Like the poor redheaded stepchild who sneaks into the ball and mesmerizes the prince, ebooks are starting to be recognized for what they are: an attractive alternative to what’s already on the market.

In May, Mark Coker of Smashwords.com, an ebook publishing company, gave a presentation to a gathering of BATW members and their guests at the Computer History Museum. Coker, who was a recent presenter at the 2011 San Francisco Writers Conference (held annually in February), founded Smashwords with his wife after a book they’d written was turned down numerous times by traditional print publishers.

“In the ‘old world’ there were limited resources available to help you become a printed book author,” Coker explained in a phone conversation prior to his appearance at the BATW event. “We consider our authors to be the publishers of their book, and as such, our role is to act as the distribution infrastructure to help those authors get their books onto virtual shelves.”

The cost is free to the author; instead, Smashwords gets paid 15% of the sales price of the book once it’s downloaded. The first distribution deal the company had was with Barnes & Noble, but they’ve since evolved to work with Amazon, Apple, Diesel, Kobo and Sony.

Coker says the system is fairly simple and straightforward: You load your manuscript in as a Microsoft Word document, and Smashwords then converts it into an ebook format for distribution. Distribution is handled electronically via the outlets listed above, and the bulk of the book’s royalties are paid to the author (85% if the book is downloaded via Smashwords; 60% if it’s downloaded via an ebook retailer).

To help clarify his main points for consideration when crafting an ebook for distribution, Coker provided a PowerPoint presentation that included the following:

1)  Write a great book and don’t forget to create good cover art (the book’s cover image is important, so don’t scrimp on the artwork).

2)  Build up a backlist (if you become a popular author, readers will want to find more of your work).

3)  Maximize your distribution by using book retailers’ distribution channels to your advantage.

4)  Give (some of) your books away for free to help build up a loyal fan base.

5)  It can take awhile to find your audience, so be patient.

6)  Trust in your publishing partners.

7)  Use social networking to get the word out about your ebook.

8)  You want your book to “go viral,” so serve your readers and let it run like the wind…

To make things even easier in terms of a learning curve, Coker has written two online guides to help authors with the ebook process: one is a style guide, and the other is a marketing guide, both of which can be found on the company’s website.

When asked why he felt compelled to form the company (as opposed to just finding an ebook publisher for his own book), he answered: “The value of a book is to touch someone. But what if only two-to-three hundred people are ‘touched’ by a particular book? Doesn’t it also deserve to be published?

“In the traditional, print publishing world, that book would never see the light of day because there’s no commercial reason for a publisher to print it. It’s been a culture of ‘NO.’ And since many books take years to find an audience,” he continues, “by the time they’re a ‘hit’ they’re out of print.”

Not so with ebook publishing, which allows authors to write and distribute books that have a smaller audience. “Three years ago,” Coker says, “self-publishing was the option of last resort—or, at least, that was the impression in the industry. But now, agents are recommending it to their clients as a way to build up their fan base. That’s a big shift.”

But unlike Cinderella, who had to slip into some borrowed clothes to attend the ball in anonymity, ebook authors can now proudly step through the front door of the publishing industry in full declaration of their identity. And maybe, they’ll even get to take home the glass slipper as well—which, in this case, is a book that makes it into readers’ hands.