So what do you think of this?

First I’m setting the stage, as it were. I’m a Web 2.0 Beta Project slut. I admit it. I’ve beta’d a lot of products the vast majority of which Did Not Work For Carolyn (DNWFC); that is, I got nothing useful or fun from them. The thing is, I’m busy. A beta has to be either immediately (and I do mean immediately) usable or so obviously a value-add for me, including fun by the way, that it’s worth spending time when I should be writing. So, Twitter — so easy and fun that I twitter still. Pownce — seemed too complicated given my deadlines. Flickr — fun easy and now with the use of the browser Flock a dream for the MySpace time suck. Like that.

I was reading about a product in beta called Smashwords. Two links: Smashwords Press Release and More about Smashwords. For the lazy, they want to make it easy for authors to publish and sell multiple formats of their work. Hmm. On the face of it, quite interesting. Really.

The Beta sign up is stupid, however. You have to answer a bunch of questions including selecting from a list that 1) was obviously written by an insider who understands COMPANY lingo, but not the lingo of possible users and 2) requires that stupid selection BEFORE you indicate you’re an author. And NONE of the selections seems to apply to their target group — authors. So I’m not going to bother with the beta.

I did skim through the two links above and I’m bothered by a few things, even though I think the idea is kind of neat and possibly convenient for authors.

The press release is a monument to unintentional humor, misstatement, omission and common misconceptions about the publishing business.

Authors receive 85% the net sales proceeds from their works, and retain full control over sampling, pricing and marketing.

Net not gross. Can anyone say Hollywood style accounting? That’s been all over Publisher’s Lunch for crying out loud. Full control — but not over rights? Who gets them? What happens to them if you use this company? If you want to attract authors, then address the issues that matter to them.

The site offers authors free viral marketing tools to build readership, such as precent-based sampling; dedicated pages for author profiles and book profiles; support for embedded YouTube book trailers, author interviews and video blogs; widgets for off-site marketing; reader reviews; and reader "favoriting."

Overlooking the spelling error, one omission here is the fact that readers have NO LOYALTY to a publisher. Their loyalty is to the author. Suppose there are readers who love my books (there’s some, I’m pretty sure!) They don’t care who publishes me. They care that I’m published and they can, therefore, buy my books. I care who publishes me because that decision puts money and other career goodness in my pocket. That loyalty is why if J.K. Rowling changed publishers, her old publisher would be feeling sick and nauseous and her new publisher would be hiring some long-needed staff.

So, what’s here that an author can’t do on her own website, much more effectively from the point of view of the reader? Possibly the favoriting. None of this is a huge selling point for me, an actual author. Gosh knows I don’t need yet another place where I have to maintain a presence. The Smashwords folks are confusing reader-centric benefits (favoriting) and writer-centric benefits (money and audience).

Also Viral Marketing? The whole problem with viral-anything is that you can’t make it happen. To suggest that this is a method for going viral is well, in my opinion, dishonest. That Jedi-Knight guy on YouTube doesn’t get a cent for the video in which he appears. YouTube sure gets lots from it though.

Amazon and Google Books are two huge competitors for most of this stuff. Well, competitors for that group of Authors Who Can Write.

"We plan to do for ebook authors what YouTube did for amateur video producers," said Mark Coker, founder and CEO of Smashwords, based in Los Gatos, Calif. "We make digital publishing simple and profitable for authors and publishers."

Whoa. Talk about some slight-of-hand! What did YouTube do for amateur video? Gave them a forum. It did not put money in their pockets. There’s no profit for YouTube content producers. None. Besides, YouTube created a fun and easy forum where none existed before. Before YouTube, there was no fun and easy method of sharing video. But legions of writers already post stuff on their websites and in their blogs. What Smashwords would do for them is provide a forum. But it won’t have them quitting their day jobs anytime soon. Heck, writers who already get paid for their words can’t quit the day job. Smashwords isn’t going to change that. They will be profiting from all the people who want to write but can’t really. I can do most of that stuff over at Amazon and it doesn’t cost me anything but time. The Smashwords forum might be quite nice. But I’ compelled to point out that for writers who CAN write, digital publishing is already cheap and profitable. More about that later.

The inspiration for Smashwords grew out of founder Mark Coker’s frustrations as an aspiring novelist.

Prediction: Authors who know the business cringed inside when they read that.
Fact: 98-99 percent of all the people who think they can write a novel 1) can’t and/or 2) don’t work hard enough at it. The Press Release goes on to describe a Roman-a-Clef project that sounds pretty interesting on its face, but the Roman-a-Clef bit has legal issues all over it. If they were rejected for the stated reason I would like to point them to Ursula LeGuin’s famous rejection letter. I’m guessing their project wasn’t any Left Hand of Darkness but nevertheless, two years isn’t all that long when you’re trying to get published (see press release for more ifo).

Coker concluded that in today’s digital age, there’s no reason why authors shouldn’t be able to publish anything they want – and readers should determine what’s worth reading, not just publishers.

Ohmygosh. Authors already can publish anything they want. Can you say Vanity Press? Here’s the reason publishers SHOULD have something to say about what gets published: POD-dy Mouth.

Readers already do determine what’s worth reading. It’s just that no one has a sure-fire way of figuring out what that’s going to be.

From the other article:

The hope is that ebooks, which failed to gain a foothold almost a decade ago, have advanced far enough both technologically and in the eyes of readers to be an acceptable alternative to traditional books

Huh? eBooks didn’t fail. The closed, proprietary eBook Reader device failed. eBooks have been profitable and flourishing for quite some time. And that profit has flowed to authors. See Ellora’s Cave. eBooks thrived among the population most invisible to mainstream businesses and geek-types: women readers of romance. The money’s been there for a long time.

OK, this is way too long. Smashwords sounds interesting and possibly useful, but someone needs to proofread their Press Release — there’s way more than one typo — and maybe have them cut down on the hype.


One Response to “So what do you think of this?”

  1. Mark Coker says:

    Hi Carolyn, I just stumbled across your post about Smashwords.

    I’m sorry you found the beta application onerous. Soon we’ll start lifting the veil a bit by allowing current beta testers to invite others to join the beta.

    Since you haven’t yet had the benefit of actually seeing how we do things, I’ll try to address a few of your concerns:

    Net vs. Gross. We’re entirely transparent about this. When an author uploads their book and sets the price, we fully disclose the to-the-penny transaction fees we charge at each price point and what goes to Smashwords. Nothing hidden.

    Sorry about the typos. I don’t profess to be my best copy editor.

    Why Smashwords vs. posting an ebook to your own web site? I think an author should do both. An author web site is an island, lush and beautiful as it may be, but often separated from the true places readers congregate. Smashwords is more like a community book store. Readers will know they can come to Smashwords and make those serendipitous finds you’ll only find at a book store. For authors, we’ll offer them a convenient collection of marketing tools and digital fulfillment services that might help them do a better job of reaching an audience than the island-only approach.

    Viral marketing: As you know, nothing drives book sales like word of mouth. We have some initial viral tools in place that enable easier sharing and discovery, with many more tools in the works.

    Doing for ebooks what YouTube did for amateur video producers. As you note, YouTube gave folks a forum, an opportunity to be discovered by an audience. We’ll give authors a forum where readers can sample their works, review their works, and share their works with others. No slight of hand here, just a very simple concept.

    Re: the failure of ebooks. I believe ebooks have failed to live up to their potential. Proprietary ebook reading devices and proprietary DRM’d ebook formats are partially to blame. And yes, kudos to your fellow romance writers and romance readers for being ahead of the curve on ebook adoption.

    One final point… As with YouTube’s video producers, most Smashwords authors aren’t going to make a ton of money, just as most print authors won’t make a lot of money either. Writing is the wrong profession to pursue if monetary reward is the sole motivation. However, if there is money to be made from an author’s work, our mission is to put the vast majority of that money where it belongs — in the author’s pocket. Most publishers don’t share the same mission. Smashwords is built for authors, because we believe by serving authors we’ll serve readers.

    Drop me an email and I’ll add you to the beta list. I’d love to hear your feedback. My address is first initial second initial at (you can guess the rest).

    Thanks for your interest in Smashwords.

    Best wishes,
    Mark Coker