TWO Files For Smashwords?!? Not So Fast With The WTF, Folks

I’ve been one of the noisy gripers bitchin’ about the Smashwords “Meatgrinder.” My complaint was not what Mark Coker of SW was doing, but that MS Word makes lousy ebooks. Now, Coker has made it possible for ebook producers to submit validated EPUB files for distribution wherever fine EPUB-platform ebooks are sold.

This is terrific news.

Now I’m seeing complaints all over the ‘net that in order for an ebook to be fully distributed in the SW catalog one must also submit a Word file along with the EPUB file. A lot of WTF going on and people acting as if they’ve been somehow buffaloed.

Back off a minute and put down your pitchforks and torches. In order for SW to do what it’s been doing, it’s had to take a one-size-fits-all approach (could not have afforded it any other way). Using Word as the source file for conversion made sense for two reasons:

  • One) SW is mostly a self-publishing platform for WRITERS who use WORD PROCESSORS to create DOCUMENTS;
  • Two) Ebook files are based on html coding (they are essentially little websites) and most word processors are based on html which can be converted so they can be read on various and sundry devices.

The problems were not so much in the conversion. The problems came from the ereader devices. Every one of them is different. Some use older technology, some use the newest technology. Many have user interfaces, allowing readers to customize (to an extent) the way they read an ebook. (Ever wonder why mobi files are so big compared to an EPUB file? It’s because they are actually several different formats–eink, tablet, keyboard, touch screen–all of which display differently and give the reader different options on the various Kindle devices.)

Smashwords also offers readers different options, such as PDF and (essentially) text files for reading on the computer. They offer formats like LRF and PDB for people with older, almost obsolete devices.

A mobi file can be converted from EPUB, but it requires some adjustments to the css, the cover image and navigation coding. You can do things on a Nook you can’t do on a Kindle (for instance), and vice versa. Much different platforms. I can convert an EPUB to a mobi file and read it on my Kindle, but in order to make it work properly on all Kindle devices, in order to make it convert through Kindlegen without errors, I need a different type of EPUB file.

Then you get into the platforms that aren’t based on EPUB at all. Can I convert an EPUB file into a pdf file? Well, sure, but it’s ridiculously convoluted and requires more clean-up than conversion. The reason is in the name: “Portable Document Format.” Word files convert easily into pdf files because both of them are document files.

The beauty of what Smashwords has done is that if you have a validated EPUB file (and that means error free according to IDPF–International Digital Publishing Forum–standards) it is going to work on the various devices using the EPUB platform–namely Nook, Kobo and Apple products. It will work the way users (our customers) want them to work and the way the device makers intend them to work.

What it boils down to is quality control. I can control the quality of EPUB files in ways that are not possible with a Word file. It’s not about the bells and whistles, it’s about the formatting and making sure my ebooks are stable and functional across devices.

If you understand how ebooks work and how other file formats work, then you know it is not feasible for SW to convert EPUB files into other formats such as mobi or pdf or rtf. That’s my job. These are my ebooks and my readers/customers, and it’s up to me to figure out the best way to make the ebooks I create compatible with their devices.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to ebooks and ereading devices. SW made a valiant effort when it tried to force Word into that role, but it was doomed from the get-go because Word is not the right tool.

EPUB is only one format out of many, and it is not Smashword’s or Mark Coker’s fault that the retailers and device makers cannot get their shit together and settle on a standard.

You do not have to submit two files to SW if you don’t want to. You can go EPUB only–which shuts out those who don’t have a device based on the EPUB platform. You can submit a Word file only–take your chances that your ebook is going to glitch, or settle for an ebook so generic it might as well be a text file.

Something else, too. Smashwords is a distributor. It reaches markets that indies cannot always reach on their own. I suspect the number one reason many of those avenues are closed to direct distribution from indies is because those outfits don’t want to deal with buggy, broken, half-assed ebook files created in word processors. SW could have insisted that those who wished to use their distribution service must provide files in compliance with the different platforms. That would have set back the ebook revolution several years. Instead SW came up with concept that mostly worked. So to those who are bitching that they now have to provide TWO files to SW, take a deep breath, step back and consider the alternative–the market could demand that you create up to ten different formats in order to reach all your potential readers. That, my friends, would be real cause for cries of WTF.

 

Happy New Year, Happy Day: Smashwords Now Accepts EPUB Files

It’s finally happened. Thank you, Mark Coker.

Smashwords Supports EPUB Uploads With Smashwords Direct

“One year ago in my 2011 annual year-in-review here at the Smashwords Blog, we committed to support direct EPUB uploads to the Smashwords platform in the second half of 2012.

Today we fulfilled that commitment with the launch of Smashwords Direct.

This new capability allows our authors and publishers to upload their own professionally formatted EPUB files for sale at the Smashwords store, and for distribution to the Smashwords retail distribution network….”

Read the rest at the Smashwords blog.

What does this mean? Why is this a happy day? A portent of wonderful things to come? At its heart, it means the most important thing:

Stable ebooks

I’ve spent the past year learning how to make stable ebooks. The biggest learning curve lay in figuring out how ebooks work. I’m handicapped because I’m NOT a computer savvy person. I’ve used computers for writing since the 1980s, but quite frankly I’ve used them as glorified typewriters and fancy bookkeeping ledgers with nary a thought about the inner workings or what was going on behind the scenes (behind the screen?). I had to learn a foreign language (html) and figure out who the smart people were so I could learn from them. It’s mostly been trial and error along with plenty of indulgence from some good friends who had enough faith in me to allow me to experiment on their books.

As much as I love the bells and whistles and trying this trick and figuring out that one, the most important lesson I’ve learned is this: If the ebook isn’t stable, none of the fancy stuff matters.

Is it possible for a Do-It-Yourselfer to make a stable ebook with Word? Or Scrivener? Possible, but not probable. Word processors are the wrong tools. You can follow all the directions and be meticulous, but speaking non-tech layperson to non-tech layperson: Shit happens.

A lot of that shit comes from the hardware side of the aisle. Every device maker is dreaming that his device is going to rise as Number One Preferred By Consumers Everywhere. Retailers like Amazon and Apple want their proprietary platforms to be the One Ring That Rules Them All.

With their Meatgrinder conversion program Smashwords struggled mightily to serve a lot of masters, all of them squabbling, and many not playing nice. The goal was to make it possible for anyone to self-publish and get wide distribution. The problem inherent with trying to satisfy everybody, though, is that compromises and narrowing parameters result in an overall lower quality. Ebooks had to be stripped down to the bare bones and great care had to be taken to lessen the chances that shit would happen.

It was backward and upside-down. Here we have increasingly sophisticated ereaders and tablets, full of possibilities that have barely been touched. The wrong tool (Word) makes it too dangerous to attempt exploiting the technology.

In order to reach greater heights, in order to really open up the possibilities, to look under the hood and see what these babies can really do, the ebook must be stable.

A validated EPUB file is stable. When the end user opens their ebook, no matter what the device, it will work. If the user wants to change the line spacing or the font or whatever else their device allows them to do, the ebook will oblige. It will look good on a small screen and it will look good on a big screen. If a user has multiple devices, the ebook will be stable across the devices. The ebook will continue to work even as devices are updated, improved and changed (as long as the devices continue to base them on EPUB–knocking wood here).

What does this mean for the Do-It-Yourselfer? I’m not going to lie. Building a validated EPUB file is NOT the easiest thing in the world. I have heard on good authority that the program called Sigil does a good job and is user-friendly. Having not used it myself, I do not know. Anyone who wants to discuss it, please, feel free.

By opening up Smashwords to EPUB files, my prediction for the New Year is that we’re going to start seeing a serious uptick in the overall quality of ebook formatting. Readers will demand it. They will grow increasingly dissatisfied with bland, generic looking ebooks and unhappy with ebooks that cannot be customized by their devices. We’ll start seeing innovation, too. Right now ebooks are a digital imitation of print. Face it, printed books are just about the perfect medium for conveying text. For that purpose, there’s not much room for improvement. What I’m thinking is how ebooks are different. That’s where the innovations will arise. With a stable platform, a solid foundation from which to build, ebook producers are free to innovate.

So thank you, Mark Coker and Smashwords. I predict your Smashwords Direct publishing option is going to result in benefits far above and beyond whatever it is you envisioned.

Is Good Enough, Good Enough?

A while back Darling Daughter #1 and I went to a restaurant that had just opened in our neighborhood. It’s part of a big chain (Rhymes with Billy’s) and our expectations weren’t high, but what the hell, we might be surprised. As per corporate policy regarding female diners we were seated way back in a dark corner and our server, also per corporate policy, treated us like shit (this is based on hard data proving that female diners do not tip well, so might as well treat them like shit from the get-go because you know, they don’t tip well). The server failed to bring my cheese toast. I asked her for it, she gave me a blank look. I asked again, she sighed–I must have been keeping her away from texting “Wurk sux” on her cell phone or something–and she finally returned twenty minutes later with a plate of two charcoaled pieces of toast. I asked her, “Would you eat this?” Another blank look, a slight shrug, and she wandered away to ponder if she’d put in enough hours to qualify for unemployment compensation.

Needless to say, I haven’t been back to a Rhymes with Billy’s restaurant since. I never will eat there again. Neither will DD1. If friends or family ask for a recommendation, part of my response will include, “Just make sure you never go to Rhymes with Billy’s.”

The irony is, this chain of restaurants spends millions of dollars advertising on television. If they’d put those millions of dollars into training employees and maybe printing a sign that says, I dunno, DO NOT SERVE BURNT TOAST TO CUSTOMERS, they wouldn’t have to advertise.

What does this have to do with ebooks? Plenty if you think about it.

This week Mark Coker wrote an article for the How to Successfully Self-Publish site: “Amazon Is Playing Indie Authors Like Pawns,” says Smashwords founder, Mark Coker.” The main point Coker makes is a good one. Writers should not limit their market to Amazon. (My feeling about KDP Select is that exclusivity is a good idea for some books, but not for others, so writers should do their marketing research, and no I don’t want to discuss it right now, so take any conversations about it elsewhere, m’kay?) Coker unfortunately misses another big point, namely that the ebooks his Meatgrinder produces are burnt toast. When a writer jams a Word file through Smashwords, the very best result they can hope for is a generic, bland looking block of text. Try anything visually interesting and the ebook will break or wobble. (This writer, me, refuses to use Smashwords anymore because ebooks generated with Word offend my sensibilities)

It’s good enough for some folks (the bland, generic part, not the wobbly or broken part).

It’s not good enough for me.

Bland and generic ebooks are born of the same attitude and self-fulfilling prophecy that many restaurant servers have about women. Everyone knows women don’t tip, so it’s okay to treat them like shit, and they should shut up and be grateful they’re even allowed inside the restaurant. Too many writers and publishers seem to have the same attitude about ebook readers. The cheap bastids don’t care about real books, so it’s okay to give them crappy looking ebooks. They should shut up about quality and presentation and be falling-down-on-their-knees grateful to have anything at all to read on their Kindles and Nooks and high-tech toaster ovens in the first place.

Yet the same publishers putting out those lousy looking ebooks are spending a lot of time and effort ADVERTISING and MARKETING and endlessly tweeting and facebook spamming BUY MY BOOK!

Sorry, folks. The book, the story, the writing, that’s the meal in this scenario. Presentation matters. If you don’t care how it looks, how it feels, neither will your customers. At best they won’t give your next book a shot. At worst they’ll tell their friends, “Oh that one? Sucks. Don’t bother.” (There are entire publishing houses from whom I will not purchase ebooks–no matter what the price and no matter who wrote the book–because their ebook formatting sucks rocks, and yes, I do tell friends to not bother)

This is new territory for everybody. Mistakes will be made. Ebook producers are still learning. Right now many consumers are still in the delighting in their devices stage and not being terribly picky about content. ‘Ware, though, to the publisher who blithely believes consumers will happily keep picking up the tab for “good enough.” Once that device-delight wears off, consumers will not be satisfied with a dark corner and burnt toast.

I told you before and I will tell you again why I am spending so much time and energy on learning how to properly format and design ebooks. It’s because I love books and I think ebooks are real books and I truly believe ebooks can be as beautiful in their own way as printed material.

I don’t accept “good enough.” If you really care about your books, you won’t either.