Mark Coker ebook workshop, Sept. 29

Mark Coker

The Sacramento branch of the California Writer’s Club hosted Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, for a presentation in January that I wrote about here:

Now we’re having him back to present a nuts and bolds workshop on ebook publishing and marketing. The date is September 29, time is 9:30-3:00, and the location is convenient, just off a major freeway.  Price is $45 for CWC members and $55 for non-members.

Here is the description:

“How To Produce, Distribute & Sell Your Work In The Evolving Eworld” is a September 29thworkshop being offered by the California Writers Club, Sacramento branch.  Presenter Mark Coker, Founder and CEO of “Smashwords, ” is a leading expert in the field of creating and marketing ebooks in the evolving digital age.

Here is the brochure:

Unfortunately, I have another commitment that day.  Isn’t that always the way?  I’m sorry to miss the event, for I have a lot of respect for Coker and the clarity of his explanations and suggestions.  If you aren’t too far away and have every considered indie publishing, I’m sure this will be worthwhile.  The brochure says space is limited and suggests early registration.  I’d take that advice.

Lunch with Ebook Advocate, Mark Coker

According to Time Magazine, in 1812, the year Charles Dickens was born, 66 novels were published in Britain.  Many were written by “Anonymous,” since novels were not very reputable.  No one dreamed of making a living writing them.  Dickens, the first literary celebrity, whose bicentennial we celebrate this year, was instrumental in changing that, but he never could have imagined today’s literary landscape, which his work helped to create.

Mark Coker, guest speaker for January’s California Writer’s Club lunch, described an experience that is emblematic of the challenges faced by new writers today.  Coker and his wife co-wrote a novel.  They went through the revision process, and eventually became clients of a prestigious New York agency.  Two years later, their book remained unsold.  Coker’s solution was Smashwords, an ebook publishing service he started in 2008 that is at the forefront of changes rippling through the industry.

Mark Coker

Coker says that large publishers “look in the rearview mirror” for what has worked in the past.  There is little financial incentive for them to risk new concepts and new authors.  Even an author who wins the publishing game and gets a book on the shelves has no guarantee that a title with slow sales will not be remaindered within a matter of weeks.  That may not be enough time to establish the buzz that drives success.

Publishing on Smashwords is free and fast.  Correctly formatted books are distributed to all the major ebook publishers, and authors receive 85% of the sales.  Books do not go out of print, so there’s time for word of mouth to evolve.  Smashwords usage is growing exponentially.  Authors uploaded 140 books in 2008.  In 2011, the total was 92,000.

Smashwords historical usage, from a chart on their blog

Coker’s talk was animated with a sense of mission.  He said what gets him up in the morning is, “enabling writers to express themselves.”  He never suggested it’s easy, however, and most of the rest of his presentation detailed what is required.

First in importance, of course, is a really good book.  Coker suggested as many revisions and beta readers as necessary, and possibly professional editing.  At stake is the trust of readers, hard to build and easy to lose.

Next in importance are a well designed cover and compelling blurb.  Coker says polls reveal that “discovery” accounts for 50% of ebook sales – in other words, we still buy books by their cover.  This is good news for indie authors.  Only 18% of readers polled reported sticking with authors they know.  This means that for independent authors without design skills, hiring an artist is almost essential to come up with a cover that will capture attention as readers scroll through pages of thumbnails.  An email to will generate an auto reply listing 3d party artists and people who handle format.

Coker presented more information than I can cover in one article.  He has free guides to ebook formats and marketing at  Other topics are covered on the Smashwords blog, (referenced on the blogroll here) and at

With ebook sales continuing to climb; with Apple’s move into electronic textbooks; with Smashword’s impending foray into library distribution, it becomes increasingly clear that ebooks are where the future of publishing lies.  Mark Coker used the phrase, “democratization,” which again brought to mind the Time article on Dickens I referenced to begin post.

“The flood of books in the 19th century elicited two powerful institutional responses:  the rise of prize culture and the rise of literature as a field of study.  The message (sometimes subliminal, sometimes not) was that the masses needed help figuring out what to read, and the cultural elite…was going to provide it.”  (“Charles in Charge” by Radhika Jones in Time, Jan. 30, 2012)

Noting that such elitism broke down well before the advent of ebooks, (for example, with the rise of Oprah as our great taste-maker), Radhika Jones ends her article with a question that would likely delight Mark Coker and maybe Charles Dickens as well:  “Will the readers of the future find their 21st century Dickens on the Pulitzer roster or the best-seller list or”

“The future is in your hands,” said Coker at the end of his talk.  “The power of publishing is shifting to the authors.  Go and serve your readers.”

A Vote For Ebooks

Last weekend, I attended the monthly meeting of the local branch of the California Writer’s Club. The meetings feature introductions, socializing over a buffet lunch, and a speaker. This month we tried something new. Members were invited to throw out a question or concern. The rest of the group had five minutes to offer suggestions.

A man at my table had finished writing a fantasy novel and was wrestling with whether to try to get it traditionally published or go the self-publishing route in ebook format. Quite a few members weighed in, including unpublished, traditionally published, and self-published writers. Several others present provide marketing and design services for writers. What struck me was that everyone who spoke, without exception, urged the questioner to go the ebook route.

Several people pointed out that nowadays, successful ebook sales are an alternate route to acceptance by traditional publishers, a message we heard at an agent’s workshop last winter, and one that is underscored by the deal Amanda Hocking made with St. Martin’s Press. Others mentioned the amount of time it takes to see one’s work in print even after winning acceptance by one of the big six publishers. This underscored the author’s comment that, “At my age, I don’t have unlimited time.” One of those who provide marketing services for writers emphasized the need for a plan to publicize one’s work regardless of how your book gets published.

Even ten years ago, “self-publishing” was synonymous with “vanity press.” No longer. Not one person in the room raised the issue of “legitimacy,” one of the draws of traditional publishing before the recent spate of ebook success stories. Now, to paraphrase The Godfather, everyone who spoke felt the decision was, “just business.”

A Science Thriller by Amy Rogers

I met Dr. Amy Rogers at the Sacramento branch of the California Writer’s Club where she is Web Site Coordinator, and an author of science thrillers. What is a science thriller? Think of Frankenstein, Jurassic Park, and Contagion, coming soon to a theater near you. You can learn a lot more about the genre and read a number of reviews at Roger’s blog,

Dr. Amy Rogers

Dr. Rogers just published her debut thriller, Petroplague, in ebook format, with a paperback release due in November. She sent this synopsis:

UCLA graduate student, Christina Gonzalez, wanted to use biotechnology to free America from its dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Instead, an act of eco-terrorism unleashes her genetically-modified bacteria into the fuel supply of Los Angeles, turning gasoline into vinegar.

With the city paralyzed and slipping toward anarchy, Christina must find a way to rein in the microscopic monster she created. But not everyone wants to cure the petroplague – and some will do whatever it takes to spread it.

From the La Brea Tar Pits to university laboratories to the wilds of the Angeles National Forest, Christina and her cousin, River, struggle against enemies seen and unseen to stop the infection before it’s too late.

A former professor of microbiology, with a PHD from Washington University, Dr. Rogers has the background to make such a story plausible. In addition, Petroplague is one of two of her novels picked up by New York agents who were then unable to sell them. At this point, Rogers mentioned self-publishing, and her agent directed her to Diversion Books, which she says, “lies somewhere between self-publishing and a traditional Big Six contract. Diversion Books is loosely associated with a traditional literary agency – the first such publisher, though others have sprung up since.”

I plan to review Petroplague here, but you don’t have to wait for me. Click on the book cover photo above to go to the authors website,, to view a trailer and read the first two chapters for free.

In addition, Amy has said she’ll be happy to write a guest post or answer interview questions here. So stop back soon, and visit Amy Rogers’ website and blog, for information on publishing, on scary microbes, and to check out what promises to be an exciting read!

Guest Post by Indie Author, Jayden Scott – Part 1

At the start of May, Jayde Scott, a young writer from England, invited me to review her eBook, A Job From Hell.  Based on the professional presentation of her Smashwords page,, I agreed, though with some trepidation:  vampire romance isn’t normally “my thing.”

To our mutual relief, I enjoyed A Job From Hell and posted my review here at the end of May:  During the process, we exchanged a few emails – enough for me to realize what a complex operation an ebook publishing and marketing venture can be.  I invited Ms. Scott to describe her process, and she found the time – despite publishing two new titles this summer – to send a very detailed reply.  So detailed, in fact, that I’ve split her post into two sections.

In this section, the author describes what led her to the world of Indie publishing.  The next section outlines the nuts and bolts of her procedure.  Anyone who is interested in ebook publishing will find a wealth of information in Ms. Scott’s account.


Jayde Scott

A year ago, I would never have thought I’d be an indie author one day. At that time, I was unemployed, like many people in the UK, and could barely afford paying the rent let alone meet the monthly repayments of my student loan. Even with two good degrees, I had been looking for a job for three years without much success. During breaks from filling out application forms and struggling to get freelance work, I kept myself sane by writing as much as I could. It was my way to deal with the stress and pressure of not having a regular job.

Writing had been a hobby of mine for more than ten years. I had six books ready for publication and was actively seeking an agent or publisher for my work. Several times I came very close to landing an agent and did the ‘suggested’ changes to my manuscripts, only to have my hopes dashed again. With publishers I had similar experiences, some rejected me because I wouldn’t cut down on a 94k manuscript, others because they didn’t like a particular character. There was a time when I just couldn’t afford the horrendous postage charges for sending a manuscript to the US, so I kept postponing sending off large parcels until I got a freelance gig and had some money left.

After reading about Amanda Hocking’s success, I realised publishing doesn’t start and end with landing an agent and selling one’s work to one of the big six publishers. Sure, that would be a nice accomplishment, but I figured I might be more likely to win the lottery. It took me a long time to take this step because I kept hoping someone might make an offer soon, but when the offer never came in and I was more and more struggling to get a job and pay the bills, I decided I had nothing to lose by going the independent route. At least I had tried my best.

So, instead of wasting yet more time, I spent two weeks getting my first manuscript, Alex Gonzo, Royal Spy, ready for publishing via Kindle. It took a few attempts (actually, more than I care to reveal), but I finally figured out how to format it correctly after which it became easier with every book published.

Needless to say, I knew next to nothing about self-publishing a book or the marketing involved. I had heard of authors using Twitter and Facebook to promote their work, but that about summed up my knowledge of social media. My first attempts at Tweeting were pretty much useless and Alex Gonzo, Royal Spy didn’t sell a single copy. Five months later, I had barely sold 100 copies of that book, but I wasn’t ready to give up and self published A Job From Hell, which is the first book in the Ancient Legends series. That book didn’t take off straight away. In fact, I only sold about 60 copies in the first month. However, the more time I spent researching on the Internet and reading as many blog on publishing as I could find, the more I was determined to succeed, not least because I still hadn’t found a job and it didn’t look like I would in the near future.

Three months and a few more books later, I sell a few thousand copies a month. My books aren’t doing as great on Amazon as those of some of my fellow authors and I’m thinking maybe my coverart isn’t that great, maybe my blurbs would benefit from a makeover. However, at a price of 99c a book, my earnings at least pay the monthly rent, which is more than I would’ve earned if I kept contacting agents and publishers only to have my confidence crushed.


Victory to the Outsiders?

In 2009, 288,355 books were traditionally published in the US, and 764,448 were self-published.  The numbers for 2010 were similar, though I don’t have the exact figures handy.  A million new titles a year.  No wonder my book queue does not grow any shorter!

As the sheer quantity of books in print grows, the amount of advice for writers seems to grow too.  Four smiling faces stare at me from the cover of the new Writer’s Digest, next to titles of the following articles I will find inside (this is their “10” issue):

  • 10 Markets Open to New Writers
  • 10 Writing Myths Busted
  • 10 Ways to Start Scenes Strong
  • Bestselling Secrets for 10 Top Genres
  • 10 Ways to Stretch your Creativity
  • 10 Tips for Beating the Fear of Rejection
  • Take your Writing on the Road:  10 Inspiring Destinations.

Last week at the gym, I had a minor epiphany.  The talking-heads were doing their thing on CNN, and I realized the TV financial advisors and those who offer writing advice have a lot in common.  They can inspire; they can stimulate the flow of ideas; at the right moment, they can spark individual creativity, but no one who depends on them, who tries to practice their often contradictory advice is going to do better than average in either arena.

After my workout, I took a book out to the pool area for a read and a swim.  Summer poolside reading is a pleasure I jealously guard.  No reading to self-educate.  This is where I let stories carry me away.  Where I forget the million titles a year for the one I hold in my hand.

This time at the pool, I was rereading passages from the wonderful, Emerald Atlas, by John Stephens, that I reviewed here:  This time, because of my earlier thought train, I noticed all the rules Stephens broke in his novel.

Common “wisdom” says that not only is the omniscient viewpoint passe, but it confuses middle-grade readers – and yet here it was, masterfully executed and just right for the story.  Similarly, the consensus on the proper age for middle-grade protagonists is 12, yet  Kate is 14.

Fortunately for us, John Stephens had a successful career writing for television before he started his novel, so I’m guessing he hasn’t read how-to articles for writers in quite a while.  For here is a built in contradiction – if a million books are published each year, and the brass ring goes to those that step”out of the box,” we are not going to get there by heeding advice on how to get into the box!

I want to be very clear:  I am not disparaging learning one’s craft – badly handled omniscient viewpoints aren’t pretty.  What I am saying is that if we slow down and listen, won’t our stories tell us what they want?  If stories come from deep in the part of ourselves that dreams, isn’t it somewhat rude to meet them with an armful of rules?

I find myself wondering how many truly original novels were written by outsiders, people who bypassed the whole seductive promise of 10 Ways to Break Into Print.  Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games was a TV writer like John Stephens before she wrote her novel.

Stephanie Meyer had not even written a short story before Twilight and had considered going to law school because she felt she had no talent for writing.  The idea for her vampire tale came to her in a dream, and she started writing because, after the birth of her first child, she wanted to stay at home and be a full time mom.  Echoes of the now-famous story of J.K. Rowling.

My cousin knew Jane Auel as a neighbor in a wooded Portland suburb, and never dreamed she was writing Clan of the Cave Bear at the kitchen table.  I doubt that the Inklings tried to tell Tolkien the proper age for Hobbits – 30 rather than 40.

What I am suggesting here – mulling over aloud, actually – is that all our lists of 10 Ways to do things are far less important than finding ways to remain Outsiders.  Outsiders who can dream without any fetters.  It isn’t easy, as anyone who even attempts it discovers, for the promise of an article or a friend’s advice on how to break into print can be as seductive as the lotus blossoms to the men of Odysseus’s crew.  Yet I am coming to believe it’s necessary to learn how to drop it all for extended periods of time.

For as the great Japanese teacher of Zen, Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Summer Writing Contests

It seems like the “contest scene” picks up steam during the second half of the year.  I know there are round-the-calendar listings, but I tend to jot the URL’s on postIt notes and lose them, so I mostly wait for the listings to come to me.  Here’s one from the Gotham Writer’s workshop: (contest listings near the bottom of the newsletter).

Of note is the Zoetrope All-Story Short Fiction contest:  5000 word limit, all genres, $15 entry fee, multiple entries fine, prizes of $1000, $500, $250, and the top ten entries will be considered for representation by several literary agencies.  The deadline is Oct. 3, 2011.

There is also a contest for train stories between 2,000 and 20,000 words long.  There are two contests for non-fiction, one for screenplays.  In celebration of the 1950’s Sci-Fi Magazine, Galaxy there’s a contest for novellas between 15,000 and 20,000 words in length to be published in ebook format.

Unfortunately, some of the deadlines have passed, and others are only good through July 4, but there will certainly be more opportunities, especially for writers who like short fiction.  I’ve read several articles saying that while some of the print magazines that featured short fiction have folded, others are popping up in online form.  Let’s hope so.  This is something to watch.

A Literary Agent’s Comments on Nonfiction Opportunities

The guest speaker at the local California Writer’s Club’s June lunch meeting on Saturday was Matt Wagner, founder of Fresh Books, Inc. Literary Agency:

Wagner specializes in nonfiction titles.  His clients include several “Dummies” book authors, Dave Crenshaw, who wrote The Myth of Multitasking, and Michelle Waitzman, whose Sex in a Tent:  A Wild Couple’s Guide to Getting Naughty in Nature evoked a lot of interest when he passed it around.

Here’s the bad news:  Wagner debunked any notion that nonfiction writers are thriving in our current “legacy publishing” environment.  With Borders in bankruptcy, a suitor seeking to buy Barnes&Noble just for the Nook, and the explosion of epublishing, confusion reigns in nonfiction as well as fiction.  If things are uncertain for publishers, they are worse for agents, some of whom are trying to reposition themselves as coaches to stay in business.  This leaves mid-list authors who are trying to break into print at the bottom of the food chain (Wagner defines mid-list as, “You are not Suzy Orman”).

Several categories of non-fiction are doing well.  One are the series books – the “Dummies” and the “Idiot’s Guide” titles.  Part of the secret is, of course, that these books are not for dummies.  I’ve read several that were excellent introductions to their topics.

Wagner also cited, “vertically integrated niche publishers” as prospering, and gave an example I recognized:  O’Rielly Publications, which specializes in books on open-source software.  For the quarter century I worked in electronic design automation, O’Rielly titles occupied at least a third of my bookshelf, and the same held true for my colleagues.  Need a reference on the Linux operating system, or the PERL or TCL programming languages?  O’Rielly has it, often written or co-authored by the developer of the language.  In addition, they have websites, blogs, and webinars.

This, according to Matt Wagner, is a route for nonfiction authors that is opening up in our internet world.  Do you have an area of expertise?  Is it something someone might subscribe to a newsletter to learn?  An example jumped right to mind:  Randy Ingermanson’s (there’s a link on my blogroll).

Ingermanson, author of the traditionally published, Fiction Writing for Dummies, offers several free articles on his website, including his “Snowflake Method” of plot design, which I have discussed here (it is very worthwhile).  He also gives you the option of purchasing software to guide you through the process.  There’s a free e-zine, and as well as other articles and lecture series’ available for nominal fees in several electronic formats.

Check this site out, both for its free content (solid suggestions on plotting and building scenes), but also because it’s a great example of the kind of “vertical integration” that agent, Matt Wagner believes is the emerging model for how nonfiction writers can survive and even thrive in our emerging new world of publishing.