Smashwords' CEO Mark Coker's Year-End Report Reflects On Self-Publishing In 2011

On Friday, we took a look at mainstream publishing’s figures for 2011, including the book deals that were made by publishers and consumer book buying habits. But this didn't account for the changes that took place in the arena of self-publishing during 2011. For an idea of some of the ongoing trends, today we are taking a look at Smashwords’ sales figures and changes for the past year. 

Smashwords.com is one of the top publishing platforms for authors looking to self-publish or release their works outside of the avenues offered by mainstream publishers like New York City’s big six. This year Smashwords has grown exponentially, and by taking a look at some of the ways they’ve improved according to the company’s founder and CEO Mark Coker’s year in review post, it’s no wonder that self-publishing is taking such a bite out of the publishing pie. 

In the past year, self-published e-books came to the forefront of publishing. These digital books have made the major bestseller lists, including that of Amazon and the New York Times. Coker proudly pronounced, "2011 was the year indies proved they can out-publish, out-compete, out-distribute and out-sell the large publishers.” So it makes sense that the easy-to-use Smashwords platform would be popular with independent publishers and self-publishers. 

But the actual numbers are remarkable in their sheer size. At the end of 2011, Smashwords hosted over 92,000 published titles, an increase of over sixty-three thousand titles from previous year. Furthermore, the popular publishing platform housed works of over thirty-four thousand authors and small publishers, a significantly larger number than they started with at the beginning of last year. 

To hear Coker tell it, it’s no surprise that the online publishing (and e-book selling) platform is flourishing. He says, "Smashwords married self-publishing with ebooks, and we did it with a free platform that enabled any writer, anywhere in the world, to easily publish an ebook using nothing more than a word processor. We took the printing press — once under the sole dominion of the publisher — and put it in the cloud for all to use." 

And like the self-publishing industry, the Smashwords website is in transition. This past year the company has focused on quickly growing their website in order to accommodate all of the new authors on the self-publishing scene. And the result? Says Coker, "Our infrastructure improvements have led to fewer website outages and faster page load times at the same time our catalog of books and traffic have exploded."

Not only is the company adding books the to their already impressive catalogs, mirroring the boom in self-published books, Smashwords has also made changes to increase the ease of self-publishing on their platform. For example, the digital conversion of manuscripts, which previous took upwards of thirty hours, can now be done in fewer than three minutes. Additionally, Smashwords is working closely with their retail partners to improve the frequency of sales reports so authors can make informed decisions about how to price and market their e-books. 

Furthermore, in the middle of 2011, Smashwords also obtained 50,000 ISBNs, book id numbers, to distribute to authors for free. ISBNs are necessary component of any e-book sold by Apple, Sony or Kobo. And it’s a simple bookselling adage that the more places you put a book, the more likely it is to get picked up! And the updates don't stop there, during the last year Smashwords also altered their website and publishing platform to become more literary agent-friendly. You can learn more about those specific changes here

But more than just assisting authors in getting their digital books available for sale online, Smashwords is also helping to market e-books. Recent changes to the Smashwords website include increasing book descriptions and adding recommendations to a reader during checkout. Another exciting weapon was added to the Smashwords selling arsenal late in the year, the ability to purchase an e-book as a gift. The Smashwords Coupon tool has long been popular as a way for an author (or publisher) to offer a discounted read. But the new e-gift option is definitely a more focused way to spread the love of a particular author or book — and it is a way that fans can get involved to help an author’s popularity grow. Additionally, the company launched an official Smashwords Facebook page, which helps promote new authors to curious readers. 

However, amidst all these improvements to the Smashwords publishing platform and website, there is a dark cloud on their horizon. Coker sees Amazon’s new publishing initiative, Kindle Direct Publishing Select, as a threat to Smashwords’ success and the entire e-publishing landscape. In late December, Amazon (which recently became a publisher in its own right) launched a platform that allows authors to self-publish directly into the Kindle store, but the program requires that participating authors only publish with KDP. Says Coker, "Of the approximate 65,000 or so books enrolled in KDP Select, nearly 6,000 books came from — and disappeared from — Smashwords as a result." (He blogged more about the topic here.)

Nonetheless, this setback does not mean that Smashwords is giving up, or that the e-book market will begin flagging anytime soon. 

In his post Coker makes the prediction, “Based on preliminary post-Christmas sales results I’ve seen for Smashwords books at Apple, B&N and Sony, I think 2012 could see ebook market share in the US rise to between 40 and 50%.” And he backs up this thinking with last year’s sales trends when after an early bump in 2011, sales figures became stable at a level noticeably higher than they were at the same time in 2010. (We are betting that the increasing amount of e-reading devices on the market and in readers’ hands has something to do with this!)

And to keep up with the increased demand, in 2012 Smashwords will be continuing to make changes that will help authors e-publish successfully. From improving book distribution, which will come in the form of new stores and more frequent shipments, to additional tweaks to the reporting tools that Smashwords introduced in 2011, the company is working hard to increase their site’s usability. Smashwords is also refining their formatting process, which will result in more books receiving Premium Catalog Approvals. And finally, in the coming year authors can expect to have more control over the process of hosting their self-published (or indie published) book with Smashwords. 

And the results for readers? Well, it sounds like there will be more self-published books hitting shelves. Which leaves us with just one thing to say, “Bring on the books!”

Want to learn more about self-publishing? At the 2012 RT Booklovers Convention, Smashwords’ Mark Coker will be speaking on several panels in our Self-Publishing and E-Book Program, including, “Money, Money, Money — Facts and Figures for Financial Payoff”. This RT-exclusive panel will be the first time that Coker will mine all of Smashwords' extensive sales data to answer questions such as "Does a $.99 e-book move more units than a $2.99 e-book and which usually earns the author more money?" Coker will also be participating in two other workshops, “How to Top the Bestseller Lists” and “Digital DIY: The Pros & Cons of Digital Self-Publishing”. To learn more about our annual convention and how you can attend, click here. And you can find more publishing industry news here.