Inside Independent Digital Book Publishing and Distribution: Interview With Smashwords' Founder Mark Coker

This interview, by Israel Vasquetelle, originally appeared on AwarenessMogul.com on 1/15/11.

Mark Coker has developed a powerful platform and service to deliver digital books to significant sellers such as Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.com, as well as smaller specialty and niche outlets. In this interview, SmashWords’ founder provides a great amount of insight into the independent side of the digital book publishing industry. He also discusses his motivation behind the launching of his company and shares plenty of information about the ins and outs of distributing books using the service. 

You started Smashwords because you had a book that you were going to have published the traditional way and I guess you found that there were some significant obstacles with the traditional book publishers?

Yes, definitely.  My wife is a former reporter for Soap Opera Weekly magazine.  And when I first met her she was telling me about all these crazy stories of what went on behind the scenes of the daytime television soap operas because she used to visit the sets.  And I suggested she wrote a book about it and she said, “Well why don’t we write a book together?” 

And I thought well that’d be a lot of fun.  I’d always wanted to write a book just I never thought it would be about soap operas.  But we moved down to Burbank for a couple of months and interviewed – conducted anonymous interviews with about 50 soap opera industry insiders.  We gathered all the dirt about the industry and then took that information and fictionalized it as a novel called Boob Tube.  So we did everything that authors are trained to do or taught to do.  

We did multiple revisions on the book, hired professional editors and proofreaders and copy editors, got the book all ready for sale to a publisher, shopped it around to agents, got represented by one of the top literary agencies in New York City.  The same agency that represented Barack Obama’s first book, and they were excited about the book and we were excited that they were excited and so they shopped it around for a couple of years to major commercial women’s fictional publishers in New York and none of them purchased it. 

And, you know, at the end of that process it was actually our agent who suggested that we consider self publishing.  He told us about a former client of his or actually a current client of his at that time who had another book that he was unable to sell.  And so the author self published it and then after a year sold a few thousand copies on her own.  Went back to the agent and the agent was able to sell the book in a week because she’d proven that there was a commercial market for it.  So that’s what he suggested we do. 

I took that suggestion and I thought well that makes sense to do self publishing but, you know, my background here is in Silicon Valley as an entrepreneur and for me this was just a big eye opening experience.  It exposed to me what seemed to be a really big problem facing not just my wife and I but potentially millions of authors around the world who had poured their heart and soul into creating a book, you know, and in many cases spent a lifetime creating this book only to have a publisher slam the door in their face and say “Sorry, we’re not going to let you have a chance in reaching your audience.” 

I thought, why not create an online publishing platform that would allow any author anywhere in the world to instantly publish their book as an eBook and make it available for sale online at the price that the author decides.   And let’s go a step further and let’s take the industry’s current compensation models for authors and let’s turn that model upside down. 

Mark Coker has developed a powerful platform and service to deliver digital books to significant sellers such as Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.com, as well as smaller specialty and niche outlets. In this interview, SmashWords’ founder provides a great amount of insight into the independent side of the digital book publishing industry. He also discusses his motivation behind the launching of his company and shares plenty of information about the ins and outs of distributing books using the service.  

You started Smashwords because you had a book that you were going to have published the traditional way and I guess you found that there were some significant obstacles with the traditional book publishers?

Yes, definitely.  My wife is a former reporter for Soap Opera Weekly magazine.  And when I first met her she was telling me about all these crazy stories of what went on behind the scenes of the daytime television soap operas because she used to visit the sets.  And I suggested she wrote a book about it and she said, “Well why don’t we write a book together?” 

And I thought well that’d be a lot of fun.  I’d always wanted to write a book just I never thought it would be about soap operas.  But we moved down to Burbank for a couple of months and interviewed – conducted anonymous interviews with about 50 soap opera industry insiders.  We gathered all the dirt about the industry and then took that information and fictionalized it as a novel called Boob Tube.  So we did everything that authors are trained to do or taught to do.  

We did multiple revisions on the book, hired professional editors and proofreaders and copy editors, got the book all ready for sale to a publisher, shopped it around to agents, got represented by one of the top literary agencies in New York City.  The same agency that represented Barack Obama’s first book, and they were excited about the book and we were excited that they were excited and so they shopped it around for a couple of years to major commercial women’s fictional publishers in New York and none of them purchased it. 

And, you know, at the end of that process it was actually our agent who suggested that we consider self publishing.  He told us about a former client of his or actually a current client of his at that time who had another book that he was unable to sell.  And so the author self published it and then after a year sold a few thousand copies on her own.  Went back to the agent and the agent was able to sell the book in a week because she’d proven that there was a commercial market for it.  So that’s what he suggested we do. 

I took that suggestion and I thought well that makes sense to do self publishing but, you know, my background here is in Silicon Valley as an entrepreneur and for me this was just a big eye opening experience.  It exposed to me what seemed to be a really big problem facing not just my wife and I but potentially millions of authors around the world who had poured their heart and soul into creating a book, you know, and in many cases spent a lifetime creating this book only to have a publisher slam the door in their face and say “Sorry, we’re not going to let you have a chance in reaching your audience.” 

I thought, why not create an online publishing platform that would allow any author anywhere in the world to instantly publish their book as an eBook and make it available for sale online at the price that the author decides.   And let’s go a step further and let’s take the industry’s current compensation models for authors and let’s turn that model upside down. 

Read the rest of the interview on AwarenessMogul.com.

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