Introducing Mark Coker

In my continuing quest to keep up to speed with self publishing I attended a lecture yesterday evening organised by Kingston University given by Mark Coker, founder and CEO of Smashwords.

Mark Coker with Alison Baverstock (who introduced the lecture): (
Mark Coker with Alison Baverstock, who introduced the lecture: (

Smashwords distributes ebooks written by indie writers to all outlets, including the Apple store, Barnes & Noble and Amazon etc, for all e-readers including Kobo, Nook, Kindle, and every other device known to man. Smashwords was born out of Coker’s own failed attempt to find a publisher for a book he and his wife wrote back in 2004, despite the backing of a major agent.

Coker is evangelical about self publishing, needless to say. Much of what he told us would be well known to anyone who has published through Smashwords, but it was interesting to hear some hard facts and to get his take on the publishing business as a whole.

Coming from Silicon Valley where, to quote Coker, ‘technology solves everything’, he nonetheless has the ability to explain things in a virtually jargon-free manner. Echoing my own comments on this very site he reiterated that it is not just possible but easy to publish a book with no specific technical skill and with no other software than Word.  Here are some of his facts:

Smashwords has gone from publishing 140 books in 2008, when it was founded, to 267,000 in 2013.

In the US ebooks comprise 35% of all book sales in terms of dollars. Since ebooks are invariably cheaper than print books this represents something like 50% of all sales in terms of ‘units’, or books.

Coker’s prediction is that in three years more than half of ebook bestsellers will be self published. He also predicts that in the not too distant future more writers will want to self publish than traditionally publish.

Self published authors make 60%-80% of the list price of their ebook, compared with 12-17% if traditionally published. {Amazon/Kindle indie writers make 70% or 35%, depending on territory.) All e-retailers will accept ebooks by indie writers.

A case study on the importance of book covers, from Apple: the book in question, a romance, was first submitted with a plain cover with the title and author typed on the front. It sold nothing. It was then resubmitted with a new cover, again with a plain two-colour background, with just the title and author name. (I actually thought this looked rather stylish.) Sales remained negligible. The book was submitted yet again with a third new cover, this time featuring a scantily dressed male with his hand down the unbuttoned jeans of a scantily dressed female. Sales went from virtually nothing to 200 a day. Seeing the spike, Apple picked it up and promoted the book and sales went to nearly 2000 a day and hit the New York Times best seller list.

Moral: better to be appropriate than tasteful. ‘Great covers make a promise,’ says Coker.

More interesting facts: free books produce 90 times more downloads than any other. (Whether or not those downloaders actually read the books is another matter.) It is a good strategy for instance if you are producing a series of books to discount the first book to zero in order to attract readers to the second book. If like me you baulk at the idea of anything you produce being given away for free, this kind of strategy makes sense in order to build your readership over a period of time.

Romance writers lead the field, not just in sales but in innovation.

Smashwords’ best selling author is a New Zealander writing about New Zealand in World War 1, who turned to self publishing when publishers told her ‘no one is interested in stories set in New Zealand’.

Coker then outlined his ’16 Best Practices’ for self publishing, some of which are obvious, as in ‘Write a great book’ and then ‘Write another great book’. Produce a great cover. Know your target market. Give books away for free. Unlike with traditional print publishing sales can and very often do start small and grow. (One book spiked when it got a mention in the Wall Street Journal). Maximise availability (ie don’t use Kindle Select, but then he would say that..). Build a platform through social media. At the end of each book include links to your Facebook and Twitter accounts and to your blog and/or website.

Pricing strategy: selling at $1.99 is a ‘black hole’ apparently. The optimum price for sales of ebooks is $3-$3.99. (This is for fiction.)

Pre-orders is the most significant selling tool of all. This is where customers order a book ahead of publication and the orders are credited on the day the book is published, thus creating enough sales in one go to hoist the book into the bestseller list. This presupposes you have been publicising the book over a period of at least four weeks to create sufficient interest and excitement, which means marketing it every day in the pre-order period. To submit as a pre-order go to This strategy, which Coker called ‘cheating’, will only work for so long, until the time when everyone is doing it and so negating its usefulness.

Positivity and partnerships. Develop relationships with fellow authors. Share secrets. Look for other people writing in similar genres, collaborate on short story anthologies (these don’t sell so well but they have other uses, about which I will be blogging in the near future), or box sets of full-length books. Share promotions.

Think globally: in 2013 over 40% of Apple ebook sales were outside the US. Australia was the next biggest market followed by the UK and Canada.

Don’t borrow money (!) because you will not make it back. You are running a business and like all businesses it will take time to make a profit, if it ever does. Keep expenditure to a minimum and don’t pay other people to do things you can do yourself. When and if you start to make a profit, put it back into your business. Ebooks are immortal, they never go out of print. Think of your income as an annuity.

Longer books sell more. For some reason books over 100,000 words sell more than those of 80,000 or so.

I should end by saying Coker did make a point throughout the lecture that the most important thing of all is to write the best book you are capable of writing, and then rewrite it. Edit, revise, edit, revise. I’d like to add to that, if you can, have your book assessed professionally (I recommend The Literary Consultancy, who are currently scrutinising my latest oeuvre).

Smashwords have produced several books on how to convert and market your manuscript, including the Smashwords Style Guide. They can also be found on

Linda Acaster

A big welcome to Linda Acaster, my first guest blogger on this site.

Linda Acaster
Linda Acaster

Linda is an established author with experience of both traditional and self publishing. Her latest novel, The Bull At The Gate, Book 2 in the Torc of Moonlight trilogy, was recently launched as an ebook, with a print version to follow. She writes complex Contemporary Fantasy based on British history and myths.

I asked Linda a few questions about her self publishing experience and in particular how she goes about marketing her books.

P:  Why did you decide to go indie?

L:  The mainstream publishing industry decided to kick my work into touch. I was writing historical romances at the time and the publisher wanted less history and more beating- heart romance in their historicals. My writing was evolving – as any writer’s should – and I’d found a publisher for a mediaeval fantasy I’d written just to see if I could. As Fate decreed, between being made the offer and accepting it the publisher appointed a new editor for the line who was determined to ‘sweep clean’. I found myself out with the debris. Later I thought I’d found a small press interested for another book, but after a glitch it soon became apparent that I knew as much as they did. Amazon was just opening its digital doors and so I stepped through as an indie author, something I’ve never regretted.

P:  How does it compare in your experience with being traditionally published?

L:  Wonderfully. I’m in control, which makes me sound like an anorak, but I put a lot of effort into both my writing and the historical detail I use, and twice having anachronistic covers foisted on my books made me wary. Now (nearly) all the decisions are mine to stand or fall by. Do I make a living selling books as an indie author? No, but I never did as a mainstream published author, either. Very few do.

Torc of Moonlight
Book one in the trilogy

P:  You are very active on social media. How important is it for indie writers to have a blog and a presence on Facebook and Twitter, in your view?

L:  Very – end of reply. But don’t think this is down to only indie authors; mainstream published authors have to do exactly the same. Not until you are a big name in its list will a publishing house spend time and effort on an author’s behalf – usually if a substantial advance has been paid and the publisher is desperate to recoup that plus a profit.

A blog (or website) is the hub where the author stores information: about themselves, their writing, their research, their books, where to buy said books, and anything related. A written blogpost needs to be advertised, which is where Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Goodreads, etc, come in. These provide a tease and a link back to the blogpost where, prominently (ie above the “fold”, on the part of the screen immediately viewable), will be a picture of the author’s book cover/s. Think of a blog as a glossy magazine on a newsstand. The magazine does not exist to elucidate its readers, it exists as a platform for advertising. But who willingly buys a glossy magazine full of adverts? It is the articles that draw the reader in, the advertising set close by these that the reader glimpses, then reads, and hopefully acts upon. Interacting directly with strangers on Facebook or Twitter is akin to a cheery smile on a sullen day. People automatically smile back, become interested, follow links. No one said this is easy, or quick, but each time it’s done an author is getting his/her name out into the world.

P:  You’ve done a good deal of guest blogging. How do you find the blogs to write posts on, and how useful do you think it is in terms of selling your books?

L:  If a mainstream print author has a new book coming out that author will often organise talks and/or signings in conjunction with a bookshop or community group. They may sell two copies, they may sell twenty, they may sell none, but they will go armed with advertising – postcards (see such as – to give to people they chat to. Finding blogs to host a guest-post works the same way. If you are active on Twitter and Facebook ask on there. I also belong to six writer/reader Yahoogroups and I ask on there. The idea is to piggy-back on the blog-owner’s followers, but again, interaction is the key. Support the post, by Tweeting/Facebook-ing it, answering comments promptly, being cheery. Does it sell books? Ask BMW how often its TV adverts sell its cars, and think how often you see those advertisements. Marketing is a drip-feed process across multiple platforms.

Linda - The Bull at the Gate
Book two

P:  I believe you try out your books in the early stages with the help of ‘beta readers’. Can you explain what these are, and how you go about finding them?

L:  I belong to a writers’ group. We don’t write at our weekly meetings, we read aloud work-in-progress for constructive criticism. Those fellow writers are, in effect, acting as beta readers for each other. We are a small group of published authors so we know our stuff and don’t pull our punches, highlighting anything from poor grammar to clumsy sentence construction to staid characterisation. Nit-picking is applauded. When a book is finished and polished, we may offer the full script for whoever has the time to go through the entire work, usually digitally employing Word’s comments facility. I know of authors who find beta readers online – via Facebook, Twitter, Yahoogroups (note the trend here). If you write in a recognised genre then chances are you will find another writer willing to exchange beta-reading duties. The trick is to find someone on your wave-length with a good skills set.

P:  Apart from social media do you have any other recommendations for marketing for indie writers? Especially those who aren’t familiar with social networking, or whose target readership aren’t likely to be familiar with it?

L:  Few writers who didn’t grow up with social media automatically embrace its potential. I didn’t. It is a learned, and learnable, craft. If your target readership isn’t likely to use social media, then I would suggest your priority product should be paper-based, with digital ebook as a back-up. That means gaining speaking engagements with community groups, occasionally with willing bookshops. Hand-selling is still hand-selling, be it on the internet or in person, and it is the only way to sell books, fiction or non-fiction. Have a good product, and don’t give up.


You can buy Linda’s books here:
The Bull At The Gate
Torc of Moonlight

Give Linda a wave via:

Patsy Trench
London, April 2014





Writing family history

Over the next few weeks I am going to be blogging about writing family history. The focus will not be on the nuts and bolts of Births Marriages and Deaths so much as suggestions of ways to make your story appeal to a wider readership beyond your immediate family.

The posts will be based on my own experience writing about my Australian ancestress in a book that was eventually named The Worst Country in the World. My methods are obviously not definitive but they might just spark off some ideas in your own mind about how to approach writing about your own family.

It is my humble opinion that family history, writing about ordinary (or extraordinary) people doing quite ordinary things in specific places at specific times, plays a vital part in the recording of social history. Where else can you read about the day to day lives of everyday people? It is for this reason that I would like to encourage family historians to look for ways to broaden their intended readership.

Each blog will have a subject, the first being ‘Why do you want to write about your family history?’ If the answer is simply to record the wheres, whens and whats of your ancestors then this blog probably isn’t for you. If it’s something wider than that then hopefully by explaining my own reasons for spending six years (yes!) researching and writing my book I may help you to find ways to approach your own story. That anyway is the intention.

The typical family portrait (Australia c1920)
The typical family portrait (Australia c1920)


Why do you want to write about your family history?

I first heard about the subject of my book, my four x great grandmother Mary Pitt, from my aunt in Australia, who was the family genealogist. She’d spent years researching Mary’s background, mostly in England, from where she emigrated to New South Wales in 1801. I didn’t pay the story a great deal of attention to be honest, not until I did a bit of my own research into Australian colonial history and realised the significance of the date.

In 1801 the new colony of New South Wales, otherwise known as Botany Bay, was thirteen years old. It had been founded in 1788 as a penal colony, a place to send convicts who could no longer be transported to the now independent United States, and who were filling up the prisons and hulks to such an alarming extent that the government of the day had to find an instant solution to the problem of overcrowding. So the First Fleet set off in 1788 to a country that had only been visited, briefly, by Captain Cook eighteen years earlier and ever since pretty well ignored. On board the eleven ships were 775 convicts and 245 marines, some with their families, plus the ships’ crews and officials – a total, on arrival, of around 1,370. They set up camp on the east coast by a harbour at a place which they named Sydney, and then proceeded to nearly starve to death.

The First Fleet arriving in Sydney Harbour, by William Bradley 1788 (
The First Fleet arriving in Sydney Harbour, by William Bradley 1788 (

Thirteen years later the colony was still an experiment that looked as if it might fail. The Europeans, as the colonists were called, found the climate and the conditions so alien they struggled to grow enough to feed themselves, and provisions from England, for the first few years anyway, were very scarce. Not surprisingly very few people could be persuaded to migrate there voluntarily, especially since it involved a hazardous sea journey taking at least six months, with little prospect of being able to return home if they didn’t like it there.

One of the very few exceptions was my four x great grandmother. She was a widow, in her fifties, and she had five children with her – four girls and one boy – whose ages ranged from fourteen to twenty-seven. What on earth made her decide to leave her home in the village of Fiddleford in Dorset and travel across the globe to live in a penal colony?

That, dear readers, is what made me decide to write the family book.

Sydney c1800 by Conrad Martens (
Sydney Harbour c1800 by Conrad Martens (

If you have a Why or a How or a What in your family background that begs to be answered, that may well be the jumping-off point for your journey into print.

Patsy Trench, London 2014

Online conference

Take a look at this –

It’s an online conference about self publishing featuring major players from the US and the UK. I’m not quite sure how it works but it takes place between 25 & 27 February and it’s free – all you have to do is register.

Thanks to Linda Acaster for passing this on from David Gaughran.



CONGRATULATIONS to Simon Webb, first graduate (so far as I know) of the Trench School for the Technically Puzzled, for his book Running Blind: an Alternative View of the London Marathon, now published as an ebook on Amazon. This is a special achievement as Simon is registered blind. The book ‘focuses on London’s history, culture and sport, famous and not so famous landmarks, people and pubs’ on the marathon route. The paperback version is due to appear shortly.

An interview with myself

What made you decide to self publish?

The book in question, The Worst Country in the World, is about the early days of colonial Australia as seen through the eyes of my ancestress and her family. I’ve called it a ‘dramatised’ version of my family history as I’ve hooched up bits of it in order to make it more generally appealing. So it’s a mix of history, family history,  fiction and personal memoir, in other words a hybrid and not necessarily aimed at the mass market. I didn’t want to waste time therefore sending it to agents. Besides which self publishing was just beginning, it seemed to me, to look like a real possibility.

How did you find out how to go about it?

I read everything I could lay my hands on about self publishing – books and blogs – attended conferences and chatted to other writers. I found it all pretty overwhelming. I didn’t think for a moment I could handle everything myself so I got quotes from several different specialist companies for doing it for me. They ranged from £3000 to around £125, and I found as I went I was getting more and more confused about precisely what they were quoting for. It is, to say the least, a minefield.

Why did you decide to do the whole thing yourself?

Partly because of this confusion, partly because I’m a control freak and wanted a perfect result, but mostly because of other writers who convinced me it was possible to do it yourself without any specialist IT skills or software. And of course because it’s a useful set of skills to acquire.

And how was it?

A nightmare. I was following different sets of instructions that not only contradicted each other but were almost all unnecessarily complicated. For example I was told to put the manuscript through Notepad in order to clear it of all coding, but this meant I lost the italics, which I’d used in the book to distinguish between genuine quotes and what I’d made up, and it took me forever to put them back in. I realised too late this was completely unnecessary. As a result it took me much longer than I anticipated and I spent a good deal of it tearing my hair, which at my age I can’t really afford to do.

What made you persist?

Doggedness. Once I’d embarked on that path I had to get to the end of it. I was looking all the while for practical hands-on workshops but couldn’t find any, which is why I decided to set them up myself.

Are you glad, finally, you decided to go down this particular self publishing route?

Yes, without question. It’s been to say the least an experience, I feel I’ve crammed a year’s learning into a few weeks. But I’m a great believer in diy – there’s nothing like fighting your own way through a maze to help you understand that maze and, hopefully, help others through it.

What was the most difficult part of the process?

Having eventually figured out the nuts and bolts the most challenging part of it all is unquestionably the marketing. Many or maybe most writers are solitary people and not necessarily much good at blowing their own trumpets. I’ve yet to fully master this particular conundrum and like many others, I find it difficult to find the time and energy to both write books and then to publish and market them. (For more on marketing have a look at the marketing page.)

What is the best thing about self publishing?

You get to control everything yourself.

What is the worst?

You get to control everything yourself. There is no one else helping you, no one else to take the responsibility or blame if you don’t come up to scratch.

How did your books sell?

Moderately. The Worst Country sold some copies, mostly in Australia, not enough to retire on, or even give up the day job. I was encouraged by people’s reaction to the book itself, which exceeded my expectations and some, but discouraged by the difficulty I had getting bookshops, in particular in Australia, to take it. They were much tougher to convince than the equivalents here in the UK.

Would you self publish again?

Without question. It’s a bit like having a baby, once you’ve done it you know what to do next time. And you’ve still got the clothes and the equipment from the first, so why waste them? (NB I am not suggesting these are sound reasons for having babies by the way.)

What are the pros and cons of self publishing for the book industry, and readers, as a whole?

Pros – anyone can publish anything they like. Some of it is rubbish, but hopefully most of it is not. It takes a huge amount of effort to write a book after all. It also releases writers from the straitjacket of pigeon-holeable genres, and specified page numbers, which opens the door to all sorts of new and strange ideas and means a book is only as long as it needs to be.

Cons – anyone can publish anything they like and sorting the chaff from the wheat is tricky. It also means that writers who are good self-publicists may dominate over better writers who are not. But it’s still a young business and I’m sure these bumps will be ironed out in due course one way or another. It also does open the door to unscrupulous people who are charging unwitting writers a small fortune to publish their books, which makes them vanity publishers in the old sense.

What sort of person in your view is best suited to doing it themselves?

People with patience, and discipline – which all writers have anyway, ha ha – and persistence, which likewise. Most of my friends are impatient with their computers and resort to the swearing rather too early in the process. So doggedness is necessary. And time. I am not a techie and the only reason I know more about computers than the next person is because I’ve made a point of finding out. I never did an IT course in my life, nor do I intend to!

Do you have any final words of advice for writers thinking of self publishing?

Firstly, if self published writers are to be taken seriously then it’s up to us to make sure the finished result is as professional as we can make it: that the book itself is ready to be published, has been properly edited and proofread, and the layout and cover are as good as we can make them. In other words indistinguishable from a traditionally published book. This means a lot of work because the single writer is taking on the job of a team of experienced book producers, but it is possible.

Secondly, be wary of people or organisations who tell you they love your book and are prepared to publish it for ££££. Make sure you know exactly what they are offering for your ££££. When and if in doubt get in touch with me via this site and I will try to advise if I can. I would also be interested to hear from self published writers who’ve had a bad experience with one of these organisations, or indeed a good one!

Patsy Trench, February 2014