Smashwords’ Big Year (and what it means for authors)

If you haven't checked in on eBook publisher Smashwords (SW) lately, you're in for a surprise. The little business that Mark Coker started five years ago is now the biggest publisher of eBooks around. And you don't have to take his word for it - a Bowker press release in October reached the same conclusion.

So how big is big? According to a year-end blog entry by Coker, big is big, not just in numbers of titles, but in year over year growth. This year, the Smashwords author count jumped from 34,000 to 58,600, and the titles in the SW catalog leaped from 92,000 to 190,600. Eye-popping numbers like that would be the envy of any venture capitalist, but Coker has pulled this off without dipping into that well at all. Amazingly enough, he's also done it with only 19 employees (up from 13 at the end of last year, and only 3 in 2010).

True, SW offers a great deal that other eBook publishers don’t, such as no up-front fees, higher royalties (60 – 85% of the purchase price), the ability to do almost everything yourself if you want to (using site-based tools and advice), and access – without markup – to a growing ecosystem of recommended book-designers and other service providers to help you don’t. But SW also has an antediluvian Web site, doesn’t deal with print versions of books at all, and doesn’t have a partnership with Amazon (although you can submit your book directly there, allowing SW to handle distribution for you everywhere else). those gaps are a bit frustrating, because SW has so much going for it in so many other ways. Have YOU Discovered the Alexandria Project?

A Tale of Treachery and Technology

The good news for authors is that Coker’s year end update also includes promises for what SW authors can expect in the coming year, including a rebuild and updating of the SWs on-line book store (“When people tell us the design of the Smashwords store is so circa 2000, we take it as a compliment because we think they’re being generous by at least a decade”). The other improvements, though, are almost all in the nature of “faster” (e.g., catalog approvals, distribution and reporting) and “additional” (distributors, tools, etc.) changes rather than dramatic additions.

One exception is the news, also announced yesterday, that authors now have the ability to upload ePub files directly to SW. Until now, the only option was to upload MS .doc files to the sites “Meatgrinder” conversion software. This will allow SW to deal with books with more complex formatting and layout features. Elsewhere, Coker speaks of pulling together a volunteer team to enable easier uploading of files created using LibreOffice and OpenOffice.

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There’s plenty of extra detail at the SW site, and you should be sure to read Coker’s Book-Publishing Industry Predictions for 2013, not only because it’s a fascinating read, but also because several SW authors add comments in detail about what they’re not happy with at SW, and what they’d like to see changed or added. Coker promptly responded to almost all of their concerns, providing further detail on what authors can (and can’t) expect in the future. It’s refreshing to see a business owner stay in such close touch with his customers, although it leaves you wondering where he finds the time to run his business, given the frequency and length of his blog postings and the time he spends answering comments. Unlike a big business with staff people to ghostwrite for the big boss, with only 19 employees one assumes that Coker really does write everything he puts his name on.
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It’s hard not to like the SW model and Coker’s attitude, although it’s also hard not to think that he sometimes comes on too strong about the wonderful future of self-publishing, the degree to which traditional publishers are in trouble, and the splendid opportunities available to self-published authors.For example, Coker positions falling eBook prices as a plus for authors, since lower prices will presumably lead to more readers whose words of praise will lead to more readers and more sales. But that’s disingenuous for all but those authors that experience a modest breakthrough with their books to get the ball rolling.

On the other hand, dropping prices for self-published eBook authors is great for a publisher like SW, because there’s no way for traditional publishers to make enough money on $.99 – $2.99 books to bother with that end of the market at all. According to Coker, the average price of an SW title dropped from $4.25 in October of 2010 to $3.15 by March of 2012.With demand relatively fixed and supply continuing to explode (SWs alone is now publishing over 9,000 new titles every month), that sounds like a race to the bottom to me. if you look at the charts that Coker provides in a presentation to a self-publishing workshop, you’ll see how few SW authors are moving many books as it is.

To the good, this August there were four SW authors on the New York Times best seller list, and SW is reaching additional foreign markets through the expansion of its distributors’ networks (notably Apple, which now hosts iTunes stores in significantly more countries than Amazon reaches).

Be that as it may, I think that SW’s success is not only a good thing for its hard working founder, but for the emerging self-publishing marketplace as well. Here’s hoping that Coker continues to reinvest his profits in making the SW platform better and better for Indie authors.