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Episode 8:   Art of Delusion

Every writer - even successful writers - can have dark days when the reasons to quit feel more sensible than the reason to power on. In this episode, Mark teaches writers how to find the strength to persevere during the inevitable ups and downs of a writer's life.  He concludes by sharing twenty tips for publishing success.


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Welcome to the Smart Author Podcast where you'll learn to publish e-books with greater pride, professionalism and success. I’m your host, Mark Coker. Let’s get started.

In this episode, the art of delusion. As writers, we all have dark days when it feels like nothing’s working and when quitting feels like a sensible option. If you haven’t experienced these dark days yet, you will. On those dark days, you'll hear voices often from friends, family or negative reviewers, and these voices will amplify your doubt when they jump in and encourage you to quit. When this happens, it becomes all the more difficult to keep going, yet somehow, we find the strength to power on because we’re writers.

My writing journey started like the journey for most writers. My wife and I spent three years researching, writing and revising our novel. It’s titled Boob Tube. My wife, Lesleyann, is a former reporter for Soap Opera Weekly Magazine so we decided to write a novel about the dark underbelly of celebrity culture and the novels written through the eyes of these fictional soap opera actors. Despite representation from an awesome top tier literary agent in New York City, an agent who believed in us, no publisher would touch the project. Previous soap opera theme novels had bombed in the marketplace. Publishers are reluctant to take a chance on us.

That was in 2005 back in the dark ages of publishing when a publisher’s rejection was absolute. Back then, a publisher’s refusal to acquire your book doomed your dreams of authorhood. Rejected writers became failed writers. Sure. Back then, you could self-publish in print but that’s if you didn’t mind filling your garage with unsold books. Most books were sold in physical bookstores and only publishers could get your books in bookstores which was where readers go to buy books. I could have quit back then. All sensible reason pointed toward quitting. We gave it our best shot. Our agent gave it his best shot and what was, was. Maybe we weren’t good enough. Maybe we truly sucked, but I don’t like it when the powers that be tell me I can’t do something I know I should have the freedom to do. Rejection doesn’t feel good. Dependence and subservience doesn’t feel good.

Here’s the problem as I saw it. Publishers were and remain unable, disinterested and unwilling to take a risk on every author. They simply cannot say yes to every writer. I don’t blame them for this. They’re in the business of acquiring books they think have the greatest commercial potential. If they don’t acquire books that sell, they can’t stay in business. They’re forced to measure a book’s worth based on its perceived commercial merit, yet most of their books are commercial flops anyway. Most traditionally published authors must still maintain day jobs to make ends meet. If you think about it, this means traditionally published authors have been subsidizing these publishers’ businesses for a long time. If publishers are so all-knowing and all-seeing, then why do so many of their books perform poorly?

I finally came to the realization that despite the wisdom and good intentions of these publishers, at the end of the day, they can only make an educated guess. The dirty little secret in publishing is that publishers are just throwing spaghetti against the wall. Publishers don’t know what readers want to read. Only readers know that and often, readers don’t even know what they want to read until it comes out of nowhere and smacks them upside the head. I imagine the hundreds of thousands of authors who came before us just like us who stared into this abyss of failure, whose dreams of publication were crushed by publishers. I imagine the millions of books that would die with those authors, unpublished and unread. I imagined the literary masterpieces hidden in those books that would forever be lost to humanity, undiscovered like buried treasure because these writers were never given a chance.

I had a crazy idea. What if someone somewhere could take a chance on every writer? What if that someone could be me? What if I could say yes to every writer in the world and what if, like the best of the best publishers, I could do it at no cost to the writer? Yet, it was a crazy idea. I didn't have Bill Gates or Warren Buffett kind of money but I figured if people had the freedom to publish on a blog for free or publish a video on YouTube for free, they should have the freedom to publish a book for free. I realized print book publishing was expensive, what with all that paper, glue, cardboard and fossil fuels necessary to move those bits of paper around the globe from printer to consumer, but what about ebooks?

eBooks are composed of digital bits and bytes. The cost to duplicate and transport an e-book is close to free, so I decided to embark on creating a free e-book publishing platform that would make it fast, free and easy for any writer anywhere in the world to self-publish an e-book. People reminded me this was a crazy idea. Let’s explore the crazy on my idea. I wanted to create a business that would publish writers no smart publisher wanted to publish, writers just like me and my wife. I’d publish books that no publisher thinks readers want to read. I’d publish them as ebooks, a format that, at the time, accounted for less than 1% of the book market. It was a format no reader wanted to buy and I’d sell these books on a website no one had ever heard of,

At the time, there was a tremendous stigma around self-publishing. No writer in their right mind wanted to self-publish a book back then. Oh, and to top it off, I was a clueless newbie. I had absolutely no experience in the book publishing business. My prior career was in public relations, so let’s review. I was going to build a business selling books no publisher want to publish in a format no readers want to buy at a store no reader had ever heard of, oh, and writers didn't want to self-publish. Yay, but it sounded like a good idea to me.

In 2005, I started working on the business plan and by 2007, I hired a full time software developer to create my site. In May of 2008, we unveiled Smashwords to the world. Immediately after launch, my developer quit and curiously, about a year later, he was working at Amazon on their Kindle team. Dang. It didn't feel right. Also immediately after the launch of Smashwords, the doubters pounced. I was attacked immediately by writers and industry watchers who thought that all self-published books were vanity books and anyone promoting self-publishing was a lying, cheating crook out to fleece authors. I was accused of nefarious motives. What was I selling? Was I stealing authors’ rights?

I received angry emails from writers demanding to know why I refused to put the cost of our service on our website. That’s because our service really is free. I received angry e-mails from previously published traditional authors who said, “There was no way in hell they’d allow their book to appear alongside amateur,” yes, they used that word, “amateur self-published books on Smashwords.” Now, a side note for these, what do we call them? Maybe we call them idiots. A side note for these authors, we’re a distributor and your books are already appearing alongside self-published books in every bookstore.

Another writer wrote me an angry e-mail asking if I thought he was a fool because obviously, he’d have to be a fool to make his book available as an e-book because as he told me, once his book was available online, millions of readers would pirate it. Yeah, right, if only he could be so lucky. I’d pay good money to have one million readers steal and read my novel but I digressed. By the end of that first year 2008, we’re publishing 90 authors who published 140 books at Smashwords. Sounds good, right? No. On a good day, we were only selling about $10 worth of books. The naysayers would have celebrated our misfortune with a big, fat, “I told you so.”

Smashwords only makes money on commission and the commission is about 10% of the list price. My little business was netting a whopping $1 a day. The business was losing, or I should say I was losing $10,000 a month on my crazy venture. I was the sole funder. The business was devouring my life savings. Common sense would have compelled me to quit, yet I powered on because I believed in this. My passion for this cause was all consuming. I had faith that someday, somehow, the world would come to respect the works of all writers.

I had confidence that it was inevitable that a few of these Smashwords authors would find an audience, break out and become hugely popular, if only given a chance to be judged directly by readers, if only given a chance to be freed from the shackles of well-intentioned but obstructive gatekeeping agents and publishers. I was also convinced that traditional publishing was broken and if I could build a better publishing system, authors would choose to use my system of their own free will rather than using us as the option of last resort.

By the middle of 2009, things still weren’t looking good. We were attracting more books but they weren’t selling very well on our little store that no one had ever heard of. Faced with this failure, I had two options. Number one, I could quit and go back to my old soul-sucking career in public relations or number two, I could keep fighting, so I had this crazy idea, an epiphany. I realized readers go to bookstores to buy books. Yes, you can call me a little bit slow. I won’t be offended but it took me a while to come to this realization. No one had ever heard of my little store, so I wondered, what if I could get our authors’ books into the big e-book stores? What if Smashwords could become a distributor?

When I first mentioned this idea to my sole employee, I remember laughing at the absurdity of my own idea. We had absolutely no clue how to become a distributor but we jumped in anyway and we figured it out. I found some inspiration looking at Ingram, the world’s largest book distributor. At the time, their primary business was distributing print books from large publishers to retailers. I realized they provided a lot of value add for publishers, retailers and readers alike by efficiently managing the physical logistics of moving all these bundles of paper and glue from printers to warehouses to bookstores and ultimately, to readers. They distributed e-books at the time too but only for large publishers. The world needed an e-book distributor for indie authors, so what if Smashwords could become the Ingram of self-published e-books? I laughed at myself again at the thought but I figured, even if I failed spectacularly, I’d have fun trying.

By the end of 2009, we signed distribution deals with Barnes & Noble and Sony. Those two deals were a breakthrough because prior to us opening up these two stores, these stores were closed to self-published authors. By early 2010, we had a deal with Apple iBooks. By early 2010, we were making progress. Once our authors’ books made it into these major e-book stores, the book started selling but we were still losing thousands of dollars each month. It’s tough to build a business when you're only making 10% of the list price. My savings were almost tapped out.

I calculated I would run out of cash in about three months. Even though we were growing each month, I had already maxed out the line of credit on my home so not only was I cash poor, I was also in debt, so I did what any sensible adult would do in this situation. I called my mom. I asked my mom if she wanted to invest in Smashwords. I can still hear her response ringing in my ears to this day. She said, “Oh, Mark. That sounds so risky but I’ll lend you the money against your rental house,” so I mortgaged my only other asset to my mom.

Ten months later, Smashwords hit profitability and the rest is history. Today, with nearly a half million books published at Smashwords and over 100,000 authors working with us around the world, we’re the largest distributor of self-published e-books. For the first few years of this business, I worked harder than I had ever worked. These were 16 and even 18-hour days unpaid. I did everything except for the programming. Many nights, I was so emotionally spent that I could barely speak. If you would ask me my name, I would have struggled to tell you my name. I was that fried.

As soon as we hit profitability, I started hiring. Today, Smashwords has nearly 20 employees. Looking back upon those first few years, I had many reasons to quit. Those first few authors to use Smashwords had many reasons to quit too but they used Smashwords because they believed in our mission and they believed in themselves. Those early authors are my heroes. Those early authors gave me the strength to power on, to help me prove to the world that there was extraordinary literary talent locked between the brains and fingertips of ordinary writers across the world, writers just like you. Whatever success we’ve had at Smashwords, it’s entirely thanks to writers like you, so thank you. We exist to serve you.

Let’s talk about the path forward for you and your writerly dreams. Publishing platforms like Smashwords make publishing easy but it’s still not easy to sell books. I would never advice authors to put everything on the line like I did. Looking back, I was foolish and I got lucky. As I mentioned back in episode three, I think it was tip 15, you should never go into debt to fund your publishing dream. Luckily, you don’t have to. Publishing can be free or nearly free. For writers, there’s never been a better time to publish. Millions of readers around the globe are waiting to discover their next great read. You have the tools to reach them.

20 Tips for Success

Now, I want to share 20 tips that will help you power on to reach readers with your words.

1. Respect your readers. Write and publish super awesome books. Readers will determine your success, wow them. Anything less than wow is not good enough because good isn’t good enough anymore. Good will fail when readers demand excellence.

2. Write more. With every word you write, you'll become a better writer. Hone your craft.

3. Employ best practices for incremental advantage. There’s no single magic bullet to success. There are millions of readers out there who should be reading you but don’t yet know that. They don’t yet know that you exist. The secrets to professional publishing are yours for the taking. Do things that give you a competitive advantage. Adopt best practices as we’ve discussed in every episode of the smart author podcast series. There are the obvious things like professional editing, professional cover design and tools like e-book pre-orders. Then, there are the not so obvious things that you need to do. Constantly work to hone and evolve your best practices. Remember, you can always get better. The truth of the matter is that most writers don’t take advantage of best practices. This means that if you do take advantage of best practices, you will have an edge.

4. Think long term. You're running a marathon, not a sprint. Consider how every action you take today will impact your long term success.

5. Guard your independence. After decades of subservience to publishers, indie authors now have the freedom to break the yoke of subservience and make their own way. Yet, with the rise of self-publishing has come those who want to steal your independence by enticing you to go exclusive. The opposite of independence is dependence. Don’t become dependent upon any single retailer. Otherwise, your future is in their hands, not your own.

6. Connect with your community. Stay connected with your writing community, both online and offline. Join a local writers group or a critic group to meet with fellow writers, hone your craft, and learn from guest speakers. Attend a writers’ conference where you can further hone your craft and learn about the industry and network with industry professionals. In tip seven through 11, I’m going to share a few of my personal secrets to business success. 

7. Be kind to people. Treat partners and readers with respect. It takes a village to reach readers. Fellow authors, critique partners, beta readers, editors, publishers, cover designers, retailers and distributors can all contribute to your success. Choose the right partners and these people will help you achieve even greater success.

8. Be honest. Business relationships are built on trust. The fastest way to squander trust is to be dishonest. If you always tell the truth, you never have to remember what you told someone.

9. Be ethical. Do unto others as you would want done unto you. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. Don’t harm others.

10. Finally, be humble. Yes, I’m confident you have super awesome potential within you and it’s the truth but know that all of us can always grow better and become better. Your success started with you but it was helped along by others. Celebrate those who help you succeed. Always know that none of us alone can achieve anything without the support, encouragement and love of those around us.

11.  Practice radical time management. Raise your hand if you have too many hours in your day. The truth is none of us have enough time. Organize your time so you’re spending more time writing and less time on the menial grunt work of publishing. As an aside, this is why so many authors distribute with Smashwords. We help them spend more time writing and less time fussing with distribution. Radical time management doesn’t mean that you're working all the time. Carve out downtime to recharge. Spend time with your friends and family. If you're an introvert like me, nothing recharges like a little solitude in my garden or on a hike. If you're an extrovert, get out there and mingle.

12. Take risks, experiment and fail often. Failure is a gift. Success is impossible without failure. My failure to find a traditional publisher for our novel led me to create Smashwords. My early failures at Smashwords helped light a successful path. The challenge is to take many smaller risks and appreciate every failure as a teachable moment.

13.  Be delusional. At the Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado back in 2013, I attended a session on publishing that was presented by Uber agent Donald Maass. At the end of his session, he was asked what he thought of self-publishing. He responded to this room full of hopeful writers by saying, “Self-publishing is a fine option if you don’t want to sell any books.”

I watched as jaws dropped and hearts sank. I approached Don afterward at the dinner gathering that night and I calmly told him I thought he was underestimating the impact self-publishing would have on the industry. Without skipping a beat, he answered, “And I think you're delusional.” I think I must have responded with an ear to ear grin like a mad man probably confirming his dim view of my optimism.

The next year in 2014, Inc. Magazine named Smashwords to its Inc. 500 list of America’s fastest growing companies. Smashwords authors now sell millions of dollars of self-published e-books at retail each year. Real readers have purchased over $100 million worth of our authors’ books at retail, so who’s delusional now, Don? Indie authors are just getting started. The industry still doesn’t appreciate the impact indies will have in the years to come as indie e-books continue to capture and ever greater share of the e-book market and as readers continue to slowly shift in the direction of screens. The industry’s underestimation of you and your potential is your strength and their weakness.

14. Embrace your doubters. They know not of what they speak. They’re delusional too. Give them a hug.

15. Celebrate your fellow author’s success because their success is your success and your success is theirs. If you're fortunate enough to achieve extreme success, and I know some of you will, it’s inevitable, do everything you can to pause, reach back and lift up your fellow authors so they can join you for the ride. A journey shared is more satisfying than a journey alone.

16.  Past success is no guarantee of future success. I think a lot about this at Smashwords. We know we must continue improving and evolving every day and we do. The world is cyclical. Your publishing business will have ups and downs. When you're having a great run, enjoy it. Soak it in and bank it. Pay off your debts. Save for rainy day and then, keep working.

17. Never give up. Quitting guarantees failure. Never stop running in the direction of your dreams. Fight for your right to pursue the best career in the universe. Every successful author I know once toiled in obscurity and you will too.

18. Dream big dreams. Be ambitious. Aim high. You are smart. You are capable. You must believe this because if you don’t believe this, you can’t achieve. Salvador Dali once said, “Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.”

19. Know that your writing is important. Books are important to the future of humanity and you are the creator of books. That makes you special. It also burdens you with a considerable responsibility. Your writing is unique. No one else can create what you have within you. Your writing is the manifestation of your life, your dreams, your soul and your talent. You are special. Others might think you're suffering from delusions of grandeur but so what? What do they know? They can’t see inside you. If you don’t believe in yourself, who will? Don’t be discouraged if others, including those who love you the most, don’t understand the vision in your head.

20.  Find success and satisfaction in the journey of publishing. Know that the measure of your importance and your contribution to book culture and your contribution to humanity cannot be measured by your sales alone. The moment you reach your first reader, you've done your part to change the world and that’s just the beginning, so thank you for everything you do and thank you for taking the time to join me here on the Smart Author Podcast. That concludes episode eight.

In the next episode, Episode 9, I’ll present the Indie Author Manifesto. As an indie author, you're part of a global cultural movement. I’ll discuss the indie author movement. I’ll discuss why I wrote the Indie Author Manifesto and I’ll read it and I’ll dissect it. Until then, keep writing. I’m Mark Coker.