The Smashwords Submissions Process AKA What Fresh Hell Is This?

SmashwordsI have very much admired  Smashwords‘ indie spirit from afar, but until now, I never ventured into the Smashwords arena because I had no need.

Now I have, as we have chosen Smashwords to extend distribution for our authors’ books after KDP Select winds down for each book at our imprint Kwill Books.

After many hours of hell, I think Smashwords has let authors down by not joining us in 2016 technology – the Premium Catalog submissions process can only be described as old-fashioned, stubborn, and archaic – even with the ushering in of the direct submissions service where you can upload EPUBs.

Let me be clear that this process should be a piece of cake for me. I am a book editing professional, trained by The EFA’s experts in formatting ebooks. I run Self-Publishing Review, one of the most reputable indie book review companies around. I worked in IT and publishing with an emphasis in e-content for two decades, providing products to some of the biggest brands on the plant, and I can program in four languages. So why has it taken me over two weeks and seventeen exchanges with my author to satisfy the incredibly ravenous and fussy Meatgrinder?

I ask this not as a hypothetical question. I’m serious. For a start, Coker last updated the Style Guide on September 24, 2014. There has been two entirely new versions of Word released since then, and multiple upgrades. And yet Smashwords still only accepts .doc Word documents. Why? OK, you are going to tell me it’s because this is what the system requirements are. But .docx documents, the default format for all Word documents since 2013, are a quarter of the size of a .doc, and they contain xml information – so why would Smashwords not want them for an ebook? Calibre uses them, as do most other book conversion programs – except Smashwords. KDP does. I have had zero problems there. Why can’t Smashwords invest in making a meatgrinder that is capable of accepting more modern file formats?

It takes me 10 minutes to upload my .docx to Amazon KDP, and it works. So far, it has taken me roughly 20 hours to correct the same document to fit into the old-world requirements for Smashwords, and that’s after reading Coker’s Guide.

Not only that, the system only allows one font size for body text, throwing up errors. Then why has Coker’s template, the one offer on the site, have multiple font sizes in it, as well as multiple custom styles, using text in different sizes, instead of headings?  Before, I had two styles, for Normal and Italic, headings, and one font size. Now, my document is not acceptable.

Coker often says he has made it simple for authors to upload to the site. But simply put, if I can’t do it, how does he expect a senior author who has limited knowledge of computers to do it? How does he expect an author with little time to mess around with your very particular requirements? Whatever these reasons are, we know from KDP the technology exists to make it really easy.

The one thing indie authors need is quick and easy accessibility to become authors. The Guide is the equivalent level of a college document. Authors don’t need endurance tests and secret processes they have to Google and read about to find answers in forums. They don’t need to spend extra money on services Smashwords offers on their site, for goodness’ sake, to achieve this inflexible set of formatting rules that frankly don’t make a lot of sense when I have already created a compliant ebook elsewhere.

One of the FAQs states, “I’m losing my centering.” I know how that feels…

Rubik's cube
Smashwords’ submissions process – like a Rubik’s Cube?

Some self-publishers treat it like it is a test or an exam to get into the Smashwords Premium Catalog, and I am sure this article will attract comments from puffers boasting about how quickly they figured it all out,  but this isn’t a Rubik’s Cube. It’s someone’s life on a page that they want to share. It’s emotional. Pedagogically, the Guide is too confusing. Google the submissions process, and the page is full of comments such as, “daunting,” “overwhelming,” “Does the Smashwords formatting guide make you want to pull ALL of your hair out while you run around the house screaming curses in Mark Coker’s name?”

Smashwords then suggests we check our EPUB at EPUBCHECK.  The uploader at Smashwords should do that for us, just like Kindle does for .mobi. Have you seen the programming errors that spit out of the EPUBCHECK?  Coker has to be aware that considering the error messages (often given as numbers) are absolute gobbledygook to the everyday person, that’s obviously asking too much of a normal author just trying to get their book uploaded.

Smashwords even says, “If it fails, it’ll toss up (mostly) incomprehensible spaghetti language telling you why your book failed.  Take a deep breath (Very important).  Try to study and understand the messages, but don’t pull out too much hair if it’s confusing, because it is SUPER-CONFUSING. ” Has nobody at Smashwords ever thought that none of us want SUPER-CONFUSING? I mean, so confusing it’s in CAPS?

Let’s take a look at the guide, for indie and hobbyist authors with no IT training, with a list of the error messages: “Mimetype entry must not have an extra field in its ZIP header” or “Error while parsing file ‘different playOrder values for navPoint/navTarget/pageTarget that refer to same target.”

I have a degree in IT design. I don’t know what some of it means. Will my dad, a retired oil field photographer, when he publishes his first book next year, aged 86? Or will he require help, do you think? How about my friend in India, a housewife, wanting to publish her recipe book?

Oh, but help is surely at hand when Smashwords offers,  “When nothing else works … use the Nuclear Option (HOW TO PURGE HIDDEN CORRUPTION)

The Nuclear option requires me to strip out all formatting and start again, just for Smashwords.  I’m doing this because Smashwords can’t rework their meatgrinder to accept .docx or PDF? It was perfect in KDP. Looks fine in Calibre. The ebooks work on KDP. All my code is great. Except when I do it for Smashwords. I did the Nuclear option. It didn’t work. Now I’ve got an HTML programmer writing the file from scratch, because it’s the only way I can probably make the system accept a document accepted everywhere else.

I have to ask: does Smashwords make commission off of the professional formatting services listed for when we give up in anguish on this self-serve process? Is it meant to be this difficult? I’d love to purge the hidden corruption.

This whole process should not be a problem. When I say “problem” I mean, Smashwords shouldn’t be jauntily commiserating with clients in the FAQs on how awfully complicated the system is, surely? Shouldn’t they be offering a new way of doing this instead? It’s your company, right? So you can change it all to be easier to use?


 These are my suggestions for change:

  • Mark Coker spends time rewriting and updating the Style Guide to incorporate the use of Windows 10 and Mac OSX Word versions since 2013, instead of spending energy writing blogs comparing Amazon KDP to the Great Potato Famine. Because right now, the Smashwords submissions service does not compare to KDP, and there’s a lot of immediate hands-on work that could be done to change that situation that does not seem to be getting done
  • Fix the template offered so it works properly and doesn’t have various elements to it I don’t need or want in my document that throw up errors when I try to validate the document
  • Make the website intuitive instead of making us scrabble in the FAQs, and worse, offsite in forums, for answers
  • Let authors use the same document they uploaded to Kindle and other services to Smashwords in .docx format or PDF
  • EPUBs should be checked at Smashwords automatically like KDP without having to jumble through EPUBCHECK – we know the technology exists
  • Negotiate governance across all distribution channels to accept a simpler process that does not require a degree in computer science to get your book accepted so Smashwords is not the “shot messenger”

I want to use Smashwords, I really, really do. I love the idea of it, and they way it’s all self-crafted, and “not Amazon.” But Smashwords needs to grow with authors’ needs and leave old-school self-publishing behind. Let’s hope my last-ditch attempt works tomorrow. Let’s hope I don’t dream about NCX and FAQs and split indexes, and meatgrinders, and that Smashwords logo thrusting that book forcibly upwards…

Comments below, everyone! What’s been your experience with the Smashwords Premium Catalog submissions process?

  • InklingBooks

    Good suggestions. I’ve got one book on hold at Smashwords now because I’ve yet to stir up enough energy to sort out what’s wrong with it. Apple accepted the identical epub file (exported from InDesign) without a complaint.

    To your suggestions, I’ll add these:

    1. If Smashwords knows why an uploaded epub is failing, they should fix it. One of mine was failing with cryptic error messsages. Finally, someone at Smashwords took pity on me and told me there was a single configuration file that InDesign inserts for Apple that was causing the problem. All I needed to do was delete it. That problem must come up often. Why doesn’t Smashwords just write scripts that clean up the most common problems? Why dump the solution back onto users who are typically writers not programmers? Amazon certainly seems to do that. My epub uploads to them are typically flawless.

    2. As you point out. Smashwords needs to broaden its focus beyond converting older versions of Word though its meatgrinder into documents for various formats. Yes, they accept epub, but they have a miserable process to win approval. And if I go the epub submission route, their store won’t sell ebooks in any other format, which probably reduces my sales through them. I can give them excellent PDFs. Why can’t I submit that. I could probably use Calibre to give them a Kindle-formatted book. Why can’t I do that. Why is there this lopsided stress on a Word-to-meatgrinder workflow? This is not 2012. Give us more options.

    What makes those frustrations all the greater is that I like the idea of using Smashwords to distribute ebooks to everyone but Amazon and Apple, including various library loan systems. It’s the process of gaining acceptance from Smashwords that’s the nuisance. The hassles destroy what time I save. And since I typically come to Smashwords after successful uploads to Apple and Amazon, my motivation is slipping by the time I come to Smashwords.

    –Mike Perry, Inkling Books

    • I’m glad to hear it’s not just me, and that someone else with lots of experience finds it frustrating! I don’t think it’s good enough for them to say, “that’s the way it works for Smashwords” anymore. Hopefully there will be some movement by Mark Coker to fix these issues so that we can keep them on the radar. It just seems such a small upgrade for them to become competitive in 2016.

  • Jim Brown

    I provide conversion and uploading services to authors and publishers (jimandzetta.com) and by far and away the most troublesome platform is Smashwords, so much so that often clients come to me ONLY for the Smashwords file – they’ve done the others themselves but Smashwords is a step too far and a hurdle too high. I won’t go into too many technical details because a) you’ve pretty much covered it, and b) like the epubcheck errors it can often be gobbledegook to people. I do recall several occasions where a properly formatted doc file uploaded to Smashwords produced the same error – that in the epub file Smashwords produced from the doc file. The error was a bad toc link. Smashwords refused to acknowledge that it was THEIR process which added this bad link, because it simply didn’t exist in the .doc file. It took several back and forths with them before they finally accepted there was no such link or bookmark in the document, and they fixed the files at their end. I do applaud their ingenuity in coming up with the ‘Meatgrinder’ – which incidentally in its inner working uses CALIBRE for conversions! – but as you have stated it is now becoming dated, and the whole process needs an overhaul. Too many restrictions, in my view.

    • Yup. I did manage to reformat using pure HTML, removing TOCs, but yet to find out if it’s accepted. But how ridiculous! They must be using an outdated version of Calibre? Also, books can be rejected at Smashwords because they do not allow a link to “Leave a review” on Amazon or Goodreads, so authors miss out there, too.

  • atlavely

    I’ll attempt to leave this again, since Disqus has apparently eaten my last attempt.
    A note: Smashwords accepts epubs, but cannot (as of the last time I tried-a couple years ago) generate samples from them, or convert to other formats. Without samples, I’m not sure where you’d be with prospective readers.
    I make doc files from Scrivener, and haven’t had a problem with the Meatgrinder, but my files are likely much less complicated than anything a book designer worth her salt would produce-I certainly don’t require InDesign for what I want!
    Of course, you’ve tried Draft2Digital?
    ETA-corrected spelling

    • The problem we had for Kwill with D2D is that is purely for individual authors. Smashwords allows indie presses to distribute with them. Hence, we are stuck. I may go back to BookBaby at this rate after all. And yes, the samples are important. Another thing to add to the list! On an updated note, once we used pure HTML and stripped everything we did succeed. But it shouldn’t be this hard.

  • Lea Tassie

    Sorry you’re having so much trouble with Smashwords. All I can say is “Read the manual!” I’ve published 14 books on Smashwords, most of which I’ve had no problem with. But I was very serious about reading the manual and making my own abbreviated notes (which only amount to two pages). I don’t have your experience in IT, etc., so I didn’t expect such ventures to be a snap. Yes, Kindle is easy; I do both. But I will continue to do Smashwords because they publish in so many formats.

  • Shawn Montaigne

    Mr. Coker and his staff aren’t really all that motivated to upgrade Meatgrinder or Smashwords in general, which looks like it belongs in the 90s. I’ve complained about these very things both on my G+ feed and on his blog multiple times, but to no avail.

    He’ll tell you that Smashwords is a distributor, not really a seller, so he doesn’t feel it necessary to do much to improve things. He does next to nothing for book discovery; once your new release leaves the site’s front page, well, it’s gone, poof, and so are potential readers. It doesn’t have to be that way. But then, Smashwords isn’t a seller, but a distributor. Got it.

    I had to learn the hard way how to format my documents to meet specs for that accursed Meatgrinder. It took me many months to get it right. It should NOT have to be so difficult. Then again, Smashwords belongs in the 90s, given its lousy, ugly site design. Coker probably also understands that authors have it in their empty heads that they need to *suffer* for their art. The Meatgrinder definitely helps in that capacity.

    I use Smashwords because something better has yet to come along (non-KDP, that is). I keep hoping something does. I’m not holding out much hope.

  • Wow. I start to wonder here: is Mark just doing this so he can complain about the processes of Amazon? I used to casually listen to his newsletter diatribes; til one day it occured to me: it ALWAYS seemed to be Amazon’s fault about something. And now this? Weird.

    Technology, power and compartmentalized thinkers in charge. Scary stuff.