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 Smashwords.com 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 - http://smashwords.com
Twitter - http://twitter.com/markcoker
Blog - http://blog.smashwords.com
Huffington Post - http://huffingtonpost.com/mark-coker

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for doing the interview and this post, Judith. In the short time I've had my books available on Smashwords, I've started to realize that there is a big change coming in the way we buy books. I think Mark Coker has placed himself in a good place to take advantage of this coming wave, and his comments are interesting and useful. As authors, we need to follow all of this carefully and learn as much as we can.

    Wil

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  2. How fascinating. i have the US rights to my book which was published in the UK. I think I have kept some other foreign rights too. How does smashwords work on that front? I will look into it but just sayin'. xx

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  3. Do you happen to know any figures about how many ebooks are bought and how many e-readers exist out there? I have two out-of-print books that have to be scanned because I don't have electronic files of the edited versions. I was very excited about the prospect of putting them on Kindle & Smashwords, then realized one book will cost me close to $100 for the scan and formatted files. I thought: will I ever even make this back?

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  4. Mark deserves all the accolades he is currently getting for a magnificent project that is going from strength to strength. The one link in the chain to ultimate success that indie authors must find is a may of getting the ebook to the reader.
    There seems to be no easy answer but perhaps the greater proliferation of reader devices will make the task easier. This is the holy grail of self-publishing.

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