By Mark Coker, Smashwords
This past Sunday marked ten years since the public launch of Smashwords on May 6, 2008.
Wow, what a difference ten years makes.
Ten years ago, the book publishing industry looked quite a bit different than it does today:
Print books controlled 99.5% of the market; ebooks accounted for about ½ of 1%
If a writer wanted to get their book into bookstores where readers discover and purchase books, they needed a traditional publishing deal because publishers controlled access to retail distribution
Few writers wanted to self-publish; it was considered the option of last resort for failed writers
The writer community perpetuated and enforced the stigma of self-publishing by castigating those who self-published, branding them as “vanity” authors
The Roots of Smashwords
The story of Smashwords started back around 2002, when my wife and I completed a novel titled Boob Tube. We landed representation from an awesome agent at one of the most respected literary agencies in New York. They were known for repping NY Times bestsellers.
For two years and across two submission rounds, our agent pitched our novel to all the major publishers of commercial women’s fiction. Our novel, which explores the dark underbelly of Hollywood celebrity, targeted fans of daytime television soap operas. Despite our agent’s great work, he was unable to sell it.
Publishers were reluctant to take a chance on our novel because previous novels targeting soap opera fans had performed poorly.
It was our failure to find a publisher that opened my eyes to what I considered a huge problem facing millions of writers:
Publishers were unable and disinterested to take a chance on every author
Publishers acquired or rejected book based on perceived commercial merit; this meant that great books with limited commercial appeal might never see the light of day
The agent-publisher gatekeeping system meant that most writers were blocked from publication
Publishers could only guess what readers wanted to read, yet they were also rejecting books that might have gone on to become bestsellers or cultural classics if only these titles had been given the chance to be judged by readers
Thousands of unpublished writers were taking their manuscripts to the grave each year; I considered the loss of their stories, knowledge and life experiences a cultural travesty and an enormous loss to mankind
Publishers were deciding what readers could read!
The Internet as a Force for Democratization
If we rewind to the mid ’90s, the Internet was on the rise. Everything touched by the Internet was transformed and reconfigured.
The Internet facilitated seamless peer-to-peer communications and efficient commerce. It enabled content creators to digitally publish directly to their audience, thereby bypassing traditional gatekeepers.
Jeff Bezos launched Amazon in 1994. At first, the publishing industry treated the company as a harmless curiosity.
By the early 2000s, blogging was coming on strong. Blogs helped democratize publishing by allowing anyone to self-publish stories and opinions online. Early bloggers were criticized. The general criticism leveled against bloggers went along the lines of, “How dare these amateurs fancy themselves as writers.” Yet great writers were emerging from the blogosphere.
In 2005, YouTube was launched. YouTube allowed anyone to self-publish their videos online. New video producers – ordinary people – began developing massive audiences on YouTube. It was a talent discovery machine.
Despite the early inspiring examples of bloggers and YouTube, by 2008 the traditional publishing industry was relatively untouched by the Internet and the rise of user-generated content.
As I pondered the publishing conundrum faced by my fellow writers, it struck me as odd that publishers weren’t leveraging new publishing approaches enabled by the Internet to say yes to more authors.
In fact, I found that publisher attitudes toward the general population of writers were downright hostile. They didn’t want to say yes to every writer, even if they could. Publishers had this holier-than-thou idea that most writers were unworthy of publication. They viewed – and continue to view – their curation and gatekeeping function as an important value-add to book culture and readers.
They had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. They decided which writers became published authors, and which books were published, marketed and sold. They were artificially constraining the publication of books.
Here’s the thing: I too appreciated their value-add, and I continue to appreciate their value-add to this day. Despite my evangelism of self-publishing over the last ten years, I’ve also taken a lot of arrows for my advocacy for traditional publishers as well. I think self-publishing and traditional publishing are both excellent, mutually synergistic options. The author chooses what’s right for them.
But one can appreciate the great work of publishers while also recognizing the gaping hole that remains in their publishing businesses, and the harm it caused to book culture through benign censorship. It’s a hole Smashwords and Amazon KDP fill.
There’s value in democratization and freedom of choice. There’s value in giving writers the freedom to publish and there’s value in giving readers the freedom to decide for themselves which books they want to read.
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.
In my mind, a book with the potential to change the life of a single reader – even if that single reader is your child or grandchild – is just as important as a New York Times bestseller enjoyed by millions of readers. I believe it’s wrong to value books based on commercial performance alone. Some great books will never sell well.
From Problem to Solution
Against the backdrop of publishing’s culture of NO, I imagined it would be really cool if an enlightened publisher or publishing service could say yes to every writer in the world, and do it at no cost to the writer. And then I wondered, “What if that someone could be me? What if I could take a chance on every writer in the world?”
This was the genesis of Smashwords.
Throughout my career, I’ve always been drawn to “change the world” ventures that carry a higher purpose. I’ve long believed that a life without higher purpose is a life squandered. Every person with a pulse has an opportunity to take small but significant steps today that will leave the world better than we found it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer, entrepreneur, home maker, school teacher, garbage collector, artist, doctor, mechanic, baker or retired. Pick your passion and make a difference.
Writers are some of the most passionate, inspiring world-changers I’ve met.
In late 2004 I set to work on the Smashwords business plan.
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 upfront 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.
Back in 2008, most self-publishing services made money by exploiting authors – they sold authors over-priced publishing services. They focused on selling books to authors rather than selling books to readers.
It’s fair to say that my business idea was unconventional for its time. And maybe a bit crazy too.
I wanted to start a business publishing writers no smart publisher wanted to publish; selling books in a format – ebooks – that readers didn’t want to buy; and I’d sell these books in store called Smashwords.com that no reader had ever heard of. Oh, and I knew little of the publishing industry other than what it was like to write and edit a book, find an agent, and fail to sell it. I didn’t have venture capital backers or angel investors. I didn’t have a lot of money to invest. But I believed the world needed something like this that could give all writers a risk-free shot at achieving their dreams.
In my favor, I understood the Internet, and I already had a 20-year career in technology marketing and entrepreneurship to draw from. In my prior career running a technology PR firm between 1993 and 2007, I worked with dozens of pioneering startups such as McAfee Associates and Rightnow Technologies. I helped bring these companies to market, and I helped them exploit new approaches to software marketing, such as electronic software distribution, freemium, software-as-a-service and subscription business models.
Unbeknownst to me back in the mid 1990s, these new approaches to software marketing would later serve as the foundational building blocks to enable the rise of the Indie Author Movement, which itself was fueled by ebooks and democratized (and digital) production and distribution. Ebooks are software!
We launched Smashwords in 2008.
Our launch was met with equal parts enthusiasm and skepticism from the writing community. I expected enthusiasm from my fellow writers, but I didn’t expect the skepticism.
Back to 2008, my idea that every writer had a right to publish was seen as downright radical if not subversive to the way-things-should-be. It’s still not a universally accepted idea. But neither is free speech. As I discussed in my Smart Author podcast episode about The Indie Author Manifesto, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press there have always been those who seek to control free expression.
Books and authorship are the ultimate form of free expression.
For a historical deep dive into the prevailing views, attitudes, and concerns among writers we faced at the time of our launch, check out this thread at Absolute Write from 2008. It serves as a good example of the public reception we received from the skeptics.
The thread started off with someone falsely accusing Smashwords of spamming the Nanowrimo message boards, and then progressed from there with some heated discussion and attacks pointed my way. I joined the fray and did my best to explain our well-intentioned service.
In 2009, almost exactly one year after our launch, we expanded our publishing platform to support small independent presses. Although I didn’t anticipate this need in 2008, we soon discovered that small independent presses faced many of the same publishing hurdles faced by indie authors.
Also in 2009, we expanded our focus to become an ebook distributor. It was probably the most consequential decision in the evolution of our business. Our authors’ sales took off once we opened up sales channels that were previously inaccessible to them.
In the years since, 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.
Now, on this ten year anniversary of Smashwords, I’m tickled pink when I reflect on what our authors and publishers have accomplished. I’m so proud of them, of you. Indie authors are leading a renaissance in publishing, and we can expect that the power and influence of indies will only increase in the future.
Here’s where your world stands now:
Every writer now has access to the tools, knowledge and freedom to self-publish with pride, professionalism and success
Every major ebook retailer carries self-published ebooks
Most libraries now have the ability to purchase self-published ebooks, including the ebooks of local authors
The rise of ebooks, paired with democratized book production and distribution enabled by the work of Smashwords, Amazon KDP and others, made it possible for previously unpublished writers to reach millions of readers.
Many writers now aspire to self-publish as their option of first choice rather than the option of last resort
Many writers no longer bother pitching their books to agents and publishers; instead, they publish directly to their readers using self-publishing platforms
Hundreds of thousands of writers now enjoy the freedom to reach readers on their own terms.
By most estimates, indie ebook authors have captured between 20 and 30% ebook market share measured by unit volume (and much more in some genres), and this share will continue to grow in the years ahead because indie ebook authors enjoy numerous competitive advantages over traditional publishers
Many of our authors – once shunned by gatekeepers – have gone on to become USA Today and NY Times bestsellers
Many of our authors have gone on to secure lucrative traditional publishing deals yet they return to Smashwords for the indie publishing side of their business
Self-published authors now self-identify as indie authors, and they wear this badge with well-deserved pride
Indie authors have pioneered many of the new best practices for ebook publishing, marketing and promotion; traditional publishers now look to indies for ebook marketing insights and inspiration
I’m pleased Smashwords was able to play a small part in this revolution. It’s been my sincere privilege to join so many of you on your publishing journey.
Whatever we accomplished at Smashwords, we didn’t do it alone.
Credit goes to…
The 130,000+ amazing authors and publishers who work with us for ebook publishing and distribution
The retailers and library platforms that dedicate such enormous effort to supporting our indie authors and small presses; thank you Apple, Barnes & Noble, OverDrive, Kobo and more!
The millions of readers around the world who’ve purchased over $100 million worth of Smashwords ebooks at retail over the last 10 years
The amazing team here at Smashwords: Our development team spends every day dreaming up and developing new tools to give our authors and publishers a competitive advantage; our service and vetting teams dedicate their days to supporting our authors, publishers and sales channels; our merchandising team works to promote our authors at major retailers and library platforms; our marketing team focuses almost 100% of its effort empowering indie authors with best practices knowledge they can use anywhere, even if they don’t publish with Smashwords; our finance team manages the inflow and outflow of money to ensure our authors and publishers are paid on time, every month; and my wife, advisor and confidant, Lesleyann, without whom I would have never co-written a novel about soap operas that started this grand adventure.
Thousands of forward-thinking publishing industry professionals and participants (journalists, bloggers, authors, publishers, literary agents, editors, formatters, cover designers, conference managers, book doctors, publishing consultants, retailers, librarians, educators, readers and more) who went out of their way to open doors for Smashwords and our authors and publishers
Thank you everyone for your trust, confidence and partnership. We’re looking forward to serving you in the years ahead.
What’s coming in the next ten years from Smashwords?
If you look back at our original launch press release, our mission has changed little over the years.
I founded Smashwords to help writers reach readers. Long term, we will always maintain our core focus on helping our indie authors and publishers connect with more readers. We’ll do this by continuing to develop industry-leading tools and relationships. We’ll continue to introduce new opportunities that put more control in the hands of authors and publishers. We’ll continue to fight for your right to publish, and we’ll continue to do our part to support a thriving and vibrant publishing and bookselling ecosystem for the mutual benefit of authors, publishers, retailers, libraries and of course READERS!