Self-published authors are in a unique position to benefit from the increasing consumer acceptance of digital books. The challenge, however, is that so many companies are popping up to offer conversion, distribution and sales. It’s tough for authors to know which vendor to choose for which services when it comes to their e-book. The truth is that it’s wrong to look for a single vendor for your self-published e-book.
After spending time examining the options available, I’ve hit upon a combination of two vendors that stands out for ease-of-use, breadth of offerings, and fair pricing structures. The magic combination that works right now is to use Scribd for social publishing, marketing and sales, and Smashwords for sales and aggregation to e-book retailers. Here’s a look at how — and why — it works.
Scribd is an easy place for authors to make finished works and works-in-progress available online to the public, to converse with other authors, and to start collecting a reader fanbase. Scribd does not deliver books to e-book retailers; rather, it offers authors a sales and marketing platform via the growing Scribd community. Scribd is all about “social publishing.”
Authors upload documents in any format (PDF, doc, PowerPoint, etc.) that readers can then buy or view free. The documents can be read on the Scribd site in slide, single-page or book mode. Additionally, the reader can download the document to their computer or send it to their mobile device.
What makes it social? A widget lets anyone embed the document on a website. Members add notes to each other’s documents, subscribe to each other’s documents and posts, and “readcast” what they’re reading to friends on other social sites like Facebook and Twitter. Members can also become curators by collecting documents on a topic, from the “Best Fiction of 2009” to “Chinese History,” for example. These features and functions can help an author spread their work, interact with readers, and build relationships with other authors. All of which can help promote your e-book.
Tool for Promotion
Author Helen Winslow Black uploaded an e-book version of her paperback, Seven Blackbirds, to sell on Scribd and found it sufficient to use the service as her main tool for book promotion.
“Instead of a blog, I publish articles and then people comment on them and I get feedback,” she said. “I have conversations and interchange, and since I signed up [in May of 2008] I have over 58,000 subscribers. Scribd is where everybody goes to read me.”
Another reason why Scribd is becoming a good option for authors is that it recently partnered with Blurb, HP MagCloud, and Mimeo to provide a print service for documents, magazines and color books. The book printing service isn’t yet ready for prime time — creating covers is awkward and book sizes are limited — but the company rolls out new features fast, so don’t be surprised to see it improve. You can now turn your e-book into a printed product, should the need arise, but not at the same quality that print-on-demand services like Lightning Source or Lulu provide.
Scribd, which has about 50 million unique visitors a month, has published more books than the entire U.S. publishing industry last year. Their send-to-device service lets readers view documents on the Kindle, Nook, iPhone, Android and other devices, but unlike Smashwords, they are not an official aggregator to e-book retailers. That’s why Scribd alone won’t fulfil your e-book needs.
Scribd wants to be the hub of publishing. Founder Trip Adler told me their goal “is to make it dead simple for anyone to publish original written works and for readers to discover and share this content.” They want “authors to use our social platform as a place to share what they are writing and to connect with other writers and readers, and to get their works in front of consumers when and where they want from any device.”
Smashwords is the fastest and easiest place for self-published authors with text-heavy books to distribute their e-book in all formats. You simply upload the text of your book — no page numbers, no headers or footers — as instructed in their simple formatting guide.
Mark Coker created Smashwords when he and his wife spent two years attempting to get their own book published. They discovered that “the publishing industry is broken.” A longtime Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Coker joked that “the solution to all the world’s ills can be solved with technology, so wouldn’t it be cool if we created an online publishing platform that would instantly let authors upload and sell books directly?”
“The service works best right now for the vast majority of books — that is to say, the straight-form narrative,” Coker told me. The book needs to be in Microsoft Word format with all the headers and footers stripped out. When you upload your book, you choose the formats to which you want it converted and the Smashwords “meatgrinder” churns them out.
But what if you spent a lot of time and money with a designer to format your book with drop caps and special fonts and dingbats?
“As technology evolves we’ll be able to bring back some formatting,” he said. “It’s hard to ask people to devolve their book. Yes, your print book is gorgeous and that 17th century font you chose is perfect. But in the digital realm you need to liberate your words into reliable, reflowable text that can shape-shift easily across all the different devices.”
He said it’s important that readers be able to customize a book to match their preferences.
“Readers want to maximize fonts, change fonts,” Coker said. “They might prefer pink Ariel font against a carved stone background — they can do that and they are. It helps to remember that people buy your book for your words. When you give the reader the flexibility to murder your book like that you are actually increasing the value of your book.”
There’s no cost to sign up with Smashwords’ Premium program, but your book formatting has to be just right and it has to have an ISBN. They are an official e-book aggregator (distributor) to many retailers including the Amazon Kindle, and they are the 6th largest aggregator to the Apple iBookstore. (Note that if your book is already for sale with an e-book retailer, for example in the Kindle bookstore, it’s best not to offer it via this channel, too. There’s no current “rule” but if you confuse Amazon they’re likely to drop you.)
If you want to print your book you can use Smashwords affiliate Wordclay, an author services company that competes with Lulu and CreateSpace. It’s easy and free, but you’ll have to format using their templates or upload a PDF. (See my previous article on self-publishing packages.)
As of April 2010 Smashwords has published over 10,000 e-books. So what’s next? “We’re just getting started,” Coker said. “The next three years will be exciting because we’ll see e-books breach 25 percent of the U.S. book market. We want our authors and publishers to get a chunk of that.”
Where’s the Money?
While Smashwords seems very focused on independent authors and publishers, Scribd clearly has bigger fish to fry. They’re wooing that market, too, but are also going after traditional publishing, the general document sharing market, and document management systems for the enterprise.
Both companies take a percentage of book sales: Smashwords 15% and Scribd 20% with a 25-cent transaction fee. When Smashwords aggregates a book to a retailer like Amazon or Apple, the author ends up with about half the cover price. In both cases, a much better financial split than traditional publishing.
Scribd recently made a deal with Author Solutions — the self-publishing service company that owns iUniverse, Author House, Xlibris, and Wordclay — to sell their customers’ books for 50% of the cover price, and have partnered with over 150 traditional publishers for e-books distribution. They’re also giving Issuu and Docstoc a run for their money in the business document sharing space.
In both cases, authors get a better deal than with traditional publishing (not counting the fact they have to do all the work), and since their services don’t currently overlap, it’s a great pairing for indie authors.
The Indie Author’s Strategy
Both of these services are non-exclusive and very easy to use, so you don’t have to worry about locking yourself in. If you want to combine them to create your e-book strategy, here’s a breakdown of when and how to do what:
- Sign up with Scribd.
- Start contributing to the community, post some works-in-progress, comment, “readcast,” curate, and collect subscribers.
- When your e-book is complete, upload it to Scribd for sale.
- Then go to Smashwords to convert your book into all the available formats.
- Join the Smashwords Premium program to aggregate your e-book to the Kindle, iBookstore, Sony, Nook, and all the other readers.
- Subscribe to the mailing lists of both companies to stay informed and take advantage of new features as they roll them out.
Photo of Trip Adler by Spencer Brown
Carla King is a publishing and social media strategist and co-author of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp Workbook, which grew out of experiences leading workshops for prospective self-publishers. She has self-published non-fiction travel and how-to books since 1994. Her series of dispatches from motorcycle misadventures around the world are available as print books, e-books and on her website.
Can anyone say hyperbolic? I direct your attention to an article from almost exactly one year ago:
Websites like Scribd are simply making it easier for an author’s work to be pirated, much in the way YouTube was a haven for pirated movies and TV shows before the harsher security measures (even still not quite enough).
Scribd is a great resource for works belonging in the public domain. They are, technically, places for discussion; but if that’s what you’re after, there are thousands of various writer’s forums and literally millions (if not billions) of discussion forums all over the web. Finally, if your looking to get your stuff out there and have little to no interest in getting signed with an established publisher, then go for it! But there’s no way any career-minded author is going to put her short fiction or novel on a site like Scribd where any anonymous person with the bare minimum of computer literacy can download, print, and copy the author’s work, edit it, and claim it as their own. Let’s not be naive and believe that the internet isn’t bloated in sickening ratio with such people.
PS, I went to college with Trip Adler. About three months before I sold my first novel with a major publisher, I was contacted by a friend-of-his-turned-employee with whom I was acquainted. He suggested that my only chance to publish would be through Scribd and his insistence was deeply insulting. Since then, I’ve heard from several writers who have history with John “Trip” Adler and have had similar experiences with Adler’s people and even the man himself. Again, if you aren’t after a publishing deal, then Scribd is the place to be. Otherwise, don’t go near it! Look for one or more writers groups in your area if you’re after feedback (and you should be).
Awesome article! I am also working on some material and I will sell on scribd. I hope they’ll bring in some cash. :)
First of all, congratulations on getting a deal for your novel. As the author of this piece and a career-minded book author who uses the services mentioned in the article, I’d like to try to address some of the points you brought up:
1) Copyright and pirating: Everyone who offers services on the web–scribd, smashwords, google, youtube, everyone–gets pretty freaked out when pirating and copyright infringement happens and they work very hard to prevent it. The Rowling case you sited is pretty old (in tech time) and, as you point out, increased measures have helped to solve.
2) I’ve found it extremely difficult to find a poor, unpublished, infringed-upon author who has been victimized by the teeming mobs of people you say who bother to search for, download, modify, and claim as their own work that is not theirs. I look all the time, since I’m asked by my students and readers about this. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is just one of those common fears, like the fear of flying. Better to get your work out there than to stay hidden away in the garret then, no?
3) Good writing groups are a great reason to come out of the garret. Go for it.
4) The billions of discussion forums you mentioned as places where you might discuss your writing are just fine if you want to spend your time talking just with other writers in your particular niche or genre. Readers (book buyers) find it much easier to go to general sites like Scribd, Smashwords, and the major e-book retailers.
There is a lot to do on the internet, a lot of places where authors can spend their time. But most authors would rather spend their time writing. That’s one reason Scribd and Smashwords pair so well — they’re the low-hanging fruit for authors to get their work out there.
With new technologies come old fears, some rational, some less so. Despite the warnings of many, it’s difficult to find actual examples and not “the monsters under the bed.”
Both Scribd and Smashwords represent the future of digital publishing, each from their unique perspective. We can pretend that things will go back to the way they were, or we can imagine the big daddy publishers will find a way to protect us from badness, but it seems much more productive to me for authors to use articles like Carla’s wonderful summary to investigate these services for themselves and find a way to move into the future that’s comfortable for them, while at the same time promoting the wider distribution of their work. Nice job!
I agree with Joel. Thank you for a thought-provoking piece, Carla.
People can and do rip off works released by conventional publishing firms and established media. Plagiarism was not invented with social media and the internet.
There are certain risks inherent in any creative enterprise. Even something as natural as learning to walk is in fact dangerous.
So let’s be prudent by all means. But let us also savor the joy inherent in sharing one’s well-wrought urn with the wider world.
I didn’t know that Scribed existed or that I could use it to promote/sell my book until I read about it in this article. The Internet is a big place these days, filled with endless lists of everything under the sun, so it’s easy to miss things. Thank you.
You’re very welcome. Scribd keeps evolving so keep looking to the site for more attractive e-book and print book tools for self-publishers and businesses. Next I’m writing about distribution, which can be handled many ways, but there are 3 basic paths most self-publishers will probably choose.
Update for authors ready to use Smashwords, here is a good short guide to formatting your book suitably for publication and distribution on devices
The authors of the WSJ article Vanity Press Goes Digital have summarized the “stars” of self-publishing online from amazon.com to Smashwords. Good article for self-publishers wanting to go digital – you’ll learn a lot! http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704912004575253132121412028.html?mod=wsj_share_twitter
Carla, excellent source of information. I have a novel I’m going to put on Smashwords, and some “how-to” writing PDFs to put on Scribd—now I just have to do it.
Thanks for the solid overview, Tom
Thank you, Tom. Nice blog for writers, by the way, your Rikki Lee Jones analogy is right on. Art is not a venue for timidity! http://www.tombentley.com/wordpress/ I look forward to following you on Smashwords and Scribd so please let me know when you’re all signed up.
More social and community-based self-publishing sites: http://Urbis.com, http:// Quillp.com and http://CompletelyNovel.com.
This article is helpful in congealing the myriad of choices authors face when putting their eBook(s) out for the first time. Some of the comments have been quite on the mark regarding the pirating issue: it happens. Just as the high possibility of car accidents occurring doesn’t stop folks from driving, so pirating does not stop authors from putting forth their hard-won pieces for sale. I recently wrote a piece on what writers can do to combat book pirates, BUT also how to use file-sharing sites for free advertising:
Thank you for the informative article.
Hi Meredith, I always enjoy your articles! Thank you for this relevant response and especially the link to the DMCA Takedown Notice. It’s very helpful for authors to know where to go when the rare infringement happens.
I have read a number of posts in this thread, and having done so leaves me with one significant question.
I am not terribly concerned at the prospects of someone stealing my book – Antiquity Calais: Standing at Armageddon – tweaking it, then republishing it under their name. However, it has been noted that customers find it convenient to go to large websites like Scribd or Smashwords. If they can go to these sites and read my book for free, why would they have an incentive to actually buy a copy? I do not mind posting excerpts of the book to entice readers to buy the book, but it seems foolish to put the whole book out there.
Full Moon Over Bunganut Publishing
Antiquity Calais: Standing at Armageddon &
Coming Soon: Antiquity Calais Ascending Olympus
#1 Piracy and copyright infringement is not the point of this article about publishing and selling your e-book despite the anonymous AJ’s paranoiac and extremely dated comments on the fact JK Rowling was pirated on Scribd – a comment that may have been simply a personal attack against the founder who he does not personally like. Please read my reply to him.
#2 Who said these are only free sites? *You* sell your book on Scribd or Smashwords (or elsewhere) where it is also possible for *you* to offer excerpts or even the entire book for free. *You* as the author/publisher decide what price to set. Free is an option.
#3 Authors like Stephen King and Cory Doctorow have found that giving away free e-books have increased hardcover sales. Might not be these days with all the great e-reader devices. Another topic entirely.
#4 Copyright infringement remains illegal and reputable sites like these take it seriously when non-copyright holders upload documents not their own. They’re getting better at it as time goes on.
If an emerging author is getting pirated all over the place like JK Rowling, I say that congratulations are in order.
Thanks for this article and the subsequent follow ups. For those of us interested in getting eyeballs on our writing, with a view to gaining readers (fans); it is really helpful.