Smashwords is a wonderful platform for authors and publishers. What sparked the idea for Smashwords?
Smashwords grew out of my personal experience trying to sell a novel my wife and I co-wrote.
My wife is a former reporter for Soap Opera Weekly Magazine. About 12 years ago we wrote a novel titled Boob Tube that explored the dark underbelly of Hollywood celebrity.
Despite enthusiasm from beta readers and representation from a top New York literary agency, traditional publishers rejected it. Our agent told us that previous novels targeting soap opera fans had performed poorly which made publishers reluctant to take a chance on our book.
Our failure to land a publishing deal opened my eyes to what I perceived as a horribly broken publishing ecosystem that was no longer working for authors and readers.
I realized that due to the limitations of their business model, publishers were artificially constraining the supply of books. Publishers were gatekeeping books based on perceived commercial merit. Publishers were deciding which writers became published authors, and which books readers could read.
At the time we were shopping our book, there was no ebook market. Print books accounted for 99.5% of book sales, and ebooks weren’t a factor yet. The industry was print-centric.
Publishers controlled access to retail distribution which meant that if you wanted your print book distributed to physical bookstores, you had no choice but to work with a traditional publisher.
Our rejection came at a time when so-called “user-generated” content, in the form of blogs and YouTube videos, were disrupting conventional norms of publishing. These platforms helped ordinary people bypass traditional gatekeeping systems to share their talents directly with their audience.
I wondered: If anyone could self-publish a blog or YouTube video, why not a book? And then I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a publishing service that would let writers publish what they want at no cost and let readers decide what’s worth reading? And then I thought, what if I could provide that publishing service?
So I created Smashwords. Our aim was to democratize publishing by creating free publishing tools that would help writers connect with readers. In my view, the power center in the industry needed to shift from gatekeeping publishers to independent authors.
Smashwords offered a free digital publishing platform that empowered writers to publish and sell ebooks.
Today, Smashwords is the world’s largest distributor of self-published ebooks, representing over 140,000 authors and small publishers around the world that collectively publish over 500,000 ebooks with us.
Smashwords pioneered the free book, a stroke of genius in my opinion. What were your thoughts behind the free book and what role do you think the free book will play in the future of publishing?
My advocacy for free ebooks has always been grounded in the desire to help authors reach more readers and earn more money.
At first glance, the idea of “earning more with free” may sound counter-intuitive. Yet free is a powerful marketing tool. A price of free eliminates the financial risk a reader must take when trying a new author. If a writer can earn the admiration and trust of a reader with their free book, that reader is much more likely to pay to read other books by the same author. This is especially true with free series starters.
I came to respect the power of free during my prior career running a Silicon Valley PR firm in the 1990s. One of our clients was McAfee, the anti-virus software company that came out of nowhere to capture nearly two-thirds of the desktop anti-virus market within two years. They did this with almost zero marketing budget. Prior to them hiring their first marketing manager, they just had a fax machine that spit out orders all day.
Their secret? They gave their software away for free digital download and let customers pay on the honor system. This business model was known as “shareware.”
Their founder John McAfee explained to me at the time that he imagined his company as an apple tree. He wanted people to steal his apples and enjoy them because it cost him nothing for someone to take his apples – he’d grow more. It was a wacky idea, but it worked magically because large corporations didn’t want to use software they hadn’t purchased. So these companies would subscribe to receive future automatic updates of the software.
McAfee was the first shareware company to go public, and in the process they pioneered concepts now central to digital bookselling including digital distribution, freemium and subscriptions.
Initially, people were skeptical about independent publishing and independent authors. Do you think this attitude has changed?
Yes, everything has changed. The prevailing attitude in the publishing industry a decade ago was that self-published authors were low-quality “vanity” authors. Within the writing community, the stigma was so strong that writers often persecuted fellow writers who dared self-publish.
The prevailing wisdom back then – which we now recognize as total hogwash in hindsight – was that only traditional publishers deserved the divine power to judge which books were worthy of publication.
This attitude has changed because you can’t argue with the commercial success achieved by self-published authors. Self-published authors – now also known as “indie authors” – demonstrated they had the talent to please readers, and the smarts to outpublish and outsell the traditional publishers.
Indie authors proved that in the ebook realm, the playing field wasn’t just leveled; it was tilted to the indie author’s advantage. Indie authors achieved their success by publishing high-quality books faster and more affordably for readers.
Early indie authors on Smashwords such as Amanda Hawking, Abbi Glines, Kristen Ashley, Jamie McGuire and Colleen Hoover broke out and achieved blockbuster success.
Women led this revolution, especially romance writers.
These and other early indie author successes inspired the next generation of writers to recognize they too could self-publish with pride, professionalism and commercial success.
Smashwords has transformed writer’s lives and brought some of those writers great success. This must be very satisfying for you. What have been the highlights of your career to date?
As I look back at the last eleven years, my most favorite moments have been my face to face interactions with Smashwords authors, especially authors outside the US. Authors are amazing people. They’re world changers. They’re passionate, bold, creative and visionary.
Many times I’ve been brought to tears as authors described how thanks to Smashwords, or thanks to a workshop I presented, or my Smart Author podcast, or one of my free books on ebook publishing best practices, the author was able to realize their dreams.
There was one author, a single mom – and this was a definite tear jerker for me – who described how thanks to Smashwords and the support of our retailers she was able to pay for her daughter’s life-saving heart surgery. Other authors have described the joy of becoming a published author, or the thrill of earning their first sale, or their first review from a stranger. I always tell these authors that their success was their accomplishment, and thanks to their writing talent.
We just provide them the tools to express this talent. It always warms my heart to know our free publishing tools, and our work to open up large retailers to self-published ebooks, have allowed so many writers to achieve dreams.
You are also an author. Which do you prefer, running a highly successful company like Smashwords or writing?
Luckily, it hasn’t had to be an either/or decision for me. I enjoy doing both. It’s fair to say that any success Smashwords has had is largely thanks to my background as a writer. Before Smashwords, I was an unpublished author. With the launch of Smashwords, the novel my wife and I wrote (Boob Tube) became the third book published at Smashwords.
Once Smashwords was up and running, I put my fiction writing on hold and turned my attention to helping Smashwords authors achieve their dreams. This involved writing too! It allowed me to explore non-fiction writing. To support our authors, I wrote three ebooks on ebook publishing best practices – The Smashwords Style Guide, The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, and The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success. These books have been downloaded nearly one million times. Wow! I still can’t believe that!
And then when I launched the Smart Author podcast, I quickly realized that this too also required writing. The episodes I scripted in advance were the best episodes and the most fun to produce. Who knew that podcasting could also exercise my writing muscles? The podcast has exceeded over 200,000 downloads. It still gets thousands of downloads per week, and that’s without a new episode in almost a year. It’s exciting for me to imagine that the podcast might help some of these listeners achieve their dreams too.
I do dream of getting back to fiction. I’ve got over a dozen story ideas for sci-fi novels I want to write.
What can be done, or what can authors do, to raise the profile of their books in a crowded marketplace?
This is a huge challenge for all authors. With the advent of ebooks and online retailing, books can remain in print forever. This means that every day from this day forward, authors will face increased competition as an ever-increasing supply of books compete for a relatively fixed number of readers.
The good news is that we’ve identified many of the secrets to raising visibility and sales, and these secrets are called best practices. I teach best practices in all my books, workshops, at the Smashwords Blog and of course in the Smart Author Podcast.
It’s important for authors to understand that there isn’t one single magic bullet to success. The most popular shortcuts usually lead to dead ends.
There are dozens of best practices that are critical to an author’s long term success, and there are many best practices yet to be discovered. Best practices work as catalysts to make your book more discoverable, more desirable and more enjoyable to readers.
Some of the most impactful best practices are common sense, yet you’d be surprised how poorly the vast majority of authors implement these best practices. Examples include the importance of professional editing, beta readers, professional cover design, preorders, pricing strategy, and broad distribution.
The truth is that the vast majority of self-published authors fail to take full advantage of best practices. This means that those who do make the effort to implement best practices are the authors that rise above the crowd, reach more readers, and build lasting careers.
It’s one thing to have a dream, another to make it a reality. What qualities are required to turn a dream into reality? Also, can you offer any advice to people who are looking to develop a business?
My advice to anyone with a dream is to always sprint in the direction of your dreams. To do otherwise is soul crushing and a waste of one’s life.
Whether you dream of self-publishing a book or starting a business, the challenges inherent in both are remarkably similar. If you self-publish, you’re starting a publishing business that you own and operate.
Ideas are a dime a dozen. What really matters is execution. Most people dream of writing a book, but few make the effort to make that dream a reality. Writing a book is difficult!
The key is to just do it, but also to be sensible in your approach. For example, don’t quit your day job to write a book if you need that day job to feed your family and pay the rent or mortgage.
You have to believe in yourself and your vision, even when others don’t. Creative people will often abandon their dreams when they don’t receive encouragement or endorsement from well-meaning friends and family. As I discuss in Episode 8 of the Smart Author podcast, the episode titled The Art of Delusion, I talk about how the greatest dream-crushers are often those who love us the most. They don’t understand our vision because they can’t see the vision inside our heads.
It’s like how do you explain a 100,000-word story in a single sentence your family will grok? You can’t.
Often, to do something really great in business or writing means that you’re doing something different. You’re bringing a new vision or perspective to the table that others don’t see yet.
The challenge here – whether you dream of writing a book or starting a business, is that it’s always easier to find reasons not to try something new.
The majority of new books will fail to meet author expectations for sales. The majority of new startups will fail, even when the idea is great. In both cases, the probability of failure is high.
None of us like failure, yet failure is a gift if we learn to harness its power.
To overcome the high probability of failure, you have to be brutally honest with yourself. You have to be open to learning new things and learning from mistakes. You have to be aware of your surroundings, and study the competing cross currents of different trends and perspectives. You need to learn when to listen and when to ignore (both are equally important!). You also need a healthy dose of luck.
There are many reasons not to start a business, and many reasons not to write a book. But only those who pursue their dreams will achieve their greatest potential.
To the smart and courageous entrepreneur, fear of failure is not a detriment. Instead, failure is a problem to be solved, and a risk to be mitigated. As I mention on the podcast, failure can light the way to what works, what doesn’t, and what can work better. The secret here is to make many small survivable failures, and then iterate your strategy as you learn what the market wants.
My advice to anyone who dreams of starting a business is to start with education. When I was in high school, I read business magazines like Forbes and Fortune for fun. Yes I was a strange bird. I was fascinated by articles about business strategy and how different companies overcame adversity to achieve success.
In high school one summer I took an introduction to marketing class at my local junior college. It inspired me to apply for business school after I got into UC Berkeley. In business school I learned economics, finance, statistics and accounting. All these same classes are available at your local community college. I’ve forgotten far more than I remember, but the key principles that matter most will stick with you.
My advice to aspiring authors is also to start with education, but here you want to focus primarily on the craft of writing. Just because someone’s already a great writer doesn’t mean they’ll be a great author. There are rules to the craft. Craft helps you unleash your full potential as a writer.
Also write for the right reasons. If your goal is to make a lot of money, get a job at McDonalds instead. It pays better. But if you write for the love of writing, you’ll find that every sentence nourishes your soul. This will give you the strength to power on long after the quick-buck writers have given up. This will give you the strength to persevere until your day in the sun arrives.
Despite your personal success you remain grounded and approachable. What are the keys to balancing a happy life with a high-profile career?
Awesome question, but also difficult to answer. I can share my approach but understand what works for me may not work for everyone. I’ll take these power-packed concepts one at a time.
On remaining grounded and approachable – It’s kind of you to imply this, because it’s certainly a conscious goal of mine and it’s how I’ve always tried to conduct myself throughout my career. I don’t always succeed. As a natural introvert, there are times when I feel ungrounded and unapproachable. Sometimes we introverts need time alone to recharge our batteries!
My view of the world is that every person is special, and every person has unique talents they can contribute to the world. I try not to prejudge. I give everyone I meet the benefit of the doubt, and assume they’re sincere, intelligent, and coming from a good place. I’ve always believed it’s better to trust and have lost than to have never trusted. Great relationships are built on trust. If someone makes the effort to contact me, I always try to reply and point them in the right direction. I try to be the humble servant. My job is all about helping people.
On a Happy life – Everyone wants happiness, but none of us can achieve it all the time. Joy and heartbreak are two sides of the same coin. Happiness is something you work toward, and once you have it you work to bolster and protect it.
I think the key to happiness is to find it within yourself first. In my 53 years of life experience, I find that those who allow their happiness to be dependent upon the continuous validation or approval of others will always struggle to achieve lasting happiness (listen up my fellow authors!). You are the cake and the people and partners around you should be the icing on your cake.
Surround yourself with positive, supportive people. Surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth, even when it’s difficult to hear. Avoid sycophants!
See the good in people, and treat everyone with respect. Everyone you meet is struggling through life just like the rest of us. You don’t need to see eye to eye on everything, or share the same politics or religion. Find areas of common cause and help those around you achieve their dreams too.
Own your mistakes, forgive your mistakes, and embrace your potential for good. You must know and believe that you are a valuable, worthwhile contribution to humanity. You belong here. You’re not perfect – none of us are – but our imperfections don’t make us bad people. Often, our imperfections are sources of creativity, strength, understanding, and compassion.
Challenge authority and fight for what’s right. Just because something’s always been done this way or that, doesn’t mean it’s right.
Avoid negative people who only see the worst in people. These people are toxic and broken. Also avoid putting negativity out into the world because it’ll come back at you like a destructive boomerang. If you put love and positivity out into the world, that’ll come back as a boomerang too, but as a happiness-reinforcing boomerang. Choose your boomerang!
On a High Profile Career – At various times in my long career I’ve been both visible and invisible. Each has its pros and cons.
One of my first “real” jobs out of college was working at a large Silicon Valley PR firm where my job was to make our clients famous. We did this by getting our clients high-profile media coverage on television and in major newspapers and magazines.
I remember one client CEO telling me that he didn’t want any press coverage about himself – he wanted it all about his company and products. Although his modesty was admirable, it wasn’t the right attitude for a CEO. My counsel to him was that as the CEO of this company, he had a duty to his company and its shareholders to elevate his personal stature in the industry because with greater stature he could achieve more for his company.
From PR I transitioned into doing my own startups where I had to assume this CEO role. The natural introvert in me wanted to lay low and just do my work. But my inner publicist and my inner entrepreneur doesn’t care what the introvert wants. It’s my duty to put myself out there, to state my opinions and vision, and to subject myself to both the criticism and praise that might come. I have the scars of thousands of arrows on my back.
Our motto at Mom’s Favorite Reads is ‘Dream Big and Make It Happen’. Is there a motto or strategy you apply when faced with a problem or a doubt?
One of my personal mottos is, “If you want to hit the moon, aim for the stars. If you aim for the moon you’ll probably miss.” What I mean here is that there are always natural forces that act like gravity to alter the trajectory of your arrow. You have to aim high. Yet this motto is insufficient for answering the question of facing problems or doubts.
I have different strategies for problems and doubts.
For problems, I try to study the problem from all angles to discover how to untangle it. What are the internal and external factors – the facts – that have created this problem or challenge? What degrees of influence do I have, or can I have, over these factors? This requires an open mind and the willingness to modify or abandon long-held beliefs. But you also need to know when to hold your ground and be stubborn. Flexibility and stubborness are two sides of the same coin as well. The challenge is to calibrate the two. If you’re always flexible, you’ll end up bending to someone else’s whims and pursuing a dream that is not your own. If you’re always stubborn, you can’t adapt to the changing world.
You also need to know when the problem can’t be fixed, and when to quit. I fail at quitting all the time, but this is probably a common characteristic of most entrepreneurs.
For doubts, it’s a matter of reaching deep inside oneself to understand what is true and what’s not. Sometimes our doubts are informative and help light the way to a better path, and other times our doubts can divert us from our proper path.
I suppose the best advice I can give for overcoming doubts is to have confidence in what makes you good, but also understand your limitations. Never stop learning and growing. Be open to facts that light the way for you to become better at everything you do. If a problem feels too overwhelming to be solved, break the problem down into smaller elements and whittle away at it piece by piece.
A couple of years ago you stated: “We (Smashwords) want to create the world’s single best ebook publishing and distribution platform for our indie authors and publishers. Have you achieved that aim? If not, what is the next step in attaining your goal?
I’m incredibly proud of what the Smashwords team has created, and I’m even more proud of what our authors have created with our tools. I honestly believe that authors who work with us will be better off than those who don’t.
Yet I’m still not satisfied with what we’ve achieved. The goal I set, which you referenced in your question, is more a statement of intention rather than a goal that is simply achieved as an end point. It’s a never-ending goal. The day we start resting on our laurels is the the day we starting going out of business.
My view is that whether you’re an author or an entrepreneur, you should always remain in startup mode. Always strive to make everything you do better and better.
Although we’ve been innovating non-stop for 11 years now, I still feel like we’ve only just begun. There’s so much more we want to do for our authors that we haven’t yet accomplished, and that’s frustrating to me. Every cool innovation we introduce gives us a dozen more ideas for other things we can do.
When I’ve spoken with executives at large corporations, they share the same frustration with their businesses. Any business can only do so many things at one time. Every business is resource-constrained, even if they have billions of dollars in the bank.
In terms of what comes next, our guiding light will always shine in the direction of empowering writers to control their own destinies as truly independent authors.
You once said that, “The value of books to humanity, in my opinion, cannot be measured by dollars alone.” That is a statement I strongly agree with. Would you care to expand on that statement please?
Traditional publishers judge books based on perceived commercial merit. They want to publish books that will sell. That’s how they stay in business. This means there’s a strong inclination within traditional publishing to measure a book’s worth based on sales. This leads publishers to take fewer risks on unknown authors. It leads them to publish more celebrity drivel. It causes them to reject books that serve smaller audiences. And it causes them to trade short term gains for long term losses.
My view is that if your book has the potential to change one person’s life, your book is just as important as some New York Times bestseller. Even if that one person is your mom, son, daughter or future grandchild.
Many books and authors aren’t fully appreciated for their genius until long after the author is dead. Books are meant to be immortal. Books that are ahead of their time won’t sell well, but they’re no less valuable to humanity. If anything, these books are gifts to the future of humanity.
One of the most exciting things about the rise of indie authorship is that thanks to ebooks, distribution is now democratized. This means every author now has the ability to get their book on the virtual shelf of retailers, and it means that readers now have the power to discover and read an amazing diversity of books. Ebooks make it possible for indie authors to make their books discoverable to a global audience, and because virtual shelf space is unlimited, these books can be forever discoverable and purchasable.
You also said, “If you want to understand the future of publishing, keep an eye on indie authors! What inspired you to make that statement?
Authors are the center of the publishing universe, because authors are the magicians that create books.
Ten years ago, the ebook market entered an exponential growth phase that lasted about five years. Ten years ago, the rules of ebook publishing, distribution and marketing hadn’t been written.
Invariably, it was self-published authors that trail-blazed this brave new world. Indie authors were the first to offer low-cost ebooks at a time when traditional publishers were trying to charge $15 or more for an ebook. Indie authors were the first to embrace the use of free as a powerful marketing tool. Indie authors invented many of the best practices for book marketing that now guide traditional publishers as well.
In my view, all authors are now indie authors. This is because every writer now has options. You can start writing your first book today, and have 100% confidence that one way or another, your book will be published. It’s your choice. You can pursue a traditional publishing deal or you can self-publish.
Ten years ago, most authors aspired to land a traditional publishing deal. Today, there’s a growing number of authors who aspire to self-publish and have no interest working with traditional publishers.
I’m a fan of both self-publishing and traditional publishing. Both options create new opportunities for authors.
The changing attitudes toward self-publishing are guided by opportunity. Indie authors are asking what a publisher can do for them that they can’t already do faster and more effectively for themselves. If an author is unsatisfied by what a publisher can do for them, they can self-publish!
I understand that you have an interest in WWII and collect books from that period. What attracted you to that era?
A few things. Both of my grandfathers served in the Pacific theater of World War II. One grandfather was a gunnery officer on the USS Arizona, and his battle station was in the tower where he directed the turrets. He had shore leave the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. If he’d been on the ship that day, he wouldn’t have survived and my father never would have been born. My other grandfather spoke fluent Japanese, so he was assigned to Naval intelligence where he interrogated Japanese prisoners from his base in Honolulu. I’ll never forget how he told me how his job was to treat them kindly, feed them well and keep them alive, because most captured Japanese felt incredible shame at the capture and wanted to commit suicide.
On the other side of my family, recently I learned I had distant relatives I’ll never meet who perished in the Nazi gas chambers.
What has always fascinated me most about the story of WWII is how humans could commit such atrocities. I’m sure before the start of the war, every German and every Japanese considered themselves good, patriotic citizens of their country, and decent people. So how is it that the people in these countries found themselves so manipulated, misguided and transformed to believe in their causes? How could they become such bad people?
My interest in WWII was amplified by my interest in public relations, and how what we know and think influences our reality. Propaganda played a big role in the leadup and continuation of WWII. Propaganda is simply PR for political purposes. PR and propaganda can be used for good or evil. Why such evil?
We humans are fragile, and easily manipulated and misguided. It’s important we take the time to study how this happened in the past because humans today are not much different than humans before WWII. You can’t undo million of years of evolution in one generation.
I don’t view WWII through a lens of patriotic superiority. Sure, it’s a source of American pride that we helped liberate innocents in WWII. Yet I’m afraid we also forget our country has a long history of committing atrocities as well, from the genocide of native American Indians, to slavery, to our misguided war in Iraq which contributed to the deaths of nearly 500,000 souls, to our hypocritical present-day support for repressive regimes that don’t support the values we claim to support.
The main lesson I draw from WWII is that humans have enormous capacity for cruelty and compassion. The question is, how do we harness what’s good without summoning the bad?
How do we stop the atrocities that continue to happen at the tip our country’s spear?
How do you see the future of Smashwords and publishing in general?
The future is uncertain on both counts. Some people say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. Few things last forever.
At Smashwords, we’re fighting to put authors at the center of the publishing universe. We’re fighting to help authors preserve their independence at a time where there are dark forces seeking to steal this independence. We’re fighting to resist censorship in all its forms, because free expression is powerful, valuable and essential to the future of mankind. Not all authors and publishing industry participants share my views and concerns, and not all want to join us in this battle. But it’s a battle we cannot fight alone. It’s a battle we are losing.
As far as the future of publishing, my biggest concern is that authors are losing their independence. In episode nine of the Smart Author podcast, the episode titled, The Indie Author Manifesto, I went back in history and traced the origins of the indie author movement to the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press, and I shared how throughout history there have always been political, religious and commercial forces that seek to control what writers can write.
Ten years ago, thanks to the rise of ebooks and democratized distribution, authors finally gained control over their destinies. But in recent years, authors have been surrendering their independence piece by piece. If you’re getting all your sales from a single retailer, and you can’t leave, you’re no longer an independent author. You’re a dependent author. It’s heartbreaking to witness.
At Mom’s Favorite Reads we ask our interviewees if they would like to mention a charity or worthy cause. Would you like us to highlight a charitable organisation?
There are so many to name, but one of my favorites is Heifer International which empowers women and helps fights poverty and starvation. It enables people in developing countries to become more self-sufficient. For just a few dollars or Pounds or Euros, you can help a family buy a family a goat other livestock and ancillary training to improve their lives. Most years for Christmas I’ll ask family members who want to buy me a present to donate to Heifer International instead. I don’t need more stuff.
And finally, what are your favourite Reads?
I’m a big fan of sci-fi, especially post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction that has a happy ending. I’m drawn to these stories because ultimately they’re about owning the mistakes of our past and taking direct action to build a kinder, gentler more compassionate world. These are the stories I want to write when I return to fiction.
My two all-time favorite authors are both British – Douglas Adams and John Christopher. Both grew up in the post-apocalyptic world that was the aftermath of World War II.
Hannah Howe. Hannah is the author of the Sam Smith Mystery Series, the Ann’s War Mystery Series and Saving Grace. Hannah’s books are distributed to over 300 outlets worldwide. They are available in print, as eBooks and audiobooks, and are being translated into numerous languages. Books from the Sam Smith Mystery Series and the Ann’s War Mystery Series have topped many international charts while Saving Grace was a #1 bestseller in Australia. You can discover more about Hannah and her books here Smashwords