Smashwords founder Mark Coker talks to Wetmachine About the Future of Publishing

This interview, by John Sundman, originally appeared in his My Thoughts Exactly on Wetmachine on 8/4/10. 

Smashwords is a service for helping small and self-publishers format ebooks in diverse formats (for example: kindle, epub, PDF, Palm) and distribute them through diverse retail channels (for example Amazon, Apple, BN, Kobo, and Smashwords itself). A few weeks ago I sent Smashwords founder Mark Coker a note asking if I could interview him for Wetmachine & SelfPublishing Review. He said yes; I sent him some questions about the current & future state of book publishing, and he answered. His replies appear below the fold.

I found his answers interesting and direct, and I think you’ll enjoy reading what he had to say.

Q: When I told a list I’m on that I was going to be interviewing you and solicited questions, my friend Dirk replied: “Please ask him what the fuck is going on.” I think that’s a pretty good place to start. Can you summarize the important trends you see in publishing right now?

I can sum up this answer with one word: Change.

Now, more words… For the last century, publishers controlled the means of book production and book distribution. If authors wanted to reach readers, they had no choice but to kneel before the publishing oligopolists who had the power to determine who got published, and what readers read. The system worked fantastically well for the publishers, moderately well for readers, but less well for the authors they published, and even less well for the vast majority of authors who could never gain access to the cliquey club of the published. And like most clubs, the dream of the club often exceeds the reality of the club.  Most authors lucky enough to have their books accepted by this old system received little more than fleeting ego gratification and bragging rights.

Change is an exciting, terrifying thing. It represents both a threat and an opportunity to every author and publisher.

The other week I gave a presentation to group of students at NYU, and I just posted about it over at the Smashwords blog. I titled it, “How Indie Ebooks Will Transform the Future of Book Publishing.”  I started the presentation by quoting my favorite Tool song, Rosetta Stoned. It’s a song about a guy abducted by space aliens, and the aliens give him a message he’s supposed to deliver to his fellow humans, “a message of hope for those who will listen, and a warning for those who do not.” This is the message I shared. My message was that authors and publishers face greater opportunities today than ever before to reach readers with books. Yet authors and publishers who fail to adapt to the change, or who respond incorrectly to the change, will go suffer.

Q: You come from a background in “angel” and venture investing in Silicon Valley. You see all kinds of opportunities and could have chosen any one of dozens of technologies to get personally involved in. Why did you choose to form Smashwords and get into electronic publishing for independent authors?

Traditional publishing is a broken business on the precipice of major change. I perceived an opportunity create a business that can help facilitate this change in a constructive way that’s valuable for readers, authors, publishers and booksellers. 

My motivation for creating Smashwords really came down to a crazy desire to change the future of publishing by empowering authors to be their own publishers. I wanted to turn publishing upside down by shifting the power center of this business from publishers to authors and readers.

For the last century, book publishing was built on the backs of undercompensated, underappreciated authors. If you cherish books as much as I do, how can you not honor the authors who create them, or the readers who purchase them?

I’m not saying publishers don’t honor authors. I just think their businesses are not set up to serve them as they deserve to be served.

There’s a huge disconnect in publishing. Publishers publish books for reasons different that writers write. Publishers publish works based on perceived commercial merit. Most authors are shut out and denied any chance to reach readers.  Readers are denied the opportunity to discover the full diversity of great works. I think this commercial filter is not only myopic, it’s also dangerous to the future of books, especially if you believe, as I do, that books and authorship are essential to the future of mankind.

Publishers are unable to take a risk on every author, nor would they want to even if they could. They have businesses to run and Manhattan skyscraper rents to pay.

I created Smashwords so I could take a risk on every author.  I think every author has a right to publish, and I think the vast collective wisdom of readers will help the best works get read by the right readers.

Read the rest of the interview on Wet Machine.