Interview with Mark Coker

Published 2013-08-16.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
I never set out to become an "indie" author. I simply wanted to become a published author. Back in 2005, my wife and I co-wrote Boob Tube, a novel that explores the wild and wacky world of daytime television soap operas. My wife is a former reporter for Soap Opera Weekly magazine. Our dream was to see our novel on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. Even though we were repped by an excellent agent at one of New York's most respected literary agencies, publishers refused to acquire the book because previous soap opera-themed novels had sold poorly.
Is this what led you to create Smashwords?
Yes. It was our agent who suggested we self-publish back in 2007 (he was ahead of his time!). I liked the idea, and had read Dan Poynter's excellent reference, Dan Poynter's Self Publishing Manual, but I realized without the benefit of print distribution - something only a traditional publisher could offer - our self-published print book would go undiscovered and unread. I began to imagine the hundreds of thousands of other writers facing the same dilemma, where traditional publishers had all the power to crush their dreams of publication simply because they didn't see the commercial potential. I began to realize that publishers in the business of selling books, not publishing books. I don't hold this against them. Of course they need to make money to keep the lights on. Yet the value of books to humanity, in my opinion, cannot be measured by dollars alone. If you want to publish a cookbook of your family recipes for the benefit of your children and grand childen, that book in my mind is every bit as valuable as anything put out by New York. I decided that this focus on perceived commercial merit, and the inherent economic inefficiencies of producing, publishing and distributing print books, was threatening the future of books. I felt there needed to be a better way. I decided ebooks might provide the path toward democratized publishing. I thought it would be really cool if there was an ebook self-publishing platform that would make it fast, free and easy to publish an ebook. This was the genesis behind Smashwords. I wanted to create a global publishing platform that would allow *me* to take a chance on every author, at no cost or risk to the author. I wanted to give every writer in the world the freedom and opportunity to publish, and I wanted to give readers the freedom to decide what was worth reading. I believed that if writers were simply given a chance, that the entire world would be surprised by the amazing talent and knowledge locked between the minds and fingertips of ordinary writers around the globe. We launched Smashwords in 2008, and today we help authors publish and distribute over 200,000 titles.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
For my fiction, I enjoyed the creative journey of writing a novel, and especially the opportunity to collaborate with my wife. People who've never written fiction can't imagine the high every writer gets when they plunge their imagination into the process of writing a novel. It was exhilarating and incredibly fun.

On the non-fiction side, I've written three books focused on different aspects of ebook publishing best practices. For these books, the greatest joy for me is in sharing useful knowledge that helps writers become professional publishers. I think there are three essential legs of the professional publishing stool. There's the printing press (provided by the Smashwords Meatgrinder), the access to retail distribution (we distribute to most of the major retailers), and the best practices knowledge of professional publishing. What a writer knows how to publish professionally, there is no limit to their potential. My three ebook publishing books have been downloaded almost a half million times. That blows me away. I feel so honored and gratified to know I've helped so many people, whether or not they publish at Smashwords. In return, I've learned so much from our authors. The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success was entirely inspired by my observations of the tactics and strategies utilized by our most successful authors. If you want to understand the future of publishing, keep an eye on indie authors!
What are you working on next?
I've got several ideas for new novels, and have started a new book on e-publishing, though it's getting tougher for me to find time to write because there are so many exciting projects we're working on at Smashwords. At Smashwords, we wake up every morning asking ourselves what we can do next to connect our authors' books with reader eyeballs.
Who are your favorite authors?
I really like Douglas Adams for his Hitchhiker's books and John Christopher for his Tripods trilogy. These are books I enjoy rereading every few years. Allan Folsom's The Day After Tomorrow (different from the movie of the same name) is one of my favorite thrillers. Someone should make a movie out Folsom's book. I also enjoy Sun Tzu's Art of War.
What books do you collect, and why?
My wife and I collect print books. Not necessary first editions, but just ordinary books. We probably have over 1,000 books. Whenever we go on vacation anywhere around the world, we visit every used bookstore we can find. I collect books about World War II. Both of my grandfathers were in the US Navy so I feel a special connection to the story of WWII. One grandfather was an officer on the USS Arizona. Luckily, he had shore leave the morning of the attack. If he had been on the ship, my father probably would never have been born. That grandfather later participated in several naval battles in the Pacific. One of my great grandfathers sided with the Japanese, while his two sons joined the US Navy. My great-grandfather's surprising story (last name Gorham) was chronicled in David Halberstam's book, THE RECKONING. Just this year, I learned a branch my family in Germany was lost to the concentration camps. I think it's important we never forget the unspeakable horrors humans are capable of inflicting upon one another. I'm also inspired by those who had the courage to stand up for what was right. World War II was the canvas that showed us all the worst of humanity and the best of humanity.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
Getting out of bed has always been easy for me. I usually wake up with Smashwords on my mind, and the thoughts are usually about new features we can add, or how we can do something better or faster. My second thought of the day is coffee. Coffee is one of the joys of every day. My other joys include family, friends, my garden and my pets (chickens, homing pigeons, cats).
When you're not working on Smashwords, what are you doing?
I'm always thinking about Smashwords, but when I'm not working on Smashwords I'm hiking, gardening, traveling, reading, daydreaming and hanging out with my wife, family and friends.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
The iPhone.
Do you think print books will ever go away?
I hope not. I love print books. When I first told my wife about my idea to start Smashwords, she said, "you can't do that, you'll kill books!" I never viewed it that way. Ebooks are a format. Print is a format. They're both equally worthwhile methods of consuming words. Both formats in combination make words more accessible to more readers than either format can do in isolation. Although I think more words will be consumed in the future on screens than on paper, I think both formats can coexist.
What do Smashwords authors mean to you?
I love our authors. I think writers are the most amazing, most interesting people anywhere. Writers are the dreamers and doers. I love that we're able to provide them free and simple tools that help them reach readers and achieve their dreams. When I meet with our authors at conferences, it's incredible. In my mind, we're still that tiny, scrappy, invisible startup, but when I go to these conferences and find a roomful of Smashwords authors, I want to pinch myself. It's an emotional experience, especially when an author tells me how Smashwords changed their life. It's so kind and gracious of them to say that, but at the same time it makes me squirm. I'm not comfortable taking that credit. I'd like to think we helped opened doors, but it's the writers who deserve all the credit for their success. They had the courage to walk through the doors and publish directly to their readers. They're the ones wowing readers with such amazing books. I stand in awe of what they do. Every day, I'm thankful our authors have given me the opportunity to have the most incredible job in the world. I think everyone at Smashwords feels that way. We're all book lovers, and you can't love books without loving the authors who created them.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author or publisher.

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