image The Smashwords service surfaced earlier this year and I first mentioned it in this post.  Now that I’ve spent more time investigating it further, uploading some files and examining the results I find it even more attractive.

Mark Coker is Smashwords’ founder, CEO and author advocate.  He was kind enough to answer all my questions about this exciting new publishing platform.  Here’s what he had to say:

JW: Tell us about Smashwords.

MC: Smashwords is a digital self-publishing site, kind of a hybrid publisher/online bookstore.  We allow anyone anywhere to become a published e-book author simply by uploading their finished manuscript in Microsoft Word format, and then we automatically convert it into multiple DRM-free e-book formats.

Boob Tube JW: What was the impetus behind you founding the site?

MC: The idea grew out my own experience as an author.  My wife and I co-wrote a novel a few years back, and despite being repped by one of the most respected literary agencies in Manhattan, no publisher would take the book [Boob Tube—about the TV soap opera industry].  I found it frustrating that a publisher could stand between an author and their potential audience, especially in today’s age where print on demand and the Internet are such forces for disintermediation.

JW: There are quite a few self-publishing outfits that handle the print side.  Smashwords looks like a great approach for self-publishing in the e-book world. Is that how you’ve positioned the service?

MC: Yes, digital self publishing is our focus.  We provide a platform for authors and even traditional publishers to publish and promote their books in digital form.

JW: What if someone wants to do both types of self-publishing, print and e-book?  Are the rights set up so that authors can easily do both?

MC: Our publishing contract is non-exclusive, so we leave it to the author or the rights-holder to determine how and where they publish their book.  I think in the future, most authors will become more independent-minded, and will begin to insist on controlling more and more of the rights for their works.  This trend presents both a threat and an opportunity to publishers.  Publishers who serve their authors the best will flourish.

JW: What’s the financial model for an author considering Smashwords?

MC: I think most people agree that the traditional print publishing model fails to adequately compensate many authors.  I blogged about this the other day. With Smashwords, we re trying to take a more author-centric approach. We give authors or publishers 85% of the net proceeds from each sale.

So the formula for the author’s share = (sales price – transaction fee) * .85.  By offering authors and content owners a bigger slice of the pie, we allow them to price their product lower yet still make higher per-unit margins than through print publishing.  Lower prices increase consumer demand, and higher demand plus higher per-unit profits create a wonderfully disruptive win-win situation for consumers and content owners alike.  The biggest challenge facing digital publishers is how to increase adoption rates for digital books.  I’m confident digital books are destined to go mainstream with multi-billion dollar sales levels, yet clearly this is several years off.

JW: When an author publishes with Smashwords their content will be available in a variety of formats, including Amazon’s Kindle.  What are all the formats you offer and are authors able to pick and choose from this list, limiting their content to certain formats?

MC: Currently we offer Mobipocket, Palm PDB, .rtf, .txt, PDF, and two different online readers (HTML and Javascript).  Authors decide which formats they want.  PDF and .rtf are good if enjoyment of the book requires rigid adherence to a strict page layout.  The other formats are best for straight form narrative.  Our Smashwords Style Guide helps authors prep their work for optimal conversion.

JW: Authors can set their own pricing as well as determine how much of the content is freely readable before a customer has to pay.  What’s the upper limit on that free access feature?

MC: The upper limit for free access is 100% free, which we support.  From a sampling perspective, the author or rights holder can set their sampling rate from 0% to 99%.  If they set it at 60%, for example, as I did with my own book, the first 60% of the book’s content is available for free online viewing through our online readers.  Sampling is a critically important marketing technique, yet few authors or publishers take proper advantage of it in the digital realm.  The thought process here is that we as authors or publishers are competing for the time and attention of our readers.  If we earn their time and attention, the revenue will come.  If a reader invests several hours to read the first 60% of your 300 page novel, odds are they’ll want to buy the book to finish it.

JW: E-book pricing has become a pretty popular topic, particularly on the Kindle forums.  Since you support both short- and long-form content I’m wondering if authors will want to test different pricing levels at first to see where the sweet spots are.  They also might want to offer a discount from time to time.  How frequently can authors change the prices of their books on your service?

MC: Authors can change the pricing or the sampling rights as often as they like.

Moderator’s note: I added the Boob Tube-related video and art. It will be interesting to see if the Cokers’ self-publishing can land them the contract they couldn’t get through the agent route, if that’s what they want. Same for other Smashwords authors. Good luck, Mark and Lesleyann! – D.R.

Related: Joe’s interview with WEbook founder Sue Heilbronner, as well as past TeleBlog items on WEbook (Group-written books and others from WEbooks: P-editions of highest-rated titles and WEbooks ‘makes writing a little less lonely,’ says upbeat Washington Post article). Also see other press coverage of Smashwords.


  1. @ Joe: Thanks Joe!

    @ David: Hi David! Re: Boob Tube, at this point I’m not interested to sign with a traditional p-publisher. The advance and commitment to print run and marketing would need to be pretty high to compensate for the downsides:

    1. I’d need to wait another 12 months for publishing
    2. The book, like nearly all p-books, would be given only a few weeks to sell through before book stores returned it to the publisher for full refund. Do I want the success or failure of 5 years of work to come down to two weeks of judgment? No! Like many authors, when we first set out to write Boob Tube we dreamed of landing on the front table at Barnes & Noble. But even if we did, at what price would come that fleeting celebration? I want the book “in print” forever.
    3. Most first time authors receive dinky print runs and no promotional support.
    4. It pains me to think the digital version of Boob Tube might be DRMed, or not available everywhere in the world.
    5. I don’t like the thought of losing control over how my book is marketed, sampled, priced and sold.
    6. Most authors never earn more than their advance.

    I think in the not-to-distant future, authors will re-evaluate their ambitions for their written works. A new indie spirit will arise where many authors, even those previously successful in the p-world, will start to take back more and more control over their books, and I think this inevitability will be driven by the favorable economics of e-publshing, increased consumer demand for digital books, advances in POD, and the maturation of solid digital self-publishing platforms that help indie authors become more successful than they could have otherwise become in the conventional print world.

    We’re seeing signs of the same already in the music industry. Books are just a few years behind. Unlike the music biz where physical CDs are going the way of the dinosaur, however, I don’t think p-books will ever go away completely because the p-format offers such a great reading experience. The future ideal is where a customer can purchase and consume their book in whatever form suits their fancy. If they want a p-book or e-book in 20 pt. purple Palatino, they should be able to buy it that way. I’m sure such a book would offend the senses of all good book designers and typographers everywhere. In this business, the customer should get their book their way, otherwise they’ve got one billion + other alternative options for their entertainment and information consumption needs.

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