I 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…
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?