BY ROBERT DIGITALE

A lot of unpublished writers probably wish they could have done something like what Mark Coker did when he couldn’t find a traditional publisher for the novel that his wife Lesleyann and he had written.

In response, Coker went out and founded Smashwords, an Indie ebook distributor that is adding to today’s upheaval in the book world.

“We created a monster,” Coker said Sunday at the monthly meeting of Redwood Writers in Santa Rosa.

In the company’s first year, Smashwords helped independent authors and small publishers release 140 ebooks. This year, he said, it’s already has helped distribute 53,000 titles, and it’s on track to reach at least 75,000 by the end of 2011.

In recent years, screen technology has advanced and made book reading a popular pastime on iPads, Kindles, Nooks and smart phones. Amazon last month reported it now sells 105 ebooks for every 100 printed copies.

“Three years ago nobody was taking us seriously,” Coker said afterwards. “Now people are taking us seriously.”

Authors send Smashwords their prepared manuscripts and the company’s software turns the files into ebooks that can be read on all sorts of electronic devices. Moreover, those ebooks can be sold at the Apple iBookstore, Barnes and Noble, the Sony Reader Store, Kobo and the Diesel eBook Store.

When books sell, authors receive 60 percent of the list price. In comparison, he said, an author with a traditional publisher will earn 5 to 17 percent per book.

Coker predicted book sales will continue to shift to the Web, and ebooks will continue to grow in numbers while printed books decline. He foresees a day when the online booksellers will give away e-readers for free, possibly with a $9.95/month subscription plan.

Traditional book stores won’t disappear, but “they’re going to continue their long steady decline.” Similarly, he said afterwards, traditional publishers won’t vanish but those who survive will be providing services that successful authors can’t or don’t want to do for themselves.

Among his tips for authors: Give some of your work away for free. Smashwords’ biggest-selling authors typically have given at least one book away for free, often the first one in a series.

The audience of more than 70 at the Flamingo Hotel cheered when Coker said that “the center of gravity” in the book world is shifting from New York to places like San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Santa Rosa. They expressed similar delight when he said that now the traditional publishers weren’t going to limit who could be an author, but “all of the unwashed masses are going to be doing books.”

“That’s us,” audience members responded.

Given such heady talk, it was good that Coker advised listeners not to quit their day jobs just yet. Most Smashwords books sell few copies. (Even the Cokers eventually decided to give away for free their novel, “Boob Tube.”) His own criticism of his creation is that it may have made book publishing too easy.

Preparing a marketable novel for publication still can involve considerable cost, he said, especially in hiring a good editor. At some point, Smashwords probably will offer a list of possible book editors for authors to contact. But Coker suggested he felt a need for caution because some writers might spend a lot of money getting ready an ebook that would never sell.

“Authors are dreamers,” he said. “They’re prone to be taken advantage of.”