In the battle to stand out in the ever more competitive US indie author aggregator arena the key players are constantly innovating with new ways of grabbing author attention and offering added value.

This week comes the latest ploy from Smashwords: Presales.

Explains Smashwords in an email shot:

Wouldn’t it be cool if you could provide your most loyal readers the ability to purchase and read your next book before the general public?

And wouldn’t it be cool if ebook retailers gave readers the option to sign up for your private newsletter, rather than having your future relationship with the reader mediated by the retailer?

All this and more is possible today with Smashwords Presales, unveiled today in your Dashboard!

Watch your most loyal superfans go wild over the opportunity to purchase and read your next book release before the general public!

The Smashwords blog adds more detail:

Smashwords today unveiled Smashwords Presales, a new book launch tool that will thrill your readers.

Smashwords Presales leverages patent-pending technology to enable the creation, management and merchandising of ebook presales.  An ebook presale allows readers to purchase and read a new book before the public release date.

Presales are different than preorders.  Presales provide readers early and immediate access to an upcoming book release, whereas preorders merely act as product reservations where the customer must wait until the public release date to read a preordered book.

Several New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors have already expressed interest in running Smashwords Presales for future book launches.

“I’m planning to use Smashwords Presales to offer early releases to subscribers of my newsletter,” said R.L. Mathewson, a New York Times bestselling author of romance novels.  “When I asked my readers how’d they feel if I were to begin offering presale access as a perk for signing up for my newsletter, the response was overwhelmingly positive. My readers want this.”

Well, that’s the hype. What about the reality?

Smashwords authors (that is, authors who have their titles distributed through Smashwords) can launch either public or private presales through the Smashwords dashboard. The books will be visible privately via a dedicated link the author can share, or publicly in the Smashwords ebook store.

In theory the author, who will earn more per sale from Smashwords than from Amazon or Apple, etc, might want to make the book available for sale publicly before the Amazon (etc) launch, but that seems unlikely. Every sale on the mainstream sites helps boost the title’s chart position and visibility. The real value here is being able to offer private sales of the new book, via the dedicated Smashwords hyperlink, to reward fans who subscribe to the author mailing list, for example.

Books bought from the Smashwords store can be downloaded in all the major formats, including mobi and epub, so there are no comparability issues

Smashwords says the presales are compatible with KDP Select, which requires exclusivity.

Many authors publish exclusively via KDP Select. If you’re planning to release your next new book via KDP Select, you can run a public or private presale at Smashwords BEFORE you enroll in KDP Select.

A word of caution here. While authors can of course sell the ebook anywhere before enrolling the given in KDP Select, the author will need to make sure the hyperlinks are redundant and unusable from the moment the KDP enrolment begins or said author will be in breach of KDP t&cs.

The most interesting feature of the Smashwords presales option for me is the “email capture” facility:

Email capture – At checkout, Smashwords Presale customers are provided the option to grant Smashwords permission to share their email address with the author/publisher so you can subscribe them to your private mailing list. You can download customer email addresses from your Presale Dashboard. And we give you, the author/publisher, the optional ability to offer a special incentive price to the customer to encourage their subscription.

This all sounds great, but of course if you are using the private hyperlink option then it’s very likely you already have the email address of the reader.

What intrigues me here is the possibility Smashwords might extend this email capture option to all titles sold via the Smashwords store (ebook sold via a third party Smashwords partner will of course not have that option). 

Smashwords finishes with this “presale marketing tip”:

Use the promise of presale access to entice readers to sign up for your private mailing list. Let your subscribers be the first to learn about your future presale events. Everywhere you mention your newsletter (backmatter, social media, web site), advertise that subscribers will gain early access to exclusive presales for future releases. Most of your presales will come from your newsletter subscribers.

Again, the only real downside here is directing too much traffic to the Smashwords store. Good for Smashwords, but not for climbing that chart in the Kindle store. That’s a trade-off each author will need to make a judgement call on title by title.

But wait, what’s all this about patents pending? Let me wind up this post with the Smashwords take on the patent-pending technology behind this new option. This is excerpted from the Smashwords blog:

The technology, systems and methods behind Smashwords Presales are patent pending.  This is the first time in our 11-year history that Smashwords filed to protect one of our many inventions.

The features revealed today within the Smashwords Presales tool barely scratch the surface of the innovations covered within the 65-page patent filing.  Smashwords submitted its patent filing to the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) on October 22, 2019 under the title, “A PRODUCT RELEASE SYSTEM, METHOD AND DEVICE HAVING A CUSTOMIZABLE PREPURCHASE FUNCTION.”  I’m a co-inventor along with Smashwords CTO Bill Kendrick.  An amended filing was made November 20 to consolidate claims and request fast-tracked review by the USPTO.  The USPTO, per law, publicly discloses and publishes patent filings 18 months after the filing date.  This means the general public can read the full patent filing starting around March 20, 2021.  International filings are planned.

To be clear, presales, alternately known as pre-purchases or exclusive early releases, are not a Smashwords invention.  Since the dawn of time, and before there were labels for such product release events, product creators have enjoyed varying degrees of freedom to launch their product when and where they choose.

But now things become really interesting, because Mark Coker sees big possibilities for this new patent-pending tech:

Although the patent application – if granted – would provide Smashwords the exclusive right to exploit the invention as described in the application for a period of 20 years, it is not our intention to keep this to ourselves.  Smashwords is but a small fish in the small ocean that is book publishing.

What’s good for the creators of ebooks is also good for the creators of audiobooks, print books, digital music, games, software applications, art, consumer electronics, apparel, financial services, hospitality services and any other new product or service that can be listed, marketed, launched, and released early via online retail.

We want to accelerate the adoption and commercialization of the invention across the industry so every product creator, retailer, distributor and customer can benefit from this.  This means that in addition to our desire to make this invention available to Smashwords partners, competitors and others in the book publishing industry, we also want to make the invention available to product creators, retailers and distributors outside of publishing.

Therefore, effective immediately, we’ll begin opening up licensing discussions with online retailers inside and outside of book publishing.  Since the patent has not been granted yet, it means we’ll be licensing trade secrets, technology and know-how to help retailers build elements of the invention into their platforms so product creators can take advantage of it.

Retailer licensees will be offered the ability to issue limited sublicenses of the invention to their distributors, aggregators and product suppliers.

The first major retailer or subscription service to adopt this will gain the ability to onboard a lot of exclusive product listings, and to harness the energy and excitement of early access.

In the meantime, we’re not waiting for potential licensees to recognize the potential and build this into their platforms.  Smashwords Presales is available today in the Smashwords Store.  In the months and years ahead you’ll see Smashwords continue to build out Smashwords Presales with additional first-of-their-kind capabilities covered within the patent application.

Too soon to say if this will be game-changer for Smashwords, but it certainly is a welcome new innovation from one of the oldest indie-friendly aggregators, and it’s great to see Mark Coker active again on the Smashwords blog. The last post before this was way back in February.