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SFWC: Mark Coker & The Future of Authorship

After the fuss that arose from Barry Eisler’s keynote the day before, Coker’s felt weak as it made many similar points. There was just as much grumbling from editors and agents, though. I was sitting at a breakfast table with two agents who tried to make light of it—one mimed slashing her wrists with her butter knife as if to say she might as well give it all up. Both agents left the room before Coker was finished speaking.

Coker is the founder of Smashwords, that bastion of self-publishing. He began his keynote with an explanation of how Smashwords came to be: He and his wife had written a novel, and they even had a respectable NYC agent shopping it for them, but they were getting rejected everywhere they submitted. So, Coker said, they had two options:

1. assume the fetal position and accept their failure
2. keep believing in themselves and their work—and try to find another way to get it out there

And that’s how Smashwords was born. Coker said it was his breakup letter with the industry:

Dear Publishers,

I’m breaking up with you. It’s not me, it’s you.

Coker went on to say that publishing in the traditional mode is broken, that it does not serve its authors or its readers. “Books—ideas—are more valuable than money. Everyone deserves to be published.”

That, I’ll admit, gave me pause. I think everyone has the right to be heard, but I’m not sure everyone deserves to be published. At least not without serious editing first. But then again, I come from an editing background and have really high standards for that kind of thing.

Still, I think Coker is saying that the traditional agents, editors, and publishers shouldn’t necessarily have the right and means to determine which ideas and stories are worthy of publication. Which is why he says he created Smashwords: to democratize publishing.

Coker gave a list of ten trends that are driving the future of publishing and authorship.
1. The rise of e-books, which now are 25–35% of the market
2. Web sales—as brick and mortar stores wither and die, Web sales of books continue to soar
3. Democratization of publishing—authors now have access to printing and distribution options
4. The self-publishing competitive advantage—it’s faster, you can price it lower and keep more of the profits
5. Traditionally published authors suffer from having higher prices put on their books
6. Print is dead (or at least dying) as brink and mortar stores disappear, and there is no money in self-published print books
7. E-books are global
8. NY publishers are stumbling into the self-publishing biz (Coker cited Penguin Random’s acquisition of AuthorHouse)
9. Indie authors are taking market share from the traditional publishers; more self-published books are appearing on bestselling [the NY Times] lists
10. The stigma of self-publishing is fading, and anyway authors should own their vanity—they should believe that what they write should be read by others; that’s what being an author is about

Coker called indie publishing a movement, saying that the indie authors were the cool kids. (A note about terms: Coker was using “indie” to mean “self-published” which is not a universally understood equivalent; many use “indie” to mean “small press.”) Again, I don’t know if I’m 100% on board with this statement since, if the indie/self-published authors were the cool kids, why would so many people still be struggling to get published through traditional channels? Are they just behind the times? Unwilling to let go?

For me, I think some content is right for self-publishing channels and some is right for more traditional routes. That is the difference between (in my works) my short stories and The K-Pro, which I’ve self-published, versus The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller, for which I hope to find a traditional path. But it won’t break my heart if I do have to self-publish it. So that must mean something. It’s so nice, as an author, to have multiple options.

Coker said that power is shifting. Authors can now ask traditional publishers, “What can you do for me?” And if they don’t like the answer, authors can choose their own team: an editor, a designer. Anyone can write a book and know, no matter what, it will be published. One way or another. It’s no longer a game of laboring away on a manuscript for months or even years and not being sure it will ever see daylight.

BUT. Coker also cautioned—and we heard a lot of this over the course of the conference—that as an author you have the obligation to produce good work. Not even just good, but great.

Someone asked Coker how self-published authors can hope to find and reach readers. Coker said, much as Barry Eisler had, that discoverability is better now than ever thanks to online searching versus relying on being shelved in a bookstore. Coker cautioned writers not to go exclusive with any one retailer. Smashwords, in fact, refuses to distribute to Amazon, which is the largest retailer, because Amazon tries to get authors to go exclusive with them. But that limits your outreach. Sure, Amazon’s audience is massive, but Coker urged writers not to contribute to its attempt to monopolize the system. Because eventually all this freedom authors now have will be swept away again if Amazon were to control the distribution.

“Good writing will always find readers,” Coker said. And, “The great thing about digital publishing is that you can always revise. Your book is a living thing. You can change the cover, you can revise the text and make it better.” He said if you’re not averaging 4.5 stars or more, you should consider a revision. I find that a bit much. I never trust people’s books if they have high star averages because it makes me believe only their friends have reviewed the work. Better, in my opinion, to have a variety of reviews and star ratings. Certainly, though, if the ratings are mostly low, I would consider revising.

Coker took Penguin Random to task for AuthorHouse as well. For those who don’t know it, AuthorHouse is a “publisher” that really just takes money from authors. Writers pay for things like editing and promotional packages, etc. AuthorHouse has had a bad rep for a while, and I have to wonder at Penguin Random acquiring it. Coker said it was the equivalent of a big publisher saying, “You’re not good enough for us to publish through our big brand, but we’re happy to take your money.”

Of course, if you do self-publish, there’s a chance you will spend money on outside editors and designers. But it shouldn’t cost you $20k to publish your book. Which is, in some cases, what places like AuthorHouse have eked out of people.

The final question of the morning was one that had been similarly asked of Eisler the day before: “Doesn’t indie publishing need some kind of gatekeepers? Isn’t there value in rejection?” Coker answered that Smashwords is not in the business of judging books. Instead, feedback comes directly from the consumer—the readers—in the form of reviews and sales. Again, it boils down to putting your best work out there. Write it, have it edited, have it beta read and critiqued, rewrite it . . . Make sure it is the best you can make it. And then launch it and see how high it flies.

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