London Book Fair 2015: Self-Publishing Smashes Through

by Andrew Albanese |


Once again, events tailored to independent and self-published authors at the London Book Fair’s Author HQ were jam-packed, and among the London Book FairÔÇÖs most popular offerings. PW checks in with a leading indie service provider, Smashwords founder Mark Coker, about the state of self-publishing in 2015, and what the future holds.

So, to start, give us a sense of where you see the self-publishing market in 2015, and what you see going forward?

When I started Smashwords back in 2008, there was a tremendous stigma associated with self publishing. Self -published authors were seen as failed authors, and in a sense this was true because it was a print-centric world back then, and without the help of a publisher authors couldn’t get distribution into bookstores. But thanks to the rise of e-books, authors now have the chance to be judged by readers.

In 2015, self published authors are learning to think and act like professional publishers. They’re embracing best practices, and learning to use professional tools of the trade such as pre-orders, professional cover design and they’re hiring professional editors. And readers have responded positively. But, for self-published authors, for all authors, in fact, the easy days are over. There’s now a glut of high-quality low-cost e-books out there, and that glut will only increase as more authors up their game, and as more authors self-publish.

How do you see the impact of self-publishing being felt in the traditional publishing industry?

I think traditional publishing still doesn’t fully grok the impact self-publishing is going to have on their businesses. Self-publishing isn’t for every writer. Many writers would much rather outsource the publishing process to a publisher so they can focus on writing. But I think many authors are unsatisfied with things like publishers paying 25% net on e-books, and many are questioning the value-add of publishers.

The other week I interviewed a romance author, Jamie McGuire, who started out at Smashwords and Amazon in 2011, hit the New York Times bestseller list with Beautiful Disaster, and then sold her rights to Atria in a two-book deal. She loved her experience at Atria. She said they felt like family. But a year ago she decided to return to self publishing, because she couldn’t justify surrendering her e-book rights forever to a publisher. When authors who love publishers leave publishers, it’s a problem.

I think traditional publishing and self-publishing are complementary. Each can make the other stronger. But most traditional publishers still practice a culture of no, rejecting most of what comes in the door, and they still view this rejection as a core value-add. I think publishers can no longer take their power for granted, and need to recognize they are service providers to authors. And to better serve their clients, publishers will need develop a broader spectrum of services so they can say yes to more authors.

E-book lending in libraries has been a thorny issue for traditional publishers, but Smashwords has been working with libraries. Can you talk a little more about that effort and your view of libraries?

Right, we’ve been working for the last few years to open up library e-book distribution. But itÔÇÖs been slow going. Last year, we signed with OverDrive, which serves over 20,000 public libraries, but overall I’ve been disappointed by our progress with libraries. Every month we’re hearing from authors who complain that our indie e-books aren’t mixed in the main OverDrive catalog. OverDrive puts Smashwords books in a special Smashwords catalog that make them difficult to find. Our authors refer to it as the dungeon. As a result, many librarians don’t know how to find and purchase them.

There are some technical improvements to be made, too. For example, there’s a big disconnect between retailer-specific BISAC and Thema categorization and how libraries catalog. This creates unnecessary friction in the ingestion process, making it difficult and expensive for libraries to onboard e-books. I’d like to see the standards bodies work closer together to standardize so we can all speak the same language. And another point of friction is Adobe Content Server, which charges libraries and library platforms steep per-book transaction fees. I think Adobe needs some competition. I’d like to see a low cost or open source e-book checkout system for libraries. I am generally not a fan of DRM, but library checkouts is one case where it makes sense. So there’s much progress to be made. But indie authors want to support libraries with low-cost, high-quality e-books. And libraries must get e-books right if they want to maintain relevance in the decades to come.

I especially enjoyed your take on last yearÔÇÖs Amazon/Hachette conflict. Now that a measure of peace has been restored, any thoughts on AmazonÔÇÖs power?

I think all eyes in publishing should be on AmazonKDP Select, Amazon’s self-publishing option that requires exclusivity, and Kindle Unlimited, its new subscription service. After Amazon’s resolution with Hachette, the industry has been kind of lulled into a sense of false security. Amazon wants control over pricing. And if publishers won’t give it to them Amazon is going to take it.

This is whatÔÇÖs happening now. Kindle Unlimited represents Amazon’s end-run around agency pricing. With KU, Amazon decides what each qualified read is worth, irrespective of the book’s price. In recent months, Amazon has decided that each qualified read is worth about $1.40. If you’re an indie author who typically prices you e-books at $3.99 and earns almost $2.80 on a single-copy sale, that’s a 50% devaluation of your book.

I think most publishers still view KU as a problem for indie authors, since indie e-books populate the bulk of KU’s nearly one million titles thus far. But as e-books continue to gain market share, and as indies capture a greater percentage of the e-book market, non-participating publishers will feel the pinch. And that pinch becomes a vise when Amazon diverts readers to KU, KDP Select and Amazon-exclusive books, or to books where publishers have agreed to pay indulgences in the form of co-op fees. I’m afraid publishers are in a world of hurt in the next few years if they don’t quickly develop alternate distribution channels for their books. When a retailer controls 60% or more of your digital business, you have to question if you’re harming your long term viability by continuing to support that retailer.