Interview With Mark Coker, The CEO of Smashwords.com
This is the interview with Mark Coker from Episode 024 of The Book Guys Show, transcribed for your reading pleasure. (Feb 7th 2012) Paul Alves: Mark Coker, the CEO of SmashWords.com, which is an online bookstore, and according to all of the authors we’ve spoken to here at the Book Guy Show, a great way to self publish your books. Hello Mark.
Mark Coker: Hi, Paul.
Paul Alves: How are you, sir?
Mark Coker: I’m doing wonderful. How are you?
Paul Alves: Very well. Now Mark, for all our listeners, the consonant readers and the consonant writers, who haven’t used Smashwords yet, can you describe for us the way SmashWords.com works?
Mark Coker: Well, Smashwords is an e-Book publishing and distribution platform. That’s a fancy way to say e-Book distributor, so we make it really easy for any author anywhere in the world to publish and distribute an e-Book.
Paul Alves: Excellent. And what does it cost for authors to publish their works on Smashwords?
Mark Coker: It’s free. The way the service works is you visit Smashwords, you sign up for a free account and then you download the Smashwords style guide, and that tells you how to prepare your manuscript before you upload it, and so you’ll upload your book as a Microsoft Word file.
And then you’ll also attach an e-Book cover image, and you’ll find all the instructions of how to do that in the style guide, which is also free to download. And then you upload your book, we’ll ask you some questions, you know, what is the title, the book description, the categorization information, all that metadata information.
And you click upload, and within about three minutes, the book completes conversion. We convert it into nine different e-Book formats, and then you appear live on the Smashwords homepage available for sale. And then the next step is if the book meets the mechanical requirements as we outlined in the style guide, we’ll distribute the book to several e-Book retailers, including the Apple iBook Store, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Sony, and the Diesel e-Book Store.
Paul Alves: Okay. So, as long as the author gets the formatting right according to your guide, and then they’ll be eligible to go in those stores as well?
Mark Coker: Yes, definitely.
Paul Alves: Okay. Now what should an author do to prepare their manuscript before showing up at SmashWords.com to submit it? Is it all in the formatting thing?
Mark Coker: Well, probably the first thing they should do is show up at Smashwords and download the style guide. The style guide explains how e-Books are formatted differently than print books, and so it’s a good — just it’s worth reading just for the educational benefit before you start preparing the formatting, but it’ll walk you through all of the steps. All you need is a word processor.
If you don’t have Microsoft Word, you can use Open Office. The style guide will walk you through step-by-step, how to create your front matter, how to format your book with paragraph styling. So, we support styling, how to create table of contents.
Paul Alves: Formatting my own work, which I’m not going to mention on the show, but formatting multimedia and just the body styles, it is kind of difficult, so I am going to take a look at that. The style guide has got to be a lot of help.
Mark Coker: Well, you mentioned multimedia. I should talk about what we work well with and what we don’t work well with. So, Smashwords works best with books that are either straight narrative, so just words, or narrative plus images, so those could — that could be narrative non-fiction, you know, a lot of children’s books would work. But the books that you create with Smashwords will be reflowable text. What we don’t work well with are straight photo books, fixed format books and multimedia, we don’t support multimedia.
Paul Alves: I mean the majority of books right now anyways — I mean 90% of them are straight text, so.
Mark Coker: Yeah.
Paul Alves: Now, do you at all handle audio books at all or any plans for the future if you don’t?
Mark Coker: We don’t support audio books. For folks who are interested in audio books, we’ll point them in the direction of audio books, so you’re probably familiar with them. And we don’t have any immediate plans for an audio book solution, although it’s something that I do consider from time to time when I see that the market is monopolized by a single company.
Paul Alves: Yes, pretty much.
Mark Coker: Yes. And they’re a wonderful company, but anytime you’ve got a company that has a monopolistic control over a market, the content creators for that market typically don’t get the benefit of [crosstalk].
Paul Alves: Right, and it’s an opportunity for someone else to dip their toe in the water.
Mark Coker: Right.
Paul Alves: Because I mean I think the reason most people choose Audible is because you can buy CDs off the shelf for $60 or pay $15 to them and get a book.
Mark Coker: Right.
Paul Alves: So yeah, there’s an opportunity there for someone to break into the market, absolutely. Now, is there any functionality coming to Smashwords this year we should know about, anything new on the horizon, that you can — at least anything that you could tell us on the show?
Mark Coker: Well, there’s a ton of stuff coming. As I mentioned, our business focus is distribution, so we’re focused on getting our author’s books as widely distributed as possible, because that’s where the sales are, that’s where the readers are, but we also operate our own small online retail operation.
Paul Alves: Yes.
Mark Coker: And we’ve been doing that since day one. When I first launched the business in 2008, we weren’t a distributor yet, and so we had to create a retailing operation, so our authors can sell their books. So, we still have that operation in place. The sales to our retail site are doing very well and continue to grow every year, but the fact of the matter is we’ve neglected the development of it now for almost four years.
So, if you look at it, user interface is pretty outdated. There’s a lot of work. Our authors are very vocal with us, and they tell us where we need to fix things, and we do listen, so there’s a lot of opportunity for us to improve the discovery features on this site, so we started doing that. We’ve changed the algorithms for the best seller list. In fact we just did that yesterday, a couple of days ago, so that the best seller list isn’t so subject to gaining.
Paul Alves: Right.
Mark Coker: So, now our best seller list is based on actual dollars coming in for a book.
Paul Alves: Oh yes, so none of the freebies are in the mix there.
Mark Coker: Yeah, I mean we had a situation where authors where using coupons to gain the best seller list. You know, that’s just bad. It’s not fair to readers who are looking for a trusted best seller list. And that was a problem that we needed to fix, and so we fixed it.
Paul Alves: Absolutely.
Mark Coker: And so you’ll see a number of features like that from the consumer perspective at Smashwords, so that it becomes just a more well-rounded retail site, but even with those improvements, it won’t change our focus on distribution, so we’re very focused on working with all of our retailer partners, with Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, to create tighter integrations between their retail stores and our distribution infrastructure, so that we can get our books to them faster and more accurately. And so that’s going to be a really big focus for us.
Paul Alves: Now, you seem to be doing that really well, because all the authors I speak to, they always point me in the direction of Smashwords as far as the easiest place to like a one-stop shop where you can submit your book, format it right, submit it, and it goes out to like 10 stores, whereas the alternative would be submitting individually to these 10 places, and Smashwords seems to do it very well.
Mark Coker: Yeah, you know, I think we do a good job, and especially considering that we’re distributing over 70,000 books to all of these retailers. And every single one of these retailers has different requirements for how you upload a book to them and how the book is laid out and presented to them and the metadata and all that.
So, I think we do a pretty good job of that considering our volume, but like I said, we do listen to our authors and they’re always pointing out ways that we can improve. And so, we listen to that. And so, one of the ways that we can improve is get the distribution out there even faster.
You know, in the olden days, just like three years ago, you know, it could take a lifetime to write a book and then years to find an agent and then another year or two
for the publisher to release the book out into the market. Today, with self-publishing, you can upload your book today and it’s published today. And you know, what we brought to the game with distribution is helping to open up the major online retailers to self-published books.
Today, a book comes to Smashwords, we approve it for distribution and it appears on the retailer’s shelf anywhere from two days to a week later, which is pretty quick if you contrast it with how things were a couple of years ago, but it’s still not quick enough.
The Holy Grail that we would like to work toward is where you upload a book today to Smashwords, we approve it for distribution today and then we distribute it out today to the retailers and it starts appearing on the retailer’s shelves. So, that’s what we’re always aiming for. It’ll take us quite a while to get there though.
Paul Alves: Yeah, and a lot of authors keep telling me, I mean the various people keep telling me that it takes a while to get the whole style guide thing right the first time, but then their second book publishing on Smashwords takes them five minutes, you know, and then you just sit and wait for it to show up on all the stores. So, you’re obviously doing a good thing there.
Mark Coker: Well, one of the things that the style guide does is it teaches you how to use Microsoft Word. You know, Microsoft Word is a big hairy beast. And you know, I was using the program for 20 years before I started Smashwords, and I had no clue how to use it. And most authors are the same way. So, once you learn how to use it, and once you learn how to format your book properly, that’s really, really fast.
Paul Alves: Mark, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it. We’ve been talking to Mark Coker, the CEO of Smashwords. And Mark, I hope you come back again sometime and talk about some of the new stuff coming onto Smashwords.
Mark Coker: Thanks, Paul. I’d be happy to.
Paul Alves: I appreciate it. Thank you very much for your time, Mark.
Mark Coker: You’re welcome.