May BAIPA Meeting: Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, shares his 7Secrets to E-Book Success

This month, BAIPA  had the pleasure of hosting Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords. He gave a presentation entitled 7 Secrets to E-book Success, which was packed with wisdom and information. I scribbled notes frantically for a good hour, and will do my best to translate them coherently for you.

 A little backstory: Mark Coker came from the high tech industry. He and his wife, Lesleyann Coker, wrote a book entitled Boob Tube, a fiction novel that takes place in the world of soap opera stars. (Lesleyann was a former reporter for Soap Opera Weekly.) They landed a big agent in New York, who spent the next two years trying to sell the book. Sadly, the agent never sold their book.

 It was this experience that led Mark to question the paradigm of traditional publishing, and eventually led to his launch of his own independent e-book distribution company, Smashwords. Today, thousands of independent authors distribute their e-books worldwide with Smashwords.

 A little about Smashwords: You can upload your word.doc for FREE! and have it converted into 9 different e-book formats. Generally, authors keep 85% of the list price. The company’s growth has exploded in the past four years, and Mark was kind enough to share some figures with us:

2008 – 140 titles for sale

2009 – 6,000 titles for sale

2010 – 28,500 titles for sale

2011 – 75,000 titles for sale by the end of the year

 And now…drumroll, please…Mark Coker’s 7 Secrets to Indie E-book Publishing Success:
  1. Write a great book. Edit, revise, edit again. Along with writing a great book, make sure you invest in a good cover. Smashwords has a list of designers who will create books covers for you at a reasonable price.
  2. Write another great book. Work to turn your name into your brand. Build a backlist. Each new book offers an opportunity to market your backlist to new readers. All bestselling authors on Smashwords have deep backlists.
  3. Maximize distribution. If a book is not available, it’s not discoverable. Make it available in as many places in as many formats as possible, something Smashwords can help with.
  4. Give some books away for free. This is one of the best—and often the most under-utilized—tools available to indie authors, tool. When you develop a backlist, make sure you always offer some titles for free. All Smashwords highest grossing authors all offer at least 1 e-book for free.
  5. Patience is a Virtue. E-books can start small and grow big, but it can take time. Remember, e-books are immortal. They never go out of print. That’s a long time to find an audience.
  6. Trust Readers & Partners. If an author limits distribution due to lack of trust (aka, fear of theft) you will limit your success. DRM (Digital Rights Management) can actually limit the ability of your customer to transfer your book from one device to another.
  7. Marketing Starts Yesterday. Marketing starts before you write your book. Cultivate a social network. Readers are your sales force, so network with them.

Mark also had some other wisdom to share with us:

 Problem with Big Publishers
  1. The business model has not changed in 50 years.
  2. Their acquisitions strategy is backwards and outdated. In Mark’s words, they’re looking now for what was popular yesterday to sell two years from now.
  3. High New York rents add no value to books. Someone’s got to pay the rent – and publishers, that’s through the sale of books.
  4. They are unable to take risks on deserving authors.
  5. Readers are shut out. Ex., a book may have an audience of 100 readers. That book has the possibility of profoundly affecting the lives of 100 readers. Why shouldn’t that book be available to those readers?
  6. Authors are now required to take on responsibilities that originally fell to publishers, such as marketing and promotion.

 3 Big Trends Reshaping the Rules of Publishing:
  1. Bookselling is moving to the web. Readers are finding better prices, a more convenient shopping experience, and better selection via the web. The web offers indie authors a distinct advantage: indies are listed side-by-side with the big New York publishers. With brick-and-morter, big publishers have the advantage of access to distribution channels, which can be very challenging for indies to secure. This advantage goes away on online bookstore.
  2. Authors become the publishers. Power is shifting to authors. Indie authors are getting 45% - 70% (and sometimes more) of the list price, vs. 5% - 17% royalties that authors get from big publishers. Indies have free and low-cost options to publish their books. The number of indie books is on the rise, while the number of books being released from traditional publishers is flat.
  3. Reading is moving to screens. 30% of e-books reading is done on personal computers. Fun fact: India is the 4th largest source of traffic on Smashwords.

Why e-books are good for consumers:
  1. Changeable font
  2. Portable and compact
  3. Better purchasing experience (huge selection, convenient, lower cost)

Why e-books are good for indie writers:
  1. Instant access to global market.
  2. Never go out of print. With big publishers, authors often go out of print before readers have a chance to find them.
  3. Earn more per book. Higher royalties means you can charge less for a book but still make more money than if you went with a big publisher. Lower book prices generally mean higher sales.
  4. Lower expenses.
  5. Closer to customer.
  6. Democratized distribution.

I hope you all enjoyed learning about e-books as much as I did! Thanks so much to Mark Coker for taking time out of his busy schedule to present to BAIPA members!