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

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.

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Trip Adler

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

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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?”

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Mark Coker

“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:

  1. Sign up with Scribd.
  2. Start contributing to the community, post some works-in-progress, comment, “readcast,” curate, and collect subscribers.
  3. When your e-book is complete, upload it to Scribd for sale.
  4. Then go to Smashwords to convert your book into all the available formats.
  5. Join the Smashwords Premium program to aggregate your e-book to the Kindle, iBookstore, Sony, Nook, and all the other readers.
  6. 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.

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