The following is the full guest interview of Mark Coker, Ebook expert and founder of Smashwords, the final part of a series of interviews of the panelists appearing at the upcoming Cat Writer’s Association (CWA) Conference at Blogpaws ( June 23-25, 2016 in Chandler, AZ).
Mark Coker is also the author of The Smashwords Style Guide (how to format an ebook), The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide (how to market any book) and The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success (best practices of the most commercially successful ebook authors). These three free ebooks about ebook publishing best practices have been downloaded nearly 750,000 times, making them essential reference guides for thousands of professional indie authors around the world. Learn more about Ebook publishing best practices from Mark Coker’s ‘Secret’s of Bestselling Ebook Authors’ talk at this year’s CWA 2016 Conference. Register here (http://blogpaws.com/events/2016-conference/).
How did you come up with the idea of Smashwords, where every author or publisher in the world could publish eBooks?
My wife is a former reporter for Soap Opera Weekly magazine. About 12 years ago we decided to co-author a novel about the wild and wacky daytime television soap opera industry. That novel is Boob Tube. We were lucky to earn the representation of one of the top literary agencies in New York, and for two years they tried to sell the book to publishers without success. Publishers declined to publish it because previous soap opera themed novels had sold poorly.
As you might imagine, after having spent three years pouring our souls into this book and two years trying to find a publisher, we were devastated. Keep in mind this was about 10-12 years ago, back in the dark ages of publishing when book sales were 100% print and where publishers controlled the access to retail stores.
Authors faced with similar rejection at the time had no recourse. Sure, they could self-publish in print – self-publishing has been around for decades if not centuries – but without distribution to stores, it was nearly impossible to reach readers. We didn’t want to fill our garage with unsold books.
I realized there were probably hundreds of thousands of authors just like us who had their dreams crushed, whose contributions to books and book culture were in danger of being lost forever.
Our experience opened my eyes to the fact that publishers are unable to say yes to every writer. They seek to acquire books with the greatest commercial sales potential. Despite their best efforts, they can only guess what readers want to read. Most of their books are commercial failures.
After much contemplation, I concluded the business of publishing was broken. Publishers don’t know what readers want to read. They make their best educated guesses and then throw the spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. In the process, they’re probably rejecting 99.5% of available new books, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that many of those books might have pleased millions of readers if only given the chance.
I grew up in the Silicon Valley, and the culture here teaches us that technology can be a force for democratization. At the time our book was rejected by the publishers, blogging was becoming a major force for helping to surface high-quality writers that weren’t being accommodated by the traditional systems.
I started to wonder, what would it take to democratize publishing? Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, if there was a publishing company out there that could say yes to every author? I imagined that such a service would need to have the ability to take a risk on every author. To make the service accessible to every author, the service would need to be free. And what if I could create such a service?
I realized free print publishing would be impossible for me to finance. I didn’t have millions of dollars in venture capital and I didn’t have access to print store distribution. But what about digital books? Ebooks don’t require expensive paper, ink, glue and cardboard. Ebooks don’t require expensive fossil fuels to transport from one place to another.
So this was the genesis of Smashwords. I decided to create an ebook publishing platform that makes it fast, free and easy for any writer, anywhere in the world, to publish an ebook. I wanted to give writers the freedom to publish and give readers the freedom to read what they want.
In 2005 I set to work on the business plan, and by 2008 we launched the service. Today, Smashwords is the world’s largest distributor of self-published ebooks. We’ve helped over 120,000 authors and small publishers to publish over 400,000 books. Many of our authors that were once rejected by the traditional publishing system have gone on to become international bestsellers. I’m pleased to report that most of them continue to self-publish with us even though publishers would love to buy their books now.
Smashwords has been a key driving force in the indie author movement. This is a global cultural movement comprised of self-published authors from around the world who self-publish by choice, and who take pride as professional publishers.
What made eBooks so popular so quickly and do you expect this trend to continue?
Eight years ago when we launched Smashwords, ebook accounted for about one percent of the overall book market. Today, ebooks account for about 25% of book sales in dollar terms, and closer to 50% of reading.
The big drivers for this exponential growth were the availability of low-cost high-quality e-reading devices, a growing selection of books in the ebook format, and the pioneering embrace of early major retailers such as Sony, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks and Kobo. Shortly after opening their ebook stores, each of the retailers opened their virtual shelves to self-published ebooks. Smashwords was actually the first to open up Sony and Barnes & Noble to self-published ebooks. The retailers’ embrace of self-published ebooks spurred additional rapid growth in the ebook market, because self-publishing dramatically improved the diversity and selection of books. And because self-published ebooks are typically priced lower (99 cents to $4.99), this further encouraged more readers to try ebooks.
It’s also important to note how ebooks have fundamentally improved the book discovery and reading experience for consumers. We’re all consumers, and as such, when we shop we love convenience, selection and low prices. As bookselling moved to the web, it didn’t take readers long to fall in love with the convenience of shopping for their next favorite book from the comfort of their homes, 24/7/365. Readers who prefer ebooks know that within minutes they can browse for that next book, purchase it, download it and begin enjoying it. When it comes selection, no physical bookstore comes close to matching the millions of titles that ebook retailers offer. Because virtual shelf space is essentially unlimited, it allows ebook retailers to stock every ebook.
When ebook reading devices arrived, readers soon discovered how comfortable and enjoyable digital reading could be. A simple luxury like increasing the font size appealed to a lot of readers. Add to that the simplicity and speed of adding books to your digital library, and screens–whether dedicated reading devices, phones or tablets–also led to the explosion of ebook popularity.
The growth in the ebook market has now moderated as the market reaches what appears to be an equilibrium between print and digital formats. While we do expect the ebook market to continue to grow, it’s not going to grow like it did between 2008-2012, where we the market was doubling or tripling each year. No market can grow like that forever. The early adopters have adopted.
How would you compare a published eBook for cat writers to a print book?
They’re different animals, so to speak. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, and that is something authors need to understand if they’re considering ebook self-publishing.
Print and digital are just two different methods of consuming books. Print and digital are complementary formats because multiple formats make books more accessible to more readers.
From an author perspective, the process of writing a print or digital book is the same. The main different for the author is on the production side. Print books are produced differently from ebooks.
With a print book, authors (or their print designers) are working with a fixed format – they determine where each word is going to appear on every page, the font size and style, the line spacing and more.
When it comes to ebook creation and formatting, authors must resist the urge to force their ebook to look exactly like their print book. Instead, ebooks work best when they’re designed for reflowability. Reflowability is what enables the words to seamlessly shape shift across multiple screen sizes. Reflowability dramatically improves the reader’s reading experience. Reflowability is what allows readers to click a button to control the font size, the font style, the background, and whether or not they’re in portrait, landscape, daytime or nighttime mode. You get the picture.
For guidance on how to create a professional quality ebook, read the Smashwords Style Guide and follow it closely. It will walk you through the step-by-step process of formatting your manuscript to prepare it for ebook conversation. Download it free here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/52
Now let’s talk about the differences in terms of being able to reach readers. Traditional publishers still provide a lot of value to authors based on their ability to get their authors’ books distributed to physical book stores. Without that assistance it’s extremely difficult to get your book on the shelves of any brick and mortar bookstore, whether it’s a chain store or an independent shop. The good news with ebooks is that retail distribution is democratized. You don’t need a traditional publisher to help you reach global retailers and public libraries. The best part is that the distribution tools to reach these outlets (such as Smashwords) are free for self-published ebook authors.
What does it take for an eBook to make it as a best-seller?
There’s no single magic bullet to bestsellerdom. The secret is best practices. There are dozens of best practices – which, if well-implemented – will maximize the author’s ability to reach more readers. I actually wrote a book on the topic titled, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, in which I identified 30 best practices of the bestselling self-published ebook authors. Download it for free at all major ebook retailers or here at Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/145431
The most important best practice is quality writing. This is easier said than done. Five years ago, authors could publish a mediocre book, price it at 99 cents and reach thousands of readers. This is because readers hadn’t seen 99 cent books before. Today, there’s a glut of high-quality, low-cost books. This means good is no long good enough. Your book must take readers to an emotionally satisfying extreme. It needs to make the reader go “WOW!” because wow books generate reader word-of-mouth and earn five-star reviews.
Among other top best practices are great editing, a professionally designed ebook cover image that makes an aspirational promise to the reader, and wide distribution to multiple ebook stores.
I also encourage you to closely read the Annual Smashwords Survey, where we analyze a year’s worth of sales data from our global retail network, and present information that may help authors sell more books. The latest survey, which was published on our blog April 17, can be found here: http://blog.smashwords.com/2016/04/2016survey-how-to-publish-and-sell-ebooks.html
Is there something unique about the genre in publishing cat eBooks compared to dog eBooks?
I haven’t delved into the psychographic differences between the book-buying habits of cat owners and dog owners, but I expect the owners are more similar than different. In the US alone, about 43 million households own a dog and about 36 million own a cat, according the American Veterinary Association. So for both dogs and cats – especially if we consider the global market – we’re talking about an extremely large cohort of owners, and a large potential audience for books that can help entertain or educate owners.
I’m often asked by authors which markets are the hottest, and the implied question is often, “what’s the largest market for me to write for?” I always respond that that’s really the wrong question. The writer should ask themself which topic they have the most passion for. That’s what they should be writing, because if you write to your passion you’ll write better books, and better books will sell better. If you write what you love, you’ll gain more joy from writing and publishing, and that satisfaction will propel you forward and help you persevere during the tough times every writer will face.
And when writers are looking at the market for cat and dog books, it’s best to view these markets as composed of potentially hundreds of micro-niches. Even in the smallest niche markets, there’s the opportunity to reach thousands of readers who share an interest in that micro-niche.
What advice would you give to an unknown, small indie author on how to make it big in the industry?
That’s a BIG question! I would first caution aspiring authors to set realistic expectations . Most books, whether they’re self-published or traditionally published, do not sell very well.
Among bestselling authors, many of them labored in obscurity for years before they started selling well. Most authors publish multiple books before they publish a bestseller.
We do know that there’s a large market for nearly every subject category. The author’s challenge is to reach that market. Writers should start by educating themselves about the business of publishing, because as a writer the more you know about the business of publishing the more successful you’ll be.
My free ebook, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, has a good overview of key industry trends. It’s a good introductory guide to where the industry has come from, where it’s going and how self-published authors can leverage the trends to their advantage.
Last year I taught a six-hour ebook publishing intensive comprised of four 90-minute workshops. It includes an introduction to ebook publishing followed by sessions on more advanced topics such as best practices, merchandising and preorders. I’d encourage writers to check it out because I walk you through, step-by-step, how to think, act and perform like a professional publisher. You can access the entire presentation for free at http://blog.smashwords.com/2015/07/how-to-publish-ebooks-ebook-publishing.html
Attend writers conferences such as the 2016 CWA Write Stuff Conference and attend as many workshops as you can.
Join a local writing or critique group. Attend other conferences either in person or online. The Association of Independent Authors (ALLi), a global author’s organization based in the UK, recently hosted a great series of free online workshops called Indie Author Fringe in which dozens of great experts shared their smarts. I presented two talks – Ten Trends Shaping the Future of Indie Authorship (http://selfpublishingadvice.org/10-trends-driving-the-future-of-publishing-mark-coker/) and How to Hit the Bestseller Lists with Ebook Preorders (http://selfpublishingadvice.org/how-to-hit-the-ebook-bestseller-list-with-pre-orders-mark-coker/). Register to listen to archived versions of all the great talks at http://selfpublishingadvice.org/indie-author-fringe-fair-2016/what-is-indie-author-fringe/
Is there anything else you would like to add?
We’ve covered a lot of great information here. I’d add that there’s never been a better time to be a writer. There’s a global market out there of millions of readers hungry to discover and read their next great book. As a self-published ebook author, you have a chance to reach this global market in a matter of hours or days. Publishing and distribution are the easy parts (this is what Smashwords does so well). The difficult part is the writing, and this is up to you.
Never forget that as a self-published author, you’re embarking on a long-term journey. Authors who treat this as a long-term journey will earn the most satisfaction and joy from the experience.
Take the time to educate yourself about the business of publishing. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be to take advantage of the myriad opportunities that will come your way.
And finally, as a self-published indie author, know that “indie” does not mean alone. You’re joining a worldwide community of indie authors. Get to know your fellow authors. Network with them. Support them. You’ll find the more you work to support your fellow authors, the more fun you’ll have and the more great opportunities will flow your way.
Good luck and have fun!