Monday, March 22, 2010

A "Smash"-Course on Ebooks: Interview With Mark Coker

When I began my publishing experiment, I assumed that books and ebooks were an either/or matter – you did one or the other. Upon choosing the Espresso Book Machine route I thought: phew, thank goodness I don’t have to deal with ebooks, which seemed so futuristic and cold compared to a volume you can hold in your hand.

How things change in a year! At the Tools of Change Conference it hit me: an e-version of my book is a no-brainer. My biggest challenge is limited distribution, and an ebook is instantly available to readers worldwide. People are increasingly receptive to reading on screens, and new devices are making the experience more satisfying and aesthetically pleasing. Of course I still have questions, so I reached out to ebook maven Mark Coker, whose company, Smashwords, has been a pioneer in making ebooks available to authors, publishers, and readers.JDS: One thing that gives me pause about doing an ebook is the notion of bypassing the bookstore, in part because I feel I owe so much to the Northshire. What does the future hold for bookstores in the context of an expanding, if not exploding, ebook market?

MC: This is really tough, painful question, and I'm afraid the answer will not cheer those of us who love browsing books at our local bookstore. Amazon is doing to large chain stores what large chain stores did to indie bookstores and what Walmart has done to indie stores all around the globe, or what NetFlix has done to video rental stores. Consumers have clearly shown a preference for broad selection, convenient ordering and low prices. I don't know how indie stores can compete in this environment. Yes, they're local, they employ our neighbors, they help your dollars circulate in the local economy, and they contribute valuable personal recommendations and curated selection, yet they're targeting an ever-shrinking pie of what consumers really want.

JDS: Ooh, you’re making me sad. I was hoping for a win-win for authors and bookstores.

MC: There is one trend in ebooks that bears close watching because it may present an opportunity for some brick-and-mortar bookstores to offer unlimited selection, a competitive price, and still earn a fair profit. It's this so-called "agency pricing model”, promoted by Apple. It's a model we've been using at Smashwords for two years. Essentially, we allow the author or publisher to set the price, and we don't discount.

If this pricing model catches on with publishers, and especially if it's adopted by Amazon, then I do see the day where bookstores could act as reading device fueling stations: you take your ebook reader to a bookstore, enjoy the ambiance of face to face community with bookstore employees and fellow readers, enjoy bookstore events, hang out with friends in the bookstore cafe, and, of course, purchase any ebook at the same price as anywhere else. Is this the future of bookstores? I doubt it. The challenge here is that so much of what creates book community translates so well to online communities. I think ebook sales will take place in brick-and-mortar retail locations, though I don't think such sales will sustain the bookstores of today.

JDS: I thought it interesting that at TOC the question was raised "Do authors still need publishers?" but not "Do authors still need agents?" Do ebooks change the role of literary agents? How should authors make sure their agents are up to speed on this?

MC: An agent is the author's advocate, so you should expect your agent to keep on top of the latest publishing trends and tools available to you. One challenge professional authors and their agents face is that we can expect serious downward pressure on book advances in the years ahead, especially for midlist authors. Such pressure may cause surviving agents to refocus their client lists only on larger authors with established platforms, large fan bases and proven commercial potential. I think the rise of ebook self-publishing tools such as Smashwords and Amazon's Digital Text Platform present exciting new options for agents and their authors. We might see some agents changing their business model to look more like digital publishers. All I can say for sure is that 12 to 24 months from now, the e-publishing landscape will look dramatically different. The stigma of self-publishing is disappearing as more and more professional authors take advantage of it for smart economic reasons.

JDS: What is the smart economic way to do an ebook? I’ve heard of authors setting them up themselves and selling them via their own websites. Why, then, should an author consider a program like Smashwords?

MC: Ebooks do make it easier for authors to sell direct to customers, and direct selling is worth considering since most authors are managing their book marketing efforts anyway. However, an author's own website is only an island, and most book buyers go to bookstores and book communities, not islands, when looking for their next read. Authors should also consider the time and expense involved in selling on their own web site. There's the monthly PayPal fee of about $30, plus transaction fees, plus the time and hassle of conducting customer support when readers invariably ask how to load a file to their Kindle, or ask for a replacement copy because they lost the first copy. I think many authors who initially try setting up their own island retail operation quickly determine it's not worth the hassle.

Regardless of whether or not authors sell on their own websites, they should still work to gain distribution at major ebook retail outlets. This is where we think Smashwords can help. Once a book is published at Smashwords, it's available for immediate sale at and the author earns 85% of the net proceeds. Most Smashwords authors actually use Smashwords as their primary transaction processing platform for book sales because it provides the customer a much better experience than can be offered simply by emailing a PDF file.

At Smashwords, the customer pays one price and can then access the book in multiple formats for reading on any e-reading device. Since we maintain the book in the cloud, they never have to worry about losing access to it. We also offer various social media-enabled tools that make it easier for your readers to do your book promotion for you. And once a book is listed at Smashwords, we also distribute it to major online retailers such as B&N, Sony and Kobo.

JDS: Great! So once I’m set up, I can expect zillions of sales….right?

MC: Well, although we make it easy to publish and distribute, we don't make it easy to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. For that you still need good old-fashioned marketing, and of course, a great book that resonates with readers. The advantage of author-driven online marketing, however, is that you can reach a lot of readers at no expense beyond the cost of your time. There are many online forums, such as Kindleboards or Mobileread, where authors can reach dozens or hundreds of readers instantaneously. You can upload your book to Smashwords today and start selling it around the globe in minutes; Ebook publishing puts anyone with a computer one click away from discovering your book.

Here's how to find Mark Coker:

Smashwords -
Twitter -
Blog -
Huffington Post -

Friday, March 12, 2010

Huff Post and Random Posts

My book and I got some airtime on Huffington Post this week. The story behind the piece is that during the TOC conference (see above post), I had wandered off to a quiet spot to retrieve a phone message. Then Arianna Huffington, who had just delivered her keynote, tapped me on the shoulder and asked how to use the elevator. (The elevator system at the Marriott-Marquis Times Square is a bit odd and futuristic.) Taken aback, I thanked her for her talk, handed her a copy of my book, and told her that I was giving a presentation on my Espresso Book Machine experiment. She then asked me to do a blogpost on it. My pals at Freelance Success (FLX) call this a prime example of a successful “elevator pitch”.

This late-winter season (aka mud season or sugaring time) has been exquisite here. With our long winters it’s easy to get impatient as we hit February and March, but two friends of mine, the incredible Southern Vermont-based artists Tom and Elizabeth Torak (do check out their work!), once told me that they regard this as the best time for painting because of the quality of the light. Since then I’ve focused more on the light and notice that February/March light does have a broad, clean, almost new aspect to it that yields a special kind of beauty.

While my son was at his guitar lesson, I wandered over to Battenkill Books, which has just moved to a larger spot on Main Street in Cambridge, NY--a town I recommend visiting if you like art, antiques, theater, and Victorian architecture (and, of course, books). One more store that will carry the book. I then sold a copy to the guitar teacher, the extraordinary Barry Hyman, who in addition to being a pedal steel maestro, has a literary pedigree himself (have to visit his site to learn why.)That’s Brendan bounding around the stage as his band performs Phish’s “Chalkdust Torture” at the high school Pops Concert. If this were audio you’d be hearing teenage girls screaming in the background. It's getting more interesting all the time...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Age of Re-Tooling

As a writer, I found the Tools of Change Conference fascinating, if a bit disorienting. With all the talk of e-book formats, digital rights, and enhanced content, I had this heady feeling of getting a glimpse of what’s behind the curtain—and not being quite sure if I really wanted to see. I was struck by the contrast between the amiable chatter typical of conference crowds and what seemed to me muted responses to the speakers (particularly unnerving as I was one of them!) with few questions for the presenters. I felt a bit like a student who had walked into a class where everyone else was already confused.

With such volatility in the industry, confusion makes total sense. Question marks hover over the way books will be produced, sold, read, and even written. That’s big stuff. But behind the confusion I felt something else, the kind of ambient fear that accompanies the push-and-pull of change. A friend said the mood reminded her of the CD Rom era, when it became increasingly clear that this seemingly game-changing new medium wasn’t the future but no one knew what would replace it.

What will these changes mean for writers? I don’t know – but I do believe it’s better to engage in conversations about the future of the book than to wish change away. In her keynote speech Arianna Huffington said this was not the end of publishing, but rather the beginning of an age of engagement—and noted the folly of wishing ourselves back to a “golden time” for publishing because such a time didn’t exist; rather, reading habits and literature have always been evolving. So with open eyes and an open spirit I’ll continue to write, knowing that my words may be read in transit on a small screen rather than in a comfortable chair beneath the warm glow of a reading lamp.

Regarding the nuts and bolts (indulge me the cliché; we are talking “tools” here) I will defer to what participants are saying about the conference. There’s a wealth of information, so I encourage anyone interested in how publishing is changing to dive in. I particularly liked this piece by Kassia Krozser of the industry blog Booksquare and this quick-fire response from Mark Coker of the ebook publisher Smashwords.The brief presentation I gave was in a strict format: 20 slides, 15 seconds a slide. Here is one image that didn’t make the cut. Tony and I had stopped by Vermont Confectionery when we were out looking for cows to photograph. Pictures of cows? Don’t ask…