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Smashwords is the world largest distributor of self published ebooks, having published more than 360,000. It was founded by the author Mark Coker and launched in 2008. With the exception of Amazon KDP (Kindle) it is the most well-known distributor of ebooks created by self publishing or indie authors.
Smashwords aims to make it fast, free and easy for authors to distribute ebooks to the world's largest ebook retailers. The author retains full control over how their books are published, sampled, priced and sold. If the author chooses to give the book away for free, they have the ability to do that. There are no upfront costs involved in submitting your ebook to Smashwords.
Because of Smashwords' large size and market dominance it has a significant amount of clout with retailers. This allows the company to arrange attractive deals for its authors. For example, just recently Smashwords has announced the ability to support preorders. If used judiciously these can have a significant impact on the popularity of an ebook.
You don't have to use Smashwords for all the publishers they offer. For our past books we have gone direct to Amazon, Apple iBooks, and Nook then used Smashwords to pick up the smaller retailers.
If you read through the Smashwords website it would lead you to believe that publishing through them is essentially a no-brainer. Unfortunately, given our experience, as well as others we've read about, this is simply not the case in most situations. Perhaps you might get lucky and sail right through, but typically there are some bumps (sometimes walls) that need to be overcome in order to complete the exercise. We will try to present an accurate summary of what you might expect when publishing through Smashwords. We just want to be sure you go into this with your eyes wide open.
Your first step is to decide if you want to publish your ebook directly or through a distributor.
If you do want to use Smashwords for some of the platforms, you need to sign up for a free account. Once you have signed up you will receive a confirmation email which will summarize your next steps.
There are two options to publishing your book through Smashwords. The first is to let them convert a Microsoft Word document into an epub file for you, and the other is to create the epub youself.
If you are letting Smashwords create your epub file, the first step is to be sure that your book is prepared to the requirements of the Smashwords Style Guide. To quote the Smashwords website, "Download The Smashwords Style Guide for simple instructions on how to format your manuscript as a Microsoft Word .doc file prior to upload. No technical expertise is necessary!"
Wow, that sounds simple. As it turns out this Style Guide is more than 100 pages long (27,000 words) and must be followed to the letter for your ebook to be accepted into the Smashwords Premium Catalog. If you want your book distributed to all the major retailers it must be in this catalog.
In order to get your ebook accepted you need to understand the Style Guide and know enough about Word to make those necessary changes to satisfy the requirements in the guide. Once again quoting from the Smashwords website, "if you are relatively proficient with Microsoft Word, or you have the patience to learn by following our Style Guide, it's not difficult. We encourage authors and publishers to do their own formatting, if they're able. If you're not proficient with word processing, or you don't own Microsoft Word... an improperly formatted book will prevent or delay the distribution of your book."
If you are not "relatively proficient with Microsoft Word" then Smashwords suggests that you hire someone to create a professionally formatted Word document. Although this is expensive (usually $30-$60), Smashwords calls this "A good choice if you don't have the time, patience or ability to implement the Style Guide on your own."
From reading users' experiences online this first step to prepare a book to meet the Style Guide can be as simple as making a few minor changes to your existing Word file or involving preparing a large number of iterations. Unfortunately these "failures" can come without adequate explanations of why, leaving you in the dark. In these cases many authors give up and pay one of the formatters on "Mark's List" to finally get it accepted.
Smashwords now has another option for preparing your book called "Smashwords Direct". This is definitely the way to go if you already have an EPUB version of your book available. This is the method we used to prepare our books for Smashwords. Keep in mind that you still need to meet the Style Guide, which may require changes to the EPUB file from what you might use in other places. For example, you must add the Smashwords branding to the first actual page of your book.
In addition to your book file, you will also need to have an ebook cover image that meets the detailed specifications provided on the Smashwords website. If you don't already have a cover you may need to create one yourself or pay a contractor to create it for you. Smashwords also has a list of low-cost cover designers on "Mark's List".
After you complete the Publish form, click Publish. Smashwords will first check to make sure the Publish form is filled out completely. You will be sent back to the form to complete any missing items. When this is accomplished Smashwords will upload your ebook, ebook cover image and book information. Once Smashwords receives the information it will display the conversion page where you can watch in real time as the Meatgrinder technology generates multiple ebook formats for your book. This takes anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes.
Once the conversion completes, the AutoVetter technology will instantly analyze the book and report back if it identifies any potential formatting errors. Whether you have errors or not, the next page you'll see is the conversion confirmation page to tell you the conversion is complete. With this step completed, Smashwords will provide you a link to your new ebook page where your book is available for immediate sampling and sale. If errors are found you will receive an email that will summarize the errors and provide instructions on how to fix them.
Once your ebook as been successfully converted you can manage it via the Smashwords Dashboard. From the dashboard you can upload a new version of your ebook or cover, change the price, change the title and categorization, track the sales of your book and a variety of other activities.
There are several positives to using Smashwords.
Smashwords works with the largest number of retail booksellers of any ebook distributor. These include: Apple iBooks (51 countries), Barnes & Noble, OverDrive (reach 20,000+ public libraries), Kobo, Scribd, Flipkart (the largest bookseller in India), Oyster, Aldiko, 'txtr, Blio, Axis360, Baker & Taylor, and Page Foundry. Authors typically earn 60% of the list price from the major ebook retailers and 85% net at Smashwords.com.
This is one of the most important benefits provided by Smashwords. Once you are able to submit your book and have it approved by Smashwords, they handle the conversion and interface to all the different retailers for you. This can be a significant time saver.
Accumulated sales during the preorder period causes your book to rise in the bestseller lists once it is released.
While convenient, if you use the free ISBN from Smashwords they are listed as the publisher rather than yourself. This results in all of the problems we discuss in our section on ISBN numbers.
Smashwords also has a retail store of its own online (Smashwords.com). Sales through the store provide the author with a higher profit percentage (85%). Perhaps the handiest benefit of the retail store is it allows the author to provide coupons to their customers. For example you could provide a coupon for individuals that you would like to review your ebook. That would allow them to go to the Smashwords store and get the book for free or at a reduced price.
The Alliance of Independent Authors awarded Smashwords with their Author Service Award 2014. We felt a paragraph from that publication spoke volumes about the motivation of Smashwords and its relationship to self published authors and publishers.
"Their philosophy is simple and their motivation is clear. In order for them to make money, authors have to make money. They don't charge for anything except selling your book. They sell no additional services. They have no sales team. What they do...what they are driven by...is the same thing that drives you, as an author. Their goal is to deliver the best product and negotiate the most favorable deal for the authors with distributors and retailers."
It is our opinion that Smashwords over sells the supposed simplicity of uploading your ebook into their system. As mentioned above, that experience can range from passable to frustrating. That being said, once the pain of that step has been completed, Smashwords does deliver on providing the various conversions needed to supply all of their retailers.
Those authors that had significant problems tended to complain about the poor customer service in helping them to solve the issues as they arose.
Smashwords sales reports are often referred to as unintelligible. However, the most common complaint is the speed in which they are provided. Many times they can be a month or two without an update for a particular retailer. As you can imagine, this makes it nearly impossible to gauge the success or failure of marketing efforts tailored to that specific ebook.
In addition to the slowness of the sales reports, other things take an inordinate amount of time as well. For example, the amount of time to get books published to the partner sites and the speed of price and metadata changes to get processed is very slow. From what we've read, Smashwords has been relatively successful recently in reducing some of the lead times for these critical parameters.
Smashwords pays their authors quarterly, which is not a huge deal, but monthly would be much better and is pretty much an industry standard.
Smashwords requires you to brand your book with the Smashwords brand on the first page of the book or it will not pass their auto checker. Unfortunately, this can be a red flag since it screams "self published" which, like it or not, has a certain stigma associated with it in some people's minds.
Like any other online service Smashwords has its proponents and detractors - individuals that have had great experience with it and love it, and those that have been frustrated and will never use it again. Although there are some newcomers attempting to challenge Smashwords, it is still the largest, most recognized, and far-reaching ebook distributor in the world.
For those people that are technically savvy we would normally recommend that you go direct with the major retailers and then determine if it's worth your time and energy to have Smashwords pick up all the small fry. If you don't want to get involved in the minutia of publishing your book we would suggest that you pay someone to submit your Word document to Smashwords and let them perform the remaining conversions and distribution for you.