Sunday, April 3, 2011

Intro To Smashwords

So I suppose I should take about Smashwords a bit. I haven't done much blogging on publishing lately (or anything else either, really), as I've been utterly swamped with book production issues that have just been sucking up my time. But I started this blog with the intention of discussing my experiences in independent publishing, and as many of you reading this are doing so because you're self-pubbed authors yourselves, Smashwords is a service you should know about, if you don't already.

As I mentioned in a prior post, Smashwords functions as an aggregator, producing and distributing ebooks to several online retailers, foremost among these being Barnes & Noble, Sony's Reader Store, the Kobo Store, Diesel eBooks, and Apple's iBookstore, as well as via their own online storefront. Founded just three years ago, Smashwords has published over 40,000 ebooks from 16,000 different authors, all of whom retain full rights to their own works, set their own prices, and decide in which formats and venues to release them.

I won't go into a load of detail here, as they describe their services best themselves. But I will point out a few of those that stood out for me. First off I should say that I hadn't initially given them much consideration, due to the fact that most ebooks distributed via Smashwords list them as the publisher. And since I went to all the hassle of establishing my own publishing company in order to work with Lightning Source, I didn't want someone else's name on my books in some formats, but mine on them in other versions. However, I later discovered that this isn't required, so long as you provide your own ISBNs. Consequently, all my editions are published under the Fantasy Castle Books brand. That said, one of the best features of Smashwords is that they will provide a free ISBN if you don't want to shell out a couple hundred bucks to buy your own block of ten or more from Bowker. This does, however, list them as the publisher of record. But for a mere ten bucks they'll give you the ISBN and list you as the publisher if that's an important consideration for you. I think it should be, but Mark Coker, Smashword's founder, disagrees (for obvious reasons). You'll have to decide for yourself. But then, that's the job of being self-published, isn't it?

And, of course, it could be argued that this is irrelevant in the end anyway, since what is important is actually getting your book out there, and readers don't generally pay attention to the publishing imprint or even care one way or the other. While there is still a stigma attached to self-published works, and books produced through CreateSpace, Lulu, BookBrewer and the like can suffer as a result, that is quickly changing as readers themselves become the ultimate and final arbiters of taste and quality, as it should be. As ebooks gain more and more ground, and indie authors like Amanda Hocking gain notoriety, books will be judged more on their own merit than by the channel through which they reach the reader. Indeed, the entire field of publishing is now wide open, with the path between source and destination shorter than ever.

This is where a company like Smashwords comes into its own. Functioning essentially as a new mediator between the author and retailer, aggregators like Smashwords and BookBaby step in to fulfill many of the functions once performed by traditional publishing houses and literary agents. That is, they take a manuscript, format it into a marketable product, and ship it to a variety of retail outlets. Marketing is still essentially left to the author, as are things like editing and cover art, but each of these receive a great deal of aid throughout the Smashwords process. For example, the ebook conversion process rejects poorly formatted manuscripts and automatically generates notes on needed changes; web pages are created for every author and title; and basic cover stock can be produced using standard templates.

For all this (and much more), Smashwords charges nothing, making its revenue through a 10-15% share of all ebooks sold, depending on the channel (who themselves, of course, take a share). So for example, Apple gets a 30% cut of the retail price, with Smashwords taking another 10%, leaving the author with a full 60% profit. No traditional publisher comes near that, with 25% being the norm for digital sales at present. In additional, there are a surprising number of promotional and marketing tools available, such as a coupon generator, to assist you in selling your work.

Now, seeing that I have an established account with Ingram, I could get onto the iBookstore that way. But there is an upfront fee, and Ingram still takes a cut as well. Smashwords, on the other hands, acts as a one-stop shop not only for iBooks, but half a dozen other ebook readers, all of which are available to the customer with a single purchase. There's no need to buy a title in Kindle format, then again for the Nook if you decide a NookColor is really cool, or again when you pick up an iPad and want to read in iBooks. And all titles sold through Smashwords are Digital Rights Management free, meaning you can transfer them from one of your readers to another, to your home computer and back again, without having to worry about not being able to open the file ten years from now when the Kindle has been replaced by who knows what. You bought the book, you should be able to read it when and where you want.

Which brings up another important point: Smashwords only publishes ebooks. And while there is a growing movement of digital-only authors, print books still make up the vast majority of sales, and likely will continue to do so for some time, so it's a good idea to pursue Print on Demand options as well, or continue to do so. Some books just don't translate well to the digital format, as I'm discovering with my current project (Argghhh!!), and the wide variety of screen sizes and reader formats is a hindrance at best, limiting what digital publishing is currently capable of producing. But Smashwords does the best job yet of standardizing those variables for the best presentation on them all, and for that alone they're well worth looking into.