper reading was, kind of like how horse and buggies were a quaint form of transport prior to the automobile.

3.  Instant Gratification:  Ebooks are instantly available to consumers, at the moment you want to purchase them.  Click a link or a button and you start reading.  Once purchased, you can create a virtual library in the cloud that follows you wherever you are.  Already today with Stanza on the iPhone and Kindle with their wireless Wispernet service, you have an instant online library and bookstore at your fingertips.  The first time I used my Kindle was on a beach in Hawaii.  With a few clicks, I downloaded several book samples, found the book I wanted, purchased it, and was reading in less time than it would have taken to wait in the cash register line at the bookstore.

4.  Limitless Content:  Within a few years, virtually every book ever published in print will be available online as an ebook.  And thanks to new digital self publishing advances, the barriers to publishing have been eliminated.  With Smashwords, anyone, anywhere in the world with an Internet connection, can become a published ebook author.  We’re witnessing an explosion in content, and I think we’re still early in the curve.  I think there are millions of unpublished manuscripts out there just waiting to be discovered in ebook form.  Much of this content, of course, is horrible.  But buried in the bulk will doubtless be hundreds or thousands of true classics and works of brilliance. Ebooks also make it possible to bring out of print books back to life.

YM: More people use the iPhone than use a Kindle, yet when you hear about ebooks you hear about the Kindle. Which one has had more affect on ebooks? Do you think the Apple Tablet (whenever it comes out) will make the Kindle obsolete?
MC: The Apply Tablet will be just one of many devices people use to consume ebooks.  Amazon has done a terrific job helping to educate readers about the joys of ebooks, though I think the iPhone has done more to introduce more readers to ebooks.   Sony has also done a great job of marketing their Sony Reader around the world.  We’re starting to see other major consumer electronics companies coming out with their own e-reading devices.  Within a couple years, billions of mobile phones will be ebook-ready.   And don’t forget computer screens.  Ebooks are on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough.  For all of 2008, ebooks accounted for only 1/2 of 1% of all book sales here in the US.  The latest data I’ve seen indicates 2009 will come in at 5% or higher.  This is an amazing rate of growth.  What’s even more exciting is that the greatest growth is still ahead of us.

YM: Print on demand has changed everything. Now anyone can publish a book. Do you think self publishing still has the same stigma that it used to? Should it?
MC: The stigma is lifting, and this is due to a few factors.  Several big books started off as self-published books, so this gives authors inspiration.  There are also great resources out there providing authors the tools they need to create a book that is as good or better than what you’ll find in the bookstore.  Now that the tools for book publishing are freely available to everyone, some previously published authors are choosing to go indie with their new titles, much as we’ve seen with big music acts.  It’s important to remember, however, that just because it’s easy to publish doesn’t mean it’s easy to publish a great book.  A great book requires authors making the necessary investments in professional editing, copy-editing, proofing and cover design – just as mainstream publishers do.  And you have to write a great book!  Even if you write the next great American masterpiece, it doesn’t mean anyone’s going to read it.  Marketing is the biggest hurdle every author must overcome.

YM: Can you explain DRM and why you’re against it?
MC: DRM stands for digital rights management.  It’s a form of copy protection designed to combat illegal piracy.  My biggest objection to DRM is that it treats law-abiding customers like criminals because it ties the customer’s hands regarding how they can read the book, and on what devices they can read it.  DRM also adds unnecessary complexity to the reading experience.  You shouldn’t have to enter a code to open and read your own book, for example.  I’m really not too concerned about DRM.  I think natural market forces will eventually lead to its elimination in most cases.  If a customer is presented with two equally enticing books, and one book they can only read on the Kindle, and the other book they can read on any device they choose, I think they’ll opt for the latter.  Today, many customers are unaware of their DRM-encumbered books until something bad happens, like the DRM provider going out of business, or the device maker upon which their book is tied goes out of business.  In the future, as ebooks become more digitally interconnected with other forms of media, DRM will become a hindrance that will rear its ugly head even more loudly. Or, as new alternative devices come out that make Amazon customers want to abandon their Kindle, they’ll wonder why they can’t read their Kindle books on other devices.  This, I think, represents a ticking time bomb for Amazon unless they open up their books.

YM: You offer high royalties (85%), among the highest anywhere. Why? Tell me about being an author’s advocate.
MC: Traditional book royalties range from 8 to 15%.  With Smashwords, I wanted to create an entirely new publishing business model in which the majority of the rewards go straight to the person who deserves the proceeds the most, the author.  We pay up to 85% of the net for books sold on the Smashwords.com web site, where “net” is defined as 85% of the proceeds after the PayPal transaction fee is deducted.

One of the perks of starting your own business is you get to choose your title or titles.  On my business card, my title says “founder.”  On the Smashwords web site, it says “Founder, CEO and Chief Author Advocate.”  I created that last title to describe my commitment to serving our authors.  One of my primary responsibilities is to advocate on behalf of our 1,000+ authors, and the hundreds of thousands of future Smashwords authors who will one day publish with us.  The title also serves to remind me that without our loyal authors, we don’t have a business.  Since our contracts with our authors are non-exclusive, they have the freedom to leave us at any time.   I want authors to publish with us because we’ve earned the right to publish them, and because they know our business is build for their benefit.

YM: What motivated you to create Smashwords?
MC: Several years back, my wife and I co-wrote a novel called Boob Tube, a satire on Hollywood celebrity.  We followed the steps every good author is encouraged to follow.  After multiple revisions, we pitched our book to agents, and we were lucky enough receive representation from the same literary agency that represented Barack Obama’s first book.  Unfortunately, after two years and a major re-write, our agent was unable to sell the book to a publisher.  Publishers apparently questioned whether our target market – daytime television soap opera fans – read books, or would buy enough copies to make it a commercial success.  As you might imagine, after spending thousands of hours on our book, it was frustrating  to be denied our potential audience just because publishers didn’t see the market.   After some serious thinking, it dawned on me that the traditional publishing model was unable to serve the interests of all authors.  I starting imagining the utopian publisher of my dreams, and I viewed such a publisher as one that could publish everything, and then would let the readers decided what was worth reading.  In other words, put the slush pile out into public view and may the best books rise to the top.  With digital publishing technology, such a system is possible.  So I decided to build it.  The underlying technology behind Smashwords is actually much more complex than I describe because we go out of our way to shield the author from the technology.  Our goal was to make it possible for anyone, anywhere to publish a multi-format ebook in five minutes or less.

YM: Tell me about other books you have written.
MC: Other than Boob Tube, I wrote two free ebooks at Smashwords.  One is the Smashwords Style Guide, which tells authors how to format their ebooks for best conversion results.  The other is The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, a popular book marketing primer for authors.

YM: What’s your #1 marketing tip for ebooks?
MC: I offer over twenty tips in the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, so it’s tough to choose just one.  At the highest level, the biggest secret is to leverage your social networks.  Most book sales are driven by word of mouth, so what better way to drive buzz than by involving your hundreds of friends and followers across social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.  Smashwords offers several social media-enabled tools to help an author’s social networks market the author’s books for them.
Check out Smashwords at http://www.smashwords.com

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