Mark Coker and his wife self-published their novel Boob Tube, a fictional behind-the-scenes look at the world of soap operas, when their top New York agent was unable to sell the manuscript to a publisher. Frustrated with the outdated practices of the publishing industry, Coker founded Smashwords, a platform for independent writers and publishers to convert their e-books into multiple formats and distribute them to major retailers including Barnes & Noble, Apple, Sony, Komo and, soon, Amazon. Here Coker gives valuable advice to authors who are ready to self-publish their manuscripts.

What should writers look for in a publishing platform?

I think it should be free, there should be no cost to participate in the platform, there should be no cost to convert your book into multiple formats and there should be no distribution cost. You should only have to pay the publishing platform when they sell your book, and a fair model is a commission. It’s risk-free. That’s the way we work at Smashwords. I think that makes sense for the independent author. It’s all about running your writing as a business, minimizing expense and trying to maximize your revenues. Unfortunately, a lot of independent authors over the years have been suckered by publishing services that charge them thousands of dollars for packages of nebulous value. The only investment that an author needs to make is the investment of their time. 

What about editing and layout design?  Is that worth the investment?

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The biggest downside of publishing platforms such as Smashwords is that we make it too easy for people to publish. We will often see books published at Smashwords that aren’t ready for publication. The book has not been edited—it’s a first draft—and that’s just horrible. You’re doing your readers a disservice. I think the first dollars that an author invests in their book should be for editing and proofing. You don’t necessarily even need to pay someone to do that. This is where authors working together can help each other. The most important thing is that you let another set of eyes, preferably an independent set of eyes, see your book. But, if you have to pay, there are a lot of great, talented professionals. I would much rather see an author spend $2,000 to $3,000 on a good edit with a book doctor or editor than spend $2,000 to $3,000 on marketing. If you don’t give readers a book that respects their time, they’re going to reject it. When a reader rejects your book, they just ignore it and you fade into rapid obscurity. On the other hand, I’ve seen authors publish great books with practically no marketing at all, and the book sold well because if a book is great, if it resonates with those first readers who stumble across it, then it’ll spread virally. That’s the characteristic of a great book. It starts with one reader and then that reader tells all their friends to read that book.

What marketing tips do you have for self-published authors?

The best marketing isn’t done as a one-shot deal. Marketing should be done as a campaign over time. If you’re hiring a marketing agent, you have to pay for their time. So it’s really difficult for an author to earn a return on their investment if they’re going to be spending $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 to do an adequate marketing job. I advise authors to do as much of their marketing as they can on their own, to start their marketing before they’ve even finished their book, to take full advantage of social media. And that doesn’t mean just opening up a Twitter account and a Facebook account and attracting a lot of followers so you can spam them. That doesn’t work. But it involves becoming a valuable member of the social networks that you participate in so that your fellow members of that network feel invested in your personal success, and so when it is time for you to publish and market your book, it’s the members of your network who can help open up marketing opportunities for you and who will be out there helping to promote your book with you. 

What other social networks do you recommend besides Facebook and Twitter?

I encourage authors to be active participants in the e-book message boards—MobileRead is a great community where authors and readers come together to talk about e-books, Amazon offers a forum that is a great place for authors and readers to meet. Kindle Boards is an independent operator of a message board that’s very popular. Barnes & Noble operates its own message board and Apple operates its own message board. Those message boards are really important. And then there are other networks of just authors. I think it’s really important for authors to network among themselves and just share ideas, share resources, share secrets. We’re still in the very early days of the e-book revolution, and the rules are still being written by these independent authors who are taking the risks and experimenting.