smashwords2More than 99 percent of book sales were from print as recently as eight years ago when the first Kindles appeared.

If publishers turned you down, you could always print your own copies, or you could hire a vanity press—but good luck placing your wares in stores. A gifted but frustrated writer with a knack for angel investments and Internet-related PR ran past me a plan to help people get their works into e-book form for distribution on the Internet.

mark cokerOf all the advice I gave him, this is what most sticks out in my mind. “Mark,” I more or less said, “whatever you do, try to avoid DRM. Your customers will love you and you’ll save a lot of technical hassles.”

“Mark” was Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords (Wikipedia entry here).

Yesterday Mark shared Smashwords’ latest numbers in a blog post. I highly recommend it to the Big Five. They would do well to follow Mark’s example and rethink DRM as well as e-book price gouges: there is life beyond legacy infrastructure that giant legacy publishers are trying to protect. Remember, Mark was starting from scratch. Here are a few stats:

  • Books published – Smashwords now publishes 388,100 books, up 15% from 336,400 this same time last year.
  • Words published – Smashwords now publishes 14 billion words (we hit this milestone today!!), up about 2 billion words from the same time last year.
  • Authors/pen names published – Smashwords now works with over 116,000 authors and small independent presses, up from about 100,000 a year ago.
  • Profitability – 2015 will be our fifth consecutive year of profitability. Profitability matters because it means we’ll be around in the future to serve you. We’ve got a solid, debt-free balance sheet giving us the freedom to weather the inevitable ups and downs of a cyclical market.

sw growth chartNo, I’m not saying that Mark’s experiences are 100 percent applicable to the Big Five; and we need to consider that Smashwords makes money from services to authors, as opposed to just the usual business models.

Still, I doubt that Smashwords would enjoy the success it has in these difficult times if it didn’t get results for a sufficient number of clients.

Mark’s numbers jibe with reports that small publishers and self-publishers not included in industry stats are faring just fine with e-books even if the big houses aren’t.

Significantly, the recent price gouges from the Big Five have hurt not just e-books but all reading, since books must compete with other forms of entertainment, and E had been growing rapidly. Similarly DRM has retarded growth.

I doubt the above story about Mark can win over the diehard Luds, but perhaps at a time when book readership is slipping, the right people at the Big Five with more open minds will begin to pay attention. Amazon’s e-book are doing ok. And now we saw once again that Mark Coker’s are. A lesson here?

Note: Mark’s post yesterday is the source of the 99 percent figure. I have not vetted it, but find it credible.

Our earlier coverage of Mark and Smashwords: Here.


  1. I think Smashwords is an acquired taste; it is mostly self-published works – which I have found reliably middling, poor, to awful in quality. It makes it way too easy for an aspiring author to jump the gun before the work is truly polished enough for “publishing.” With all the books already in print, out of print, and currently being published, there is little room left in my reading schedule to sift the wheat from the chaff to find the few potentially good titles.

    I did browse the through the highest rated and most downloaded science fiction titles, but saw nothing of interest. It’s like looking at the menu of a restaurant and seeing no appealing meals, so you move on, but maybe some people enjoy what’s offered – especially if it’s cheap or free.

  2. Thanks for the kind writeup, David. I spent almost three years working on the Smashwords business plan prior to our launch in 2008, and I can proudly say that Teleread was my primary source of industry research as I was learning about ebooks and the publishing world. Your writings on DRM convinced me that DRM-free was the right path in the best interest of readers and authors alike, and that jived well with my belief that most readers are well-intentioned and trustworthy. And in Jan/February 2008 when it came time for me give a sneak peek of the early beta of Smashwords, you were among the only three people to saw it before our public launch in May (the other two were Joe Wickert and Eoin Purcell). The industry stat comes from my recollection of AAP’s ebook stats, which were about the only stats at that time. I recall they said 2007 ended with ebooks at about 1/2 of 1%, up from 1/3 or 1/4% the year or two before. By the end of 2008, AAP’s stats were showing about 1.2%. And then things exploded.

  3. @Mark and @Greg:

    Mark: Thanks for telling people the source of the number. And my continued best wishes. So delighted to have helped.

    Greg: I’ve just finished the novel and film of The Martian. Great literature this isn’t. But I loved The Martian as entertainment. While it was self-published originally in a blog, I haven’t much trouble envisioning Smashwords or a similar company as a launchpad, so to speak, for the next Martian. Beyond that, self-published books can be valuable at the family and community levels. I also like the idea of older people taking time to write their memoirs; somewhere I’ve read that the very act of writing can help fend off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Similarly the young may find benefits of their own, whether or not large audiences are out there.

    So I do regard the current Smashwords as a very very useful site, and as time goes on, you may well discover more works there to your liking. Even now, it isn’t as if Smashwords is completely missing the highbrow. You never know who’ll show up there. Here’s a Marilyn Monroe biography by Norman Mailer, and here’s a long essay by one of his sons. That said, I also see a place for big publishing; I just don’t want it to be the only alternative.

    Happiest of New Years to both of you.


  4. For Greg, I don’t think it’s satisfying to try to browse smashwords (or Amazon for that matter) to find quality titles. You can find out more titles by looking through book blogs, Bookbub and word of mouth. The big challenge with smashwords is convincing serious critics to write about them.

  5. You say, “Mark’s numbers jibe with reports that small publishers and self-publishers not included in industry stats are faring just fine with e-books even if the big houses aren’t.”

    I am not so sure. For what it is worth, here is my experience. I self-publish both the eBook and print editions of my “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”. My other main title “The Joy of Not Working” is published in print by Ten Speed Press (now owned by Random House) and the eBook edition is self-published (yes, I am able to pull off negotiations with traditional publishers that 99 percent of writers aren’t).

    My eBook sales for the two books were down 15 percent overall in 2015 compared to 2014. By monitoring the relative Amazon sales rankings, I know that is also true for the eBook editions of other authors (whether self-published or published by traditional publishers) that compete with my books. For the record, the price of my eBook editions ($9.97) remained the same in 2015 as in 2014.

    On the other hand, the sales of the print editions of my “The Joy of Not Working” and “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” were 8.5 percent higher in 2015 than in 2014. This is despite the fact that I raised the price or the print edition of “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” from $16.95 to $19.95 in September. (If I had control over the pricing of the print edition of “The Joy of Not Working”, I would also have raised the price from $16.95 to $19.95.)

    In short, I don’t believe that “the recent price gouges from the Big Five”, have as much to do with declining eBook sales as you infer. There are other factors in play. Let’s have this conversation again next year and I think that figures will show that eBook sales are in general decline for both traditional publishers and self-publishers. Even if this is the case, I will find ways to increase the sales of the print editions of my two books, which had the highest figures ever in 2015 with over 40,000 copies sold (eBook sales were only around 6,000 copies). Keep in mind that “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” was first published in 2004 and “The Joy of Not Working” was first published in print in the US in 1997. Weird as it is for me, print is definitely not dead yet, but eBook sales may soon be.

  6. @Robert Nagle

    Browsing may not be the best method, but blogs and social media don’t do much better. For example, I read a self published book highlighted as one of the best of the year – probably four years ago. And it was just OK. Not bad, but not worthy IMHO of any special attention. But I can chalk it up to reviewerreader preferences not in sync. Much worse is social media were self published authors give other self published authors glowing five star reviews. While I can’t prove there are reciprocity shenanigans going on, it would not come as a shocker.

    I fully support professional book critics in the NYT, Washington Post, or NPR when they don’t review self published works.


    It’s not just about low and high brow books. I can enjoy a low brow novel now and then, but even those require more attention to the skill of writing than I see in the typical self published works.

    As someone else said, self publishing has turned into an open source slush pile of sorts – but I’m not going to read through that.

    For most authors it takes time and practice to write a good book – which will almost certainly mean getting rejections from publishers. Few will get it right the first time. Places like Smahwords make it too easy to “publish” and claim to be an author.

  7. @Greg: I appreciate the continued dialog. I’m baffled why you would write, “I fully support professional book critics in the NYT, Washington Post, or NPR when they don’t review self published works.” Hasn’t the Washington Post already singled out a self-published work for recognition? Even the Post—owned, ironically, by Jeff Bezos—lacks the resources to review everything. But when professional reviewers become aware of good self-published books, why can’t they “discover” them? Who knows? Brilliant self-published books may also be around at Smashwords. Moreover, how about Smashwords’ previously published books from pros? Norman Mailer isn’t exactly an amateur.

    I will grant you the point that all kinds of genres, whether high- or low-brow, require practice. But I don’t see the harm in providing a home for books for writers who have not yet reached the highest level of skill and who could benefit from feedback. What’s more, I’ve already made the case for books for audiences limited in effect to families, friends and neighbors. Must every work be a bestseller or literary masterpiece? If nothing else, keep in mind that tastes vary widely.

    > While I can’t prove there are reciprocity shenanigans going on, it would not come as a shocker.

    I agree with your concerns. I myself like the idea of a mix of reader reviews and those from well-trained critics.


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