In today’s show, Smashwords CEO Mark Coker and I review the state of the indie nation and how things have changed since we both met in 2010.
In the intro, I talk about completing the Creative Freedom Course and how excited I am about helping people discover how to make a living with their writing. You can check out the free video series here, starting with 11 ways to make money as an indie author.
In publishing news, I mention the Wall Street Journal’s article about [shock horror] higher prices meaning fewer ebook sales, and Joe Konrath & Barry Eisler’s response article which is worth a read.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Mark Coker is the founder and CEO of Smashwords, an author, speaker and angel investor.
- Changes in the publishing industry since 2010, including changes at Amazon, and the shift among indie authors to greater professionalism and less stigma about self-publishing.
- The origins of book distributor Smashwords and Mark’s passion for authors sharing their work with the world.
- Reflections on KDP 2.0 and the environment that creates for authors.
- The opportunities available in the global book markets, especially with books on mobile devices.
- The increased competition in the book world because of infinite virtual book shelf space.
- The resulting importance for indie authors of best practices when publishing, including a great book, broad distribution, a professional cover image, and new best practices like pre-orders.
- Wondering about the future of NOOKPress after international stores were shut in July and audio books, including Google Play.
- Could Facebook get into the publishing game?
- The advantages for authors of using a distribution platform like Smashwords, including distribution to libraries and a higher royalty rate.
Transcription of interview with Mark Coker
Joanna Penn: Hi everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com, and today I’m here with Mark Coker. Hi, Mark.
Mark Coker: Hi, Joanna.
Joanna Penn: It’s so good to have you back on the show after I think it’s been five years.
Mark Coker: It’s been a while.
Joanna Penn: I know, it’s crazy. Just a little introduction, in case anyone doesn’t know Mark. Mark is the founder and CEO of Smashwords and also an author, speaker, and angel investor. Today we’re going to do a little bit of a state of the Indie nation type of thing, but, Mark, we met in person in Australia five years ago. That seems forever in the publishing landscape, and Smashwords was reasonably new. So I wonder, could you just give us an update.
What’s going on with Smashwords? What has changed since 2010?
Mark Coker: Well I think in 2010 we were doing about 5,000 books at Smashwords, maybe 10,000 at that time.
Joanna Penn: In total?
Mark Coker: Yeah, in total. Today we’re publishing over 360,000 books working with over a hundred thousand authors in small independent presses around the world. So a lot has happened in the last few years.
Joanna Penn: Do you think that represents the growth of self-publishing in general in the last five years?
Mark Coker: I think that’s a good indicator for how quickly self-publishing has grown. There was a lot of pent up demand, hundreds of thousands of authors around the world, eager to get published who couldn’t work with the traditional publishing system.
And so we just saw this torrent of books coming on to the market, thanks to platforms like Smashwords, and thanks to the e-book retailers opening up their stores to self-published authors.
Joanna Penn: Back then was it just Amazon?
Smashwords obviously has a retail side, but what did it look like then, compared to now?
Mark Coker: Back then Amazon was still the largest player in e-books. In early 2010, Amazon controlled about 90% of the e-book market. That’s declined quite a bit, thanks to the success of Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other smaller retailers.
So Amazon’s market share today for e-books is probably around 60%, 65% where it’s been for a couple of years but down quite a bit from those days where it controlled everything.
Joanna Penn: Which is fascinating.
What do you think about the maturity of authors and things like cover design? Have you seen a real change in the way the indies are?
Mark Coker: Definitely. When indies first came to market, from my perspective, eight years ago, we launched Smashwords almost eight years ago, there wasn’t really any guide book for how to self-publish any book. A lot of the first indies were just experimenting with different things.
When you look at what indies are doing today, indies are just so much more sophisticated, so much more professional, so much smarter about e-book publishing best practices.
And we see that in the cover design, we see that in the quality of the work, we see that in the sophistication of the promotion and the marketing.
Joanna Penn: And what about the stigma?
Because again, when you and I talked back in 2010, there still really was an issue with being self-published. Has that completely gone or where is the shift there?
Mark Coker: It’s not completely gone.
Seven, eight years ago, self-publishing was the option of last resort for authors. It was seen as the option for failed authors. And that was really the reality of the situation because the authors who were self-publishing then, typically were not doing it by choice, they were doing it because they had been rejected by the publishers. Back when the publishers controlled the publishing industry, if they rejected you, you were a failure.
So that’s where everything was seven, eight years ago, but what we’ve seen is that many indies, and I have just enormous respect for those very first indies who entered the scene, and you were among the first as well, who really believed in themselves. And it wasn’t about vanity.
It was about believing in yourself and wanting to have a chance to be judged by your readers.
A lot of those indies took the leap, despite the stigma, and achieved commercial success. With each commercial success for each Indie, it helped really educate all other authors that yes, you can publish with pride, professionalism, and success as an indie author.
When we look at the state of the stigma today, the stigma has declined markedly.
I think that most authors still aspire to traditionally publish, but that number, that percentage is declining every single year. And now it’s really easy to find Indie authors who are Indie by choice and first time authors who aspire to be an Indie author.
Then you look at authors in the indie community, they self-identify as an indie author. They wear it as a badge of pride, and so we’ve seen this amazing reversal.
At the same time that the stigma of self-publishing has declined, we’ve seen the stigma of traditional publishing increase, I think. We’re probably just a couple of years away from more authors aspiring to indie publish than to traditionally publish.
Joanna Penn: Amazing. I can see that, too. I’m a proud indie and I know you are. I wonder, many people might not realize your own story. Many people start a company because they think there’s money in it, which is a good thing, but you’re an author, right?
Mark Coker: Right.
Joanna Penn: Just tell us about why you started Smashwords way back when it really wasn’t trendy to be an indie.
Mark Coker: It was all a fantastic mistake.
About 14 years ago, I met my future wife, Lesleyann , and she is a former reporter for Soap Opera Weekly Magazine here in the states. Her job was to go to the sets of the Hollywood soap operas and interview the actors and actresses.
When I met her, she was telling me these stories about how the actors and actresses were more crazy in person, in real life, than they were in front of the camera. For anyone who’s ever watched an American soap opera, you know that that’d be pretty amazing to be more crazy than the story lines there. I suggested that she write a book about her experiences and she said, “Well why don’t we write the book together?” And I had always dreamed of writing book. I just never thought it would be about soap operas.
I took a sabbatical from my company, and we spent a few years researching and writing this novel Boob Tube. We were fortunate enough to get represented by one of the top literary agencies in New York City, Dystel & Goderich, and for two years, they tried to sell the novel to all the major publishers of commercial women’s fiction, and they couldn’t sell it.
The feedback that our agent told us he got from the publishers was that previous novels that targeted soap opera fans haven’t performed well in the market place. So they were reluctant to take a chance on what was not a hot category.
And so we were left with the option to either give up, like most authors did at that time, this is 10 years ago, or we had the option to self-publish. In fact, our agent suggested we self-publish, but self-publishing seemed unsatisfying to me.
Self-publishing in print has been around for over 30 years, but I knew that if we couldn’t get our book into book stores, we weren’t going to reach very many readers, and I had no interest in filling up my garage and the trunk of my car with a bunch of unsold novels.
So I thought about could there be a different way to do this?
I realized that despite all the talent and best intentions of publishers, they’re in the business of selling books, not publishing books. They need to acquire books that have the greatest commercial potential. So they’re judging books through this myopic prism of commercial potential, and I was thinking, books are more valuable than that, and even if my book has a potential commercial market of one reader, if it can satisfy that one reader, it’s worth publishing.
This was again 10, 12 years ago when I came up with the idea, blogging had come on the scene in a really big way. And that was inspirational to me because blogging represented the democratization of writing and the democratization of publishing.
I thought, well, maybe there’s an opportunity to do what’s happening in blogging, in book publishing. Then I thought, well what if I could make it possible for any writer in the world to self-publish a book? To control all the rights, to be able to do it at no cost to the writer, no risk to the writer and let readers judge the writer, and that was the radical idea. This radical belief that every writer in the world deserves to become a published author if they want.
That’s what we launched in 2008, and it’s been an amazing journey ever since.
A lot of our authors have gone on to become USA Today best-sellers and New York Times best-sellers. We’ve got thousands of authors who are supplementing their monthly income with self-publishing and many, many more writers who don’t sell well but they’re still gaining enormous satisfaction from their self-publishing journey because, as writers know, there’s a joy in writing that can’t be measured by your commercial success.
There’s a joy in total creative control, joy in publication, a joy in communicating directly with your readers, hearing directly from your readers.
And so this movement, it is a movement. It’s a worldwide cultural movement. This indie author movement, and it’s here to stay and it’s going to transform publishing for the better.
Joanna Penn: It’s lovely to hear your origin story. I think that indie is a movement too and not just in writing. Look at indie film, indie music, we’ve got the maker movement, even things like Farmer’s Markets I think are in the same movement. It’s a move away from supermarkets to buying from a farmer, away from a big publisher, buying from a creative. It really is a movement. Podcasting – this is not a commercial radio show, but we’re still self-publishing audio, as such. So I’m really excited too, and we think similarly in many ways.
I did want to just go through some of the big things that are happening right now and get your take. One of the things that we’ve seen, in the last week or so, is Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath, some of the big names in Indie coming out and going “Yay, KDP Select 2.0 is amazing. Look at all the money we’re making.”
I’m multi-platform focused, as of course you are because your Smashwords but we’ve seen this before right? KDP 1.0, everyone was like, “Yay, look at all the money.” And then the KU Apocalypse arrived.
What are your thoughts, with the assumption that you and I are both biased. What are your thoughts on the KDP 2.0 and what should authors be looking out for?
Mark Coker: Well I am biased. A big mission here at Smashwords is to promote a thriving and diverse ecosystem of multiple retailers, multiple buying options, multiple selling options for authors. Specifically for folks who don’t understand the distinctions at Amazon.
I think Amazon is the smartest player in the business. Every author should have their book at Amazon through the KDP platform, but there are two options in KDP.
There’s the regular KDP, which every author should participate in, and then there’s KDP Select, which requires exclusivity.
I’ve written about this quite a bit since they first launched KDP Select.
I think KDP Select is toxic to the future of publishing. I think every book that goes into KDP Select is a vote to put all the other retailers out of business.
And I know authors aren’t thinking this way.
Authors are rightly seeing an opportunity to sell more books at Amazon. Authors who put their books in KDP Select will sell more books at Amazon. The system is designed that way, and authors who don’t go exclusive to Amazon, will be punished by Amazon.
Amazon provides discovery advantage to books that are exclusive to them or that are published by them. They have created a caste system.
Now if we step back and we look at what’s really happening in the world of publishing, this is a no growth market. In the aggregate, the business of book publishing is not growing. If it’s growing, it’s growing very slowly. It’s been flat for at least 10 years. And certainly a lot of Indies have seen that the rapid exponential growth of the first few years is now a distant memory.
The market for e-books has pretty much gone flat. And so we have a problem here. We have more high quality, low cost books, there’s a glut of high quality, low cost books, more books than readers will ever possibly be able to read. With KDP Select, Amazon gets to decide which books are read. They’re giving narrow focus to books that are exclusive. Those books will do well in KDP Select, but others who put their books in KDP Select are guaranteeing their inability to build a diverse network for their authors, a diverse revenue stream for their authors.
When you look at the impact that Kindle Unlimited had on the market for authors at Amazon, when it was introduced I guess almost a year and a half ago, a lot of authors saw their sales drop 50% or more instantly.
That’s because Amazon provides merchandising advantage to the books that are in Kindle Unlimited.
The books in Kindle Unlimited are lower cost to Amazon, urge their customers to get the books for free through Kindle Unlimited, through a Kindle Unlimited subscription and buying stand alone copies. So it’s good for the books that are in that program, but it’s not good for authors who are trying to earn a living, selling stand alone copies. And it’s not good for authors who recognize that what Kindle Unlimited really represents.
It represents Amazon stripping authors of pricing control, because in Kindle Unlimited, the price of your book doesn’t matter at all. Amazon decides what your book is worth to you, what you deserve to be paid.
At first, when Amazon first launched Kindle based on readers reaching a certain threshold of 10% and then it would trigger a full sale. So authors of shorter works had a benefit there, authors of longer works were disadvantaged. Now they changed it to favor authors of longer works, they’re paying by the page. It disadvantages authors of shorter works, so erotica authors, children’s book authors, a lot of non-fiction authors are going to be disadvantaged under that system. And authors have no control over it.
Amazon decides what you’re going to be paid and nothing stops them from changing the rules again.
Joanna Penn: If they follow the same pattern as last time, then it’s likely it starts really good and everyone is happy, and I know a lot of authors who once again pulled all their books off every other vendor and gone back into Select. And we’ll see what happens by Christmas I guess. I know many people listening will just have gone into Select and we’re not like having a go at authors, that’s not what we’re doing, but I agree with you.
I hate trusting my entire income to one company. My fundamental belief is that you should never allow one company control over your entire income.
I was laid off in 2008, along with a lot of other people in the global financial crisis, and I swore that I would never let that happen again. That’s the reason I know that I won’t ever just be exclusive.
I did want to disagree with you on something. You said that the sales were flat.
Now I agree that they might be flat, digital sales, e-book sales might be flat in the U.S., the U.K., maybe Canada, but what I’m thinking about the next move is global, and every month I’m seeing sales in more and more countries.
I have sold in 68 countries, in English, through Kobo, through iBooks, and so I’m seeing that the next growth is actually everywhere else in the world. And I know you’ve just published the formatting [rights] in Portuguese, so presumably betting on Brazil.
What do you see for the next fundamental growth spurt in digital on a global scale?
Mark Coker: I actually agree with you, there is tremendous opportunity on the global front. For the last two years, 45% of our sales through iBooks have been outside the United States, and we are selling books into every one of their 51 countries every single day. And these are largely English language books.
There’s a lot of reason to be optimistic about the global opportunity, and a lot of this global opportunity is going to be based on the mobile opportunity. Five, six, seven years ago, the vast majority of entry level mobile phones were not e-book ready, but today, the vast majority of phones are smart phones. And so all of these phones are essentially bookstores in the pockets of readers.
iBooks Apple, bundles their e-book store right on the home screen now of over 1 billion customers, 1 billion devices. I think about the opportunity in developing countries, where people get mobile phones before they get running water and electricity, and they now have access to books that just never would have been available to them before.
So yes, there’s an opportunity globally.
It’s exciting, but I think most of the opportunity is still in the main English language countries for English language authors, so the U.S., Australia, U.K., and Canada and in these markets, the markets are relatively mature. And even though the market has gone flat, I think in the aggregate there’s still tremendous opportunity for every author to break out and to do really well. It’s just that there’s more competition than ever before, and that’s okay.
It’s really interesting when you think about it, back in the dark ages of print publishing, publishers controlled the printing press, they decided which books were published, they decided which books went out of print, and most books went out of print very quickly. So there was a limited supply of books.
Now we’re living in this age of abundance where e-books are immortal. They never go out of print. They will forever occupy bookshelves, the virtual bookshelves, which means every single week, you face more competition for your books. And that’s both good and bad. It means that every author has a chance, but it means there’s more competition.
It means that to stand out you really need to implement all of the best practices, and you need to be patient, and you need to work hard, and keep your expectations realistic.
That this is a long term journey.
I see so many authors who try publishing and give up after six months because they didn’t sell well. It’s really important for Indies to understand that most indies don’t sell well. That’s just the truth of the matter. We’ve always been upfront about that.
Joanna Penn: I think what you said at the beginning around creativity in writing being the end, as it doesn’t have to just be money, and I think that is really important. However, people listening are going, “Okay, you mentioned that authors can still break out, and you mentioned some best practices.” Now Smashwords has a number of free books that you’ve written around best practices.
Maybe you could give us a couple of things that you’ve noticed that the breakout authors have done.
Mark Coker: Well, really the most important thing is the book. I see a lot of authors putting attention into things that aren’t really going to give them the biggest bang for the buck.
Seven years ago, six years ago, you could write a mediocre book, price it at 99 cents and you were going to reach a lot of readers because readers hadn’t seen 99 cent books before. I just blogged about this yesterday; a few weeks ago, I heard from an author who had priced all his books at free and he wasn’t reaching readers. So even free isn’t enough to reach readers. It’s all about the book.
Good is not good enough anymore.
Your book needs to take the reader to an emotionally satisfying, extreme, the book needs to make the reader go, “Wow!” You need to blow their mind, because that’s how you turn a reader into a super fan, that’s how you turn a reader into an evangelist, that’s how you trigger word of mouth, that’s how one reader becomes two readers. So that’s really the most important thing. You need to aim to write a five-star book.
If you look at the best-sellers, they’re getting five-star reviews, four and a half, five-star reviews. If you’re earning three and a half stars, it’s not good enough. You’re not going to break out in the big way. So book quality, most important thing.
I’m a big believer in broad distribution, broad uninterrupted distributions.
Authors who followed my advice five years ago, and maintained broad distribution everywhere, are much more likely to be earning more outside of Amazon than at Amazon. They are insulated with that diversification.
If Amazon changes the algorithms again, these people aren’t out of work, they’re not destroyed. Their business of publishing is not destroyed.
The cover image, you’ve talked about this a lot in the past. The cover image is just really important. Seven, eight years ago, most Indies were creating their own cover images and those images looked amateur. Today, I think most Indies are using a professional to design their cover, but there are still Indies who are not using professionals to design their own covers, so they will be disadvantaged.
There are new best practices like pre-orders.
We found a very strong evidence that books that are born as a pre-order sell more copies than books that are just simply uploaded the day of release. Yet, when we look at the books published at Smashwords in the last 12 months, over 90% of the books were just uploaded day of release. Less than 10% were uploaded as a pre-order, even though pre-orders account for two thirds of our top 100 best sellers.
Authors who are doing pre-orders today are getting a huge advantage.
I think the problem right now is a lot of authors don’t know how to take full advantage of pre-orders, but I’d refer them to Smashwords. I’ve written a bunch of blog posts on how to take the most advantage of pre-orders. So it’s a great tool. Every author should be looking at their publishing schedule for the next 12 months and get everything up on pre-order today. So that’s a great tip.
And then I would just say, there are really dozens of best practices that authors need to be following. It’s not about that single magic bullet. There is no single magic bullet. KDP Select is not a single magic bullet. It’s a temporary win for you, but it’s not the long term win. Even in KDP Select, if you want to be most successful, you want to take advantage of the dozens of other best practices.
It’s all about doing dozens of things right and avoiding those critical mistakes that will undermine you for the long term.
Joanna Penn: I want to come back on pre-orders because I jumped in on pre-orders, and I know obviously iBooks allows assetless pre-orders. You can literally just put up a title. Right? You don’t even need a cover. You can even change the title later. I mean you literally could just say, I could just say ARKANE book nine and that’s all, and for a whole year, and also on Kobo I believe it’s a year as well.
But the word on the street is on Amazon, there’s almost no point in doing pre-orders because it splits your ranking over a long period. Whereas iBooks you get double ranking. You get ranking on the pre-orders and then on go live-date you get another ranking and a nice spike.
I’m almost thinking it’s good to do pre-orders on Kobo and iBooks but not on Amazon. What do you think about that?
Mark Coker: I know a lot of Smashwords authors are deliberately not doing a pre-order at Amazon just for that reason, for fear that during that time that their book is available as pre-order they’re actually cannibalizing their first day sales rank.
And the truth of the matter is yes, you are cannibalizing your first day sales rank because all of those accumulated pre-orders don’t credit toward the first day sales at Amazon.
But although I could say, “Yes, no author should do a pre-order at Amazon.” It’s not that simple, because that boost in the sales rank that you get at iBooks and at Kobo and, to some extent, at Barnes & Noble as well. That’s not the only benefit of pre-orders.
One of the important benefits of a pre-order is that pre-orders enable more effective advanced marketing.
A lot of authors are working on their books and communicating with their fans on Facebook or on social media saying, “Hey, you know this is the book I’m working on next. It’s coming out in six months, nine months.” You’re getting readers excited. You’re building demand for your book. But if you don’t have a pre-order, you have no way to capture that order at the moment you have the reader’s attention and interest.
I think that benefit is still a huge benefit at Amazon. Pre-orders are exciting to readers. Pre-orders allow the reader to imagine this wonderful book that you’re going to come out with. A pre-order communicates to your reader that you’re making a commitment.
I think a series with follow on pre-orders is more desirable than a series without the follow on pre-orders, because you’re a making a commitment to the reader that you’re committed to the series, and you’ve got more books coming.
We know that pre-orders sell more copies.
Even though you give up that accumulated sales rank on day one at Amazon, you can still rank during that pre-order period, based on the number of orders that you’re getting. And you’re helping to ensure the first readers to get your books, are the first readers to review, and the people who place the pre-order are most likely to be one of your fans already. They already trust you.
The first round of reviews that you get will be from your most ardent fans. There are a lot of benefits of doing the pre-order beyond that sales rank jump.
Joanna Penn: I’ve just writtem down an idea about a pre-order. So thank you for that. It’s always good to think about it in a different way.
Mark Coker: Every author is going to need to make the decision for themselves. If you don’t have a built-up platform already, then the pre-order may not help you very much at Amazon. If you don’t have the ability to do effective advanced marketing, then it may not help you as much.
Joanna Penn: There are always pros and cons.
I do want to ask you, you mentioned Barnes & Noble there and NOOK. NOOKPress has been having some technical issues. And then they cancelled all of their international NOOK stores except for the U.K. So there’s only the U.S. and the U.K.
What do you think is happening with NOOK?
Mark Coker: People have been proclaiming the death of Barnes & Noble ever since I started Smashwords, and yet, it is consistently been our second largest sales channel, from the moment we started distributing to them. Every author should be at Barnes & Noble, you should get your books back in Barnes & Noble…
Joanna Penn: They are. My books are in Barnes & Noble.
Mark Coker: Okay, good. All right, good.
Joanna Penn: But they’re just a pain. And when they cancelled all the international stores, after talking to me here about international sales, I was like, “What is going on there?”
By pulling back, aren’t they demonstrating something bad?
Mark Coker: Well, they are struggling. Anyone who’s competing against Amazon is struggling right now. And Barnes & Noble has given themselves some self-inflicted wounds.
It was disappointing that they pulled back on their international aspirations, but my sense is that they’re still committed to e-books, and I think we all need to be hoping and rooting that they succeed. It would be a big loss if we lost them. It would be a big loss to the community if we lost them. I’ve heard about the struggles with NOOK Press, most of our authors use Smashwords to deliver to Barnes & Noble. It’s really much easier. There’s an idea out there, among some authors, that you should go direct everywhere you can, but I don’t believe that, and it’s difficult for me to separate my self-interest in this argument.
But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter what happens to me or it doesn’t matter what happens to Smashwords. I really do care about what’s in the best interest of authors in the author community.
Your unique contribution to the world as an author is your writing.
And yes, you can upload directly to a lot of different platforms, and yes, it’s relatively easy. It’s not difficult, but it is time consuming to manage multiple platforms, especially once you’ve got multiple books. If you want to update the back matter of 10 books at 4 or 5 different platforms, you’re talking about hours of work. But if you’ve consolidated your distribution with a distributor, you’re talking about a few minutes of work, and that’s more time that you can spend writing, more time you can spend fighting for that work life balance, spending time with your friends and family. I don’t know a single author who has too many hours in the day at…
Joanna Penn: Or many people.
Mark Coker: Right, right, or many people. It’s really in my mind, it’s a no-brainer. You give up a little bit in royalty but not much. The difference between uploading to Barnes & Noble and Smashwords, you’re only giving up 5% of the list price, and at price points under $2.99 or over $9.99, you actually earn about 50% more of it at Smashwords.
I think it’s dangerous, this idea that you need to upload direct everywhere you can. I know what the average author earns, I see it and the average author does not earn very much.
The average author is wasting a lot of time that they could be better spent writing.
And even among best-sellers. You could argue that a best-seller’s time is even more valuable and it’s more important for that best-seller to be focused on the next book rather than managing multiple platforms. I see authors who achieve success and they end up hiring teams, assistants, to manage all the uploading. It’s great if you can afford to hire a team, but it’s really not necessary if you simplify your life and manage your time properly.
Joanna Penn: Going back to what’s happening with the platforms, another change we’ve seen recently is iBooks having the audio books on the same screen, which I thought, “Brilliant. I’ve been waiting for that.” It’s ridiculous that the audio books have been separated from the iBooks and now they’re integrated.
What do you see with audio books and is that exciting? Is Smashwords interested in that arena? And do you see that iBooks will be a bigger challenger to Amazon in terms of the audible play, for example?
Mark Coker: Amazon has monopolistic control over the audio book market. There really isn’t any other player that matters, and we’ve seen what happens when Amazon gets control over a market. How they just absolutely gutted royalty rates for audio book authors. And they’ve locked up a lot of distribution channels exclusively. It would be difficult for a challenger to come along and offer an alternative.
We have had many Smashwords authors come to us and actually beg us to get into audio books and offer an alternative. I mean the authors are just so upset that Amazon gets to determine what the price of their
book is, gets to determine what they pay them, and authors spending thousands of dollars to produce these
books and then having all that control taken away from them.
I just heard a story, an author e-mailed me a couple of weeks ago. She said that her narrator for her audio book, originally the narrator did the first books in her series by taking a cut, a royalty split. Now the narrator said, “I’m not going to take a royalty split anymore because of what Amazon’s done to royalties.”
Joanna Penn: Yep. I’m hearing that, too.
Mark Coker: You’re going need to pay me upfront.
I think there’s an opportunity with audio books. It’s something that we have in the back of our minds. We see how we could disrupt that space potentially. Who knows? We’ll see what happens in the future. I still feel like there’s a greater opportunity for us to continue building on what we built on the e-book space, but never say, “Never.”
Joanna Penn: Never say, “Never.” I think if anyone’s going to challenge Audible, it has to be iTunes. It has to be. It’s the only other big audio platform right now. The only other one being Google Play. Now we know that there’s massive problems with the Google Play e-book arena, which is why most authors don’t even do it because of their discounting issues.
Do you see any change coming with Google Play? Because they would seem to be an obvious challenger to Amazon.
Mark Coker: Well, they are an obvious challenger to Amazon. Both they and Apple, those are the two companies that can afford to make no money on books and still stay in business. Those are the only two companies.
I’ve been in communication with Google since the very beginning. Had many, many productive discussions with them. They are just an entirely different beast. They feel very strongly that agency pricing, authors setting their own pricing is bad. I don’t see them ever abandoning the wholesale model, and their approach to the e-book market is just completely different and mind boggling to a lot of us. It’s like they’ve really got their hands tied in their ability to engage with authors and publishers.
Joanna Penn: All right, so you’re not seeing that as something immediate that’s going to get fixed because, of course, they’ve closed their publishing stuff now.
I don’t know why problems with piracy and whatever. I’ve given up on that for now, but I was thinking it would only be a month also and then it might be back but from what you’re saying, maybe not.
Mark Coker: I think it will be back, but you never know. Google is a really big company and it remains to be seen if they stay committed to books or not. I think they really felt burned by the response of the publishing industry when Google was doing all the book scanning.
It created a lot of legal troubles for them. And in the grand scheme of things, I don’t know if long term they’re going to see it as a viable opportunity. For now they do, for now they appear very committed to it. I hope they stay committed to it. I hope they get the formula right. I hope they figure out a way to accommodate authors, accommodate distributors like Smashwords. I know we’ve got tens of thousands of authors who are dying to have their books available on Google Play.
It would be good for Google, it would be good for our authors, it would be good for ensuring a dynamic competitive ecosystem of multiple retail options for authors, but it’s obviously been frustrating as well. Frustrating for you and frustrating for every Indie author. Indie authors want control over their work. Indie authors want to be able to price their own work, as they should. It is the Indie author’s right to decide what the book should be sold at, in my opinion, but Google sees it a little bit differently right now.
Joanna Penn: I had a lady on last week’s show Ricky, from Freebooksy who is awesome. We were talking about Facebook. I said, “With Mark Zuckerberg with his year of books, we’ve got internet.org, which is what Facebook is bringing the Internet to the world.” They’re also going to do a cheap phone for all those global markets where Facebook is the browser. They’ve also added the notes function back in, so native blogging.
Do you see Facebook going into native publishing?
Mark Coker: They could, they could if they wanted, and that would be very disruptive if they did.
Joanna Penn: That’s what I think, too. and often with his year of forever, Zuckerberg has shown his commitment to books, I think. In the books he’s choosing and just kind of crazy heavy books. That’s my interesting pick out of nowhere for 2016.
Mark Coker: I think that’s a fun prediction. I would like to see them do something in books. I think it would be really interesting. Mark Zuckerberg is a fan of books. As many business leaders are, books are amazing for anyone who’s got a brain. Whether you enjoy fiction or non-fiction, people with brains love books, and he’s a smart guy. Certainly a tremendous opportunity for him to spread the joy of literature and reading to billions of people.
Joanna Penn: I think that is gonna be very interesting. I want you to tell everybody a bit more about what they can find at Smashwords, if people are not on Smashwords.
Obviously you’ve talked about the ease of uploading to multiple platforms at the same time. What are the other reasons people might choose Smashwords, and why would they choose it over Draft2Digital for example?
Mark Coker: Smashwords is the world’s largest distributor of self-published books. We’ve been doing it for almost eight years now. We’ve built a really slick platform that makes it fast, free and easy to self-publish an e-book, to control that book, and to get that book distributed to multiple stores, including stores that you can’t reach on your own, that you can’t upload direct to.
We’ve invested a lot of effort into building exciting tools that help make your book more available, more discoverable, more desirable to readers. The pre-order tool, the assetless pre-order tool that we announced a couple of months ago, huge development effort. Tools for enhanced metadata, so we’ve got a tool called Series Manager that makes book series, all the books in a series, more discoverable at the retailers, so that’s a really powerful tool.
We distribute to public libraries. We work with OverDrive, Baker & Taylor, Access 360, so we’re giving you access to over 20,000 public libraries around the world, and we’ll be announcing another library partner here in the next couple of months.
We also operate our own store, which is a little bit unusual for a distributor. We started as a store and then entered distribution in 2009. We sell quite a few books at our store. So even if you have no interest in reaching our retailers, you should have your book at Smashwords. There’s no cost. It’s easy, you can upload a word doc, you can upload an e-pub and sell in our store. Our store offers the highest royalty rates of any of the stores. You can earn up to 80% list, so why not? It will help you reach readers that you’re not going to reach anywhere else, but whether an author works with us or not, I hope they take advantage of our best practices materials.
All three of the books that I’ve written are available for free. They’ve been downloaded over 700,000 times. I want people to take my advice, take my guidance and use it, even if you don’t it at Smashwords because a rising tide is going to lift all boats. I want to see every author in the world achieve their greatest aspirations, and it really all comes down to best practices. There’s nothing more important than best practices.
Joanna Penn: Tell people the titles of those books that you have available for free, right? On Smashwords.
Mark Coker: Right, yeah, everything is free. Three books that you should take a look at. There’s the Smashwords Style Guides, so that’s how to format and publish any book, the Secrets to E-Book Publishing Success, this book identifies about 31 best practices of the best selling Indie authors. These are their secrets, all of the secrets…
Joanna Penn: It’s a great book.
Mark Coker: Well thank you, thank you. Inspired by your fellow Indie authors. Indie authors are pioneering the secrets to success and so they’re all in that book. And then the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, provides about 40 ideas for marketing your book, your e-book, your print book, and all of these ideas are free to implement and some of them only take a few minutes to implement and you’ll get long term benefits. You can check them out and then at the Smashwords blog, I’ll often blog about new stuff that’s not even in my books yet, and the stuff that I’m talking about in the talks that I do around the country. Based on what I’m observing of what’s working, what’s not.
Joanna Penn: They’re fantastic and you do great slide shares as well, and your blog is…I’m always tweeting your blog post in there.
Mark Coker: Well thank you, I appreciate it. Joanna, you’ve been such an awesome supporter of the Indie author movement. I appreciate everything you do to help educate authors to become professional publishers, so thank you.
Joanna Penn: Well what’s so great is we’re going to know each other for a long time I hope, Mark.
Mark Coker: I hope so.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, we’re just seeing so much change. Obviously, hopefully people would know where to find you, but just in case, where can people find you online?
Mark Coker: Well you can e-mail me email@example.com, you can follow me on Twitter @markcoker, I’m on Facebook. Just search for me at Facebook and then I’m at Smashwords, of course. You can sign up for an account at Smashwords at smashwords.com. It’s very simple. Check out my blog.
Joanna Penn: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Mark. That was great.
Mark Coker: Thanks, Joanna.