On Smashwords

Mark Coker’s Smashwords seems, ostensibly, a rather brilliant idea. It’s sort of the ebook equivalent of Amazon’s Author page; whereas Amazon’s page lists all the work an author has available on Amazon in one spot, Smashwords makes available a single title in myriad different digital formats, including the usual ePub and mobi formats (for pretty much all readers and for Kindle, respectively), as well as PDFs (people still read those?), html (for web viewing, I figure, whether by desktop, laptop, or tablet), Microsoft’s Word (er. For people who want to word process it?), and even text (for people who . . . I give up. You can tell me why people want text files).

I like the idea in theory. My job, as I see it, is to both write the story and make it accessible, and accessibility works on several levels. I want to make the story appeal to readers, but I also want it to be available in any way a reader wants. Even if I can’t imagine why a reader wants a certain story available in a certain way.

Nowadays, there are myriad ways for people to read stories. There are no fewer than four different Android tablets available right now, and that’s only Android. There’s also the iPad and now the new HP tablet running WebOS. In terms of ereaders, we’ve got Kindles and nooks, of course, but also Kobo and Sony’s efforts and several other somewhat generic readers all of which have e-ink displays and most of which display ePub files and etc.

So far as I can tell, Smashwords seeks to solve the actually legitimate problem of making one story available for every platform. Maybe that’s the reason for the txt file?

And it’s not a bad solution, by any means.

What I don’t like about Smashwords is simple: it works from Microsoft’s Word format.

I’m sure it makes sense in terms of the model, which is that writers can format a Word document according to Smashwords’ specifications (delineated in the Smashwords Style Guide by Mark Coker), and then submit the subsequent file. Which Smashwords passes through what it calls its Meatgrinder. The result is that Smashwords can make that one Word file available in all those formats.

I’m sure Smashwords uses Word because that’s what most writers use as their word processors (in fact, I think the style guide specifically notes that Word Perfect documents gum up the Meatgrinder. Which made me remember how much I used to love Word Perfect. Back in 1997).

But seriously, publishing via Word? Inserting hyperlinks via Word?

Not using html for a mostly digital text file?

The Styleguide mentions that there’s some talk of moving to an ePub format, which would be nice.

One problem, as I see it, is one way the publishing industry’s digital adolescence is unlike the music industry’s. Digital music finally fully took off with Apple, iTunes, and the iPod–the latter of which could play the MP3 format, which was an open-source standard for music compression.

Digital reading finally fully took off with Amazon and Kindle, which uses a proprietary file format based on Mobipocket.

There is an open-source digital text file format equivalent to the MP3–it’s the ePub format. Which Amazon, at this point, doesn’t recognize.

There was news a while back that Amazon had told publishers they’d be able to start submitting ePub files. Probably because Amazon is about to announce an Android-based tablet e-reader to replace the DX and complement a sub-$100 Kindle.

Right now, the very best way to create a file for Kindle is more complicated than simply “upload Word file to publisher,” which is what Smashwords allows. It’s a simpler implementation, but in considering both the Smashwords file for Kindle and the actual file one receives from Amazon, I think the latter looks much better.

Because it’s designed specifically for the device.

What appeals to me about Smashwords is not simplicity but easier entry into the Apple iBookstore and the Sony–er. Whatever Sony calls its store. I don’t know why anyone who wanted an e-reader would buy any device besides a Kindle, nook, or iPad, but some people do. I’ve actually noticed a lot of book bloggers tend to favor Sony’s Readers. I think it’s because they display ePubs and aren’t tied to one particular store/entity. Sony doesn’t publish books. Hell, Sony doesn’t sell books, either.

Sony sells gadgets and technology. Though whether it’s done well in terms of either since the Walkman is debatable. Playstation is impressive when it’s not a massive security failure, to be sure, but otherwise? I honestly can’t figure out what inspired Sony to get into the e-reader market when its forays into music players tanked like they did. Anyone remember–er. Any Sony music player ever? The only thing I remember about Sony’s music players was ATRAC.

I digress.

What I like about Smashwords: that one-stop shopping.

What I don’t like: that I’m basically publishing a Microsoft Word file, and that because I’m doing so, I don’t have as much control over the final product as I do with either ePub or PRC. When it comes to both Barnes & Noble and Kindle, I have tight control over the files published to devices, and I’ve gotten quite good at both developing and exerting that control.

One other thing I didn’t like was that the site accused me of “vanity” for wanting to use an ISBN that would list Exciting Press as the publisher, rather than Smashwords. I can see that sometimes being the case, but the great thing about what Smashwords seems to enable is that more authors can use the platform to build their own platforms, which seems to be empowering, and I don’t think wanting more power and control–even if really only superficially–should be derided.

Because there is a point that it really doesn’t matter who is listed as the publisher, ISBN-wise. It doesn’t change the work. It doesn’t change the author. It doesn’t change the quality.

But I think it can, still, at least at this point, change perception.

Which I think is what my discomfort ultimately stems from. I’m uncomfortable without having more control over that perception. It’s not just the question of ISBNs; it’s the question of knowing coding and formatting, of being able to create a file, from the ground up, and deliver a good experience. I don’t really need Smashwords to create the experience, only make it available.

But then again, given that both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have Kindle and nook apps available for both iOS and Android, publishing on both platforms pretty much covers something like 90% of the e-reader market, leaving aside only Sony and Kobo. Except that, technically, you can download ePubs through Barnes & Noble’s site and sideload them onto either.


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