We've all seen them: the sketchy ads lining the margins of websites or the grainy back pages of the free dailies that serve as street decor rather than news sources. They tell us: "Get published!" "Become a model!" "Lose 100 Pounds Fast!" If the hyperbolic promises punctuated by exclamation points don't tip you off that they're gimmicks (polite word for "rip offs"), their faux-humble request for money should. If not that, then the bogus testimonials that seem to be describing the Second Coming rather than a realistic product should. If not that, well, then, you're out of luck, my friend.
However, now one of these once-outrageous promises is being backed up and carried out by Smashwords, an e-book publishing company. It was launched in 2007 by Mark and Lesleyann Coker, spouses and co-authors of a novel set in the behind-the-scenes world of daytime soaps, when they couldn't get their novel published. (It is said that the manuscript wasn't picked up because "[it was] questioned whether soap opera fans read books." Wow.) Frustrated by such arbitrary obstacles in a world that seems to have eliminated most hurtles via the digital age, Coker decided to take the decision of what's readable out of publishers' hands and place it back into the hands of the readers. Enter Smashwords.com.
Boasting "175,430,897 words published," Smashwords' website is well-organized and simple, allowing readers to search by author, genre, or publisher. With so many authors that the general population is probably unfamiliar with, there's also a section for the most downloaded, best sellers, most viewed authors and publishers. It's also simple to publish with them, which can be a blessing or a curse. Now that practically anyone can publish their original material, it'll be harder to filter the bad from the good. But the philosophy behind Smashwords is that the filter be handed over to the reader rather than the publisher. The harm of bad writing getting published online is much smaller than if everyone were allowed to publish physical books. Especially in a setting such as a website, it's easier to scan and skip. Rather than clogging up the bookshelves of a bookstore, you don't have to see or move around books that don't interest you. Also, the prices for the books are cheaper because of the format, some of them even offered for free.
The question at hand, as has been brought up with the release of the Kindle, SonyReader, and the more recent Nook, is the quality of the reading experience when it's done online or in any medium other than the traditional physical book. Of course, the answer to this question is a personal one; my own answer is that nothing, not even the satisfaction of lowering our carbon footprint, will replace the pleasure of holding a book in my hands and flipping through its pages, setting it down (if I can), and picking it back up again. But from the perspective of a writer rather than a reader, assuming you can separate the two, this opens up so many possibilities for creativity and experimentation that the traditional world of publishing doesn't always embrace. Not only can I find books and authors that might have been overlooked because of circumstances completely unrelated to the quality of writing, I am also allowed to reach an audience without having to navigate the exclusive world of book publishing.
However, this also raises the question of self-editing. Do I, or the general public author using this publishing platform, have the ability to put my best writing out there without the help of all the backstage hands in the publishing world? Nothing of what we read has been published without going through many hands and minds to make it what it is. Without all of those influences and filters, can Smashwords really be a force to be reckoned with? Can I?