Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Smashwords Seminar

 By Kristy McCaffrey

I recently attended a seminar by Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, a self-serve digital platform for authors to publish electronic books. Smashwords distributes to retailers such as Apple, Kobo and Barnes & Noble, hosting over 350,000 books and 100,000 authors. What follows is information that he shared.

In 2008, about 1/2% of sales were ebooks. In 2015, that has risen to 26%. We are currently in a slow-growth market for ebooks, with the explosion of the ebook market finally reaching an equilibrium. However, ebook reading is on the rise. The Indie author movement is greatly affecting this market, with romance authors leading the charge. Being an Indie author is no longer a stigmaoffering books that never go out of print, the ability to publish a book immediately, lower expenses, lower prices to consumers, and total creative control.

A career writer must have a long-term focus. The reality is that it’s difficult to make money as a self-published author, just as it is for many traditionally published writers. However, there’s never been a better time to self-publish a romance ebook. Of the top sellers at Smashwords, 87% are romance. This is an increase of 70% from 2014.

Marketing suggestions—focus on activities that lead to permanent discoverability and platform building. Coker also touched on the aspect of luck. At some point, every author will receive a lucky break, perhaps through a blogger loving their book or a random promotional opportunity that could expand their reach. But in order for that lucky break to pay off, an author must have already laid the groundwork by doing the following (otherwise known as the secrets to ebook publishing success). Without it, the lucky break will fall flat.

Write an awesome book.
*Good isn’t good enough.
*Be fanatical about quality.

Great cover.
*Our brains process images faster than words. It takes 13 milliseconds to process the meaning of an image, but 200 milliseconds to recognize a word.
*Must look good as a thumbnail image.
*The great thing about e-publishing is that bookcovers can be changed if not working.

Publish another great book.
*Best-selling authors offer deep backlists.
*Build your brand.

Give books away for free.
*Highest grossing authors at Smashwords give away at least one free book.
*It can turbocharge a series.
*Free series starters lead to a 66% boost in series sales.

Patience is a virtue.
*Ebooks can start slow and build gradually.
*Ebooks never go out of print.
*Never unpublish your book.
*Nourish it. Give it time.
*The biggest mistake Coker sees is authors who give up after a few months, or even a few weeks. Building a writing career can take years.

Maximize availability, avoid exclusivity.
*Limits readership and global audience.
*While Amazon holds the largest market share, they only sell in 13 countries. iBooks is present in 51 countries, Kobo in 160 and Smashwords in approximately 200.

Best practices drive book sales, and include the following:
*An awesome book.
*Behave like a publisher with professional covers and editing.
*A great book blurb.
*Utilizing metadata well (pricing, title, categorization, author name, ISBN, publication dates).
*Good back matter (author bio, a listing of additional books and author social media contacts).

Pricing strategy.
*Pricing impacts sales and earnings.

*Common price points in 2015, beginning with most popular.

*Most downloaded price point, beginning with highest (includes fiction and non-fiction).
$1.99 (this is a black hole, authors should push this price to $2.99)

*Best price point for author earnings (includes fiction and non-fiction, but overall dominated by romance fiction).
$3.99 (at this price, an author can sell more books and build a larger readership)

Don’t let piracy scare you away from self-publishing.
*An author’s bigger risk is obscurity.
*Most piracy is accidental. (Friends sharing with friends.)
*Pirates who steal your work weren’t going to buy it anyway.
*Many pirate sites don't actually have your book. They're trying to steal credit card info.
*The bigger you are, the more likely you’ll be pirated.
*Combat it by making your books easy to buy at a low, fair price.

Build a platform you control.
*Blog, newsletter, website, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Don’t forget backmatter in your books.
*Author bio.
*A listing of additional books.
*How to connect with the author.

Be a nice person.
*Develop relationships.
*Share secrets.
*Avoid negativity on the internet.

Collaborate with authors on boxed sets.
*Share fan bases.
*Everyone wins.

Think globally.
*In 2014, 45% of ebooks sold from iBooks via Smashwords were outside the U.S.
*The market for English-language books globally will eventually surpass the U.S. market.

Pinch pennies.
*The reality is that most books don’t sell well.
*To stay in business, be frugal.

*This is the single most powerful tool for Indie authors.
*Right now, it’s better than pricing a book free.
*Benefits are: more buzz-building (captures the sale the moment you have reader’s attention), signals a commitment from the author to the reader, is a fast-track to bestseller lists (especially at Apple and Koboit won't help at Amazon but Coker still believes you should set up pre-orders there), same-day availability on launch day, and increased promo opportunities (sites such as iBooks feature pre-orders).
*Books born as pre-orders sell better.
*Currently, only ~10% of authors are doing pre-orders.
*A longer runway is recommended (12 months) but at least 4-12 weeks is best. Still, if you can only do a few days, it’s better than nothing.

Timing—when should you release a book?
*Since traditional publishers generally release on Tuesdays, try to avoid that day.
*The biggest ebook buying days are Saturday and Sunday, so an author is more likely to chart on these days (hit a Top 100 list at retailers).
*If the goal is to hit the New York Times or USA Today Bestseller lists, publish on Monday or Tuesday.
*Holidays can be strong days EXCEPT for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
*To hit Smashwords reporting list, release early in the month. (This list is shared with retailers such as iBooks.)
*The biggest ebook selling period is Dec. 26 – Jan. 7.

If you’re an author who splits books between Amazon KDP Select (which requires exclusivity at Amazon) and other retailers, Coker advises against this. As an example, he shared that if you manage to break out at iBooks and they choose to feature you on the front page, this opportunity could be lost if your books aren’t all available at the Apple store. Currently, iBooks is the #2 global seller of ebooks.

What can an author do to increase his/her chances of breaking out at iBooks? Make sure all books are available at the iBooks store, run a free promo or make a book permanently free, release all books as a pre-order (on release day iBooks counts all pre-order sales in book ranking, which can help with hitting a chart) and if you have a series then make the first book free. One thing to consider: iBooks doesn’t like covers with a lot of skin. If you write erotica, the content of the book is not of issue to them but they won’t feature it if the cover is too racy. Also, keep the blurb and front matter clean, even if the story is not.

And finally, a rather surprising statistic—longer books sell better than shorter by a large margin. During the last 3-4 years, the top 50 bestsellers were 100,000 to 200,000 words. Indie publishing exposed this trend, since many traditional publisher routinely rejected long novels, never allowing them to come to market. Clearly, consumers enjoy immersing themselves in longer works.


  1. Very interesting... Thanks for posting this.

    I'm curious if the international sales statistics were for books in English or all books. In any case, you've made me take a serious second look at iBooks.

    1. Melissa,
      I believe the int'l stats were for English-based books. He didn't speak about translations at all. I'm also feeling better about iBooks. I don't currently sell much there, but I do think it takes time. His overall advice was not to jump out of a market too soon.

  2. Thanks for the information! Very informative.

  3. Good information, Kristy. I don't know that I would ever go indie because I'm too lazy to put forth the effort for that, but the pointers about things that help promote our work was terrific. One of the truest facts you mentioned was to write a great book. If writing the best we can isn't our main objective, well there are those day jobs. The pressure to get that book up to its very best is always there, even when you just published one. No matter if we're independent authors or work for a publisher, all this information was very good to have. Thank you, Kristy.

    1. Sarah,
      It was a very informative seminar, whether you're indie published or not. It's always good to understand how the market is working. But it's also in a constant state of change. In the end, it all comes down to the book, as you said. I think we all know that, but it's easy to become overwhelmed by the rest of it.

  4. Thanks, Kristy. Very helpful. I've heard Mark speak, but you included material I hadn't heard.

  5. Kristy,

    While portions of your summary were familiar to me (but great reminders), the bulk of your information was new. Thank you for that. I have much to mull over... :-)

    1. Kaye,
      I'm in the same boat. Some of it I knew, other things--like the price points--was interesting to see. Of course, a lot of this info will be obsolete by next year LOL.

  6. Super information here, Kristy. I head him at an RWA session one time, but since them, I am more and more serious about doing some self-pub. Thanks for this. xo

    1. Tanya,
      I imagine his presentation changes a bit as the market changes. Self-publishing can seem so daunting--it's always nice to have some guidance. Good luck!

  7. Great info there, Kristy. Thanks for sharing.

  8. okay...this post made me a follower. (I came over from a share by Melissa Maygrove). Years ago I got fed up with the hoops of publishing on ibooks...and hated the meet grinder of have stayed away from both of them.

    I've been telling myself to get on the ball and sell on ibooks...after I get #28 published, I will get busy getting them all over.

    Thanks for the push.

  9. Thank you for the post, Kristy. I love Smashwords! I didn't realize how many countries Smashwords and Kobo were in or that it was more than iBooks. I am sharing your post on the Smashwords for Everyone Facebook group :)

    1. Hi Pamela,
      I'm glad the post is helpful. Am happy that you've shared it.
      All the best.

  10. Great info -- very enlightening. Thanks!

    Robyn Echols w/a Zina Abbott