The downfall of the mainstream publishers as we know them…


“It’s time that writers and publishers stood up for free speech!” said Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, to some 85 attendees at the ASJA-sponsored free gathering on Sunday, May 15, in the Berkeley Public Library. The topic was “E-Books, Apps, and Clouds: How Writers Are Creating the Future of Publishing.”

Mark said it was paradoxical that only a few blocks away his mother (and he in utero) took part in the Free Speech movement at its peak in the 1960s. And now, finally, with e-books ranked as the #1 format among all trade categories, there is a renaissance in book publishing as firms like Smashwords, offering a free publishing and distribution platform, help give ordinary people the power about what should be said and printed.

“The ‘Big 6’ have judged the worth of writers by the commercial merit of the books they sent for publication. They controlled the printing presses and the venues of mass distribution, but their myth as the arbiters of value is giving way to a new reality as brick and mortar bookstores close, they pass the post-publication PR burden to the writers, their book advances tumble while they still reject almost every submission, they take 18 months to put those few books accepted in print—and if the new book doesn’t sell in the first weeks that it’s in the bookstores, it is withdrawn to be remaindered or pulped.”

“Writers have been exploited. It’s the public who should decide what they want to read. We offer an online, open platform so writers can release their potential. That creates many more choices.”

Coker said that answers to two questions will lead to the downfall of the big publishers (though they will never totally disappear, nor should they):

The first question is, “What can publishers do that I can’t do myself?”

The second, “Will using a traditional (or mainstream) publisher harm my book’s success?”

In response to the first question, any author can use the Smashwords format to create an e-book in nine software languages. Those books are then openly marketed by distributors worldwide, democratically serving all. There is no cost to the author/publisher. And a royalty of 60-85% is paid for every book sold (compared to 5-17% in royalties for the major houses). The books are released as e-books almost the moment they are processed.

The second question, how would a traditional publisher harm a book’s success? By making it unaffordable (in part to pay for their overhead), often selling it at prices double or triple the e-book rates. And by limiting its distribution, geographically or for restricted periods of time. (E-books know no boundaries since they become immediately accessible internationally once they are seen in an online catalog. Readers can also sample a part of the book before buying. And since there is unlimited space in the e-book bookstore, the books will remain available everywhere forever.)

“By self-publishing and having the means affordably at hand, the authors/publishers can take control of their own publishing destiny,” Mark adds. “If they write a good book that resonates with writers, buyers will honor the writer with word-of-mouth promotion.”

But another key question remains unanswered: will the “open press” or “ancillary publishing” process bring authors enough income for their efforts? “Right now we have less than 50 authors earning $50,000 a year,” Mark replies, smiling. But in just three years his firm has helped 20,000 writers publish 50,000 ebooks, and in the process Smashwords has become one of the largest e-book distributors.

Smashwords distributes to the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, the Diesel eBookstore, and Scrollmotion. A distribution deal is in the works with Amazon, for implementation late this year.

The firm is on track to surpass 75,000 books by the end of 2011. Smashwords is one of eight self-publishing services (which I call “ancillary publishers”) that help releasing writers’ potential, including CreateSpace, Kindle, PubIt!, Lulu, Blurb, Scribd, Google, and LightningSource.

For more information about ASJA (American Society for Journalists and Authors), contact the President of the NorCal Chapter, D. Patrick Miller at To see the slides of Mark’s ASJA presentation, go to Three Smashwords links, too: Smashwords:, Smashwords Distribution:, and the Smashwords blog:


(This is #1 of a four-part blog series about the “two publishing revolutions afoot.” #2 will appear on 5/23 in which publishing consultant Peter Beren will provide a counter view that ultimately the “big houses” may absorb and dominate the e-book format. In #3 (on 5/25), Berrett-Koehler’s David Marshall will show some of the changes traditional publishers will make to survive and thrive in the future. And in #4, I will add a cranky explanation of how the existence of “ancillary publishing,” as Mark Coker discusses it in #1, and the wee and e-books it facilitates, may in themselves be far more important to their author/publishers than the books’ actual sales records. In my [free] newsletter on 6/7, I will again share #1-#4, with comments, plus add many more immediately applicable insights that Coker shared at a BAIPA [Bay Area Independent Publishers Association] meeting on May 14.)

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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