Self-Publishing Now The First Choice For Some Writers

Audie Cornish talks with Mark Coker, the founder of one of the largest self-publishing companies. Smashwords' business has taken off in just a few years, and Coker's outlook for the future of self-publishing is rosy. In fact, he says when anyone can publish a book, traditional publishing houses are poised to become irrelevant.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

If you want to be a published writer and you don't mind publishing yourself, these are very good times. One recent survey found that the number of self-published books in the U.S. has almost tripled in the past six years. As eBooks become easier to create and distribute, more and more services are popping up to help you do that.

We're going to talk now with Mark Coker. He founded one of the biggest self-publishing sites, Smashwords. In the company's first year, 2008, it put out 140 books. Last year, about 98,000. When I spoke with Coker recently, he had just written a long list of predictions about fundamental changes in publishing.

MARK COKER: Well, you know, there's always been a stigma associated with self-publishing. You know, five years ago when we started Smashwords, self-publishing was seen as the option of last resort. It was seen as the option for failed writers. And the publishing industry held that view, and even writers held that view.

But that's changing now. Self-publishing is now becoming the option of first choice for many writers. And even traditional publishers now have newfound respect for self-publishing. They're using the self-publishing bestseller lists to troll for new authors to acquire.

CORNISH: In fact, one of your predictions is that publishers in search of what we call black swans, right - the kind of needle in the haystack - will lose authors to self-publishing platforms. What do you mean by that?

COKER: Well, traditional publishers are in the business of not publishing books but of selling books. And there's a big difference there. So they seek to acquire books and authors who they think have the greatest commercial potential. But the challenge here is they really don't know which books are going to go on to become bestsellers. Only readers know that.

And so in their attempt to only choose the cream of the crop, they are excluding many of the huge potential breakout bestsellers. And those books are now going to self-publishing. I think this is why when we look at the evolution of the publishing industry over the next few years, traditional publishers are going to become more and more irrelevant.

CORNISH: At the same time, you know, Random House just handed out $5,000 bonuses to its employees, you know, in part because of the huge success of what was once a self-published book, "50 Shades of Gray." I mean, isn't that a sign that publishers are still doing OK if they can basically poach the most profitable self-published titles?

COKER: It's going to become more and more difficult for them to poach the most profitable self-published titles, because as a self-published author, you're going to earn four to five times more per unit that you sell than you will if you work with a traditional publisher. Traditional publishers only pay 25 percent net, whereas as a self-published author, you're going to earn 100 percent net.

CORNISH: Among your predictions for 2013, that the current glut of books will become even more pronounced. You say there're simply too many great books worth reading, which doesn't - on the surface - sound like a good thing, but you argue that it is.

COKER: I think it's a wonderful thing. I think we are at the very early stages of renaissance in publishing. I think when we look out over the next few years, readers will have the opportunity to discover and enjoy more great books than ever before, more books that match their unique interests, and books will become more available to more readers around the world.

So I think this is really a great time, because now every author has the freedom to publish. Even if they're only publishing to a market of one, they have the freedom to publish.

CORNISH: But just to play devil's advocate here, just because everyone can produce a book, should everyone produce a book?

COKER: Well, I think if you're a writer, and you want to reach readers, and you want to publish, then you have a right to publish. And I know this is blasphemy to the traditional publishing industry when I say this, but this is what I believe. I believe every writer is great and wonderful and has something to share with the world. Readers will decide if what they're sharing is worth reading.

CORNISH: Well, Mark Coker, thank you so much for speaking with me.

COKER: Well, thank you, Audie. It's my pleasure.

CORNISH: Mark Coker, founder of the self-publishing company Smashwords. As you heard, he's very optimistic about his business, calling traditional publishers increasingly irrelevant. So what do they think? Here's Michael Pietsch. He currently runs the 175-year-old company Little, Brown.

MICHAEL PIETSCH: Smashwords is an amazing opportunity for people who want to publish themselves. I love the diversity of publication that is possible now. But I object strenuously to the notion that publishers are irrelevant, because publishers are doing things now that are extraordinarily complex, exciting that the ways that publishers can work to connect readers with writers now are the kinds of things that publishers have dreamt of doing since Gutenberg first put down a line of type.

CORNISH: Michael Pietsch is one of the most prominent editors in the publishing business. And in April, he becomes CEO of Hachette Publishing Group. We'll hear more from him about the future of publishing on tomorrow's program.

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