A Conversation with Mark Coker about Smashwords and How It Helps Authors to Self-Publish

By on Oct 8, 2014 in Interviews

Mark Coker

If you’re an author wanting to publish a book, the journey of doing so in the traditional way can be littered with stumbling blocks. You need to be able to write engaging synopses and proposals, find an agent, format manuscripts and hope the agent can get you a deal with a publisher. Not only is the process time consuming, the potential to be rejected by publishers is large, as what they look for doesn’t consider the real value of an author’s hard work and effort. One person experienced this firsthand and decided to do something about it. His name is Mark Coker and his creation was Smashwords. We caught up with Mark to learn more about him, about the Smashwords platform and how it can help authors to self-publish and distribute their e-books.

1. Could you please tell us a bit about your background and how the idea of Smashwords came about?

I’ve always loved entrepreneurship. I’m particularly drawn to creating businesses where I can pursue a higher social purpose.

After graduating from the UC Berkeley Haas Business School in 1988, I working for my father’s email software startup managing the marketing and sales. After that, I joined a Silicon Valley PR firm representing computer storage and security software clients. In 1993, I launched my own tech PR firm, Dovetail Public Relations, which specialized in representing venture-backed tech startups.

In 1998, while still running Dovetail, I started a company called BestCalls.com that published earnings conference call schedules for publicly traded companies that allowed small investors to listen in. I created that company to level the playing field for small investors.

After selling BestCalls.com, I decided to take a break from Dovetail and do something different. My wife is a former reporter for a magazine here in the US called Soap Opera Weekly. Her job there was to visit the sets of the Hollywood soap operas and interview the actors. She shared amazing stories with me about the behind-the-scenes world of television soap operas. I suggested she write a book about her experiences. She suggested that we write the book together. It sounded like fun so we moved to Burbank for two months and conducted confidential interviews with almost 50 soap opera insiders. We then fictionalized their stories into a novel titled Boob Tube. We were lucky enough to find representation from one of the top NY literary agencies, and for two years they tried to sell our novel to New York publishers. Publishers didn’t want to publish the book because previous soap opera-themed novels had sold poorly.

The experience of trying and failing to find a publisher opened my eyes to a big problem in the publishing industry. Publishers are unable, unwilling and disinterested to take a risk on every author. Publishers value books based on perceived commercial merit, and they can only guess commercial merit. Most books published by publishers sell poorly. So despite all their smarts, they’re not terribly good at identifying future bestsellers. More importantly, they’re rejecting thousands of great books every year. I also decided that this conventional system of valuing books based on sales results was completely broken. Books are more valuable than money. If you’re an author, and your book has the potential to touch even one reader, your book is important to the world and should be published!

So this is what gave me the idea for Smashwords. I wanted to create a free ebook publishing platform that would allow me to take a risk on every writer in the world. I wanted to give every writer the freedom to publish what they want, and give readers the freedom to decide which books are worth reading. In effect, we transferred the editorial gatekeeping function of publishers to readers.

2. Can you please tell us a little about the journey you’ve had with running Smashwords and any points you’re particularly proud of?

We opened Smashwords for private beta testing in early 2008. One of our best beta testers was actually from India. His name is Mrinal Bose (https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/boseM).

We launched the service to the public in May of 2008. By the end of 2008, we were publishing 140 books, and by the end of 2009 this number grew to 6,000. Today, Smashwords is the world’s largest distributor of self-published ebooks, serving 100,000 authors (many from India!) who have collectively published over 320,000 books with us.

Smashwords authors sold over USD $30 million at retail last year, and 60% of that was paid to our authors (retailers take 30% of the list price as their commission, and Smashwords earns 10% of list as our commission).

The success at Smashwords is entirely due to our authors writing super-awesome reader-pleasing books.

These first authors to join Smashwords were the pioneers. Self-publishing didn’t have a good reputation five or six years ago, and these self-published authors were often unfairly branded as “vanity authors.” What our authors have proven over the last few years is that self-published authors can publish with pride and professionalism, and can hit all the bestseller lists.

In terms of Smashwords, the thing I’m most proud of is our founding philosophy of how we value authors. Unlike big publishers that think that the vast majority of authors are unworthy, we think every author is special, and we think our authors’ contribution to the culture of books cannot be measured by sales alone. So this was a radical idea, and it remains a radical idea. But this is the philosophy that underpins everything we do at Smashwords.

3. India is waking up to digital publishing and e-books. For budding authors in India who want to publish their e-books, what services can Smashwords offer to them and how can authors get started?

We want to publish the ebooks of every writer in India! We have the platform and distribution relationships necessary to help Indian authors reach and develop a global audience.

There’s never been a better time for Indian authors to self-publish. Not only is the market for ebooks in India growing quickly, but there’s also a large global market, especially for English language books. Great stories are universal. I think we’ll see growing interest in Indian writers and Indian culture in the next few years.

Smashwords is a free ebook publishing and distribution platform. We give authors free professional-quality tools that help them produce, publish, distribute and sell their ebooks. Books published at Smashwords are available for sale to a worldwide audience at the Smashwords store. More importantly, we distribute the books to major global retailers. This is where Smashwords authors earn 93% of their income. These stores include FlipKart in India, Apple iBooks (51 countries), Barnes & Noble, Scribd, Oyster and Kobo. We also distribute our books to public libraries via partnership with OverDrive and Baker & Taylor.

To get started with Smashwords, you simply sign up for a free account at http://www.smashwords.com.

For a good overview of our services and tools, as well as convenient links to all our onsite resources, visit our “How to Publish and Distribute with Smashwords” page at https://www.smashwords.com/about/how_to_publish_on_smashwords.

4. In what ways can Smashwords help Indian authors to reach readerships in India and across the world?

It’s important for authors to understand that Smashwords is a self-serve platform. We give writers access to free professional-quality tools, and writers use these tools to publish, distribute and manage their books.

I think it’s also important that writers keep their expectations realistic. Most self-published authors don’t sell well, so it’s important that writers embark on their self-publishing journey with eyes wide open. Ebook self-publishing is not a get rich quick opportunity. It takes years of effort for authors to break out and become international bestsellers.

When we look at the qualities that distinguish the bestsellers from the poor sellers, we find that it’s all about best practices. It all starts with a great book, great cover image and great distribution.

I’ve created a series of tutorial videos to train writers about e-publishing best practices. You’ll find the videos at http://youtube.com/user/Smashwords. I’ve also written three free ebooks about e-publishing best practices you’ll find at http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/mc. These books include The Smashwords Style Guide (how to format and publish an ebook); The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide (how to market any book for free); and the Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success (30 best practices of the bestselling authors). For our Indian authors who read Bengali, there’s even a version of the Style Guide in Bengali – https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/154813.

The Smashwords blog at http://blog.smashwords.com is also a good resource for best practices. As I learn new best practices, I share them first at the Smashwords blog.

Hiten Vyas is the Founder and Managing Editor of eBooks India. He is also a prolific eBook writer with over 25 titles to his name.