Smashwords, where indie authors may price their books at ‘free,’ but ‘free’ isn’t the core mission

smashwordsThe focus of this week’s Free Content Alert column is ebook distributor Smashwords, which occupies a unique niche in the world of free ebook collections in that its focus is indie ebooks. As stated on Smashwords’ website:

Smashwords is the world’s largest distributor of indie ebooks.  We make it fast, free and easy for any author or publisher, anywhere in the world, to publish and distribute ebooks to the major retailers  and thousands of libraries.

  • FOR AUTHORS, PUBLISHERS AND LITERARY AGENTS, Smashwords offers quick and easy ebook distribution to most of the world’s largest ebook retailers.  We provide free tools for marketing, distribution, metadata management and sales reporting.  At Smashwords, our authors and publishers have complete control over the sampling, pricing and marketing of their written works.  Smashwords is ideal for publishing novels, short fiction, poetry, personal memoirs, monographs, non-fiction, research reports, essays, or other written forms that haven’t even been invented yet.
  • FOR RETAILERS, Smashwords offers a catalog of over 400,000 vetted, well-formatted ebooks from over 100,000 authors and publishers.  We work with our retail partners to help them efficiently ingest, merchandise and sell our titles.
  • FOR READERS, The Smashwords Store provides an opportunity to discover new voices in all categories and genres of the written word. Once you register, the site offers useful tools for search, discovery and personal library management.  Most of our books are affordably priced and multi-format.  Over 60,000 of our books are priced at free.

The platform was created by Mark Coker in Los Gatos, California in 2008. Though not all items in the collection are free, searching by “free” as a price is possible. At the ‘About’ link is a Q&A session with Coker (updated this month), in which he explains the genesis of the platform.

Though only a fraction of the full collection is free, it is still substantial and I was intrigued with Coker’s rationale for beginning the site: this is actually an author-driven platform, rather than a wholesale gathering of everything no longer copyrighted. In other words, it’s a venue for authors to have their writing seen by the public and, based on that outcome,  Smashwords can negotiate with literary agents on behalf of an author and begin the process of finding a mainstream publisher. This is part of their business model to generate income, but it also provides a valuable service by circumventing (at least initially) conventional ways to have a book gain exposure. So, while this could be considered a limited collection, it also is one that would not likely be seen elsewhere.

As those who read last week’s review of the World Public Library will recall, I was critical about having to register as a user and have an elibrary card, as well as pay an annual fee. Smashwords does neither of those things; its registration is minimal (email, password, and username) and there is no annual charge for users. The collection is searchable, but is also broadly divided into Fiction and Nonfiction, with about two dozen categories under each one. Again, though this not a typical array of ebooks, it is one that readers who seek new writing that’s not in the mainstream (yet) will enjoy.

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Ari Sigal received his MLS in 1985 and has done reference and administrative work in public, academic and special libraries. Since 2004, he has worked for Catawba Valley Community College (Hickory), NC, first as Library Director (to 2009) and currently as the Reference and Instruction Librarian. He is also Curator of the Gilde-Marx Collection for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, one of the largest of its kind in North Carolina and offers an annual program on topics related to its material. He is the editor of Advancing Library Instruction (IGI-Global, 2013) and also serves on the editorial advisory board for the  Encyclopedia of Information Science and  Technology, also from IGI.