In my attempt to embrace the online e-book indy author thing, I’ve neglected to get a proper handle on Smashwords. So, in order to avoid being labelled as unadventurous, or “conservative” (yuk), I decided to have a closer look at Smashwords using my short story “The Man Who Could not Forget” as a Guinea pig.
“The Man Who” has been on Feedbooks for a while now, and I’m very fortunate it’s managed to stay in the top ten of the “all time” most downloaded, which is immensely satisfying for a story that the conventional printed press rejected ad nauseum. I’m very grateful to the people behind Feedbooks for granting me the means to disseminate this story so effectively, and to the many readers who have commented on it.
Let me state this in as plain a language as possible:
For the millions of writers out there who have struggled for recognition through the conventional printed press, gnashed their teeth at the pedantic and pernickerty “requirements,” studied the “market” until they were blue in the face and still not understood a word of it, and finally after all of that, come to believe it was impossible to ever have their work read by a worldwide audience, or indeed any sort of audience at all, Feedbooks has been a miracle. I can put a story on there now, confident that by morning it will have been downloaded fifty times, by readers all over the world. Well done guys, and thank you!
Anyway – back to Smashwords.
Be careful with your formatting!
The first thing I noticed with Smashwords is that the formatting requirements are very stringent – .doc files only please, and you must be careful of your carriage returns????? – also, using the tab-key for paragraph indents is strictly verboten, but other than that, it’s not beyond the wit of man, and there’s an excellent guide you can download, along with an example of good practice that you can easily adapt.
I know, I know,…. we writers are not word-processor gurus are we? We are,… well,… writers. We use word processors, but we only understand about 10% of their billions of features. For us, you see, dear word processor software programmers, it is the plot, it is the character, the subtle nuances of the dialogue, it is the wordcount, the difference between the “who” and the “whom”, the difference between sincere meaning, and fatuous pretence, it is the sustaining of 200,000 words of prose while avoiding the quagmire of pretentious padding.
After all of that the difference to us between a “tab” and a “paragraph indent” can seem a little pedantic, a little esoteric, when the effect on screen, or on paper is the same to us. To the guts of the machine though, I understand they are entirely different, they are chalk and cheese, and if you want your machine to communicate with other machines you must have a common set of rules. This is why formatting becomes important. So, if you want to explore the crucially important e-book medium, and call yourself a respectable “indy author” you can’t afford to be sniffy about these things. Don’t be put off though, read the guide, do your best to respect it, and your reward is another free outlet for your work. Imagine: all those tricksy little devices pocketed by potential readers, all over the world, and your story just a few clicks away! How can you possibly resist!
Anyway, I had “The Man Who” loaded into Smashwords’ queue within an hour – one of fifty stories awaiting acceptance that evening. So, I put the lappy to sleep and went to bed. By morning I’d passed the Smashwords test, and “The Man Who” was available for download on my iPod touch, via the Stanza app. It had also already been downloaded 20 times. Fantasic!
There are a few niggles, however. So far as I can tell, with Smashwords, your story goes into the vast pool of uploaded stories more or less straight away and can only be retrieved by readers searching on the tags you’ve attached to your work, or for the genre you’ve assigned to it. With Feedbooks you go into a rank that has various categories, depending on how long your story’s been up there, and how many times it’s been downloaded. I may be wrong here, but I feel that with Feedbooks your story is more visible to a casual web-clicker and for longer.
Smashwords seem to have good grip on the market though, and readers obviously use them a lot. If you are a writer , rest assured, your story will be downloaded. Work with Smashwords on their formatting needs, don’t be put off by jargon like “meta-data” and you’ll have a potentially very wide distribution for your work. I’ve learned a lot about formatting since investigating Smashwords, so the exercise has been a useful one in itself. We’re still only just catching the wave of e-books. You only need to do a Google search on e-book readers to know that every electronics’ manufacturer is now jumping on the band-waggon with new devices appearing all the time, and, more importantly prices plummeting - for example the all new Amazon Kindle! As a print medium, the e-book is still not clearly understood, either by readers, publishers, or writers. I don’t think for a minute the printed book will ever die, but the web-savvy, the gadget fans and above all the upcoming generation of youngsters will make greater use of the e-book format, so the “indy author” needs to be up with the latest.
If you’ve been wondering about Smashwords, but wondering also about the catch, there really isn’t one. Go ahead, you’ve nothing to lose.
Earning money on Smashwords?
The thing you can do with Smashwords, which you can’t with Feedbooks, is set a price for the download – in other words, make some money out of it. You may have wondered about that, but here’s where it becomes more complicated: Smashwords is a US based service, and as such, regardless of which part of the world you live in, you fall foul of the US tax collection agency, the IRS, who require your name rank and serial number, up front. This is a bit confusing for non US writers, and a painful reminder that we’re a long way from the borderless, Shangrila ideal of the 1960′s of a single worldwide brotherhood of man.
I’ve no problem with the collection of taxes of course, it’s just that it’s such a dauntingly complicated business! Any other form of financial transaction has become so much easier of late; I can sit at my laptop of an evening and I can manage my banking, make investments, pay my bills, make all manner of purchases, large or small, I can insure my car, my house, write books and publish them, but pay taxes? No,… that’s still really, really complicated, and better not meddling with unless you can employ the services of an hourly rated advisor. You can try to bottom this if you want, but I took the easy way out and decided to keep my work on the “freebie” side of the net. I’d much rather shift copies at the moment.
Your likely download rates
After monitoring the situation for a while now, I find the download rates on Smashwords for an unknown story, by an unknown, amateur writer are about 20 per day, initially, but this quickly falls off to about 5 per day. I can’t make a direct comparison with “The Man Who” on Feedbooks, because I think that getting in early on Feedbooks distorted the download rates significantly upwards (currently about 100 per day – not that I’m complaining). Instead, I should use one of my more recent stories on Feedbooks, say “Katie’s Rescue”, as a fairer comparison, and on this basis, on Feedbooks, download rates are about 10 per day (even after several months), while the Smashword’s hit rate continues to decline (only 1 or 2 over the past few days) and appears to be in danger of flatlining.
Smashwords Premium Catalogue
Smashwords don’t upload your book instantly. They run it through a basic, automated proof reader in order to check for any massive formatting problems. Pass this test and your book goes onto Smashwords’ server, so people can get at it through things like the Stanza app on the iphone. It also goes into another queue where it’s proof-read again, this time by a pair of eyes. Understandably, this can take a while, in my case a week or so. Pass this test and Smashwords will put your book into their Premium Catalogue. This means the ever important formatting of your book is compatible with a wider range of Smashwords’ partners, so your potential distribution is much greater.
“The Man Who” passed the automated proof-read, but failed the later manual check at the first pass. With the simple rich text editor I’m in the habit of using I’d developed the habit of including a line-space between paragraphs, unaware that more advanced word processors include a trailing space after the paragraph anyway. The combination of the trailing space and my line-space was too much for Smashwords’ liking and they dropped me a note to say so. I made the correction, resubmitted, and the book was accepted into the Premium Catalogue very quickly after that.
Smashwords offer you a free ISBN number for your work. I’m not sure how they do this without charging you, but once your book is in the premium catalogue, you can opt for the free ISBN. In this instance Smashwords is listed with the ISBN authorities as your publisher, but naturally you keep all the rights to your work and can do whatever you want with it in the future. The ISBN is important because it gets your work listed in the book catalogues, and again opens up your potential distribution. The ISBN for “The Man Who” is 978-1-4523-8275-3, however, inputting that number into an ISBN search engine hasn’t yet yielded any results.
So, Smashwords or Feedbooks?
After all of that the answer, obviously, is both. If you’re a US based indy author and you want to explore making money out of your work, then Smashwords is definitely worth investigating, but unless you can hire a world class publicist I don’t think you should expect to give up your day job any time soon. If it’s distribution you’re after, and you don’t care about the money, then in my opinion, Feedbooks has the edge.
For all the extra effort involved in formatting, and ISBN-ing, I’ve been a bit disappointed with the effectiveness of Smashwords in making my work “visible” to potential readers. The reason for this may simply be that Smashwords is listed in applications like Stanza as a Pay-For-Content site, while Feedbooks is known to be free and Web-Heads have an instinct for sniffing out free content, while shunning any provider who wants your credit card details – even if, hidden among all that paid-for-content, there are also some free pieces.
I’ll be checking in the coming weeks to see if inclusion in the Premium Catalogue, and the assigning of an ISBN number has a significant effect on download rates, and I’ll report back here in due course.
Update August 11 2010:
Download rates for “The Man Who ” have effectively flatlined on Smashwords now, after less than a month, while even my least downloaded stories on Feedbooks are still achieving between five and ten downloads per day, even after a year. By all means try your story out on Smashwords yourself but Feedbooks still looks like it has the edge. I may be wrong and I’ll keep my eye on the situation, but judging from my experience so far, it doesn’t look like Smashwords is the most effective way to distribute your work.
Update 28 Nov 2010
I find mystelf still in agreement with my earlier analysis. The Man Who has flatlined on Smashwords. Were I charging for the download I really can’t see how I would have achieved anything here. My advice? I if you want to get your work “out there” then keep it free, and put it on Feedbooks.