Most self-published authors will have encountered Smashwords’ notorious ‘meatgrinder,’ and few of them survive unscathed.
They know what I’m talking about, but for those of you who haven’t come across this Gilliamesque monster, it’s the automated system Smashwords uses to convert uploaded files into various ebook formats.
And it doesn’t work.
Take a look at the book cover on the left. It’s the cover of Who Among Us… the third book of the TotenUniverse. It’s been on the Smashwords site since 2015 and we’ll come back to it in a moment.
The cover on the right is the new cover to Who Among Us… and part of a newly edited version of the book. All the books in the TotenUniverse have been given a makeover, with new interior content. It’s all on Amazon now, available in Kindle format and over the weekend I started to upload the new versions to Smashwords.
This is where automated systems start to confuse me. All four novels are formatted identically. They use a template and the only differences between the books are the story and the cover. The first two novels of the series went through the meatgrinder without a hitch. The second two novels did not.
When the cover to Who Among Us… failed the process I began to get worried. So I re-uploaded the original cover (the one that’s been on Smashwords since 2015). That failed too.
I’m not a corporation that has to react to events within twenty-four hours, but even I’m not prepared to put up with this inconsistent shilly-shallying over a piece of software that appears to have been superseded by Smashwords’ competitors. I took Who Among Us… to Draft2Digital and within six hours it was on Kobo and Inktera, with Barnes & Noble and Apple lined up as well.
I don’t like kicking Smashwords. In the face of Amazon’s dominance Mark Coker has done a valiant job opening up the market to self-published authors, but sooner or later his meatgrinder will have to be updated.
It does too much. An ebook needs to formatted to PDF, epub and Kindle (mobi/azw). Nothing else. And if the meatgrinder encounters a glitch it should correct it, not reject it wholesale.
If that sounds like a technical nightmare it shouldn’t be. At a fundamental level the software will be doing something like this:
IF (error) THEN (reject) and the process stops. What it should do is:
IF (error) THEN (correct) The software can only identify an error if it knows what should be there in the first place. Unless there is a fundamental problem such as wrong copyright information the software should be capable of, for example, replacing a tabbed indentation with a default page-style indentation.
Draft2Digital’s formatting software makes corrections. If they can do it so can Smashwords. Everything can be previewed before publishing to make sure the corrections haven’t mangled anything.
Fault identification is necessary, but it should be consistent. A cover image shouldn’t be acceptable one minute and rejected the next. Two identically formatted documents should go through the same vetting system with the same result.
I’ll continue to use Smashwords for the first novel, We Are Toten Herzen. But if I need to give away free copies of other novels they can be downloaded from the TotenUniverse website. I’ve been here before. The last time, the problem was a mismatch between my name on the cover and my name on the interior document. This time, the problem is unidentifiable and I don’t have the patience any more to work around someone else’s lumbering outdated system.
And while we’re at it, for what it’s worth, ebooks use html and css, so if you want to make life a bit easier for yourself, use the book editor feature in Calibre to clean up the formatting yourself. It’s not that hard. Ebooks are actually pretty simple things ‘under the hood.’ Why we need a meatgrinder at all to verify what is essentially a collection of web pages full of text is beyond me.