Blogs by L.T. Suzuki
Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords Interview!
3/9/2010 8:34:36 AM
A comprehensive and fascinating interviewer with the founder of ebook publishing site, Smashwords.com!
LS: For all the aspiring authors, published writers looking for practical ways to make their works more accessible to the masses, as well as the writers standing at the crossroads, deciding on a traditional publisher or becoming self-published, do I have a treat for you! I’m pleased to introduce you my guest blogger Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords!
With the growing popularity of ebooks, I’m sure you are considered an ‘upstart and a renegade’ in the eyes of the traditional publishers. But let’s begin by learning about the person behind the success of this ebook publishing site from the man himself.
Mark, care to share a little information about yourself? I’m very curious as to whether you started off in the traditional publishing industry before you embarked on this ebook adventure.
MC: I suppose you could say my background in publishing goes back 23 years when I was the founding publisher of a little ‘zine called The Ridge Roach as a student at UC Berkeley. It was a monthly compendium of poetry, articles and gossip submitted by members of the co-op I lived in. I then went on to pursue a career in marketing, public relations and dot com entrepreneurship here in Silicon Valley before falling back into publishing, almost by accident, just a few years ago when my wife and I wrote a novel. I still consider myself a newbie to the book publishing business.
LS: With three of my novels listed in Smashwords’ premium catalogue (see http://bit.ly/b0CW8m) and the balance of my fantasy series in the process of being converted into ebooks, my personal experience with this company has been, to put it bluntly, wonderful! The process is straightforward, quite painless and gives the author control in respect to pricing, distribution, etc. For those only now learning about Smashwords, this online bookstore makes available multi-format ebooks to many major retail outlets and mobile phone platforms.
When I said you publish multi-format ebooks for distribution, can you share with our readers what some of these formats are as well as some of your major retail outlets?
MC: We produce ebooks in nine different formats, which means our books can be enjoyed on any ebook reading device, including your personal computer, laptop, cell phone, Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, Barnes & Noble nook, and any of the other numerous e-reading devices coming on the market each month. The formats include PDF, Mobi, EPUB, LRF, .TXT, RTF and two web based HTML formats. A couple weeks ago I blogged about the most popular ebook formats here: http://blog.smashwords.com/2010/02/most-popular-ebook-formats-revealed.html
LS: Smashwords hit the Internet in May 2008. What was the inspiration behind the creation of this website?
MC: My wife and I wrote a novel four years ago called Boob Tube. It’s a satire on Hollywood celebrity, inspired by my wife’s experience as a former reporter for Soap Opera Weekly Magazine. We interviewed about 50 soap industry insiders for their dirt, fictionalized it into a novel, did a million revisions (well, okay maybe only 200), and then we were lucky enough to find representation by a top New York City literary agency. They shopped it around to publishers of commercial women’s fiction for two years, but were unable to sell it. Publishers questioned whether soap fans read enough books to make it commercially viable. Previous soap-themed books had not done so well.
As you might imagine, we were extremely disappointed after investing thousands of hours and years of effort to write the book. It really bugged me that publishers had the power to deny us a chance to reach our audience. And then I imagined the millions of authors out there who would never have a chance to publish their life’s work, simply because some publisher didn’t see a commercial market for it. It’s a travesty, really. What about works of genius for which the market is only 200 readers? Does that book not have a right to reach readers?
LS: Then what was your next step?
MC: Our agent suggested we self publish. Given my background in technology, and my passion for doing startups that tackle a higher social purpose, I decided to take on this big problem where we have millions of deserving authors who can’t get published, and billions of readers around the world who are denied the freedom to discover such books.
So I came up with the idea for Smashwords. I decided to create a free publishing platform that would allow any author anywhere to instantly publish their book to a worldwide audience and let their readers decide if it’s worth reading.
LS: And why the name ‘Smashwords’?
MC: It has multiple meanings to me. I wanted to capture the angsty feeling many writers experience when writing. As any writer will tell you, writing gives the writer much pleasure, but can also cause much emotional pain, anguish and frustration as they wrangle the words into submission and make the words behave properly. Writing is a process of creative destruction. Write, revise, destroy, rework, redo, repeat, repeat, repeat! It’s an iterative process of never-ending progress and destruction. The “smash” in Smashwords, to me at least, connotes the creative destruction not only inherent in writing, but also necessary for technological progress. The publishing industry, as Dan Poynter points out, has changed little in the last 70 years. Book publishing is at a point where it must undergo a gut-wrenching creative destruction if it is to survive and thrive in the future. While creative destruction is a scary concept, especially if you’re a big publisher about to have your world turned upside down, it’s also an optimistic concept, because creative destruction, like a forest fire, sets the stage for renewal and growth. The final meaning behind the “smash” is more optimistic - it’s the idea of “smash hit,” and “absolutely smashing,” which connotes work well done.
LS: You’ve come up with an interesting logo for your company.
MC: When we designed the logo for Smashwords, it was important to me that we show the upward thrusting fist clenching a book. I call it the “power to the people” fist, and to me it symbolizes the coming revolution in book publishing where the power of publishing shifts to the author.
LS: You have a team working with you to make Smashwords the success that it is. I noticed you even have personnel responsible for communications, and yet, each time I’ve had a query, you had consistently been the one the answer my emails. I know from personal experience it can take days, weeks, even months before a response from an agent or publishing company editor is forthcoming. For this reason, I am amazed when I get response from you usually within minutes of emailing you; no matter what time I submit a query to you! This begs the question: Do you not sleep? And when you do, do you sleep with your laptop?
MC: Smashwords is a small company. Most people are surprised to learn we’re only two people full time, plus some part time help. The other half is Bill Kendrick, our CTO. Bill’s the technical brains of the operation who turns my crazy ideas for features and function into reality. The customer support/author support piece of the business, to me, is really the most important thing we do. Our mission is to create the single best ebook publishing and distribution platform for authors, so this means we can’t succeed without the support of our authors.
LS: Still, to respond almost immediately? It’s almost unheard of in the industry!
MC: We make it easy for people to contact us by putting the customer support link at the top of every page. We originally put the link there as a temporary method to make it easy for our private beta testers to communicate with us prior to our formal public launch in May, 2008. But then we discovered how much our authors appreciated having easy access to us, and we also valued the two-way discourse. I also decided that Smashwords will always be in “beta mode.” We’re constantly adding new features, and we rely on our authors to tell us what we’re doing right, and where we’re making mistakes. Every time someone contacts us, we ask ourselves, “How can we do this better? How can we make Smashwords easier or more reliable so we can prevent people from experiencing the same problem or frustration? How can we make the site more intuitive so they can find the answer faster on their own?” We try to anticipate what people will need to ask before they ask it. It’s a never-ending challenge.
LS: Since your company’s launch I understand you’ve published and distributed thousands of ebooks. Do you have any numbers in terms of how many indie authors and publishers have come on board?
MC: We’re now publishing over 8,100 original ebooks from 3,700 authors and 100 small independent publishers. Authors are adding over 1,000 new books each month.
LS: That’s incredible! Can you share with the readers why, if they already have a book published, formatting it into an ebook is a good thing?
MC: Ebooks are the fastest growing segment of the book publishing industry. Ebook sales grew nearly 200% last year, and although they only account for around 5% of all book industry sales, many indie authors who sell both print books and ebooks are seeing 50% or more of their sales going to ebooks.
Reading has been moving to screens ever since the first personal computers came on the scene 25 years ago. Today, close to half of ebook reading is done on personal computers, with the other half spread across an ever-growing range of dedicated e-reading devices and smart phones.
LS: So you foresee major changes in the industry?
MC: Ebooks are the future of publishing. Ebooks are also a force for democratization of the publishing business. In the past, if you wanted to reach readers, you needed to work with a big publisher because they controlled access to the shelves of brick and mortar bookstores. If you were lucky enough to sell your book to a big publisher, you’d have to wait up to 18 months for the book to hit shelves. Today, with ebooks, you can publish your book instantly on Smashwords, retain all rights, and get your book distributed to major online retailers, all in the matter of a couple weeks, start to finish, not a couple years.
However, just because we make publishing fast and easy, doesn’t mean we make it easy to sell a lot of books. Book marketing is still the biggest challenge facing every author. If the author doesn’t get out there and create demand for their book, it probably won’t sell. We have some authors who never sell a single copy.
LS: Why do you think Smashwords has become so popular and what makes your company unique from other online sites publishing ebooks?
MC: There are a lot of great self-publishing services out there, but most are focused on print books and do ebooks almost as an afterthought. We don’t care about print. We think print is important - it’s still 95% of book sales, after all - but it’s not the future and not where we at Smashwords can make a difference. We can make a difference by focusing on the needs of indie ebook authors - it’s a market most publishers and venture capitalists don’t care about because there’s so little money to be made in this space now, and a lot of money to lose.
LS: Are there any restrictions as to what you will not publish?
MC: Yes, definitely. We require that the book is the original work of the author, and the work cannot contain content that is defamatory; advocates illegal activity; promotes hatred, homophobia or racism; etc., etc. Our Terms of Service are outlined at http://www.smashwords.com/about/tos
LS: You have a wide variety of titles, from fiction to non-fiction, falling into practically every genre imaginable. Based on sales, what is the most popular genre on your site?
MC: General fiction is probably the best-selling category. Thrillers, suspense, mysteries, romance and erotica are popular. In non-fiction, it’s all over the map.
LS: Do you feel the rise of online ebooks sales of indie authors create a direct threat to the bottom line of the traditional publishing houses? And has this changed the way these publisher accept new authors?
MC: Yes, definitely. It’ll happen in multiple concurrent waves, all of which will gradually amplify one another until it becomes a tsunami. The first wave has been unpublished authors - authors who couldn’t sell their books to a publisher - who are using self-publishing tools like Smashwords to publish. The second wave, which as already started, is composed of authors who were previously published by a big publishing house. Their books that have gone out of print, the rights have reverted back to the author, and the author is now bringing those books back to life at Smashwords. Waves one and two are the early adopters, composed primarily of authors who write books that aren’t currently selling in huge numbers compared to traditional front-list best-seller standards.
The third wave, which has barely started and is still only the ripple of a pebble, is the wave of big name professional authors who have had, or will have, great commercial success and they’re opting to publish independently as opposed to working with a publisher. This third wave will build over the next few years and will cause the most harm to traditional publishers. Once a few big name authors abandon their publishers, it’ll set a sea of change precedent that will cause waves one and two to swell. It’s waves two and three that are bringing new credibility to the notion of independent publishing.
LS: With the growing popularity of ebooks, what do you predict will be the future of print books?
MC: I love print books, and I don’t think they’re ever going away completely. It’s important to remember that books are not words on paper. Books are words on anything - paper, screens, stone tablets. Before Gutenberg, monks, papyrus and stone tablets, and before written language, stories were told at campfires and in cave paintings. Ebooks, like print books, are just different formats for conveying a story.
I think most of print publishing will eventually move to print on demand. The book won’t be printed until the customer orders it.
LS: What’s in store for the future of Smashwords? Any exciting news to share with the readers and authors already on board?
MC: Two months ago, I blogged about our priorities for 2010 at http://blog.smashwords.com/2009/12/smashwords-year-in-review-plans-for.html
Our number one priority is to make Smashwords the very best ebook publishing and distribution platform for authors. This means we will continue building the infrastructure that helps authors reach readers. We’ll expand our retail distribution channels in 2010 with new partners, and we’ll take steps to expand internationally and localize some of our content to appeal to readers in languages other than English. We’ll continue to develop and enhance new tools that help authors market and sell their books.
LS: This has been one informative session! Thank you so much for taking the time from your busy schedule to share in your experiences and the journey to make Smashwords a reality, Mark.
And I urge all writers to do their homework when it comes to publishing their works, whether it is by traditional means or by self-publishing. A good place to begin is at Smashwords!
To learn more about Mark Coker and Smashwords, check out: http://www.smashwords.com/
Subscribe to Smashwords’ blog: http://blog.smashwords.com/
Mark also writes for the Huffington Post. Read his articles at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-coker
Follow Mark on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/markcoker
The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide (how to promote your Smashwords ebook):
The Smashwords Style Guide (how to format a book for Smashwords): http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/52
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