From Gutenberg’s moveable type, to the printing press, to computer screens, to the Cloud, writers have seen the slow democratization of authorship. The evolution of the printed word for consumption has taken hundreds of years. However, there’s been more progress in the last five years from one company that’s grown to become the world’s largest distributor of self-published Indie books. On September 4, 2013, Smashwords reached the milestone of 250,000 books from over 65,000 authors around the world.
“The previous stigma of self-publishing has largely disappeared, while at the same time the stigma of traditional publishing has increased,” asserts Smashwords’ founder Mark Coker.
Not too long ago, authors attempting to secure a book deal with traditional publishers had to compose a pitch letter, find a literary agent who would submit a paper manuscript, only to endure the endless time lags associated with a lengthy review process. At the end of that tedious cycle, the common denominator for most would-be writers came in the form of a rejection notice, not a contract.
At the dawn of the new digital era came the introduction of the self-publishing option, but as this door of opportunity creaked opened, new challenges presented themselves. Authors had to incur significant up-front investment to pay publishing services to format, distribute and sell their work. The royalties were more than they had been in the traditional business model, but in most instances still amounted to more than half of an author’s earnings.
Today, just as ‘old school’ publishing is now being displaced by the popularity of ebooks, the self-publishing world is evolving yet still. Due greatly to the new free distribution tools available, service companies like Smashwords built a monetization model that took a smaller percentage of an author’s sales and allowed them to keep the exclusive rights to their work. Over the last five years, they maintained the same business model where 85 percent of the net proceeds go to the writer, and there are no upfront fees.
“Authors have come to realize that as self-publishing ebook author, they can enjoy faster time to market, four to five times greater per-unit royalties, greater creative control, and greater price competitiveness than traditionally published authors,” asserts Coker.
The dark shadow of self-publishing has lifted as writers now ironically view the publishing model of the past as a hindrance. “In other words,” says Coker, “there’s a growing recognition in the author community that a (traditional) publishing deal might actually harm an author’s ability to reach readers, grow their fan base and make money. It’s getting tougher for publishers to recruit the best authors. Many authors want to stay Indie and not sell out.”
Coker sees the growth of ebooks accounting for close to 30% of the overall trade market in the U.S. In some genres, such as romance, that percentage is significantly higher. In the very near future, Coker believes “we’ll see over 50% of authors’ words consumed on e-reading screens as opposed to paper.”
“If you look at the bestseller lists at any major retailer on any given day, you’ll see how Indies are hitting more and more of the top 20 bestseller slots,” says Coker. In September alone, a pair of Smashwords’ authors ranked the highest among paid books on Apple’s iBookstore. Justine Elvira took the “number one” spot with The Road to Forgiveness, and Melody Grace came in second place with Unbroken.
JD Nixon who writes in the crime/mystery genre is one of Smashwords most prolific writers. Hailing from Queensland, Australia, her successful Heller series has allowed her to leave her 9-to-5 job for a full-time career in writing. “Smashwords is a convenient distributor to all the ebook markets, some of which are not directly available to me as a non-U.S. author,” notes Nixon.
Author Kirsty Moseley is also a Smashwords advocate. “Mark and his team are always striving to find new ways to bring independent authors more opportunities, and their relationship with Apple and others is a tremendous advantage to us ‘little guys,’” says Moseley. As testimony to working with the best, Moseley to date, across her three books has sold over 252 thousand ebooks via Smashwords.
“They continue to add new ways of getting your book out there and noticed by the public – one of their newest features, ‘the pre-order’ actually helped propel me into the number one spot in the iBookstore across several countries,” adds Moseley.
Differing from the single-channel retail distribution of Apple iBooks, Kindle Direct Publishing and Pubit! By Barnes and Noble, multi-channel distributors like Smashwords act as middlemen that push an author’s work out to the single channel. Today, Coker’s company has been successful in working with all the major players (save Amazon) in addition to public libraries. The advantage to writers working with a company like Smashwords is that it reduces a lot of the heavy lifting. Instead of writers working with each retailer separately, they need only sign up for one service.
Kindle Direct Stands Alone
Amazon still dominates the self-publishing and ebook market space. With stats that earmark Kindle Direct garnering at minimum 50 percent of the ebook sales in the U.S. and sometimes as high as 70 percent, depending on the category, “Amazon currently doesn’t see the need to work with multi-channel distributors. “We want to work with Amazon, but to date, they’ve made it difficult . . .and have yet to provide us their automated distribution capability,” says Coker.
“Many of our authors would prefer to consolidate all their retail distribution through Smashwords as opposed to being forced to upload directly to Amazon,” says Coker.
Smashwords, Still Evolving
Coker still views his company as a “start-up,” and as such will continue to make changes and add new features. This past week around the time they reached their 250,000-book milestone, they also announced new distribution to Flipkart (India’s #1 online bookseller) and Oyster (a new ebook subscription service). “In the months and years ahead, you’ll see us continuing to search out new methods of connecting our authors’ words with reader eyeballs, “ adds Coker.
Now that’s he’s a proven force to be reckoned with and has eliminated a major stigma in the literary world, it’s certainly less of an uphill battle in reaching his ultimate challenge – simply put – “ My goal is to make authors and publishers who work with Smashwords more successful than those that don’t.”