markcokersmashwords-01I wasn’t quite able to attend Mark Coker’s BEA presentation on the ten trends transforming the future of publishing. But Coker sent me the extremely detailed slide deck he used, and there’s plenty in the slide deck that bears consideration.

Coker begins with the disclaimer that he loves both self-publishing and traditional publishers, literary agents, and everyone else who brings value to books. “We’re all in this together,” he points out. Then he discusses the 2004-2005 origin of Smashwords in his failed attempt to publish a novel by himself and his wife. After publishers everywhere rejected it, Coker realized that publishers were simply unable to take a risk on every author—but he could create a free publishing platform what would let him say “yes” to every writer. And so Smashwords was born.

Smashwords allows writers to upload their material once and reach many of the most popular e-book distribution networks, including iBooks, Smashwords, Kobo, Overdrive, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, and more—as well as limited distribution to Amazon. It has grown from publishing 140 titles in 2008 to publishing 388,100 titles in 2015. With Coker’s bona fides thus established, he then proceeds to discuss the ten trends he sees.

The first is, of course, the rise of e-books. “Screens are the new paper,” Coker declares, and a bar graph shows how e-books have grown from a decimal fraction of a percent of the market in 2002 up to over 25% of the market in 2015. He’s still more bullish on e-books than Codex’s Hildick-Smith, and expects e-books to eclipse print sooner or later. He goes over reasons screens offer a better reading experience and e-books offer a better consumption experience than paper—reasons we’re all familiar enough with already.

The second trend is that publishing has become democratized. Whereas not so long ago publishers were gatekeepers you simply couldn’t bypass, the new era of self-publishing means that everyone effectively owns a digital printing press. Publishers are losing their monopoly as authors begin to decide whether to go it alone.

The third trend is that e-books are going global. Many of the major retailers are expanding into multiple countries, and Smashwords is available in 200+. The chart says that 40% of Smashwords/iBooks sales are global.

Trend four is the rise of indie authorship. “From this day forward, all authors are indie authors,” Coker states. “Authors have the freedom to choose self-publishing, traditional publishing, or both (hybrid).” The democratized access to tools and knowledge means they can “publish with pride, professionalism, and success” whether they’re indie or traditionally-published.

Indie vs. Traditional should not become a religious war, Coker adds, because both options are worthwhile and make for a more vibrant publishing ecosystem. Nonetheless, self-publishing has advantages in speed, flexibility, creative control, and rights retention. Plus, independent authors can earn over four times the percentage of their list price on each book sold as traditionally-published authors can.

Coker wraps up this point with a chart showing the relative performance of e-books at various price points, concluding that books priced between $2 and $3.99 have the best overall performance, followed closely by 99 cent-or-less titles.

The fifth trend is that indie authors are hitting all the bestseller lists. Indie books are showing up on the bestseller lists of every retailer, as well as the New York Times and USA Today lists each week. Someday, Coker posits, most bestselling e-books will be self-published. Independent authors are gradually stealing market share away from the traditional publishers.

Trend number six is that the previous stigma of self-publishing is disappearing. It used to be that “vanity publishing” was considered the realm of con artists, but now more and more writers are aspiring toward independent publication. Romance and genre authors especially are finding success in the indie field. Even some hybrids, such as Jamie McGuire, are leaning back toward self-publication. Now the disadvantages of traditional publication are starting to become stigma of their own—and vanity publisher Author Solutions has harmed the reputation all publishers.

The seventh trend is the glut of high-quality, low-cost e-books. E-books are cheap to publish, cheap to sell, and can remain around forever because there’s no need for them to go “out of print.” When supply outstrips demand, authors and publishers sell fewer books on average, and price competition ensues—which means that traditionally-published e-book authors are suffering due to high publisher prices.

Here comes the really interesting part. Trend number eight is that Amazon is exploiting this glut to drive the massive devaluation of e-books—with Kindle Unlimited as the tip of the spear. Coker points out that, thanks to Amazon’s KDP Select program, it has exclusive access to 1.3 million e-books, and Kindle Unlimited means it can dump them on the market at below-market costs. Once someone has subscribed to Kindle Unlimited, after all, all those books are effectively “free” to read.

Coker compares Amazon’s exclusivity terms to a gun to the head of authors: “Go exclusive and we’ll give you preferential tools, discovery and sales advantage—or, go wide (distribute everywhere) and we’ll bury your books.” The ironic dilemma, Coker notes, is that KDP Select (which powers KU) is almost entirely powered by indie authors—authors who are surrendering their independence by enrolling in KDP Select.

The ninth trend builds on this by noting that Kindle Unlimited is undermining the market for single-copy sales. “With KU, Amazon is training the world’s largest community of readers to consume books for what feels like free,” Coker says. When you can read 1.3 million e-books for free, why pay even 99 cents for a single title?

Coker wraps up with trend ten: indie authors are writing the next chapter of this industry. The power center in publishing is shifting from publishers to authors, he says, because authors decide when, where, and how they publish. The next two years are crucial, because the decisions authors make are going to shape the course of the industry for a generation.

Coker compares Amazon to Wal-Mart, who drew much fire for destroying small-town businesses, but never had any trouble finding willing customers who simply wanted the best deals they could get. Amazon could do the same thing, Coker says. While Amazon “merely feeds our gluttony,” the power we give it through purchasing exclusively from it means Amazon can relegate authors and publishers to “the status of community producers—tenant farmers tilling Amazon soil.”

Authors and publishers need to tame the Amazon tiger, Coker warns, by saying no to exclusivity and by developing alternative sales channels before it’s too late. Publishers need to reinvent themselves because the success of both KDP Select and Smashwords are signs publishers simply aren’t meeting authors’ needs. They need to recognize they are mainly service providers to authors, and should learn from self-publishing so that they, too, can learn to say “yes” to every author.

Coker concludes by calling on authors to say “no” to those who would seek to steal their independence, and not to self-limit their opportunity by entering into exclusive deals. The future of the e-book market could depend on it.

The presentation was very interesting, and I can certainly see where Coker is coming from. Now that Amazon is the proverbial 800-lb gorilla, it is absolutely stating to throw that weight around. And why wouldn’t it? In capitalism, companies are run on a profit motive, not out of the goodness of their own hearts. It’s just the same for Smashwords—I’m sure that if Smashwords was the big guy and Amazon the little guy, Coker would be making many of the same decisions as Bezos is now in order for Smashwords to stay on top. That’s just how it works.

That being said, though, Smashwords isn’t the big guy, and Coker does have a point that it wouldn’t be a good thing in the long run for Amazon to have everything its own way. But realistically, how is he going to stop it? A boycott requires enough people to take part in it to make a difference, and that’s a pretty rare thing for boycotts—especially boycotts of big companies. When faced with the prisoner’s dilemma of foregoing short-term advantages to themselves in favor of long-term advantages that can accrue only if most other people also forego those short-term advantages, how many people are going to be willing to give those short-term benefits up in favor of longer-term benefits they might not ever get?

Wal-Mart isn’t exactly in any danger of going belly-up, even after decades of being known for killing off smaller stores wherever it goes. I have a hard time imagining Amazon’s story will turn out any differently—though for authors’ sake, I hope that it does nonetheless.

Correction: I originally said Jamie McGuire was leaning back toward traditional publication. Freudian slip, and exactly the opposite of what I meant to say. Whoops!


  1. Hmm..I guess I’m in the minority. I get ebooks from Amazon and my library via Overdrive. I am a KU subscriber and have been for a while. In addiiton, the last few ebooks that I’ve read(reading) cost either $12.99 or $9.99 each. The KU titles that I read are stuff that with the exception of Chuck Wendig, aren’t books that I would pay for in any case. It’s been months since I’ve found any good fantasy there. IMO, KU is what indie publishing used to be and it will be awhile until it catches up to indie publishing as it now exists outside of KU.

  2. Quote: “I’m sure that if Smashwords was the big guy and Amazon the little guy, Coker would be making many of the same decisions as Bezos is now in order for Smashwords to stay on top. That’s just how it works.”

    Not just no. NO! NO! A THOUSAND TIMES NO!

    You’re being very modern, Chris, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. You have no understanding that some people have character and integrity, that they’re not merely pushed about by their circumstances. You’re like Peter Jackson with his Lord of the Rings movies. Jackson, typically Hollywood, was unable to believe that Faramir could be as Tolkien very clearly portrayed him, somone who would never be seduced by the power of the Ring. As Tolkien has him say:

    “But fear no more! I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory. No, I do not wish for such triumphs, Frodo son of Drogo.”

    Some people have their price. Others simply cannot be bought. I currently reading a book about an anti-Nazi student group in Munich that’s called Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. When Hans and Sophie Scholl, a brother and sister in the group, were arrested together with Christel, the father of three young children, they deliberately drew all the fury of the Gestapo onto themselves, making their execution all the more certain, in an effort to save Christel.

    In your twisted, foul, vile worldview, one devoid of character, integrity, courage and the like, they would, of course, immediately turned informer on the others in the movement to save themselve. That’s like you particular example, given Jeff Bezos’s power a Mark Croker would behave exactly like him. Not necessarily so. We can never know who will be corrupted by power, but we can certainly know that some will not.

    I’ll draw another illustration from The Lord of the Rings. Why did two little hobbits succeed in penetrating deep within Mordor to destroy the One Ring? Because Sauron was unable to imagine that anyone possessing the One Ring would not only refuse to use its power, but would seek to destroy it. He lacked the moral imagination to see that some would choose good over evil.

    Some people are like that. Easily corrupted themselves, they cannot imagine that someone could be uncorruptable. Their very blindness to that possibility reveals their ture nature. Having no courage, they see everyone as cowards. Having no integrity, they see others as easily corrupted. Have no character or beliefs, they believe everyone to be blown about by circumstances. What they lack in themselves, they cannot see in others.

    And yes, as Tolkien notes, in the end even Frodo, the good little hobbit who has sacrificed so much to get to the Crack of Doom, is seduced by the One Ring’s power. The very willful Faramir would have never been seduced, but Frodo is made of weaker stuff. He is just an amiable little hobbit who loves his two breakfasts. As Tolkien later explained, it is at that point where God intervenes with his grace. He uses the pity that Frodo felt for the unfortunate Gollum for good. Because Frodo did not kill Gollum when he could, Gollum is present to take back the One Ring and stumble into the Crack of Doom, destroying it.

    On the day of her execution, Sophie told her cellmate of a dream she’d had the night before. In that dream, she’s carrying a small child, dressed for a church christening, when a great chasm opens up in front of her. She’s just able to thrust the child to safety on the other side before falling to her doom. That child, she said, is their idea for resisting the Nazi evil. She may die, but it will not die.

    Some people understand that, while some don’t. I feel sorry for those who don’t. They’re not merely blind. They don’t even realize they’re blind. Worst of all, they spread that blindness to others.
    And all that blindness, particularly as spread by our devoid-of-all-integrity mass media, is precisely why Election 2016 presents us with a dreadful choice between two scoundrels who, however much they differ in details, are both totally lacking in character and integrity. It’s why I told friends and family, that I fully agree with this recent obituary:

    My sister replied with, ‘There was an obituary in the Auburn paper last week that said “in lieu of flowers, don’t vote for Donald Trump.”‘

    Sad that we’ve come to that, but its not hard to see why. If everyone is corrupt, why look for someone honest for public office? (In your case, Bezos or Coker, what’s the difference?) Instead, look for someone who’ll steal and give some of their loot to you. That’s Election 2016. It’s also much of America 2016.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride, a young adult novel about a brave teen girl who takes on over a 100 armed Klansmen in a brave night ride to rescue her father.

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