On May 15, 2013 I had opportunity to interview Smashwords’ Marketing Manager, Jim Azevedo for another project I am working on. We discussed the importance of Smashwords’ book production and publishing processes and how these relate to traditional book publishing. Smashwords is the world’s largest distributor of indie books.
Jim was very kind and insightful, and I appreciated his willingness to answer my questions, and I thought his answers would be helpful to writers trying to decide whether they should go the traditional publishing route or self-publish.
Do you consider Smashwords to be a traditional publisher? Why or why not?
Smashwords is not a traditional publisher. Traditional publishers, such as Random House, Penguin, Hachette, Harper-Collins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster (aka “the big six”) provide many services for their authors under contract. These services include editing, marketing, production, publication and distribution of physical books, to name just a few. Authors who choose to follow a traditional publishing path will typically first seek representation from a respected literary agent who would find the best publisher for that particular book.
Smashwords is designed for authors who do not wish to follow a traditional book publishing path. The Smashwords service provides a fast, free and easy way for authors to self-publish their eBooks and have those eBooks distributed to major online retailers. By self-publishing an eBook through Smashwords, authors have the opportunity to connect directly with readers.
Is Smashwords more than a distributor?
Yes. Simply put, Smashwords is an eBook publishing and distribution platform for self-published authors. While we make it easy for authors to publish an eBook, our biggest value to authors is our large retail partner network. When an author submits their manuscript to Smashwords, formatted to our requirements, that book becomes eligible for our Premium Catalog. Once in the Premium Catalog, the author’s eBook get distributed to major online retailers such as the Apple iBookstore, BarnesandNoble.com, Sony, Kobo, Diesel and others. Premium Catalog inclusion also makes the author’s books eligible for distribution to libraries. Smashwords also operates its own small retail operation at Smashwords.com.
In addition to the publication and distribution services, Smashwords also provides a wealth of free resources to help authors create and market a professional quality eBook. These resources include: The Smashwords Style Guide which helps authors format their original documents to prepare them to be converted into eBooks; The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide provides 30 tips and techniques to help authors reach more readers; The Secrets to EBook Publishing Success unveils 28 secrets of the most commercially successful eBook authors.
Smashwords, via its blog and Facebook page, also provides a community where new and experienced authors can share their experiences, including both their success and shortcomings.
Do you have a production department? Who handles production?
Smashwords does not have a production department. All eBook production is handled by the authors themselves. By using The Smashwords Style Guide, mentioned above, authors are in control of producing their own professional quality eBooks simply by following the step-by-step guidelines. Once a manuscript is uploaded into the Smashwords system, our Meatgrinder conversion technology instantly begins converting the manuscript into nine different eBook file formats.
Once the conversion process is completed, Smashwords’ AutoVetter technology automatically checks the manuscript for any formatting errors. If the system detects any formatting problems, the author is notified of the problem and is provided with information to help them fix the problem. Every book that is added to the Smashwords system is also seen by a pair of human eyes in our Vetting department. The vetting teams are not editors. They are looking for any formatting problems that may impede the eBook’s ability to be distributed to our retail partners.
For authors who would rather not format their book on their own, Smashwords provides a list of very inexpensive service providers called “Mark’s List.” By sending an email to email@example.com, authors will receive an automated email reply that includes a list of professional manuscript formatters. The people on the list are not Smashwords employees, and Smashwords does not receive a commission by recommending their services. However, each person on Mark’s List has been recommended by other Smashwords authors, and every one of them has a list of references and can show interested authors a portfolio of their work. Mark’s List also includes several artists and graphic designers who are very skilled at book cover design. I’ve seen some great cover designs that were created for as little as $45, and I’ve seen formatters who start at $35.
Do you outsource any production?
We do not. However, for authors who wish to outsource their formatting and book cover design, they can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to immediately receive a list of low-cost manuscript formatters and book cover designers on “Mark’s List” mentioned above.
What production decisions have you made that have affected your bottom line both positively and negatively?
When Smashwords first started, our founder, Mark Coker, wanted to be able to take a risk on every author. He realized, and then decided, that the only way to take a risk on every author is to keep Smashwords free. By keeping the publication, eBook conversion and distribution processes free, Smashwords was able to grow its business quickly. If Smashwords charged for any part of the production process, we are convinced that our business would not have grown as quickly as it has. By way of example, at the end of 2008, Smashwords released just 140 titles by 90 authors. Today, Smashwords has released over 220,000 titles by more than 65,000 authors, literary agents and small, independent publishers.
The other decision we have made is to invest in the infrastructure behind the scenes that keeps Smashwords running smoothly. These investments include both technology and smart people, and have resulted in a much, much faster and smoother Smashwords experience.
Can you offer any insight on how to steam line production?
The best bit of insight that I can provide self-published authors who want to stream line production is to never try to create short cuts. To upload, publish and distribute an eBook through Smashwords, we require that the original document that will be uploaded is a Microsoft Word doc file formatted to the requirements that we outline in the Smashwords Style Guide. Too many authors try to skip that process and upload their manuscripts “as is.” By skipping one of the most important steps of the eBook production process, these authors are only prolonging their ability to reach readers, and creating unnecessary frustration for themselves.
What benefit does your business model provide over other publishers and/or distributors?
First, I’ll talk about the advantages that self-published eBook authors have over their traditionally published counterparts, and then I’ll talk about the benefits of our business model vs. other publishers and distributors. There are several advantages that self-published eBook authors have over their traditionally published counterparts, such as:
*Faster time to market – Self-published eBook authors can have their books published in a matter of minutes or hours, vs. months or even years with a traditional print publisher.
*Better distribution to a global market – Self-published eBook authors can have their books distributed to a global audience in a matter of hours or days.
*Never go out of print – eBooks never go out of print. If your eBook doesn’t find and audience within 30-60 days, online retailers will not remove the eBook from the virtual store shelf. In the physical world, print books that don’t immediately start selling are removed from shelves to make room for other, better selling books.
*Creative control – Self-published eBook authors retain creative control. If they want to update their cover image, book description, book title, pricing or a host of other factors that could make their book more appealing, they have the freedom and control to do that.
*Lower expenses/Lower prices to consumer/Earn more per eBook sold – Self-published eBook authors have much lower expenses than traditional publishers. This means that a self-published author can offer an eBook at a price that is significantly lower than what would be charged for a traditionally published book. This lower price enables self-published authors to reach many more readers, and still earn more per book sold. Typically, self-published eBook authors earn 60-80% of their eBook’s list price, vs. just 5-17% if they were traditionally published. This means that a self-published eBook priced at $.99 can earn more than an $8.00 mass market paperback.
Regarding Smashwords’ business model, we offer a fast, free and easy approach to publishing and distribution. We also provide best practices knowledge to help our authors produce professional quality eBooks. Smashwords earns a small commission of 15% for eBooks that sell at Smashwords.com, and 10% for eBooks that sell at one of our retail partners’ stores. Other companies that provide similar publishing and distribution services have different business models. Some offer expensive publishing packages that have a host of other services bundled with them, including editing and marketing. Some services charge for eBook conversion. Some charge for formatting. Some charge for distribution. We believe that our business model is one of the most, if not the most, straightforward and transparent business models in the business. This transparency has helped us to earn and maintain the trust of tens of thousands of authors, and that means the world to us.
What are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities in publishing for Smashwords and what do you see ahead? Is anyone catching up?
Regarding challenges, the so-called “indie author revolution” that we helped create has also created a lot of start-up companies who are jumping into the market. In addition, even some of the largest traditional publishers on the planet are also starting to offer self-publishing packages. We believe some of them are going about it the wrong way (by charging authors too much!). So, the challenge for Smashwords is to keep ahead of the curve by keeping our foot on the gas, innovating, and listening to the desires of our authors. We believe the head start we have is quite significant, but we’re not planning to rest anytime soon. It’s a challenge to manage a fast-growing company such as Smashwords. We must make tough decisions everyday about where to invest, and most of those decisions go into making the site smoother and faster for our authors. I think there is something like 500 enhancement requests for our engineers, currently. The priorities are always the things that will provide the greatest amount of benefit to the greatest amount of authors.
One of the greatest opportunities for Smashwords and for every self-published author is the global opportunity. In 2007, eBooks accounted for about 1/2 of 1% of the total US wholesale trade book market, according to the Association of American Publishers. Today eBooks account for over 25% of the US wholesale trade book market. That’s exponential growth! Our friends overseas are about 2-6 years behind us and just now entering their exponential growth phases–that’s a lot of opportunity for self-published eBook authors. In addition, just about all of the major online retailers are expanding internationally. Apple, for example, operates iBookstores in 51 countries now. In fact, almost half of the revenue that Smashwords earns from Apple iBookstores comes from outside the US. We think that sales from outside the US will soon dwarf sales from within the US. So think globally!
I think smartphones are another huge opportunity. I read an IDC (International Data Corp.) report last week or the week before that said for the first time that smartphone orders surpassed other cell phones that provide only text and voice features. In other words, smartphones are becoming new entry level phone for everyone. For authors, these smartphones represent an e-reading device, a bookstore and a library in the pockets of everyone.
The last opportunity I’d like to touch upon is the evaporation of the self-publishing stigma. Just four years ago, the stigma of “self-published author” equated to “failed author” in the minds of many writers. Because of this, authors saw self-publishing as the option of last resort. Many who couldn’t get a traditional publishing contract simply stuffed their manuscripts into attics or desk drawers. Then a couple years ago, self-published eBook authors began showing up on genre-specific best seller lists at online retailers. Then self-published eBook authors started showing up on store-wide best seller lists at the retailers. Then self-published eBook authors started appearing on the best seller lists maintained by traditional media, such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today. We believe that in about three years or so, self-published authors may occupy 50% of the best seller lists. The stigma of self-published author is flipping on its head. Now, many authors are choosing to self-publishing eBooks as their option of first choice.