10 years of sustainable Smashwords — how a rejected soap opera novel saw the start of a self-publishing pioneer

Smashwords started up at the very dawn of the ebook self-publishing business and has just celebrated its 10th birthday.

Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, is still the company’s CEO and he recounts how the inspiration for Smashwords came after he and his wife wrote a novel aimed at soap opera fans and got a high-powered agent. Publishers rejected the book because their research said previous novels targeting soap opera fans had performed poorly.

He says, ‘It struck me as odd that publishers weren’t leveraging new publishing approaches enabled by the internet to say yes to more authors. One of the great powers of the Internet is to make it possible to efficiently aggregate and reach micro-targeted audiences on a global scale. These niche audiences can’t be reached economically with print books, but digital books are a different story. This was the genesis of Smashwords.

‘I wanted to turn the conventional publishing model upside down. I wanted to give authors full control over their rights, pricing and publishing decisions and I wanted to flip the compensation model so that 85% of the net proceeds went directly to the author.

‘It was also important to me that Smashwords’ interests be aligned with the interests of writers. Rather than sell publishing packages or charge up front for our services, we’d offer our service for free and we’d earn our income on commission. If the author made money, we made money.’

Coker had a 20-year career in technology marketing and entrepreneurship to draw from and Smashwords was launched in 2008. In 2009, we expanded our focus to become an ebook distributor. Our authors’ sales took off once we opened up sales channels that were previously inaccessible to them.

‘We’ve continued to innovate a steady stream of new tools, new service enhancements and new distribution opportunities. Ten years in, I still feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible.’

In those 10 years, over 130,000 authors and publishers have used Smashwords and readers have bought more than $100 million worth of Smashwords ebooks (at retail prices)

Smashwords distributes ebooks to major retailers and library services, including Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo OverDrive, Kobo and several others internationally but it doesn’t have a distribution deal with Amazon.

The company’s growth in recent years has slowed down as other distributors such as Draft2digital, StreetLib and PublishDrive have moved in with slicker interfaces.

However, what Smashwords has proved to be is a sustainable business, which is very welcome in a sector that saw two distributors — Pronoun and Type & Tell — crash and burn last year. Both the failed distributors were owned by major publishing companies and offered ‘100%’ royalties to authors.

Ten years is a long time to last in any technology business and the self-publishing sector is littered with casualties. Mark Coker and Smashwords blazed a trail in self-publishing and have proved themselves not only to be survivors but also to be long-term staunch supporters of indie writers.

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