Features & Columns

META DATA: Former Apple and Google exec Guy Kawasaki published a how-to book about self-publishing.

Mark Coker, founder of
mashwords, a Los Gatos-based self-publishing company, says that e-books allowed him to "flip the traditional publishing model upside down." "Up until 2008, this was a print-centric world: Publishers controlled the printing press, they controlled access to retail distribution and the knowledge of professional publishing best practices," he says. "Everything changed when e-books came along. Now, Smashwords provides a free printing press for e-books, we provide distribution to the retailers and we've created learning materials to teach writers how to think and act like a professional publisher."

Coker founded Smashwords in 2008 after he and his wife spent two years trying to sell a novel about the lives of soap opera stars to traditional publishing companies. Even though they secured "one of the top literary agencies in the country," they were unable to get a contract because publishers were reluctant to gamble on a genre that had sold poorly in the past.

"I thought, 'there's a big problem here,'" Coker says. "I imagine millions of writers around the world who go to their graves with unpublished manuscripts in their dresser drawers or hard drives just because publishers can't take a chance on every author. So I thought there's an opportunity here to solve the problem with technology."

Today, any author can upload a Microsoft Word document on the Smashwords website and use the company's free tools to convert it into e-book format. Within five minutes, the book will be available for purchase on the Smashwords website, and within a week, Smashwords will distribute it to the major e-book retailers, such as Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, Scribd and Oyster. In 2008, Smashwords released 140 titles, and last year, the company has published more than 310,000 books by 94,000 authors around the world.

Coker says this increased accessibility has had a "democratizing" effect on publishing. "We made it possible and cost-effective to make it economically viable for me to give all authors the tools and capability to publish," says Coker. "That simply wasn't possible before e-books, before we took a previously print-centric product and turned it into a digital product."

Unlike self-published paperbacks, which don't usually make it into bookstores, independent e-books can be found in online retailers side-by-side with titles from big-name publishing houses. So as Americans increasingly turn to e-books—a 2014 Pew survey found that more than a quarter of Americans now read e-books and half own a tablet or e-reader—self-published works are becoming more visible.

Self-published e-books have also inverted the old payment structure for print books, to authors' benefit. "In the traditional publishing model, writers only receive at best, about 15 percent of the list price for their book," Coker says. "So I turned that around and said, 'Ok, we're going to pay authors 85 percent.'" (Even though the financial model is weighted toward authors, last year Smashwords made more than $20 million in revenue.) Miller says Amazon offers similar numbers—authors earn 70 percent of the list price for books over $2.99. "A 70-30 revenue split—you're never going to get those kinds of terms from a traditional publisher," he says.

But self-publishing has serious drawbacks as well. Though independent authors reap all the reward for their work, they also bear all the risk. Traditional publishers typically give authors an advance before going to print, a base payment regardless of how well the book eventually sells. But self-publishing offers no such security, so if a book fails to sell, the author won't see revenue.

"Self-publishing makes it too easy to publish a book," says Coker. Because Smashwords allows anyone to publish their work, he explains, many books uploaded to the website haven't been professionally edited and aren't ready for publication. "We have books that have become instant failures," he says.

Guy Kawasaki, author of APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur—How to Publish a Book, says writers must learn how to create a professional product. "If your name is Joe Blow, and you publish a book called The Blow Way by Blow Publishing, you're not going to do well," he says.

But even high-quality books are difficult to sell, Coker says. "Writers are realizing that there's a lot more to publishing than just writing," he says. "There's the editing, the production, cover design, marketing, promotion. Even if you write a super-fabulous book, and you distribute it to all the retailers, it's still really difficult to sell books."

Even though some of his authors have gone on to become New York Times bestsellers, Coker says: "Most Smashwords books don't sell well."

Traditional publishers, meanwhile, can spend considerable resources to produce, distribute and market their books. Sporkin explains that as traditional ways of discovering books—bookstores and book reviews—give way to social media, publishers are becoming more involved in engaging readers. For example, publishers' websites now "play tour guide to help readers find what appeals to them" by offering free samples and other tools to predict what readers will be interested in. "If you're self-published, are those resources available to you?" she says. "Probably not."

Miller, who says his book sales number "in the thousands," says his lack of "marketing muscle" and "marketing acumen" have been a downside to self-publishing. He instead relies on the social media site Goodreads to connect with readers and promote his work.

An even greater challenge Miller says he faces is the reputation of self-published books compared to traditionally published ones. "There's a real stigma to self-publishing, and in some ways, rightfully so," he says. "In some ways it's not as polished as what you get from major publishers. So it's a really big mountain to climb to get an outlet to take a book, review it and offer that review to readers."

But Coker says the stigma against self-publication is starting to disappear. "Self-publishing used to be seen as the option for a failed writer, and any writer who dared to self-publish was ridiculed by the industry," he says. "Six years ago, it was fair to say that nearly 100 percent of all writers aspired to traditionally publish. Today that has changed—we're seeing an increasing number of writers aspire to be an indie author. They're wearing that label with pride."

Even though self-published titles currently make up a small share of the entire book market—between 10 and 20 percent of e-books, which make up about a third of the overall book market—Coker says that the dramatic increase of independent works shows that the future of self-publishing is bright. "By 2020, I think self-publishers will control about 50 percent of the e-book market—and I think those estimates are conservative," he says.

"Writers were taught over the last couple centuries that you could not become a published author unless a publisher blessed you, so these authors were forced to bow before the publishing gods, who were like the bouncers of the pearly gates of book heaven," Coker goes on. "As the coming generations of writers become more educated about the publishing market, they're going to have a completely different attitude about self-publishing than writers did ten years ago."

Kawasaki agrees. "We're not going back to a world where people suck up to a few dozen book publishers hoping for their big shot," he says. "It's no different from what's happening with music and radio. In an ideal world, Sony would be your music publisher, but until then, you go to market by yourself."

Given the financial model of self-publishing, Miller expects that established authors will start turning to this method in greater numbers. "They're increasingly looking at their contracts and saying, 'Why am I doing this?'" he points out. "If Stephen King has an automatic millions of readers for anything he does, it's a legitimate question."

But for Miller, who just released his third novel, the mortis, last month, self-publishing remains a way to gain exposure and develop a readership base in hopes of someday gaining mainstream recognition. "By 2020, I'm hoping to have achieved some degree of success, to have a readership that consistently recognizes what I'm doing, that I can talk to, market to and try to please," he says. "And one day I'd love for this to be my full-time job."

"I have a long-term view of it," Miller goes on. "It takes multiple years to build up credibility—you have to go out there and earn it if you want to succeed as an author."