I’m grounded in Atlanta, trying to make my way home from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) annual conference, but I’m content. While my fellow travelers and I grapple with flight delays and missed connections, I’m fortunate to wait with friends from the conference and chat about changes in our respective industries.
It’s fitting that the NSNC conference theme was “Forward.” Forward out of the pandemic. Forward with careers. Forward in the industry.
The same holds true for the book publishing industry. In fact, my presentation to this group encapsulated the evolution of our industry during the last 14 years. Fourteen years is not long. Yet in that brief time, two sea changes in the industry have occurred: the democratization of publishing, circa 2008, and the merger of the two largest indie publishing platforms, Draft2Digital (D2D) and Smashwords, in March 2022.
As I told my audience, “Y’all, this is a big deal.” Here’s why. It was only 14 years ago that publishing was still a printcentric industry, and the largest publishers controlled it. They determined which manuscripts would become published books, which meant they decided which writers would become published authors. Publishers also largely controlled distribution. They decided where physical books would be shipped—which countries, which regions, and which brick-and-mortar bookstores.
For aspiring authors at the time, the only realistic way of getting books into the hands of readers was to get books onto the shelves of bookstores. And the only way to do that was with the assistance of a large publisher that could negotiate deals with distributors, wholesalers, and retailers. Having a publisher wasn’t just nice; it was a practical requirement if you wanted a legitimate shot at reaching a lot of readers.
To their credit, the largest traditional publishers were, and still are, very good at what they do. They can take a good book and turn it into a great one. The only problem is they have no way of accurately predicting which books will become breakout bestsellers. That’s why the overwhelming majority of manuscripts are rejected. Publishers simply can’t afford to take a risk on every manuscript. It’s been like this since the inception of the industry. Something had to give. And something did.
The Indie Revolution (aka the Democratization of Publishing)
The most obvious, and loudest, revolt came from authors. One author who took matters into his own hands was Mark Coker, the founder and former CEO of Smashwords. After his debut novel was rejected more than a dozen times, despite representation from a top literary agency, he found himself fantasizing, “What if someone could invent a new kind of publisher that could take a risk on every author? What if that someone was me?”
The advent of e-books and digital publishing tools enabled this fantasy to become reality. Suddenly, any author anywhere in the world could publish an e-book and reach a global audience for free. Talented authors began to discover they could self-publish faster, distribute wider, retain creative control, reach more readers by pricing lower, and earn higher royalties. This sparked a radical change, as the power center in the industry began to shift away from the gatekeepers and into the hands of the creators. Fourteen years later, the indie revolution is a global, cultural phenomenon that’s unleashed a wave of diversity into the industry.
We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!
The democratization of publishing isn’t just a boon to self-published authors. Indie publishers also benefit tremendously from digital innovations.
One key innovation that I once thought was clever but am now convinced is essential is Draft2Digital’s Universal Book Link (UBL). A UBL, developed as one of the tools available on D2D’s sister site Books2Read.com, allows an author or publisher to provide a single, customizable link for a book that tells readers everywhere that book is available for sale, online and worldwide. So, instead of providing one link for Amazon, another for Apple Books, another for Barnes & Noble, and so on, one link covers them all, including international stores, where geolocation sends readers to the storefront that serves their region. That’s the clever part.
Here’s the essential part: With Draft2Digital’s automated front and end matter tool, when a new book is published through Draft2Digital, not only is that book’s front and end matter updated, every title in the author’s catalog is updated. And not just within the Draft2Digital database, but at every global retailer where that author’s previously published books are listed for sale.
Imagine not only having your author bio and copyright page automatically updated within all your previously released titles, but also having your “also by” list of books updated with a UBL for your just-published books or preorders. For authors and small presses with large backlists, this is a massive time-saver that also dramatically improves the discoverability of previously published titles and upcoming titles. UBLs work for e-books, print (including large print), and audiobooks.
One final superpower for UBLs—not only are the links themselves customizable, you can include affiliate codes from major retailers. These codes are embedded invisibly within the link, and they provide a way of gaining a bit of extra profit even from books written and published by someone else. Given that UBLs are the backbone of several related products accessible from Books2Read.com, this makes them an additional source of revenue for authors, podcasters, YouTubers, and any other content creators. In fact, UBLs can be used by anyone for any book. You don’t even have to have a Draft2Digital account.
A New Era for Publishing
As previously reported by IBPA Independent, D2D’s acquisition of Smashwords created an indie publishing juggernaut with over 250,000 authors and publishers who’ve collectively released over 900,000 e-books. Yet indie publishing has evolved beyond ebooks, making significant, affordable inroads into print and audiobook creation. D2D Print, D2D’s print-on-demand (POD) service, isn’t even out of beta yet and has already released 17,000 titles with a projected annual run rate of 122,000 units as of this writing. The service makes publishing a print book as easy as publishing an e-book, including a full wrap-around cover and global POD distribution.
D2D’s partnership with Findaway Voices provides indies with a viable and affordable way to dip their toes into audiobooks. And Draft2Digital is continuing to develop new ideas for reducing the overhead of audiobook production. While it’s easy to get excited about tools to create books, management and promotional tools have also improved.
Centralized dashboards facilitate metadata updates on multiple authors’ books in minutes. Territorial pricing tools allow publishers the flexibility to set different prices per region. Granular sales reports and co author payment splitting options make it easy to see who gets paid what, and daily sales reports provide up-to-date visibility into the effectiveness of current promotions.
Speaking of promotions, they’re getting better, too. E-book preorders, for example, first offered in 2013, give indies the chance to gain virtual shelf space a full 12 months prior to a book’s release date. That’s a significant amount of time to generate buzz and accumulate sales. Smashwords Presales, a new tool recently granted a US software patent, provides a new spin on book launches. While a preorder allows readers to reserve a copy of a new book ahead of its release, a reader must wait until the book is publicly available before they can access it. A Smashwords Presale, on the other hand, allows readers to purchase and access a new book before it’s released to the public. Instead of a single release day, indie publishers can now create multiple presale release events for various affinity groups such as newsletter subscribers, street teams, social media followers, reviewers, and more.
One great promotional tool is the Smashwords Store itself. How can a store be a promotional tool? The Smashwords Store is the world’s largest e-book retailer dedicated to indie books, and it just happens to offer the industry’s highest royalty rates—up to 80% of list. Popular annual sales such as July’s annual Summer/ Winter Sale, March’s Read-An-Ebook-Week Sale, and December’s annual End-of-Year Sale provide a significant uptick in sales for countless indies. Authorfriendly tools, such as Coupon Manager, let indies place their books on sale whenever they want, and they can mix and match different coupon types to create compelling promotions for their readers. When an indie author or publisher creates a public coupon for a book, that title is automatically discoverable in Special Deals, an ongoing promotion that spotlights books currently on sale. It’s like self-serve merchandising.
The Draft2Digital/Smashwords merger is only months old, yet we’re giddy with excitement. Granted, the integration of our two systems will take months to complete. It’s a lot of work to ingest hundreds of thousands of titles into an e-book store, and it’s a lot of work to migrate hundreds of thousands of authors and publishers onto a new platform. Doing it right takes time, so it’s difficult to know exactly when the integration will be complete.
One thing that is clear: We’ve entered a new era. Sophisticated new book creation tools, new management and promotional tools, and a redesigned indie book store will blow the dust off the relics. We haven’t just entered a new era of indie publishing, but a new era of publishing itself