Smashwords, libraries, and the [new] culture of authorship

Libraries have traditionally promoted a culture of learning and a culture of books. Now they have the opportunity to promote a culture of authorship. — Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords

In our time, late in the second decade of the 21st century, libraries have an opportunity to not only continue their traditional mission of providing books and encouraging literacy, but of extending that tradition into a new world of library-based publishing in which the library grows beyond being the locus of literacy in its community and transforms itself into the champion of the creative force of authorship.

As I have been writing these articles on Indies in the Library™, the word “Smashwords” keeps coming up. Especially, as I wrote the last article, about educating indie authors on how to work with libraries, I realized that the Smashwords’ technology and distribution platform solves two of the largest barriers to libraries acquiring indie ebooks: putting the books into library distribution channels and getting them into ebook platforms that patrons are already comfortable with. I wanted to talk with the person who had the vision to create this.

Kat Brooks of IndiesUnlimited knows Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, and was kind enough to make an email introduction. Mark and I then managed to schedule a phone call. He has a very busy schedule speaking, not only at writers’ conferences, but at library conferences and even at individual libraries that are developing their programs to work with indie authors. I was eager to hear his thoughts on indie publishing and on the future of publishing and libraries.

I wanted to make sure that I understood how Smashwords works with libraries, and how libraries can use Smashwords to not only further their mission but to assure their continued relevancy in the 21st century, as more and more of their patrons become authors, and as indie ebooks dominate the sales charts.

The writing community has always been subservient. With the rise of the indie revolution, authors can throw off the yoke of the big publishers and begin to control their own destiny.—Mark Coker


The rise of the indie author movement, powered by ubiquitous computing technology, low-cost and free authorial tools, and the freelance editorial marketplaces such as Reedsy and Writers Boon, has resulted in an upending of the publishing marketplace. Even the most sophisticated writing software on the market (Scrivener) retails for only US$40.00, and anyone with a web browser can write in Google Docs, which costs them nothing. If the author cannot afford to purchase professional editorial assistance, then he or she can find help at no cost through writer’s groups—another area in which libraries can help.

Also, most Amazon ebook bestsellers now come not from traditional publishers but from indies. Given the library community’s traditionally strong support of learning and reading, the library is the natural ally of the indie author movement, and the natural beneficiary of the indie author revolution.

A primary mission at Smashwords is to help make publishing more rewarding for the world’s indie authors and publishers, and more affordable to the world’s readers.—from Smashwords website


This, of course, includes making indie books available to public library patrons, so they can read them at library expense, and with apps they already know how to use. Smashwords serves not only authors but libraries, as well.

I have already discussed the steps an indie author takes to publish and distribute a book in previous articles in this column, but I did not address how the library might facilitate this and thus strengthen its own position. Let’s look at that.

When a library wants to support its local indie author community, one of the basic challenges it must face is providing a way for the authors to publish their books. Ideally, the library can do this while maintaining its own brand and keeping the brand allegiance of the patron.

Further, this must be at low or no cost to the authors, and preferably at no cost to the library. It needs to be as easy to use as possible, since many of the authors are not tech savvy and will not be able to work with the complex systems that commercial publishers use. It needs to offer its own technical support as well as reliable advice on all aspects of indie publishing, for the last thing any library needs is to take on the task of providing technical ebook advice to indie authors.

Lastly, it needs to provide channels into the major ebook retailers and library ebook platforms. Without the last component, publishing the books will not truly make them public. It will simply create digital versions of them, perhaps stored in an information silo that no one visits.

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Smashwords fulfills all these requirements. The company builds and maintains co-branded versions of its website for several libraries, and will create these for any library that wants one. Indie authors associated with a specific library go to a library-branded version of Smashwords. This keeps the library at the center of the patron author’s attention and assures that the library promotes its position as the champion of authorship in its community.

Since Smashwords maintains the site and provides technical support directly to the authors, without a librarian having to intervene, the library avoids the need to train staff on the details of ebook publishing. Lastly, when an indie author publishes with Smashwords, he or she can have the book fed into OverDrive, Axis360, and other library ebook platforms, as well as into most ebook retailers. Hence, when the library purchases a copy of the ebook and adds it to its collection, it can work with an established vendor and provide the ebook to patrons via apps they already know.

If a library is part of a consortium that wants to host its own ebook platform, Smashwords also has a program called Library Direct for them. This program provides large quantities of indie ebooks to the consortium. For instance, one could order the top 10,000 bestselling indie ebooks as a bundle, but this is really separate from the library mission of supporting local authors.

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Now, let’s look at the steps a library would have to take to make this happen. They are very simple and do not involve making any large changes in how the library acquires ebooks or provides them to patrons.

We assume that the library is already working with local authors, sponsoring author events, etc. If not, then there are excellent programs available to guide librarians through the process of organizing and holding these. Authors seek fellowship and guidance. Many belong to library-sponsored reading and writing groups, so many libraries already have a strong connection to their local author community.

To help the authors publish their ebooks, the library can simply refer them to Smashwords’ website at If the library wants a co-branded Smashwords website of its own, it can contact the company via the website. This is obviously the way to go.

With the author’s book now available through Baker & Taylor’s Axis360, Bibliotheca/3M Cloud Library, and OverDrive, the library can add it to its collection, and patrons can read it just as they would a book published by a major publishing house. The library can continue its traditional mission of supporting books and literacy while enhancing its position by adding publishing assistance to its services.

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In this day of easy access to the tools of writing and self-publishing, we are seeing an explosion of literary creativity, and at the same time an explosion of primary source documents about life in the 20th century. We call these memoirs. Many of these primary source documents are available to libraries through the major library ebook platforms. There is no reason libraries cannot acquire these books, just as they do works of fiction. Just as libraries have always supported a culture of literacy and education, so they now can support a culture of authorship, of democratized authorship in which everyone with a story to tell can tell their story and publish it.

The technology and distribution channels necessary for libraries to acquire indie ebooks and then provide them to patrons are all in place. Libraries can even become centers of publishing themselves. Libraries that offer ebooks to their patrons do not need to purchase additional software or services to add Indies to their collections. Now is the time to do this.

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