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thinking outside the tank

First impressions of Smashwords

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Yesterday I went through the process of publishing my story Mus musicus as an ebook on Smashwords. I’d read about them from my LinkedIn group ‘Tools of Change for Publishing’, which drew attention to their recent acquisition of the New Zealand-based digital book publisher BookHabit.

Smashwords Registration
The registration process was straightforward, requiring minimal initial details. This is followed by the arrival of an activation email to prove ownership of the email address.

Once logged in I was able to change a wide range of information about me and my account: personal profile, how I want to be contacted, how I want to be paid (most interesting), how much of my royalty do I want to share with affiliate members etc.  Most of these I’ve only just started to explore.

Read the Style Guide
The first thing you need to do is to read the Smashwords Style Guide which tells you how to prepare your ebook for submission. Essentially, you need to simplify your text in terms of its formatting and layout. The point is that ebooks don’t have page layout; the devices on which they are read need to be able to flow the text smoothly, screen by screen, and since these devices have screens that range in size from the largest computer monitor down to the smallest mobile phone, you can’t impose a page size on your book. It’s the same separation of content from presentation that makes CSS and XML so valuable.

The benefit you get from this is that Smashwords can deliver your text in the widest range of formats, making it available to the largest number of potential readers. The downside is that it’s advisable to keep a separate copy of the work if you want to preserve formatting for distribution through other channels. Editing multiple source documents is a nightmare. If I felt that Smashwords were the place to be then I would write new stories with the Style Guide in mind in order to minimise the rework. Mus musicus is about 25,000 words; I wouldn’t want to start from scratch preparing The Lord of the Rings.

Uploading your ebook
Uploading the book, which by the way needs to be a Microsoft Word document (.doc) or in Rich Text Format (.rtf), was very easy, and so was setting up the information about the book – the title, author, pitch, and price. It was a surprisingly quick job to have my book available in all of the following formats:

  • Epub (open format and the future of ebooks IMHO)
  • Kindle (.mobi)
  • LRF (for Sony reader)
  • PDF (where formatting is needed)
  • RTF (readable in word processors)
  • Palm Doc (PDB)
  • Plain Text
  • HTML and Javascript – for online reading

Smashwords provides a dashboard that lets you view, for each book you’ve uploaded, how many views and sample downloads there have been, and gives access to other details like: what has Google found out about you and your book. I’m now making it part of my daily routine to check the dashboard.

Marketing your ebook
Smashwords offer a platform for writers to showcase their ebooks. It’s up to the author, more than ever, to find the customers (partly that’s why I’ve tried to tempt you here 🙂 ). Typically, that means getting your digital assets working together: Twitter, blog, and Facebook should all advertise and link to your books.

Publishing is changing rapidly, so writers need to be aware of all of the possibilities for spreading their words. No longer do you need to find a literary agent to hawk your book around the conventional publishers. The big publishers, and they’re getting bigger all the time, are looking for the blockbuster successes that will sell millions, or at least hundreds of thousands. Sadly, that’s not what most of us are writing, so most people will never be picked up by a conventional publisher. At the other end of the scale, it’s getting much easier to handle the publication process independently.

Self-expression through writing and the sharing of opinions, ideas, and stories has never been easier, and never so popular. People blog, they micro-blog, and they SMS. These are all very fast and direct ways of saying what we think. Jane Austen, today, might have texted her girlfriend: ‘get the fax b4 U decide’ instead of writing Pride and Prejudice.

Many writers clearly believe that the short-story, the novel, and the epic trilogy are still valid ways of entertaining and educating, and of somehow staying afloat in this ocean of words. The abundance of writing creates many problems. There is huge competition for the attention of readers and always there is the search for quality. That’s the one thing the conventional publishers do well. By and large, they have done their marketing and they offer up attractive books from skilled writers that have been edited, reworked, revised, and edited again.

Smashwords is deliberately and openly non-exclusive. With few exceptions they will accept writing on their site, regardless of quality. It’s good that they don’t judge, but it doesn’t help the readers who want to spend more time enjoying words and less time searching for them. 

Are there business opportunities, then, for unemployed commissioning editors, copy editors, and media marketeers to create websites where the value they add is quality control and discernment?

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