By Mark Coker, Smashwords
I’m excited to share two big pieces of news with you today. I’ll tackle the headline items in reverse order since one is the preface to the other.
The first news is that Smashwords catalog has grown to over 500,000 books!
Thank you to all Smashwords authors, publishers and readers for helping us achieve this milestone.
When I founded Smashwords ten years ago, the mission was simple: I wanted to democratize publishing. I wanted to make it fast, free and easy for writers to self-publish ebooks like a pro.
We created professional-quality tools that enabled writers to bypass traditional publishing gatekeepers, and we offered a simple storefront so our authors could sell their ebooks directly to readers.
The year after our launch we turned our attention to distribution, where we made it possible for major ebook stores to efficiently procure, stock and sell ebooks from our indie authors and publishers. And then we helped open up the library market to indie ebooks.
True to our mission of democratization, for the last ten years our little Smashwords Store has displayed books in a style that what we affectionately refer to as the “firehose.” Books were displayed as they came in, with new books appearing at the top of the home page mere seconds after upload by the author or publisher.
That deliberate design decision was controversial. No major ebook seller displays every new self-published ebook on their home page – warts and all – as they arrive to the store. I can understand why. It’s not the best way to sell books!
Yet I wanted to give every book and every author their 15 minutes (or more) of fame so they could find their first readers. I’m sure many of our current USA Today and NY Times bestselling authors found some of their very first readers thanks to the firehose.
Although some Smashwords Store customers enjoy inspecting every book as they come in, the firehose method is suboptimal for most readers.
The advantage of the firehose approach was that it created a level playing field for all authors, and that’s why we stuck by it. The downside of the firehose is that with zero home page curation, our home page could look quite ugly at times, and that’s putting it kindly. Often, our home page is downright scary, especially when a string of books with poorly designed covers come in all at once.
In short, my stubborn commitment to democratization meant we haven’t been putting our best foot forward, especially for first time visitors to the Smashwords website. We weren’t adequately showcasing the best of our best from among our over 100,000 authors and publishers.
We’ve always known we could sell more books in our store with curation, yet the prospect of curation butted up against our core mission. We’re not here to judge. We don’t want to gatekeep.
We’ve always believed that readers are the best curators. We also believe in the value of diversity and choice. One reader’s life-changing masterpiece can be another reader’s dreck.
We further rationalized the firehose (both in internal staff debates and external communications with authors) by pointing out the fact that over 90% of our authors’ sales have always come from our distribution to our awesome retail partners such as Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Scribd, as well as to the library outlets we supply.
As I’ve mentioned in prior posts, ebook sales at major retailers in recent years have been anemic at best, and some have experienced declines. Yet over the last couple years, sales in the Smashwords Store have increased, and that’s despite the limitations of our firehose approach on the home page, and despite our primary focus on helping our major retailer partners sell more of our authors’ books.
What is it about our store that caused it to buck this industry-wide trend? I suspect the reason is that despite our store’s rough edges, it offers several unique features that readers love.
Readers love that all our books are DRM-free, which means the reader can enjoy their purchases their way on any device they own now or in the future. Readers also love Smashwords Coupons, our best known and most popular feature, and they tell us they also appreciate our multi-format ebooks, and our myriad flexible search, discovery and sampling features that help readers find their next great read.
Now that we’ve hit 500,000 books, we’ve achieved a critical mass of titles that allows us to do more with our store. We can provide these loyal customers more options for book discovery.
Introducing an Improved Smashwords Store
After many months of planning and design, today we unveiled the most significant change ever to the Smashwords home page.
We think the new design strikes a good balance between democratization and usability. We make it easier than ever for readers to discover the best books at Smashwords, as judged by their fellow readers.
We’re also excited to keep the original “classic” interface as an additional option for readers who want to continue taking advantage of its special powers. And we’re already considering additional experimental interface options we can introduce in the future that will put more readers closer to their next great read.
The new interface unveiled today retains the best elements of the classic design, including the firehose.
Here’s a summary of some of the enhancements you’ll find today on the front page of the Smashwords Store:
Books in Shelves
The firehose, which previously displayed all new books as they arrived, is replaced by nine new “shelves,” offering a more conventional book discovery experience. But since we’re never satisfied with the conventional, if you scratch below the surface you’ll find we’ve added some interesting twists you won’t find anywhere else.
Whereas previously we only displayed 20 books at a time, now we can display up to 45 by leveraging horizontal shelf displays. We’re also emphasizing covers over the prior text-heavy design.
Each shelf is organized around a different book discovery theme. The themes, in order of presentation, include:
Featured New Releases – New releases we think are worthy of reader consideration based on early sales and author track record.
Trending Now – Books that have shown impressive sales strength in recent days.
Bestselling Books – Bestselling indie ebooks.
Top Series Starters – This shelf makes it easier than ever to find your next great series.
Bestselling Box Sets – Looking to immerse yourself in a great single-author or multi-author box set? Look no further.
Featured Special Deals – This shelf leverages our self-serve, automated merchandising feature, Special Deals.
Free Special Deals – Looking for free Special Deals? You’ll find them here.
Recent Purchases at Smashwords – This is a fun one. This shelf displays the most recently purchased “Premium Catalog” books at the Smashwords store. There’s a good chance that a fellow reader just discovered a book you might enjoy too.
Newest Arrivals – This is the new firehose. It was important to me that we maintain this option. This remains a one-of-its-kind opportunity for every author to be featured on the home page, and a great feature for readers who enjoy browsing every new arrival. This is where – if you’re lucky – you’ll be the first to discover a future bestseller.
Multi-Dimensional Book Discovery
It’s now easier than ever for readers to discover incredible books right on the Smashwords home page. At first glance, our shelf design might look similar to the shelves you’d expect at any other major ebook retailer. They’re different.
These shelves are dynamic in that they allow the reader to customize the all nine shelves’ contents with a single click. When you first visit the home page you’ll see all nine categories of shelves, drawing upon the best of the best at Smashwords as judged by your fellow readers.
But what if you’re a fan of fantasy, and you want to find the best fantasy books? Simply click “Fantasy” in the navigation pane on the left side of the page, and voila, all nine shelves are populated with with fantasy books, where you can browse a great selection from multiple dimensions.
If you prefer longer fantasy books, or books under a certain price, you can drill down further to the best books that will interest you across the nine shelf themes. In short, you retain the most useful of the prior search options but now we’re giving you multi-dimensional results.
With thousands of book categories and subcategories, eleven filters for price and book length and nine shelves, we calculate there are over one million unique search combinations customers can use to drill deep to discover the best of the best from among our 500,000+ books.
The home page shelves are also intelligent in that they know not to recommend books you’ve already purchased at Smashwords, making it easier than ever to discover new books and new authors.
The shelves are controlled by new algorithms that determine which books appear in which shelves, and in which order. These algorithms are fully automated, and powered by real readers who are spending real dollars. As a distributor of ebooks, we have the ability to leverage vast amounts of sales data to identify the best Smashwords books that match reader interests. Take a look at the new Smashwords home page. I trust you’ll agree it looks much improved.
Readers Gain Enhanced Control over Erotica
Erotica has always been a popular category for Smashwords authors and customers. Our catalog of legal erotica is probably one of the broadest collections anywhere. Starting today and for the next visit by all future first-time visitors, we prompt you to select your erotica preferences.
The default setting, if you don’t make a selection, is no erotica. This has been our policy for many years.
But now we give you even greater control.
Our previous book filtering options were unable to accommodate those many readers who wanted mainstream erotica – the erotica carried by all major ebook stores – but didn’t want to view erotica that delved into more taboo subjects. Previously, your only choice was to block it all or see it all.
Now you can choose which types appear on the Smashwords home page and in your search results.
If you want no erotica, only mainstream erotica, or all erotica, those preferences are your choice. You’ll find this option under the “Filtering” button that appears prominently near the top of the page.
Click the (i) next to the filtering option to learn more about the filtering options, or to view definitions of the different erotica types so you can make a more informed decision.
These new erotica preferences are enabled by our initiative starting in September 2017 that required all erotica and erotic romance titles to be properly labeled by their authors and publishers if they contained taboo themes. If you’re curious to learn more about our certification initiative and how it benefits readers and authors alike, check out the announcement here, Smashwords Implements New Classifications for Erotic Fiction.
Adult Fiction Books Gain Increased Visibility
When you walk into your local bookstore, most of the books you see are adult fiction and non-fiction. Adult is not a four-letter word. Adult doesn’t necessarily mean that the book contains steamy sex scenes. Many adult fiction books contain themes or violence that would be inappropriate for minors, even though the books aren’t promising titillation.
Yet due to the blunt nature of our previous preference settings, readers would often block general adult fiction by accident when they really meant to block erotica. Effective immediately, these non-erotic adult books will be visible to all customers of the Smashwords Store regardless of their erotica preferences.
We believe this change will give customers access to more of the books they’d expect to find in any favorite bookstore. It’ll obviously benefit our authors too.
“Highest Rated” Listings Now More Relevant
This is an update we implemented in August but haven’t had an opportunity to announce yet. As mentioned above, we believe readers are the best curators. Readers manifest their curation through their purchases, reviews and word of mouth.
We’ve always allowed readers to search books and filter book results based on which were the highest rated by fellow Smashwords customers. Up until August 16, 2018, we listed our “Highest Rated” books ranked simply by their average average review rating, with the highest averages appearing at the top of the list.
This meant that a book with only one five-star review could be ranked above a book with 49 reviews averaging a still-impressive 4.9 stars out of five. That wasn’t fair to authors or readers, and it also led to a lot of authors attempting to game the review system.
There were even bad authors who’d torpedo other authors’ review ratings with a single four-star review so their book could appear higher. Such bad seeds were banned from Smashwords, yet as you can imagine it becomes a game of whack-a-mole.
The new Highest Rated listings still show the average review score and the number of reviews, but their listing order is now determined by a new multi-faceted algorithm that weights various factors for credibility. I won’t go into the factors for obvious reasons, but just know it’s more difficult to game. And as always, we have a zero tolerance policy on gaming. Gaming represents a grave disservice to fellow readers and authors.
This new algorithm applies to the classic interface, which is where you’ll “Highest Rated” filter resides.
What’s Next for the Smashwords Store?
We still have a long list of improvements we want to make with the store.
In the months ahead you’ll see us continue to add new shelves and other fun enhancements based on reader and author feedback.
Although we’re excited about the improvements, we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible.
Let us know what you want to see next! Click the “?” icon at the top of any Smashwords web page to share your suggestions for our store. I’ll read every suggestion.
Tips for Authors – How to Sell More in the Smashwords Store
I expect some authors and publishers will have questions about what they can do to maximize the visibility and sales of their books under the new home page interface.
I’ll put this in Q&A form.
Q: How can I improve the odds of my book appearing in home page features?
There are several things you can do here, ranging from the obvious to not so obvious.
Publish with Smashwords – If your book isn’t at Smashwords, we can’t sell it in our store!
Real sales matter – Our algorithms are heavily weighted toward actual sales at Smashwords, Smashwords retailer partners and to libraries.
Release your next book as an ebook preorder – Books released as preorders sell significantly more copies than those that are not. Preorders you earn across the Smashwords distribution network will boost your odds of appearing in multiple shelf categories, especially the top shelf, “Featured New Releases.” Listen to Episode 4 of the Smart Author Podcast to learn how to make ebook preorders work for you.
Distribute your books with Smashwords – Your sales at Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, OverDrive and others will improve your placement in each shelf. If you’re not distributing with Smashwords, we can’t give you credit for your sales.
Adopt and continuously refine your best practices – This is where professional bestselling indies are separated from the rest. If you think you’ve adopted all the best practices and you’re done, think again. Here are two free resources that will increase your sales at every retailer:
A. The Smart Author Podcast – Start with the first episode and then listen to the rest in sequential order. The Smart Author Podcast represents a free masterclass in ebook publishing and marketing. It guides you step-by-step from the very basics of ebook publishing to more advanced topics. Listen for free at Apple Podcasts or any other major podcast directory. For direct links to the most popular podcast sources – or to listen right now over your web browser or read full edited transcripts of each episode – visit https://smashwords.com/podcast
B. Smashwords Book Marketing Guide – The new 2018 edition of the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide identifies 65 free marketing ideas that will help you make your books more discoverable and desirable to readers. If you’d rather listen that read, the entire book is serialized on the Smart Author Podcast starting with Episode 10.
Run promotions using Smashwords Special Deals. It’s super simple to launch a Special Deal. Click to your Dashboard’s Coupon Manager, create a coupon, and mark it as a public coupon. Two of the nine shelves feature books that are drawn from the Special Deals catalog.
Promote your book at all stores – On your website, blog and in other social media promotions, provide a direct hyperlink to your books at all retailers served by Smashwords, including the Smashwords Store. Each book you sell at Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo and other Smashwords distribution partners will also help you sell more in the Smashwords Store, because sales there will raise your visibility in the Smashwords Store. And each sale you earn at Smashwords can get you listed on the Smashwords home page in the “Recent Purchases at Smashwords” shelf.
Q: Can I contact the merchandising team at Smashwords to get placed on a shelf?
No. Each book’s placement in the shelf is determined by actual customer sales, and by the reader’s search preferences. See the prior question on how to maximize your odds. By basing placement on merit, as measured by sales and our other secret sauce factors, it creates a level playing field for all authors. Your selection isn’t based on whether someone at Smashwords thinks your books are worthy, or is a personal fan of yours.
Q: Can I pay to have my book featured on the Smashwords home page, or advertised there?
No. We don’t want to sell you advertising. We want to sell your books.
Q: I’m friends with someone who works at Smashwords. Can they help me get featured on the Smashwords home page?
No, sorry, no friends and family shortcuts. Please refer to the tips above.
Q: Can you tell me more about the algorithms that drive each of the shelves above?
I’ve shared quite a bit above already. We want to discourage attempts at gaming the algorithms so we’re keeping the exact ingredients of our secret sauce secret. We plan to continually adjust the algorithms as we work to do an ever-better job at surfacing books that will thrill customers who shop at the Smashwords Store. We also don’t want to encourage writers to waste their precious time obsessing over how to please algorithms. Instead, focus your energy on pleasing readers and all else will follow.
Q: How much can I expect to sell in the Smashwords Store?
Keep your expectations low. Although hundreds of thousands of readers pass through our store’s virtual doors each month, our store is still relatively small. At present, on average, sales in the Smashwords store typically range between what our authors sell at Scribd and Kobo, and about half of what they sell at Barnes & Noble. Every author’s mileage will vary. Bottom line, our store is a small retailer but one you shouldn’t miss. You’re likely to pick up new readers who wouldn’t find you anywhere else.
Q: I work at a large publisher with thousands of high-quality titles. Can I deliver my books to Smashwords in bulk via ONIX?
At present, no, but please drop us a line (next item below has contact info) if you have a proposal for our consideration. In the meantime, please upload books one at a time per normal.
Q: Where can I provide feedback or suggestions for the Smashwords home page, or for new shelf categories and themes?
We want to hear from you! We’re excited about the improved discovery experience for the Smashwords home page, and we look forward to enhancing it further in the future. Please click the “?” icon at top of any Smashwords page to send us your comments and suggestions. We always appreciate your feedback, positive or negative.