Smashwords CEO Talks Online Book Publishing, Present and Future


Back in 2008, when Mark Coker launched Smashwords as a self-publishing platform for independent authors of ebooks, he knew that self-publishing  “was widely seen as the option as last resort for failed authors.”

That was then.

When I caught up with him by phone yesterday, Coker stated, “I think that self-publishing is actually becoming the option of first resort for authors now.”

Ebooks of all types are shaking up the traditional-bound world of book publishing. From roughly one percent of all book sale revenues three years ago, ebook sales rose to two percent two years ago, to eight percent last year, and are variously estimated to account for between 16-20 percent this year.

That is not an arithmetic, but a geometric growth curve, the kind of thing entrepreneurs like to refer to as the “hockey stick” when they are pitching their companies to venture capitalists and angels.

At Smashwords, which not only publishes ebooks but has become probably the largest distribution platform for indie authors outside of Amazon, the growth rate has been even more impressive.

During its first partial year of operation, its authors published 140 titles. In 2009 they published 6,000. By the end of last year, the total was 28,800.  And, as of yesterday, at about 11 am local time, when he checked the figures, Coker told me “At this second we have 84,030 books, 105 of which have come in today.”

Wait a minute. Over 100 new self-published ebooks at this one platform before noon on a Monday? Think about that.  Over the past 30 days, the company has issued some 7300 new titles from writers all over the world, including first-timers and professional authors.

By any measure, that is a tsunami of new content, so what exactly is going on here?

“The floodgates are open,” explains Coker. “We’ve eliminated the publisher as the gatekeeper. In the old publishing world the publisher decided which books to publish. In the new world the authors decide.

“The revolution in publishing has finally hit book industry. Ten years ago, for instance, they ridiculed bloggers. But the world has changed. Now readers will judge whether something is good. And, as an author, if you can attract readers, you’re every bit as legit as anyone else.

“Now, a massive worldwide audience of people are carrying a bookstore in their pocket. It’s very exciting for anyone who loves books and thinks they are important to the future of humanity.

“What’s really happened is the book industry has met technology and whenever technology touches anything, it changes the DNA of what it touches. Consumers will reward technologies that satisfy their desires.”

The turning point for Smashwords was when Coker and his team realized that partnering up with large ebook distributors, like Barnes & Noble and Sony, would be the key to growing his business. Coker says the idea initially came from one of his authors.

“I’ve found that retailers, unlike traditional publishers, are very progressive in that they don’t have same prejudice against self-published authors as the publishers do. They know their customers want diversity of content and choice.

“Plus, while they can’t shelve millions of books in brick and mortar stores, there is unlimited shelf space for ebooks -- and that has changed everything.”

As I listened to Coker describe the remarkable success story of his still-young but profitable company, I was reminded of a phrase from Clay Shirky’s book, Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators:

"(T)he only group that can try everything is everybody.”

Maybe that best describes the new world of ebooks.

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