Mark Coker from Smashwords. Whether you publish with Smashwords or not, Mark Coker’s blog posts are always well worth reading. Sure, he is not a big fan of Amazon exclusivity and makes his point about that regularly, but if anyone knows how self-publishing works, it’s Mark. Miss a post at your peril. Founder of Smashwords, a distributor of indie (self-published) ebooks serving Apple, B&N.
This past Sunday marked ten years since the public launch of Smashwords on May 6, 2008.
Wow, what a difference ten years makes.
Ten years ago, the book publishing industry looked quite a bit different than it does today:
Print books controlled 99.5% of the market; ebooks accounted for about ½ of 1%
If a writer wanted to get their book into bookstores where readers discover and purchase books, they needed a traditional publishing deal because publishers controlled access to retail distribution
Few writers wanted to self-publish; it was considered the option of last resort for failed writers
The writer community perpetuated and enforced the stigma of self-publishing by castigating those who self-published, branding them as "vanity" authors
The Roots of SmashwordsThe story of Smashwords started back around 2002, when my wife and I completed a novel titled Boob Tube. We landed representation from an awesome agent at one of the most respected literary agencies in New York. They were known for repping NY Times bestsellers.
For two years and across two submission rounds, our agent pitched our novel to all the major publishers of commercial women’s fiction. Our novel, which explores the dark underbelly of Hollywood celebrity, targeted fans of daytime television soap operas. Despite our agent's great work, he was unable to sell it.
Publishers were reluctant to take a chance on our novel because previous novels targeting soap opera fans had performed poorly.
It was our failure to find a publisher that opened my eyes to what I considered a huge problem facing millions of writers:
Publishers were unable and disinterested to take a chance on every author
Publishers acquired or rejected book based on perceived commercial merit; this meant that great books with limited commercial appeal might never see the light of day
The agent-publisher gatekeeping system meant that most writers were blocked from publication
Publishers could only guess what readers wanted to read, yet they were also rejecting books that might have gone on to become bestsellers or cultural classics if only these titles had been given the chance to be judged by readers
Thousands of unpublished writers were taking their manuscripts to the grave each year; I considered the loss of their stories, knowledge and life experiences a cultural travesty and an enormous loss to mankind
Publishers were deciding what readers could read!
The Internet as a Force for DemocratizationIf we rewind to the mid '90s, the Internet was on the rise. Everything touched by the Internet was transformed and reconfigured.
The Internet facilitated seamless peer-to-peer communications and efficient commerce. It enabled content creators to digitally publish directly to their audience, thereby bypassing traditional gatekeepers.
Jeff Bezos launched Amazon in 1994. At first, the publishing industry treated the company as a harmless curiosity.
By the early 2000s, blogging was coming on strong. Blogs helped democratize publishing by allowing anyone to self-publish stories and opinions online. Early bloggers were criticized. The general criticism leveled against bloggers went along the lines of, “How dare these amateurs fancy themselves as writers.” Yet great writers were emerging from the blogosphere.
In 2005, YouTube was launched. YouTube allowed anyone to self-publish their videos online. New video producers - ordinary people - began developing massive audiences on YouTube. It was a talent discovery machine.
Despite the early inspiring examples of bloggers and YouTube, by 2008 the traditional publishing industry was relatively untouched by the Internet and the rise of user-generated content.
As I pondered the publishing conundrum faced by my fellow writers, it struck me as odd that publishers weren't leveraging new publishing approaches enabled by the Internet to say yes to more authors.
In fact, I found that publisher attitudes toward the general population of writers were downright hostile. They didn't want to say yes to every writer, even if they could. Publishers had this holier-than-thou idea that most writers were unworthy of publication. They viewed – and continue to view – their curation and gatekeeping function as an important value-add to book culture and readers.
They had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. They decided which writers became published authors, and which books were published, marketed and sold. They were artificially constraining the publication of books.
Here’s the thing: I too appreciated their value-add, and I continue to appreciate their value-add to this day. Despite my evangelism of self-publishing over the last ten years, I've also taken a lot of arrows for my advocacy for traditional publishers as well. I think self-publishing and traditional publishing are both excellent, mutually synergistic options. The author chooses what's right for them.
But one can appreciate the great work of publishers while also recognizing the gaping hole that remains in their publishing businesses, and the harm it caused to book culture through benign censorship. It's a hole Smashwords and Amazon KDP fill.
There's value in democratization and freedom of choice. There's value in giving writers the freedom to publish and there's value in giving readers the freedom to decide for themselves which books they want to read.
In fact, one of the great powers of the Internet is to make is possible to efficient reach micro-targeted audiences on a global scale. These niche audiences can't be reached economically with print books, but digital books are a different story.
In my mind, a book with the potential to change the life of a single reader - even if that single reader is your child or grandchild - is just as important as a New York Times bestseller enjoyed my millions of readers. I believe it's wrong to value books based on commercial performance alone. Some great books will never sell well.
From Problem to SolutionAgainst the backdrop of publishing's culture of NO, I imagined it would be really cool if an enlightened publisher or publishing service could say yes to every writer in the world, and do it at no cost to the writer. And then I wondered, “What if that someone could be me? What if I could take a chance on every writer in the world?”
This was the genesis of Smashwords.
Throughout my career, I’ve always been drawn to "change the world" ventures that carry a higher purpose. I’ve long believed that a life without higher purpose is a life squandered. Every person with a pulse has an opportunity to take small but significant steps today that will leave the world better than we found it. It doesn't matter if you're a writer, entrepreneur, home maker, school teacher, garbage collector, artist, doctor, mechanic, baker or retired. Pick your passion and make a difference.
Writers are some of the most passionate, inspiring world-changers I've met.
In late 2004 I set to work on the Smashwords business plan.
I wanted to turn the conventional publishing model upside down. I wanted to give authors full control over their rights, pricing and publishing decisions, and I wanted to flip the compensation model so that 85% of the net proceeds went directly to the author.
It was also important to me that Smashwords' interests be aligned with the interests of writers. Rather than sell publishing packages or charge upfront for our services, we'd offer our service for free and we'd earn our income on commission. If the author made money, we made money.
Back in 2008, most self-publishing services made money by exploiting authors - they sold authors over-priced publishing services. They focused on selling books to authors rather than selling books to readers.
It’s fair to say that my business idea was unconventional for its time. And maybe a bit crazy too.
I wanted to start a business publishing writers no smart publisher wanted to publish; selling books in a format – ebooks – that readers didn’t want to buy; and I’d sell these books in store called Smashwords.com that no reader had ever heard of. Oh, and I knew little of the publishing industry other than what it was like to write and edit a book, find an agent, and fail to sell it. I didn’t have venture capital backers or angel investors. I didn’t have a lot of money to invest. But I believed the world needed something like this that could give all writers a risk-free shot at achieving their dreams.
In my favor, I understood the Internet, and I already had a 20-year career in technology marketing and entrepreneurship to draw from. In my prior career running a technology PR firm between 1993 and 2007, I worked with dozens of pioneering startups such as McAfee Associates and Rightnow Technologies. I helped bring these companies to market, and I helped them exploit new approaches to software marketing, such as electronic software distribution, freemium, software-as-a-service and subscription business models.
Unbeknownst to me back in the mid 1990s, these new approaches to software marketing would later serve as the foundational building blocks to enable the rise of the Indie Author Movement, which itself was fueled by ebooks and democratized (and digital) production and distribution. Ebooks are software!
We launched Smashwords in 2008.
Our launch was met with equal parts enthusiasm and skepticism from the writing community. I expected enthusiasm from my fellow writers, but I didn't expect the skepticism.
Back to 2008, my idea that every writer had a right to publish was seen as downright radical if not subversive to the way-things-should-be. It's still not a universally accepted idea. But neither is free speech. As I discussed in my Smart Author podcast episode about The Indie Author Manifesto, ever since Gutenberg's printing press there have always been those who seek to control free expression.
Books and authorship are the ultimate form of free expression.
For a historical deep dive into the prevailing views, attitudes, and concerns among writers we faced at the time of our launch, check out this thread at Absolute Write from 2008. It serves as a good example of the public reception we received from the skeptics.
The thread started off with someone falsely accusing Smashwords of spamming the Nanowrimo message boards, and then progressed from there with some heated discussion and attacks pointed my way. I joined the fray and did my best to explain our well-intentioned service.
In 2009, almost exactly one year after our launch, we expanded our publishing platform to support small independent presses. Although I didn’t anticipate this need in 2008, we soon discovered that small independent presses faced many of the same publishing hurdles faced by indie authors.
Also in 2009, we expanded our focus to become an ebook distributor. It was probably the most consequential decision in the evolution of our business. Our authors' sales took off once we opened up sales channels that were previously inaccessible to them.
In the years since, we've continued to innovate a steady stream of new tools, new service enhancements and new distribution opportunities. Ten years in, I still feel like we've only scratched the surface of what's possible.
Now, on this ten year anniversary of Smashwords, I’m tickled pink when I reflect on what our authors and publishers have accomplished. I'm so proud of them, of you. Indie authors are leading a renaissance in publishing, and we can expect that the power and influence of indies will only increase in the future.
Here’s where your world stands now:
Every writer now has access to the tools, knowledge and freedom to self-publish with pride, professionalism and success
Every major ebook retailer carries self-published ebooks
Most libraries now have the ability to purchase self-published ebooks, including the ebooks of local authors
The rise of ebooks, paired with democratized book production and distribution enabled by the work of Smashwords, Amazon KDP and others, made it possible for previously unpublished writers to reach millions of readers.
Many writers now aspire to self-publish as their option of first choice rather than the option of last resort
Many writers no longer bother pitching their books to agents and publishers; instead, they publish directly to their readers using self-publishing platforms
Hundreds of thousands of writers now enjoy the freedom to reach readers on their own terms.
By most estimates, indie ebook authors have captured between 20 and 30% ebook market share measured by unit volume (and much more in some genres), and this share will continue to grow in the years ahead because indie ebook authors enjoy numerous competitive advantages over traditional publishers
Many of our authors - once shunned by gatekeepers - have gone on to become USA Today and NY Times bestsellers
Many of our authors have gone on to secure lucrative traditional publishing deals yet they return to Smashwords for the indie publishing side of their business
Self-published authors now self-identify as indie authors, and they wear this badge with well-deserved pride
Indie authors have pioneered many of the new best practices for ebook publishing, marketing and promotion; traditional publishers now look to indies for ebook marketing insights and inspiration
I’m pleased Smashwords was able to play a small part in this revolution. It's been my sincere privilege to join so many of you on your publishing journey.
Whatever we accomplished at Smashwords, we didn’t do it alone.
Credit goes to...
The 130,000+ amazing authors and publishers who work with us for ebook publishing and distribution
The retailers and library platforms that dedicate such enormous effort to supporting our indie authors and small presses; thank you Apple, Barnes & Noble, OverDrive, Kobo and more!
The millions of readers around the world who’ve purchased over $100 million worth of Smashwords ebooks at retail over the last 10 years
The amazing team here at Smashwords: Our development team spends every day dreaming up and developing new tools to give our authors and publishers a competitive advantage; our service and vetting teams dedicate their days to supporting our authors, publishers and sales channels; our merchandising team works to promote our authors at major retailers and library platforms; our marketing team focuses almost 100% of its effort empowering indie authors with best practices knowledge they can use anywhere, even if they don’t publish with Smashwords; and our finance team manages the inflow and outflow of money to ensure our authors and publishers are paid on time, every month.
Thousands of forward-thinking publishing industry professionals and participants (journalists, bloggers, authors, publishers, literary agents, editors, formatters, cover designers, conference managers, book doctors, publishing consultants, retailers, librarians, educators, readers and more) who went out of their way to open doors for Smashwords and our authors and publishers
Thank you everyone for your trust, confidence and partnership. We're looking forward to serving you in the years ahead.
What’s coming in the next ten years from Smashwords? If you look back at our original launch press release, our mission has changed little over the years.
I founded Smashwords to help writers reach readers. Long term, we will always maintain our core focus on helping our indie authors and publishers connect with more readers. We’ll do this by continuing to develop industry-leading tools and relationships. We'll continue to introduce new opportunities that put more control in the hands of authors and publishers. We’ll continue to fight for your right to publish, and we’ll continue to do our part to support a thriving and vibrant publishing and bookselling ecosystem for the mutual benefit of authors, publishers, retailers, libraries and of course READERS!
Check out my Smart Author Podcast, where I guide writers step-by-step from the very basics of ebook publishing to more advanced expert topics. Learn to publish like a pro. Learn new insights to grow your business.
Does love of reading open doors for readers? The answer is yes! The knowledge, stories and deep-meaning found in books help readers exploit more of life's great opportunities. How can we encourage more people to become readers? I think one answer is to teach more people the joys of writing and publishing.
In episode 16 of the Smart Author Podcast, out today, I share the story of a publishing project I helped launch four years ago at Los Gatos High School in collaboration with the Los Gatos Public Library.
Each year, over 100 freshman honors poetry students write, produce and publish a poetry anthology. The project, led by visionary poetry teacher Tonya McQuade, has helped over 600 students become published authors.
When students are given the opportunity to publish and distribute their work to a global audience, it transforms their relationship with the written word. Publishing makes writing more meaningful, because publishing is how writers share their works with readers.
At the end of their book publishing project, the students hold a book launch to celebrate their accomplishment in front of parents, teachers and fellow students.
In addition to graduating from high school as published authors, these students will enter the first chapter of their lives with a new appreciation for the joy of writing and reading.
Learn How to Launch Similar Classroom Publishing Projects in Your CommunityOver the course of the last 15 episodes, Smart Author podcast listeners have learned how to professionally produce, publish, distribute and promote an ebook.
In this new episode, I challenge listeners to use their newfound indie publishing superpowers to start similar classroom publishing projects at schools in their local community. Once indie authors mentor local teachers and help them get started, the teachers can run with the project.
These projects don't cost the students or the schools anything.
In the first anthology published by Los Gatos High, Windows to the Teenage Soul, teacher Tonya McQuade included a Teacher's Guide in the appendix of the book so other educators can replicate her project in their schools. I've included a link to the book in the show notes for this episode, and also included links to updated teaching resources you and your local educators can use to kickstart similar projects in your community.
Smashwords today entered the audiobook market via a partnership with Findaway Voices.
Over 100,000 Smashwords authors and publishers now have convenient access to audiobook production and distribution services. The agreement gives authors and publishers greater control over audiobook pricing, rights, and distribution, and all without exclusivity or lockups.
Effective immediately, you'll notice audiobook creation options integrated into multiple stages of the Smashwords publishing workflow. The new feature is visible in the Smashwords Dashboard, and also accessible at https://smashwords.com/audiobook.
Start Your Audiobook Production TodayWith a single click, you can instantly deliver your ebook and metadata into the Findaway Voices platform, at which point you’ll choose a password for your Findaway Voices account and begin the audio production process.
Your first step is selecting a professional narrator. You'll answer a short questionnaire at Findaway Voices about your audiobook’s desired emotional tone; the accent, dialect or gender preference for your narrator; the voice style; the heat level of the book; and information about the book’s main characters.
The Findaway Voices casting team will then use this information to recommend a curated list of six to ten professional voice actors for your consideration. Recommendations will include audio samples and hourly rates for each narrator. From this list, you can request audition samples where narrators submit sample readings of your book.
There is no cost or obligation during the audition process.
Production begins after you select your narrator and sign off on the production contract. You will pay production fees directly to Findaway Voices.
To assist your budgeting, here are some rough guidelines: Fees are based on the number of hours and minutes of the finished production. Each hour of recorded content comprises roughly 9,000 words, which means a 26,000-word novella might run about three hours and a 100,000-word book would run about 11 hours. Narrators typically charge between $150 and $400 per finished hour.
Global Audiobook DistributionWhen production completes, you'll control all rights to the audiobook. You'll also have the option to distribute your audiobook to Findaway Voices’ global network of over 20 sales outlets including Apple iTunes, Audible, Scribd, Kobo, OverDrive and Google Play.
Findaway Voices will pay you directly.
If you already have a professionally produced audiobook, you can visit https://smashwords.com/audiobook to transmit your title's metadata to Findaway Voices, and then you'll see the option to upload your audiobook files to Findaway Voices for distribution.
No Exclusivity or LockupsThere’s no exclusivity or lockup period. You'll enjoy full control over your choice of distribution outlets.
You can remove your book from Findaway Voices’ distribution network at any time, and can also sell your audiobook anywhere else you please.
You set the price for single copy sales. The various outlets operate under different sales models (single-copy sales, subscription listens, pay-per-use, etc.), which means the calculation for royalty rates will differ from one channel and sales model to the next.
When Authors and Publishers Gain Control, Readers WinWhen authors and publishers gain greater control over pricing and distribution, new opportunities arise to serve readers.
Audible, the dominant audiobook subscription service, provides subscribers one download credit per month with its $14.95 monthly subscription. This credit system incentivizes value-conscious subscribers to download longer and more expensive books.
This credit system has the unintended effect of creating a void in the audiobook market for shorter or lower-cost audiobooks.
Thanks to our partnership with Findaway Voices, it’s now more economically feasible for authors and publishers to invest in audiobook production for shorter books, or books that might carry lower prices.
I think this could be a boon for authors, publishers and consumers alike who want to enjoy lower-cost audiobooks, whether we’re talking novellas, shorter non-fiction, free series starters, or erotica.
Why Audiobooks are ExcitingAudiobooks are the fastest-growing segment of the publishing market today.
I’ve long been a fan of audiobooks because they free up more hours in the day to enjoy books. Unlike printed words on paper or screens which require the reader’s undivided attention to read, audiobooks can be enjoyed while the listener performs other tasks, such as when they’re driving their car, cooking a meal or taking a walk.
For the last few years, audiobooks have been the fastest growing segment of the book industry. Sales for 2017 were up about 20% over the prior year.
Get Started TodaySmashwords authors and publishers can launch audiobook production today by visiting their Smashwords Dashboard or going direct to https://smashwords.com/audiobook.
If you’re not yet publishing with Smashwords, visit our How to Publish and Distribute Ebooks with Smashwords page to learn out our free book publishing and distribution services. The moment you upload your ebook to Smashwords, you’ll see the option to launch audiobook production. Happy listening everyone!
You'll learn 65 book marketing ideas ideas to make your book more discoverable and desirable to readers. Even if you've already implemented some of these ideas, I provide fresh context to make your implementation of these ideas even more effective.
You'll learn how to:
Spend more time writing and less time on marketing
Build your author brand
Drive greater reader word of mouth
Make your book market itself though autopilot marketing
Use preorders to improve marketing efficiency and reader lock-in so your new book is already marketing your next book
Leverage blogs to market your books
Market your ebooks to libraries
Run creative, reader-pleasing promotions with Smashwords Coupons
Earn mainstream media coverage
Partner with fellow authors on over 10 collaborative marketing opportunities
And there's so much more.
The Guide features a new introduction, dozens of new and updated marketing tips, and a new “Deep Dives” section that covers social media strategy for authors, how to work with beta readers, and how to earn free press coverage.
This is my first update since 2013. The previous edition was 16,000 words. This new expanded edition is 40,000 words. I think the continued popularity of the older edition speaks to my unique approach to book marketing. I emphasize evergreen book marketing strategies that will work for many years to come.
As readers of this blog may know, before I published this new edition of the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide I first serialized it in audio form on my SMART AUTHOR podcast. I completed that serialization on January 26 and released the ebook on January 31.
Here's Episode 10 to give you a taste of what this new 2018 edition offers. Enjoy!
Have you ever read a news story or watched a TV interview and thought, "They should have interviewed me for this story!" ?
If so, you're in for a treat with episode 15 of the Smart Author podcast. This is part six in my six-part audio serialization of the new forthcoming 2018 edition of the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide.
In this final installment of this marketing series, I teach authors how to earn free press coverage. Press coverage can dramatically elevate the stature of your author brand and drive more readers to your books. I also teach you how and when to write a press release, and how best to promote that press release to the media.
This episode draws heavily on my former life in public relations. I first fell into public relations back in the late '80s while I was still in college (here's the full story). Later, in 1992, I joined one of the largest Silicon Valley PR firms, and then in late 1993 I left it to found my own PR agency which I ran up until the launch of Smashwords in 2008.
I've always had enormous respect for the power of PR. PR practitioners use their skills to influence media coverage. The prospect of self-interested parties influencing the media to influence what people know, think and believe is at once exciting and terrifying.
It's exciting when good PR helps elevate the stature of good people, good products and important stories. It's terrifying when PR is used to misrepresent facts, as we see all too often nowadays in the business and political spheres. The dark side of PR touches our lives every day. Back when tobacco companies spent millions of dollars to convince consumers that smoking was safe, that was dark PR. Or in more modern times when large petrochemical companies like Koch Industries fund puppets to sow doubt about climate change, that's an example of dark PR. Or when Russian-backed trolls create fake news to sow division in Democratic countries and mislead voters, that's another example of dark PR.
In this episode, I teach you how to use PR as a force for good, and that good is to help elevate the stature of your author brand. You'll learn tips for ethical PR based on facts and honesty. You'll learn how to leverage your smarts and expertise to help journalists help their readers with your knowledge and news.
It was quite a challenge for me to condense three decades of PR experience into 49 minutes, but I trust this information-packed episode will give you actionable ideas you can incorporate into your book marketing.
Over in the show notes for this episode, you'll find a full written transcript and a mockup of how a good press release should be structured.
Today in part five of my six-part marketing series, I take a look at social media strategies for Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Social media is a mixed bag for many authors. We at once appreciate its power and potential while at the same time curse it for taking time away from writing.
We appreciate its potential to help authors forge closer relationships with readers yet at the same time we curse it for fostering tribalism, echo-chamber thinking, fake news and trolling.
In short, social media brings out the best in people but also the worst.
If you've been active on social media for the last decade, then much of what I share you'll already know. But if you're feeling alienated or unfulfilled by social media, or are starting to question how best to use it without sucking your soul dry, then I think the social media strategies I share will inspire you to forge a healthier relationship with the three most popular social media platforms.
Some of the topics I discuss include:
Seven tips for social media success
The four types of Twitter users, and how most of us are (and should be) a blend of multiple types
My personal Twitter strategy, and why no one strategy is right for every author
Not sure how to conduct yourself on Twitter? Hear my eight Twitter etiquette tips
Facebook: how the most powerful social media platform holds your followers hostage
How authentic should you be on Facebook?
The struggle to balance authenticity with the potential for alienation
How LinkedIn can work for non-fiction authors
How every author can use LinkedIn to further their professional development
Four tips for getting the most out of LinkedIn
If you'd like to connect with me on any of these platforms, here are my direct links:
Coming up next on Smart Author, I wrap up my six-part audio serialization of the 2018 edition of the Smashword Book Marketing Guide with episode 15. You'll learn how to earn free press coverage to build your author brand and generate more demand for your books.
If you're just now discovering my six-part marketing series, I suggest you start with part one which was episode 10.
Today in Episode 13 of the Smart Author podcast, I present part four in my six-part series on book marketing.
In this episode, I share 25 book promotion tips.
The tips are presented in logical order to roughly correspond to the different stages of a book’s marketing - from pre-launch to launch to post-launch, but most can be implemented in any order at any stage of an author's publishing journey.
Some of the topics covered include:
How you can use preorders to keep loyal readers on your train
How to find and engage in specialized communities where your prospective readers are hanging out
How to leverage blogs to build your author brand and collaborate with fellow indie authors, plus how to organize a blog tour
How to use Smashwords Coupons to build readership, engage with readers and incentivize list-building
... and much more.
If you haven't yet listened to my series on book marketing, I recommend you start with Episode 10 of the Smart Author podcast, which was part one in this series.
Next week's episode will explore social media strategies for Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
The majority of your readership will come from readers who stumbled across your book.
Maybe the reader was looking for a book like it. Or maybe they weren’t even looking for a book but found your book on their path to somewhere else.
Now imagine your book as a stationary beacon, buried deep in a forest of millions of other books. How can you equip your book to continually transmit its location and attributes so that those who might enjoy it are drawn to it, even if they’re not looking for it?
And then how do you ensure that once you draw a reader to your book, they leave your book a converted evangelist, ready to proselytize their passion for it to their fellow readers on the book discovery trail.
This is the idea behind autopilot marketing. In today's new episode 12 of the Smart Author podcast, I present 17 tips that will help you put some the most important aspects of your book marketing on autopilot.
You'll learn learn how to leverage your book to sell more books, grow your platform faster, and spend less time on marketing and more time on writing.
It's part three in my six-part audio serialization of the new 2018 edition of the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide. Give it a listen at any of the find podcast sources below.
Welcome to my annual Smashwords year in review for 2017 and preview of the year ahead.
I’d like to start first with a big shout out to Smashwords authors, publishers, business partners and industry friends for your trust and partnership.
And a big welcome to the thousands of authors, publishers and readers who joined the Smashwords community this year.
February 2018 will mark the 10-year anniversary of when we first announced Smashwords to the world and began private beta testing. May 2018 will mark the 10-year anniversary of when we opened our virtual doors for business.
These last 10 years have been nothing short of amazing, and it’s thanks to authors and publishers like you that we’re still here to serve you.
We ended our first year of Smashwords in 2008 with 140 books from 90 authors. Today, Smashwords carries over 470,000 titles and works with 135,000 authors and publishers around the world. We work with an awesome network of retail and library distribution partners who do amazing work behind the scenes to support Smashwords authors and publishers.
Let’s look at the business and service milestones for Smashwords this year and then I’ll share a preview of our plans for 2018.
Books published – We now publish 472,100 ebooks, up 8% from 437,200 at the end of last year.
Words published – We now publish 16.8 billion words, up 1.2 billion or 7.5% from 15.6 billion a year ago.
Authors/pen names served – We now publish 135,175 authors, up almost 8,000 or 6% from 127,500 authors a year ago.
Profitability – Despite the moribund sales of most retailers, we managed to eke out another profitable year this year. Our balance sheet is strong with cash and no debt which means we’re in a good position to ride out the industry slump as other players come and go.
Library ebooks show more growth – Library ebook sales continued to show modest growth, indicating that library sales are somewhat decoupled from weak retail sales. The library ebook market is still small and has room for more upside.
Kobo holding steady - Kobo has been holding its own these last four years as other retailers have struggled more. I think this speaks to their broad geographic footprint and strong line of e-reading devices that continue to earn solid reviews. From their founding, Kobo has always had more of an international focus than the other larger retailers. They’ve also got some additional measure of diversification in that they power the bookstores of other stores, and now they’re expanding into audiobooks.
Scribd shows growth – Back in 2015, Scribd did a big pivot by cutting most romance from their catalog. Romance readers were reading this subscription service out of house and home so Scribd had to pull back and regroup. As a result, Smashwords romance authors took a big hit in 2015 compared to the strong sales they experienced at Scribd in 2014. In 2016, however, we saw modest growth return at Scribd. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do in 2018.
Sales up at Smashwords Store - Another bright spot was the Smashwords Store, which bucked the industry-wide trend to show year over year sales growth. I think the performance was boosted by a few factors: 1. Strong results for authors participating in our big two annual promotions for Read an Ebook Week and our July/Summer Winter Sale, and the addition of a new annual sale, our Smashwords End of Year Sale which ends January 1. 2. Our new Smashwords Special Deals feature (I’ll describe it below) a self-serve merchandising tool, made it easy for readers to find onsale books. 3. I think there’s a growing awareness that the Smashwords Store pays royalties up to 80% list, even on some 99-cent ebooks. For authors with strong platforms and the ability to direct readers to one store or another, it's a profitable sale.
Monthly payments! – We launched monthy payments in early 2017. Previously we paid quarterly. We also eliminated the prior $10 threshold on PayPal payments. Even if we only owe you a penny, we’ll pay that penny!
Faster, more frequent deliveries to Barnes & Noble – In February, 2017 we announced that thanks to our friends at B&N, Smashwords now delivers books and updates 24X7 to their store. Previously, we delivered only once-daily Monday-Friday at their request. This means faster listings for your books. It’s worthwhile to contrast this with the very early days of ebooks back in 2009 when it could take retailers several weeks to list a book, or contrast with print publishing where it can take a publisher 12-18 months to get a book into stores.
2017 Smashwords Survey – Every year we produce this research report based on actual aggregate sales data sourced from across our retail and library distribution network. Every year when I’m producing it, I privately curse it and swear I never want to do another (it’s a lot of work to pull this together!!), but every year when the findings reveal themselves I’m amazed at the insights it brings. This year’s survey had two big bright spots from my perspective: 1. We found that $4.99 joined $2.99 and $3.99 as a pricing sweet spot that can maximize readership and earnings. My takeaway from that finding was that despite all the pressures for devaluation in the marketplace, authors with loyal readership have pricing power. 2. We knew from prior annual Surveys that books released as preorders sell more copies than those that are not, but this was the first Survey where we dug deeper and discovered how preorder books are vacuuming up the lion’s share of new book release sales each year.
Special Deals launched - In August we introduced Special Deals, a new self-serve automated merchandising feature at the Smashwords store. To join this ongoing home page promotion, simply create a coupon code in your Dashboard’s Coupon Manager and set the coupon to “public.”
Global pricing control – In September, we have our authors and publishers unprecedent control over pricing with the launch of our new Global Pricing Control feature. You can now set custom prices for 248 different countries and 152 local currencies. If you want to price at 3.99 Euro in Germany and 2.99 in Italy, you can do that with Global Pricing Control. It’s also a great tool for authors doing BookBub promotions who need to lock down different custom prices in different countries, or for authors who need to deal with Amazon’s unruly price-matching nastygram emails.
New categorization options for erotic works – In September, after many months of close collaboration with our largest retailers, we rolled out a new classification system for erotic works that allows authors and publishers to certify the presence, or lack thereof, of certain taboo themes. The feature allows us to give retailers and library partners greater control over what they receive from our authors and publishers. As I mentioned in the original announcement, the move was designed to enable greater trust and transparency about the themes contained in these books.
New ticketing system to support you better – This month we rolled out a new ticketing system to support your service inquiries. Every time you click the “?” icon at the top of any page at the Smashwords site and fill out that support form, it’ll generate a unique ticket which our team will track until your question is answered to your satisfaction. It’ll also let you provide us instant feedback about each interaction with our service team. Did we do great, or could we have done better? Our goal is service with a smile. We aim to answer your questions quickly, accurately and completely the first time around.
Smart Author podcast – In October I launched the Smart Author podcast. This has been my passion project for the last 18 months so it’s been a lot of fun (and incredible hard work - my hat goes off to my fellow podcasters who’ve been doing this much longer!) to produce and share this with the world. It’s like a free masterclass in ebook publishing best practices. Apple Podcasts placed it in to their coveted New & Noteable home page feature for a few weeks which gave it a big boost (thank you Apple Podcasts!), and the launch was also assisted by an amazing volunteer launch team of Smashwords authors. If you haven’t listened to it yet, you can check out the trailer right below or visit https://smashwords.com/podcast for links to the various podcast directories that carry it.
Smashwords Plans for 2018We’ve got some exciting plans for 2018. In broad strokes, here’s what you can expect:
Home page redesign – The home page you see now at Smashwords will get a refresh as we work to make more books more accessible and discoverable to the readers who want to discover them!
New line of business - Smashwords will expand our footprint by entering a new adjacent market that I think will please our authors and retailers alike (how’s that for opaque and obfuscated?)
More book marketing tools - We're working on a number of initiatives here that fall under the theme of helping you sell more books. Some of this will be high profile and visible, and some of it will be behind the scenes. I'll keep this item broad and vague for now so we don't tip our hand too much.
More continuous improvement - Every week at Smashwords our engineering team is launching new updates to the Smashwords platform. In addition to the high-profile new features we announce here at the blog or at Site Updates, there are many more smaller but equally important incremental enhancements. We're never standing still.
New 2018 edition of the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide - I first published this back in 2008, and updated it several times over the years. The last major update was almost five years ago. I think its continuing popularity speaks to the fact that I focused on evergreen book marketing ideas. These aren't flash-in-pan marketing tips that work today but won't work tomorrow. The new edition is completely revised and restructured. The organization is more logical, making it easier for authors and publishers to leverage these ideas at every stage of their publishing journey. The new edition is scheduled for full release at the end of January. If you can't wait another month, you can get it early via my exclusive advance audio serialization of the new edition on the Smart Author podcast (next item).
More from Smart Author – Unlike podcasts that go on for hundreds of episodes (and kudos to them for their achievement), I always intended Smart Author to have a finite number of core episodes focused on evergreen best practices. Right now I’m in the middle of doing an exclusive advance audio serialization of the new 2018 edition of the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, and then after that I’ve got a few more episodes planned that should keep me busy through the end of February or March. After that, we’ll see. Tell me what you want next, because this podcast is for you.
Thank you again for your trust, partnership and support. Thanks also for distributing with Smashwords. When you distribute with Smashwords to the retailers and library platforms we serve, you're directly supporting our ability to bring you exciting new tools and opportunities.
Welcome to my annual publishing predictions post where I prognosticate about the future and share my views on the state of the indie nation.
Each year around this time I polish off my imaginary crystal ball and ask it what the heck is going to happen next.
My crystal ball was a bit surly this year. The first thing it told me was, "you don't want to know." Less than helpful.
The second thing it told me was, "Re-reread your 2017 predictions. 2018 is going to play out as a continuation of last year."
That's a little more helpful. Most of my predictions for 2017 were pretty close.
When I think about the future, I start by looking at the past and then I look for patterns and trends.
What are the entrenched macro trends and forces that, like gravity, are likely to continue in the same direction for many years to come? And how will these trends impact what they touch, and how will that change the course of the future?
It's a fun exercise, even when what I see doesn't fit within the rim of rose-colored glasses.
By imagining possible outcomes, we can formulate strategies for the future, or we can take steps to prevent that future from happening.
Things are tough out there for most authors.
This is nothing new. Authorship has always been a tough business. Even before the rise of indie authorship, most traditionally published authors still had to maintain day jobs to make ends meet.
Indie Authors Assert Control10 years ago, publishers controlled your fate. They decided which writers became published authors, and they rejected most who came knocking, pleading and begging at their door.
Publishers were the gatekeepers to the printing press, retail distribution and readers.
Now, thanks to the tools of indie authorship, you've wrestled your fate away from publishers. You decide how and when you publish your book. You can reach readers without a publisher.
As I've written here at the blog many times, once indies gained access to the tools of professional publishing, the power center in the industry shifted from publishers to authors. It seemed as if authors would finally control the fate of this industry. Yay!
The Rise of Indie AuthorshipAmazon launched their ebook self-publishing platform in late 2007, a few months before we unveiled Smashwords in early 2008. Our two platforms made it fast, free and easy for writers to self publish and sell ebooks. We were at the right place at the right time.
Between 2008 and 2010, the ebook market grew exponentially as millions of readers transitioned their reading from paper to screens, and as retailers opened their virtual shelves to all indie ebooks.
Apple entered the market with its iBooks store in 2010, and brought with it the agency pricing model which let authors and publishers control their own prices and earn 70% of their list price for each copy sold. This was a radical approach to book pricing that put more power in the hands of authors. Yay!
Prior to agency pricing, authors and publishers would set a recommended list price, and earn 35-50% of that price. Retailers could discount the book however they liked.
With Apple's entry, Amazon was forced to double the previous ebook royalty they paid authors from 35% to 70%. With the advent of agency, Amazon was forced to hand authors and publishers more control over pricing. Later that year, Smashwords was able to get other ebook retailers to give our authors agency terms as well. Yay!
2011 was another phenomenal year of ebook sales growth. Indies started hitting retailer and national bestseller lists with increased frequency, and with every year that passed indies were capturing more and more share of the ebook market. More yay!
Indie authors proved that it was possible to self-publish with pride, professionalism and commercial success.
Indies didn't just imitate the best practices of traditional publishing, they started to innovate and invent the new best practices for ebook publishing. Publishers began looking to indies for inspiration.
The democratization of publishing was here and everyone was happy, right? Wrong.
It now appears that we've traded one gatekeeper for another. Boo.
The Beginning of the End of Indie Authorship?When I look back at my predictions for 2017, most of those predictions came true or are still coming true.
And then I wondered, if we continue in this direction, where does it take the indie author movement?
I think it takes us to the end of the indie authorship as we imagine it.
It's a dark future where writers can still self-publish, but one marketplace holds all the readers captive, and that marketplace's business model is entirely dependent upon commoditizing everything it sells.
In this dystopian future, participants can still pat themselves on their backs and call themselves indie authors if it makes them feel good. After all, they're still choosing to publish where they publish. But the emerging truth of the matter is that these indies have lost their independence because if they jump away from that dominant marketplace, there might be no there there to jump to.
It's a future where the other ebook sellers have been decimated and have either gone out of business or become irrelevant. It's a future where no other ebook retailer can build a profitable business.
Let's Celebrate Dependence Day, December 8, 2011No, that's not a typo. Yes, I'm being a bit sarcastic.
When the history books of the indie author movement are written 20 years from now, historians may point to December 8, 2011 as the day that indie authors lost their independence.
Until that day, every retailer was welcoming self-published ebooks into their stores, gave authors control over their pricing, and paid up to 70% list.
It was also the day that Amazon, the world's largest online bookseller, decided that these indie authors were becoming too powerful and too valuable to roam wild.
December 8, 2011 was the was the day Amazon launched KDP Select and began stripping indies of their independence.
The independence of indie authors wasn't stolen from them. Instead, indies were coaxed, prodded, browbeaten, extorted and tricked to gradually surrender it.
It was a brilliant strategy in retrospect. Convince indie authors to hand over exclusive distribution rights to Amazon for short 3-month (auto-renewing) increments.
As I warned the day Amazon announced KDP Select (read it here), the scheme would slowly starve Amazon's competitors of books and customers, and make authors more dependent upon a single retailer.
Then on July 14, 2014, Amazon introduced Kindle Unlimited which offered customers unlimited book reading from a catalog of titles sourced almost entirely from indie ebooks enrolled in KDP Select. A key feature of KU is that the author's list price is irrelevant. You're compensated less than one half penny per page read.
Today, over one million indie ebooks are exclusive to Amazon via KDP-Select and KU. Those books act like leeches to slowly drain other booksellers of their lifeblood.
Amazon aggressively promotes KU to its customers. It encourages them to read books for free with KU. Readers of indie ebooks now have over one million reasons to never purchase another single-copy ebook again. The day KU launched, I warned authors of the potential implications (read it here).
Authors who now derive 100% of their sales from Amazon are no longer indie authors. They're dependent authors. I suppose we have indie authors and de-authors now.
Where to from Here?You may feel at times like like you're just one vote, or that you're a victim of forces more powerful than you.
But your vote matters because just like in politics, the election for your future will be greatly contested by those who want to exert power over you.
The challenge here is that although you're an integral participant within this grand indie author movement, there's no collective organization. No representative body looks out for our interests. We're all free agents. We're divided and conquered.
There are great organizations, companies and writers organizations out there that advocate for authors, but none have the reach or power to harness collective action.
Every indie author is out there trying to make their way as they search for readers. From 50,000 feet, it looks like hundreds of thousands of cats moving in random directions searching for mice.
Someone figured out how to herd the cats.
A single mousetailer has corned the market for mice. All the cats run there.
But there aren't enough mice for all the cats, so the mousetailer proclaims that only a select few can now have preferential hunting privileges. All you have to do is surrender your independence.
Can't Indies say No to Dependence?It's not too late for self-published authors to reclaim their independence.
Authors could kill KDP Select tomorrow, along with its KU spawn, by simply refusing to participate. KU would collapse overnight (or within three months) if all the books disappeared.
The problem is that there's always another author or publisher standing in line to replace the author who refuses to participate. Another author who's willing to drop their pants lower for the chance to reach those captive readers. This plays into Amazon's business model of forcing producers to offer ever-lower prices, and to earn an ever-lower percentage of those prices.
At this point, it's clear that the publishing industry (I'm including everyone here - publishers, retailers, indies, myself and everyone else in the industry) has shown itself inept and incapable at organizing a cohesive, effective response to Amazon. Instead, the industry complains about Amazon's dominance while continuing to surrender more independence to Amazon every day.
The industry in its desperation to reach readers has become its own worst enemy.
Now large publishers - the only ones who hold collective bargaining power on behalf of the world's bestselling authors - tip toe around Amazon, fearful that if they look at Amazon cross-eyed their preorder buttons will disappear and their authors will blame the publisher for not keeping their books on Amazon's virtual shelves.
Indies fear that if they don't succumb to KDP Select exclusivity, they'll reach fewer readers.
Odd how indies are repeating the same mistakes of publishers.
I don't blame authors who participate in KDP-Select. I blame Amazon for putting authors in this position.
Although many indies are bravely staying wide on principle (hello Smashwords authors!), many more have thrown principle to the wind and stand ready to surrender more flesh and dignity if it allows them to step higher in visibility so they can continue to put food on their family's table.
It's a sad state of affairs when indies are forced to devote more creative energy toward pleasing Amazon's corrupt algorithms than to pleasing readers.
Fair competition at Amazon does not exist.
The KU ScamIn 2017 there was an uproar in the indie community decrying all the scammers that were stealing money out of the KU pot. Lets be clear - the problem is real.
Scammers were manipulating Amazon's algorithms and page-counting methods to artificially inflate the page reads, earnings and sales rank of certain books. That meant less money and less visibility for other KU participants.
What most of these indies failed to realize, however, was that KU itself is a scam. KU is an artificial construct designed to strip pricing power away from authors so Amazon can offer ever-lower prices to its customers. In the long run, it's great for Amazon but not so great for authors.
KU steals visibility and sales opportunity from non-participating authors and hands it to participating authors. KU participants are trampling their fellow indies.
Imagine a giant's thumb pressing down on a perfectly buoyant boat and slowly sinking it, as the passengers frantically step over one another to reach the last gasps of oxygen. Guess who plays the roles of giant and passenger?
It doesn't have to be this way.
Time to Break Things Up? Stepping back, this isn't just an Amazon phenomena. It's part of a larger problem and a larger trend where a few large tech company platforms (Google with search, Facebook with social media, Amazon with ecommerce) have amassed so much power that it's become a matter of self-preservation for them to continue doing what they're doing. In the process, they're stifling innovation and preventing fair competition.
Prof. Scott Galloway of NYU has had some great insights into this problem of these too-powerful platforms. He's been waging a lonely campaign in recent months calling for government intervention to break up these companies and restore fair competition.
He argues that government regulation is not the socialist thing to do - it's the pro-competitive thing to do. By breaking these companies up and restoring fair competition, it would unleash a new wave of of innovation. See also his Ted talk.
Save us Margrethe VestagerIt's time for government regulators to step in and restore fair competition. It's time to break up Amazon.
Monopolies and monopsonies (of which Amazon arguably wears shades of both) are not illegal. What's illegal is when a company wields its dominance to stifle fair competition.
Amazon as an ecommerce juggernaut has become so powerful that other companies can lose billions of dollars in market cap in a matter of minutes at the mere rumor Amazon might enter their business. Amazon has become so dominant across so many areas of commerce that investors are reluctant to invest in companies that may one day have to compete against Amazon.
Fair competition is broken.
Amazon practices predatory pricing by operating its business at break even. Amazon doesn't need to make money in books, whereas your local bookstore or favorite non-Amazon ebook retailer can't stay in business if all the profit in bookselling is flushed down Amazon's toilet.
Bookstores can't survive when Amazon can coerce its author and publisher suppliers to offer Amazon better prices, or worse, as we see in the indie ebook space with KDP Select, put a gun to the head of authors and force them to deny other retailers the ability to sell their books.
It's unlikely regulatory action will come any time soon from the United States. The US government is horribly broken at the moment. Even though Donald Trump is no fan of Jeff Bezos, regulation appears anathema to him and his base at the moment.
Regulatory action is more likely to come out of Europe, and specifically from this brave woman, Margrethe Vestager, the European Union's competition commissioner.
I'm imagining Margrethe Vestager's face pasted on the head of Obi-wan Kenobi. Princess Leia is pleading, "Save us Margrethe Vestager, you're our only hope."
But the big question, especially for indie authors who depend on their book income to make ends meet, is whether reform will come in time before everyone is drowned in the boat Amazon is deliberately foundering.
It doesn't need to be this way. No other retailer forces exclusivity. No other retailer punishes the author for refusing to go exclusive. No other retailer strips pricing control away from authors, or takes their rights for 3-month auto-renewing increments of time.
It's unclear how pure-play bookstores can remain in business in an environment where the same consumers who scream bloody murder about bookstore closures forget their own complicity by browsing at their local bookstore before buying at Amazon.
Amazon's not evil. They merely feed our insatiable gluttonous appetites for lower costs and greater consumption.
I could even argue that Amazon is the victim of its own success. Amazon's business model got it here, and now they can't turn back. The moment they start raising prices to earn a fair profit is the moment they lose their competitive edge. Or it's the moment they invite anti-trust action.
In the meantime, these low prices come on the backs of Amazon's suppliers.
Authors can't outsource their writing to China or Mexico. The satirical April Fool's dystopia I painted a couple years ago (see "Kindle Power Bucks") about authors paying to be read at Amazon is becoming reality.
Will Authors to Take Back their Independence?It's not too late for authors to take back their independence, but time is running out.
Like I said above, indie authors have the power to kill KDP Select tomorrow simply by opting out.
But will they? Many of us in the indie movement have been warning about the long term implications of KDP Select since it first came out. Yet these warnings have fallen on deaf ears because readers are the oxygen of writers.
So while it's possible for authors to reclaim their independence, it's looking unlikely the community is willing to endure the pain necessary to extricate themselves from this situation. The retailer ecosystem that once worked so hard to support them is fading, dying a death of a thousand cuts.
This is why authors can't have nice things.
The Silver Lining in this Dystopian PictureDespite the dark picture I painted above, I remain optimistic about he future of indie publishing. I remain confident that one way or another, the stars will align for authors to rise up and take back their futures. It's unlikely to be next year or the year after, but eventually the pain of this dependency will cause a backlash.
In the meantime, if my words above depress you, I want to leave you with this one other bit of optimism before we move on to the predictions.
Book publishing is a multi-billion dollar global business. The size of the market could drop 50% tomorrow and you'll still have amazing opportunities to achieve all of your writerly dreams. These opportunities will still be 1,000 times greater than the opportunities you had prior to the rise of the indie author movement that took root in 2007 and 2008.
Every retailer except Amazon could abandon the ebook market and you'll still have the opportunity to reach readers.
Readers aren't going to stop reading books. Your book is unique. Although it's possible to commoditize reading pleasure with KU, your book will always offer something compelling that readers will pay for, IF you demand to be paid for it.
If you value your publishing independence, fight for it.
2018 Publishing PredictionsI see sunshine and clouds for 2018. Let's do the bad news first and then we'll wrap with the good news.
Clouds1. 2017 will be another challenging year for the book industry - There's no way to sugar coat it so I won't. Book publishing is in a slow structural decline. Books are media. They're a bundle of paper or a bundle a digital bits and bytes that carry stories and knowledge. They entertain, inform and inspire. Now think about the competition for books. The answer to that is basically, "all media." Books are competing for consumers' ever-fragmented attention against other media forms for entertainment, escapism and knowledge-building. These media forms include social media, cable television, streaming media services like Netflix or Spotify, video games, YouTube, podcasts, print magazines, and anything else that occupies our attention.
2. The glut of high-quality low-cost ebooks will get worse - In the old days of print publishing, the number of books in circulation was artificially constrained by the production output of traditional publishers, and by the shelf space available at brick and mortar retailers. Since ebook retailer shelf space is virtually unlimited, ebooks need never go out of print. This means that every day from this day forward, there will be more books occupying virtual shelves and competing for a readership whose attention is increasingly fragmented across multiple media forms.
3. Barnes & Noble is sick and will get sicker - I love Barnes & Noble. They're our second-largest sales channel after Apple iBooks. The ebook team at B&N is excellent. But their ebook business is in trouble. It's shrinking every year, and that shrinkage makes it difficult for them to give the business the investment it requires. The company is further distracted by activist shareholders that are agitating for the company's sale. This will distract B&N from its main priority - it needs to refocus on becoming the best bookseller it can be.
4. Kobo's sales will falter - Kobo, an internationally-focused mid-sized ebook retailer, has been one of the strongest performers in the ebook space over the last four years. While other retailers slipped and lost market share, Kobo was the little engine that could. They were smart to get into the business of powering other retailer's ebook stores, and partnering up with indie brick and mortar stores. Kobo has also had great success supporting indie authors, whose books now account for a sizable percentage of their store's sales. Yet I don't see how they'll be able to keep their customers long term when they're competing against a retailer that has over 1 million indie ebooks locked up and inaccessible to Kobo's customers.
5. Devaluation pressures will persist - Publishing is on figurative fire but the industry doesn't see the smoke yet. Large publishers look at Kindle Unlimited and think, "not a threat to me, those books are all dreck." Yet Amazon's success with KU is placing considerable devaluation pressure on ebooks. Publishers should read Clayton Christiansen's Innovators Dilemma. A lot of those KU books are dreck, but KU has such a large critical mass of titles it offers an incredible value for consumers. There will always be a truly unlimited collection of 5-star books for readers to choose from. You can bet KU subscribers are purchasing fewer traditionally published books as a..
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