In July of 2013, I dived into the world of self-publishing head first. I left the paddle and canoe at home. In the effort to spread my novel as far as I could in my opening days as a debut author, I decided to focus my efforts in three different places: Smashwords, Amazon (Kindle), and Createspace (Amazon's POD service).
This is an accounting of my experiences with Smashwords, as well as a review of this service.
I do not recommend or suggest the use of this service.
There, I said it. That is the TL;DR version of this review. Almost all of the experiences I have had with this system have been terrible. What you're going to find out in this review is why I feel this service isn't ideal for self-publishing authors.
This review has several parts: Formatting, Updating a Novel in Smashwords' System, and Removal of a Novel from Smashwords' Distribution system. I also discuss a little on sales figures.
First, I want to talk about why I wanted to use Smashwords. Not everyone likes Amazon. Let's face it, Amazon has a certain bad rep with a lot of readers. I originally intended to use Smashwords as my distribution option for those wanting epub versions of my novel.
Nowadays, if someone wants an epub version of my novel, I give them two options: a reviewer's copy (with a request that in exchange, the reader does indeed leave a review of the book) or purchase the book from amazon and I'll give a reviewer's copy of the epub. This lets me use Amazon's KDP Select option legally.
Hint: If you bought a copy of my book on Amazon and you want an epub version of it, use a file converter. It's okay. You bought the book. It's yours. All I ask is that you don't give away copies of my book unless you buy a copy for your intended recipient. (I like eating.)
So, how does this relate to Smashwords? Smashwords is a distributor of all book formats, including Sony's now-defunct book store, Kobo, Nook, and even mobis. They mainly serve to distribute epub e-books,though they also support pdf and plain text versions of books.
At first glance, I thought this was great. I could hit a lot of markets at one time. I could spread word of my novels to everyone. The royalty percentage is higher with Smashwords than with Amazon.
Of course I wanted a piece of that pie.
That was when the troubles began.
Formatting for Smashwords is anything but friendly. When I released The Eye of God, I hired a formatter to handle all of the files for me. The mobi edition was so simple I could handle it myself, but I wanted things to look uniform, and I had already heard how difficult it was to get a Smashwords-formatted novel to look good.
So, I splurged. Several hundred dollars later (paid in form of editorial work) I had a file that was prepared for Smashwords.
Out of all of the versions of the file, including print format, the format for Smashwords was the hardest and most time consuming to deal with. I couldn't establish my ISBNs for each format. Smashwords didn't allow that. I had to list all of the ISBNs on the copyright page because of how Smashwords handles file creation.
The formatting itself is very specific. You must brand your book with Smashwords' brand if you want to go through expanded distribution. This branding must be on the first actual page of the book, or it will not pass Smashwords' autochecker. It handles fonts and images in a very quirky way when converting the files into each type through their system.
In short, it's a money-sink for formatting if you don't happen to be good at that sort of thing.
I'm not good at that sort of thing. For The Eye of God, I dealt with it, under the impression that having my book on all of the major sites would make a notable difference in my sales.
In the first week, Smashwords accounted for about %50 of my sales for The Eye of God. To say the least, this was not a high number of sales. In the second week, Smashwords' sales slid down to nothing. After a few months, with an occasional sale here and there (and absolutely none of them through the major distribution vendors) I came to the conclusion I had just spend an exorbitant amount of time on something that wasn't helping my novel sell.
Amazon was performing significantly better.
Every time I wanted to make an update to my novel, be it for spelling errors, or just because something wasn't formatted just like so, I had to jump through the loops of Smashwords' formatting system. To make this a fair review, if the system wasn't so persnickety, it might work really well for people who want an easy option to do bulk conversions of their novel.
However, it isn't easy. It's extremely specific on everything, right down to how fonts are handled, to how images are handled, and how pages are ordered, specifically in terms of the copyright page. For example, I had wanted to put the copyright notice in the back of the book so it was less obtrusive. I couldn't do this. It had to go in the front so Smashwords could brand itself using my book.
Here's how it is supposed to work:
Here is how it really worked out for me:
Now, there's something you should know about the conversion process with Smashwords. It takes a varying amount of time for the conversion to happen. It is queued into their system. Smashwords apparently doesn't run the converter on multiple files at one time, so you have to wait in line. If you're lucky, you're in front of the queue. I've been as close as third in line.
Usually, I had been 20+ in line, meaning it takes a few minutes for the files to be converted. I've waited up for an hour just to get through the basic conversion process. While I can do other things, it isn't like amazon, where you can expect to wait 2-5 minutes for a file to convert and get back to work on the rest of the novel.
Smashwords took noticeably longer in that regard. Due to how persnickety Smashwords is about their formats, this can become a time-consuming and frustrating problem.
As a quick aside, there is something I want to talk about: Copyrights.
Before I started working with any of the companies I have worked with, I secured the full and legal copyright to my novels. All of them. In fact, on the day I wrote this, I received a letter with four new copyright notices. These letters secure the copyright to all of the novels I'm planning on releasing in 2014.
Because I am the legal, official holder of the copyrights for my books, I have better protections in court.
Back to the review: Come fourth quarter of 2013, I made the decision to give KDP Select a try. Smashwords wasn't working out for me. I wanted — no, I needed — something more robust. I needed a better chance to get readers connected with my books.
I wanted to run a Christmas sale of both of my novels.
Unfortunately, I didn't anticipate that Smashwords didn't honor copyrights as carefully as they should.
I waited a week or two before enrolling The Eye of God into KDP Select's system.
Turns out, Smashwords doesn't view themselves as responsible for ensuring novels are removed from their distribution lines once a book has been pulled, or ‘unpublished' as they call it in their system. According to the customer service representative I emailed with, they receive weekly reporting from their partners, which show all of the books in their system. But, they do not view themselves as responsible for ensuring books no longer published with them need to be removed from their distribution venues.
The Eye of God violated KDP Select's system twice because of Smashwords' blatant disregard for copyright. If you're removing your book from their system, the author is responsible for making certain the title is removed from all of their distribution venues.
I kid you not. I have an email from someone at Smashwords stating that I was 100% at fault because I did not triple-check their work. I was also informed that they were not responsible because they have a liability paragraph in their terms of service.
Which, I'd like to point out, only covers them for delays in availability and errors in ad copy, descriptions, and within the book. Not for copyright violation. (By the way, copyright violation happens anytime a legitimate copyright is revoked and the distributor doesn't honor the request. Unpublishing a novel with Smashwords is a revocation of copyright — IE, Smashwords is no longer permitted to sell copies of the book in their venues.)
Their FAQ states changes take 2 weeks to implement, which is a fair period of time to ensure they're abiding by the shift in copyright. Last week, an entire quarter later, plus a month, it came to light that Smashwords had failed to remove my novel from three of their distribution partners. One is a mistake or error.
Three is purposeful neglect. I told the Smashwords representative that much. I also informed him I was the legal copyright holder, and that while I didn't want to pursue a copyright claim against Smashwords, I could — and would — if this issue wasn't resolved immediately.
The customer service representative didn't reply to me. The book, however, vanished from these venues within 24-48 hours.
So, take it from me on this one: Bookmark your novel on all distribution venues. Getting this info isn't easy. You have to look at the premium distribution page, find where it links to the sites, and then search for your book on each and every one of the sites. Do this so if you do remove Smashwords' copyright privileges, you can confirm they have removed your novel from their distribution partners.
For the record, there were other incidents prior, but those were resolved when I got nailed with the KDP Select violation the first time. Which, by the way, was why The Eye of God wasn't on sale for Christmas, for those of you who were disappointed when Storm Without End was on sale.
The copyright issue is the major deal breaker for me. I want to work with a business that cares about my novel — even after they lose their cut of it. Amazon may tell me things I don't like, but they have respected my copyright to date. Smashwords hasn't. It's obvious where my business is going — an author's copyright of their novel is the lifeblood of their career, and one of the few protections an author has to ensure they get paid.
The formatting issue is a pain in the neck, but if the copyright issue hadn't happened, it would have been something I would have cried my way through, but dealt with. It's an unpleasant system. A deal breaker? Very close to it, but not quite.
The customer service representative who didn't respect my copyright — and viewed me as the problem because they didn't have my novel removed from their distribution system ensured I will never work with Smashwords again. A deal breaker on its own? Bad customer service never appeals, but… I can deal with bad customer service.
If they don't cross that line with my writing. My copyright is important to me. They had 4-5 months to get their shit together and honor my copyright. Telling me that removing my novel from their distribution lines isn't their responsibility crosses way too many lines for me to accept.
In their FAQ, they state it takes up to two weeks for changes to show in their distribution lines. Having worked in a large-scale business who has to work with distributors on the internet, it realistically takes two business days at a maximum. For email lists, it can legitimately take up to a week depending on the size of the list.
The business I worked with had email lists with hundreds of millions of addresses.
At the time of this posting, Smashwords has approximately 287,000 published books. It doesn't take a week to process bulk emails to distributors there. Inefficiency happens, but I do expect better from a business. A deal breaker? No. Annoying? Yes. Especially when Smashwords refuses to take any responsibility or liability for their mistakes.
So, no. I do not recommend this venue for a Self-Publisher. There are other options out there, including Draft2Digital. If I decide I want to expand my novels beyond amazon again, this is one of the sources I'll try.
Worst-case scenario? I'll distribute directly to the major sites myself. It wouldn't cost me any more time than Smashwords' nightmare of a submission system.