An Interview with Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords

I was very fortunate to be able to sit down and talk with Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords. Smashwords is a site where you can convert ebooks and distribute them through at least seven outlets, including the Smashwords ebookstore. We spent the last hour of BEA discussing self-publishing, the beginnings of Smashwords and where it’s going, metadata, ebook distribution, and even the DoJ case against publishers.

There used to be a stigma in self-publishing, mostly coming from people in the publishing industry, but now that stigma is changing.

“Four years ago,” Coker said, “self-publishing was an option of last resort. Today, it’s a first choice.”

This is because publishers used to control the knowledge of how to be published. But now, there are many communities sharing this knowledge, and secrets, and taking chances experimenting, making mistakes, and sharing all their experiences. This results in a rapid evolution of thinking and best practices, Coker said.

Sharing is key. Also, there are so many choices that authors no longer need to wait to be published, Coker said. And, there now is a global market.

Full distribution, meaning getting your ebook in as many channels as possible, is the best, Coker said. So, going through Kindle Direct Publishing Select means missing out on opportunities. KDP Select is a program that gives Amazon exclusive rights to a title for 90 days at a time, but during that time there are many missed opportunities for sales through other channels, such as Barnes & Noble, Apple, Google, Kobo, and independent ebookstores.

It’s a good thing to make books more accessible and more affordable to readers, Coker said. Smashwords’ business model helps authors achieve their goals by providing a level of payment and reaching readers.

As for the DoJ case against five of the biggest publishers accusing them of collusion, Coker said that he felt while the case started with good intentions, it is misguided. There will be unintended consequences, and he doesn’t think there was a deliberate collusion. Apple had the superior pricing method, and publishers wanted control over their destiny.

“I want to see big publishers continue to survive and thrive,” Coker said. “They bring a lot of value to publishing.”

Although he was saddened by some of the publishers settling in the case, he was glad that the agency model doesn’t look like the target in the case. To read more about his opinions on the collusion case, read his CNN op-ed.

Since I’ve been obsessed with metadata lately, I had to ask Mark Coker’s views on it. Smashwords supplies external metadata, and Coker said that metadata will be increasingly important in the future. Metadata is what drives discovery and recommendation engines, he said. “Data needs to be accessible to people who need to leverage it.”

Smashwords is primarily an ebook distributor, and they are very transparent about their business. This year the company is working on being faster and simpler. For example, they are now able to send real-time shipments to Apple.

Another goal for this year is to improve discovery on the Smashwords site. One example is to have a best-seller algorithm that shows books based on actual money spent (instead of free books as best-sellers).

Smashwords will also roll out the ability to upload epub files to the site. Currently you can only upload specifically formatted Word docs, which are then converted to reflowable ebooks. Uploading epub files directly will allow vanilla ebooks, fixed format, and even enhanced ebooks to easily be added to the site.

Lastly, I got to ask Mark Coker a few questions about entrepreneurship and what it’s like to start a business. This was partly because I’m always interested in hearing how businesses start, but mostly because I’m working on my own startup, Write or Read.

For Smashwords, Coker made sure to remain pure to his original vision. When it comes to starting a business, risk management is key. It’s also important to predict the future and be ready at the right time. Too early can mean failure.

The secret, he said, is that “no one will believe you until you prove you can do it.” I think that’s good advice, and it’s proof of how difficult entrepreneurship can be.

To learn more about self-publishing, read Mark Coker’s three books on Smashwords. He also has a blog.

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