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Welcome to another LJ exclusive interview, expressly for NaNoWriMo writers!

Mark Coker is founder, CEO and Chief Author Advocate of Smashwords, a major e-book distribution company serving indie authors, small presses and literary agents. Smashwords has helped publish more than 80,000 books worldwide.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Mark about getting started in self-publishing, marketing and the biggest mistake new authors make. This is a must-read interview for all writers who are interested in getting published.

Why should an author consider self-publishing?

It's good for any serious writer.

When an author self-publishes, they have complete control over their work. With self publishing, the writer decides when they graduate to published author. There are free self-publishing tools out there. Any writer in the world, if they have a completed manuscript, can publish their book at Smashwords. In five minutes, that book is converted into multiple e-book formats and available for sale to a world wide audience. So there's this immediacy to self-publishing, especially e-books. It doesn't cost anything to publish an e-book-- services like Smashwords are free.

The writer has the opportunity to publish directly to the audience and be judged by their audience, rather than be judged by the traditional publisher gatekeeper.

But what's happening to the traditional publishing route right now?

Most writers are trained to think that you write your book, look for an agent who tries to sell your book to a publisher. And if the publisher thinks your good enough, then you become a published writer. The other thing that a lot of writers are trained to believe is that they're not really an author until a publisher blesses them as such-- and that's the way traditional publishing has worked for many years. The problem with that model is that publishers are forced to acquire only books that they think will have a large commercial potential, because publishers aren't really in the business of publishing books, but selling books. And it's a really important distinction that most people don't realize. So, if you have written some great literary masterpiece, but a publisher doesn't think there's a large enough commercial market for it, it'll be really difficult to sell it. Or if you go to a publisher and they think you're not famous enough, that you haven't developed a large enough following on social media or a platform, then you're less desirable to them.

Why is the traditional print publishing route so difficult for authors?

There's more competition than ever before for eyeballs. If people are looking for entertainment, escapism or knowledge, there are other places they can look on the Internet, in addition to books. They're also having a difficult transition into the e-book world.

Publishers are also starting to ask agents and authors to assume more of the burden for editing and more of the burden for post-publication marketing.

So today, it's not at all uncommon that a traditionally published author will be paying out of their own pocket to do book tours, book promotions or hire a publicist. So what's happening is that many of these roles traditionally played by publishers are now on the shoulders of authors. So a lot of authors are starting to wonder, what can a publisher do for me that I can't do for myself?

How do self-published writers get paid through a platform, such as Smashwords?

The economics of self-publishing are very different from traditional publishing. In traditional publishing, you an expect to earn five to 12 or 15 percent of the list price of your book. With self-publishing, you can expect to earn 60, 70, even 80 percent of the list price when your book is sold through one of the retailers. What this means is that a self-published author can publish an e-book and price it at a dramatically lower price than traditional publishers can, yet still make more money per unit.

Do self-publishers need to invest a lot of money in marketing their books?

I tell writers-- if they have completed their book and they've got $2,000 to invest in their book-- it's better to invest that $2,000 into hiring a professional editor than it is to put into marketing, because a great book will market itself. Book marketing has always been about word of mouth. It's about your book touching the soul of the reader, so that that reader becomes passionate about that book-- they fall in love with that book. They become so passionate about it, that they wear it on their sleeve-- they want all of their friends and family to read that book. Because it made them so happy, they want you to be happy too. If you have a book that doesn't strike passion into the heart of that reader, then even the best marketing is not going to allow you to sell very many books, because that book will not earn very good reviews, and if you don't get good reviews, retailers aren't going to sell many of your books.

How should authors price their books?

Use price as a competitive advantage. I would encourage every author to list their book for free-- for at least a limited period of time-- because free books are downloaded 15 times more than books with a price. And what every author needs is a readership, so pricing your book at free is a great way to attract your first readers, to start that word of mouth buzz and to get your first reviews at the online retailers.

How many books can an author expect to sell?

I can tell you that there is a really wide range. It's a power curve. If you imagine a chart where the vertical axis of the chart is total sales and the horizontal axis it the number of authors who are selling at that level. What you'll see on that chart is a very small number of authors who are selling fabulously well. Someone like Amanda Hocking is in the top one-percent of authors. She's hit the lottery. There's a small number of authors who are doing ridiculously well, and then there's a large number of authors kind of in the middle that are selling a reasonable amount-- enough for them to be very pleased. But then there's a long tail of authors who aren't selling very many at all. And at the very end of the tail, you've got authors who don't sell a single book. We're always reminding authors that they should keep their sales expectations low. Keep expectations realistic, even though e-books are the hottest thing in book publishing, it's still very difficult to sell a book, because you have so much competition out there.

What are some strategies for authors to promote their books?

On the marketing side, I encourage people to be very active on their social networks. Social networking is not about spamming your followers with advertisements for your book. The best way to do social networking is to participate in online forums, join online writers' groups, contribute to the success of your fellow writers and share information.

Over the next few years, we're going to see dramatic growth in the e-book market. The rules for marketing and e-books are still being written, and they're being written by the independent authors who are experimenting. Experiment. Try different price points, different methods of marketing.

I wrote an e-book that I would encourage everybody to download, it's free. It's called the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide. I put in there 30 different marketing ideas that any author can implement at no cost. Authors should really pinch their pennies and not spend money on marketing. They should do as much on their own as they can.

Also, write another book. The more books you have published, the more opportunities you have to touch readers. And you can use each of your books as an advertising vehicle to promote your other books. At the end of every single one of you books, there should be a paragraph or a line that says, 'Other books by this author' with a hyperlink to the books or book page. That's really important.

Is there anything that helps attract a reader to purchase a certain e-book?

You need a really good quality e-book cover image, because that's the first impression your book will make on a perspective reader. So you want that book cover to look as good or better than the book covers from the traditional publishers.

And book covers are not expensive-- at Smashwords, I maintain 'Mark's List' which you can email: list@smashwords.com to obtain a list of low cost-book cover designers, which start at around $35 and go up to about $100. So it's not terribly expensive to get a good quality cover image. And they are all independent freelancers and we don't get a commission if you use them.

What is a common mistake you see in self-publishing?

Don't release your book until it's ready to be read. The biggest mistake self-published authors make is that they release their book before it's been properly edited, before it's been proofed, so they're introducing typos, embarrassing errors like that. And readers have no patience for those types of errors. Readers don't care if the book is self-published or not. What they care about is that they're getting a great quality book. So the challenge for self-published authors is to write a book that is as good or better than the traditionally published books.

How is Smashwords supporting NaNoWriMo this month?

Each year we do the NaNoWriMo Promo. You can go to Smashwords and sign up for a free account. If you're participating in the NaNoWriMo contest, at the end of each day, when you finish the next part of your book, you can upload the current version of your book into the Smashwords system and it will automatically convert it into multiple e-book formats and publish it online in our NaNoWriMo catalog. And we'll track your word count and your progress toward completion. It allows you to have your friends, family and fans read your book as you write it so you can get feedback.

At the end of NaNoWriMo, the ones who finish will then edit and revise their book, and once their book is ready for final publication, they'll publish it at Smashwords. And if it meets the proper formatting requirements, then we distribute the book for them to the major e-book retailers, like Apple, Barnes and Noble, Sony and Kobo.