Ten years ago, Mark Coker co-authored a novel with his wife titled, Boob Tube. It’s a roman a clef about the daytime television soap opera industry. Despite representation from a top NY literary agency, publishers refused to publish the novel because previous soap opera-themed novels had performed poorly.
The experience helped Mark realize that publishers were unable, unwilling and disinterested to take a chance on every author. He imagined hundreds of thousands of fellow aspiring authors whose dreams had also been crushed by a publisher’s unwillingness to take chance.
Mark decided to do something about it. In early 2008, he launched Smashwords, a free ebook publishing and distribution platform that allows any writer in the world to self-publish an ebook at no cost. Six years later, Smashwords has grown to become the world’s largest distributor of self-published ebooks, delivering books to channels such as Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, Oyster, Kobo, OverDrive and Baker & Taylor. Smashwords had revenue in 2013 of more than $20 million, and about 85% of that went straight to Smashwords authors. For two years running, Forbes Magazine has named Smashwords among its top 100 “Most Promising Startups.” The company represents nearly 100,000 authors who have collectively published over 300,000 titles at Smashwords. Some of these writers have achieved enormous commercial success.
As CEO, Mark takes an active interest in helping other writers publish with success. He has published three books about ebook publishing best practices, including the Smashwords Style Guide, a step by step guide to formatting an ebook and preparing it for publication, The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, which teaches writers how to promote their books for free; The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success which identifies the 30 best practices of the bestselling self-published authors. The three books have been downloaded over 600,000 times. Mark also does speaking engagements. In other words Mark is a very busy man.
Glenda: Mark, thank you for fitting this interview into your schedule. I’ve briefly introduced the professional Mark Coker. However, the person often gets lost in their professional credits. What would you like to tell us about you and those around you?
Mark: About me: I think about Smashwords almost 24 hours per day including my dream time. It doesn’t feel like work. It’s a passion. I want to change the world of publishing one indie ebook at a time. When people doubt me (and they have doubted me every step of the way), it just adds more fire to the passion. Six years in, I still feel like we’re just getting started. We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can do for our authors. When I’m not working, you’ll find me outside in my garden (I’ve got 30 tomato plants this year!), or enjoying my cats, fruit trees, chickens, pure-bred homing pigeons, or hiking, or hanging out with my wife. About those around me: Although Smashwords started as my crazy idea, it wouldn’t have been possible without our amazing staff of 22 book-loving professionals. From engineering to author support and customer service and finance, Smashwords would be nothing without the team that makes it all work. And we’d also be nothing without the 95,000 amazing writers and publishers who publish their books with Smashwords. We exist to serve our authors and publishers. We exist to make authors who work with us more successful than those who don’t.
Glenda: Jumping into a bit of nature versus nurture philosophy on writing, where do you see your voice would fit in that analysis and why?
Mark: Prior to starting Smashwords, my prior startup was a technology public relations firm. My job was to take really complicated technical products and tease out what those products meant to consumers, and then how to communicate that to journalists so they felt compelled to relay the communication in the form of press coverage. What does the product do, why is it special and why should the consumer care? I am not a technical person, but the experience helped me bridge the worlds of techies and normal consumers. I know how to make complex things simple and accessible, and I’ve brought that to my writing about ebook publishing best practices. I know how to teach anyone ebook publishing best practices, and I can do it without technobabble or jargon. I know how to make smart writers into smart publishers.
Glenda: Who do you see as most influential to you as a person and a writer?
Mark: As a person, it would be my mother. She was an anti-war, free speech activist as a student at UC Berkeley in the 1960s. She tells me she brought me to the demonstrations in utero and later in a stroller. She’s a free thinker and very independent-minded, yet she also has incredible compassion for people everywhere. Mention how young men and women are going off to war and it’ll bring instant tears to her eyes. My mom taught me to be skeptical of the status quo. Just because someone in power tells you how something should be, doesn’t mean they’re right. Sometimes you need to fight the power. I’ve inherited this attitude. Tell me I can’t do something and it makes me want to do it even more.
In 2008, I don’t think anyone other than Dan Poytner believed that self-publishing was the future of publishing. He believed it. I believed it too. People are now starting to come around to the view, but most people still don’t get it yet. Even self-described indie authors don’t fully understand how they will not only inherit the future, they will shepherd it. Their decisions will determine everything.
As a writer, a few people have influenced my writing. I learned I enjoyed writing in my college English class at UC Berkeley taught by professor Theo Theoharris when he gave us the freedom to write a paper about anything. I wrote about the five most common positions for sex, based on Masters and Johnsons research. That paper got me an A, my first A in English ever. Later, in my first PR job, my boss Dave Murray and my supervisor Deborah Caldwell taught me to write with greater clarity, purpose and precision. And boy, if you haven’t read Stephen King on Writing, you’re not as good of a writer as you could be. When I was doing PR for McAfee Associates, the anti-virus software firm, their former CEO Bill Larson was an incredible writer and strategic thinker he taught me how to use written communications to articulate strong visions, and how to communicate and demonstrate your execution on that vision. When I was a blogger for VentureBeat, my editor Matt Marshall taught me more about the journalistic style of writing. Though I think he would still cringe at the length of some of my blog posts for the Smashwords blog! J
Glenda: Most people who start up a business have goals, but some go far beyond the scope of what they imagine. Did you have any idea that your efforts and those around you would become the powerhouse for self-publishing that it is today?
Mark: “Smashwords as powerhouse” is a surprise, and frankly, although I appreciate that some in the industry view us that way, I still view us as the scrappy startup with something to prove. I knew the world needed something like a Smashwords, but I’d done enough startups prior to this to know that great ideas are a dime a dozen, and to create something great you need good vision , great execution and a lot of funding, but above all you needed a healthy dose of luck and lucky timing. I knew my business idea for Smashwords (we wanted to publish writers that publishers didn’t want to publish!) was crazy and would most likely fail, but I never once doubted the truth of my core believe that all writers deserve the right to published, all writers are special, all writers have something valuable to share with the world, and that if I could give all writers a chance, readers would identify the very best writers and catapult them to worldwide fame and recognition. People ask me all the time what is our secret sauce? It’s difficult to describe, but I can tell you the most important ingredient is my core belief that all writers are special and deserve to be published. All writers deserve the chance to be judged by readers. That belief is still blasphemy in many publishing circles, but it’s most important secret that explains why we do what we do, and unless a competitor truly feels it they can copy the outward-facing edges of what we do but they can’t copy the essential spirit that drives our engine.