Expert Interview: Mark Coker of Smashwords

Mark CokerName:  Mark Coker

Business name:  Smashwords – www.smashwords.com 

Book Title(s):  The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, The Smashwords Style Guide, Boob Tube

Website URL:  https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/mc

Social Media Links:

Twitter: http://twitter.com/markcoker

Facebook: http://facebook.com/markcoker

YouTube: http://youtube.com/user/Smashwords

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/markcoker

Smashwords blog: http://blog.smashwords.com

How did you come to do what you’re doing today?

I founded Smashwords after co-authoring a novel about the soap opera industry with my wife Lesleyann. New York publishers declined to publish it because similarly-themed novels targeting soap opera fans hadn’t performed well in the marketplace. At least that’s what they told us. The experience helped me realize that publishers are unable to take a risk on every author. I considered the hundreds of thousands of other writers just like us whose books were getting rejected and their dreams crushed simply because a publisher didn’t see commercial merit in their work. So I created Smashwords to make it fast, free, and easy for any writer anywhere to self-publish an ebook. That was in 2008. Today, Smashwords is the world’s largest distributor of self-published ebooks. We serve over 100,000 authors and small independent presses that collectively publish over 340,000 books with Smashwords.

Can you describe a typical day in your life?

My day is nonstop. I wake, drink my coffee, then make the 10-second commute to my home office. Although I live near our corporate headquarters, I do most of my work at home. I spend most of my day interacting with Smashwords authors via email, or working with our engineering team to manage the development of new tools at Smashwords. Since we’re serving authors around the globe, in the morning I’m working with our authors in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and by late afternoon and into the evening I’m working with our authors in Australia, New Zealand, and Asia. I’m also on the road quite a bit at conferences. I love to get out and meet with our authors face to face at conferences. In between all of this, I spend time working with our retail partners and evaluating new potential retail partners.

What do you most enjoy about what you do?

Working with authors. I’m constantly in awe of the passion, energy, and talent of Smashwords authors. Writers are the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. I have enormous respect for anyone who has what it takes to write and publish a book.

Writers do the hard work. My job is to make sure Smashwords is providing our authors the tools and knowledge to publish with pride, professionalism, and success.

With your obvious understanding of the ebook/publishing sphere, we’d love it if you could give us a brief “state of the industry.” Can you tell us which nonfiction categories are selling the best?

Although fiction dominates the bestseller lists at Smashwords and our retailers, we see good strength in memoirs, self-help, self-improvement, spirituality, and financial management. I counsel all our authors to forget about what’s selling well and instead focus on writing what gives you the most passion and satisfaction. What’s the unique contribution you can make in the world? The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of books —whether traditionally-published or self-published—will sell poorly. At the end of the day, you need to find satisfaction in the joy of writing and self-expression. There’s a pleasure that comes from publishing that can’t be measured by sales results. Although we work with many NY Times and USA Today bestsellers, we work with thousands more authors whose sales are low, yet they love self-publishing. It’s this pleasure and passion that ultimately enables writers to become bestsellers. Writers who can’t find the pleasure and passion ultimately give up too early because reasonable-minded people will always find more reasons to give up than to power on. Don’t be reasonable! Great authors are dreamers and power on. It can take many, many years to become a commercially successful author, so if you’re publishing for the right reasons success is more likely.

For the state of the industry, I should refer you to a blog post I wrote a few months back titled, Ebook Publishing Gets More Difficult from Here – Here’s How to Succeed. First the good news: There’s never been a better time to publish. Ebooks and democratized ebook distribution make it feasible for authors to reach a global market of millions of readers in a matter of hours and days. The power in the publishing industry is shifting from publishers to the hands of writers where it belongs. The bad news: Things get more difficult from here. There’s a glut of high-quality low-cost ebooks out there, and the glut will increase thanks to self-publishing, and thanks to the fact that ebooks are immortal and never go out of print. To succeed in this increasingly hypercompetitive market, it’s all about best practices.

            Here are a few tips for success:

  1. Good isn’t good enough Self-published authors need to up their games. The author’s book must be super-awesome. If it’s not earning 4.5- to 5-star reviews on average, then it’ll be difficult to spawn the word of mouth that’s so critical to reaching   more readers.
  2. Leverage professional tools Authors need to learn to take advantage of the myriad tools that help make their books more accessible and more desirable to readers. Take ebook preorders, for example. Ebook preorders are probably the single most exciting new tool to come along in the last few years, yet the vast majority of authors don’t know how preorders work, and they’re not launching their books as preorders. We’ve proven by experience that books born as preorders sell more copies than books that are simply published without the preorder period. For a primer on preorders, see my blog post, Hit the Bestseller Lists with Ebook Preorders – A Guide to Preorder Strategy.
  3. Avoid exclusivity – In the old print world of publishing, one of the single-most important determinants of an author’s success was the distribution of their book. If their book wasn’t on bookshelves, they weren’t going to reach readers. The same is even more true today in the world of ebooks. A lot of authors make the mistake of succumbing to KDP Select exclusivity. At every writers conference I attend, I meet authors who are under the mistaken impression that Amazon requires exclusivity. Not true. As long as authors avoid the “Select” option, they can distribute to other retailers. Authors who make their books exclusive to Amazon—either deliberately or by accident through KDP Select, or through benign neglect—risk squandering their full potential. There are millions of readers who shop and read at iBooks, Barnes & Noble, the Smashwords Store, Scribd, and Oyster who simply can’t be reached at Amazon.
  4. Time management – Raise your hand if you have too many hours in the day. The most successful authors know how to manage their time. You only have so many minutes in the day. The more minutes you spend developing your craft, becoming a better a writer, and pushing yourself to publish the best-possible book, the more successful you’ll be. Your best marketing is a great book. Focus on writing the most super awesome book you can. Spend more time writing and less time on everything else. Anything else is a distraction. Oh, and part of your time management should involve carving out time to recharge with family and friends.

For a comprehensive summary of the most effective best practices for success, download my free ebook, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, where I identify 30 best practices of the most successful authors. 

What advantages does the Smashwords platform offer over its competitors?

Our biggest “competitors” happen to be our own dear retail partners, several of which operate their own direct upload platforms. Yet the vast majority of Smashwords authors choose to fully distribute via Smashwords. I think the reason more authors work with Smashwords is that we help them be more successful. We save them a lot of time, and we help them reach retailers they can’t reach any other way. Our services are free and we don’t sell publishing packages. We earn our income by taking a small commission, which averages out to 10% of the retail price.

Smashwords authors spend more time writing and less time on everything else. We make it fast, free, and easy to publish an ebook. We make it free and easy for authors to centrally control their distribution at multiple retailers. For example, if you want to update your cover image at all the retailers, you upload the image once to Smashwords and we get it to all our retailers and library partners. Let’s say you’re publishing ten books. If you want to change the price on ten titles, it takes literally under two minutes at Smashwords with our cool Pricing Manager tool. If you had to log into five different upload platforms to change the prices on ten books, it might take an hour or more. We provide consolidated payments and consolidated sales and tax reporting, another huge time-saver. Our Daily Sales tool provides next-day aggregated sales reporting from our top channels: iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and OverDrive. These reports provide authors a high-level, at-a-glance view of how their books are performing across multiple retailers. If you’re uploading direct, it’s difficult to gain such intelligence.

Even with our commission, sometimes you’ll earn more working with Smashwords than going direct. For example, if you’re pricing your book under $2.99 or over $9.99, you actually earn a higher royalty rate delivering to Barnes & Noble via Smashwords than uploading direct to them.

We operate our own retail store, where our royalty rates are higher than any other retailer, and we provide powerful merchandising tools such as our Coupon Manager, which generates custom coupon codes. For a full list of Smashwords features, distribution channels, and benefits, visit https://www.smashwords.com/about/how_to_publish_on_smashwords

What are some of your favorite strategies for marketing ebooks?

Here are two ideas, and you’ll find 40 more ideas in my free Smashwords Book Marketing Guide:

  1. Launch your new releases as an ebook preorder – Ebook preorders allow more effective advance marketing. Preorders allow you to capture the reader’s order at the moment you have his or her greatest attention and interest. Preorders also help your book earn a higher sales rank on launch day. We distribute preorders to iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. At each of these retailers, all your accumulated ebook preorders credit toward your first day’s sale rank. Thousands of Smashwords authors have used this tool to earn a higher sales rank on their launch day, and this higher sales rank increases the visibility and desirability of their books.
  1. Leverage your existing books to drive sales of other books – Most authors make the mistake of ending their book with a period and that’s it. Nothing else. That’s a squandered opportunity. At that moment where the reader finishes your book and is loving on you, offer these three important sections to your backmatter: 1. About the author – a short, one- or two-paragraph bio of the author. 2. Other books by this author – make it easy for readers to identify their next read! 3. Connect with the author – provide all your social media coordinates to make it easy for readers to connect with you. This is probably the most powerful platform-building method, yet most authors neglect to do this.

Back to some more personal questions: You’ve written or co-written a few books yourself. Is there anything new coming down the pike for you?

I’ve been working on a new book that will cover the rudimentary basics of ebook self-publishing. I find that now that we’re almost a decade into the ebook self-publishing revolution, many so-called experts mistakenly assume that all authors are experts, and as a result they talk over the heads of most authors. My new book—similar to my other titles on ebook publishing—will provide authors the foundational knowledge they need to be more successful. I hope to have it out by early to mid 2016. Also like all of my other books, you need not be a Smashwords author to benefit from the information I share.

Are there any people and/or books that have inspired you along your journey?

Yes. Dan Poynter is an inspiration to me. I’d encourage everyone to read his Self-Publishing Manual, especially if you’re self-publishing in print. Stephen King’s On Writing is a must-read for all authors. And here’s an odd one that most authors have never heard of: Ogilvy on Advertising. This is a classic. Buy it in print. It’s not at all about book publishing, but it contains some really useful concepts of how your target market receives and processes your messages. After reading Ogilvy on Advertising, you’ll create better book titles and better book descriptions. 

Can you share something that people may be surprised to learn about you?

I raise chickens and homing pigeons as pets.

What’s next for you?

My grand plan is to get every author in the world on Smashwords. Since we only have about 100,000 today, it means we have a few hundred million to go!!

SmashwordsIs there anything else you would like to add?

Publish on Smashwords!!!! My thanks to Stephanie Chandler and team for helping to spread the knowledge of professional publishing best practices.

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