Since ebook distributor Pronoun announced it was closing, many writers in the indie publishing community have been scrambling to find other distributors for their work. So I’m putting together a compendium of articles on working with various ebook distributors. The first series in this compendium focuses on how to publish on Smashwords, the world’s largest independent ebook distributor.
Introduction to Smashwords
Founded in 2008, Smashwords is one of the earliest independent ebook distributors. It’s also the biggest, with more than 130,000 authors and small presses in its catalog. It sells books directly from its site, and it also distributes them for sale to libraries and retailers, including Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Baker & Taylor. In some cases, it also distributes books to Amazon.
Authors have complete control over what retailers their books are sent to. If you want your book to be available for sale to libraries but you don’t want it in the iBooks store, all you need to do is click a few buttons. Of course, retailers have the right not to carry books that don’t meet their standards. For example, many stores prohibit certain types of erotica. (More about that below.)
The only exception to this rule is this: In order for Smashwords to distribute your book, it must be available in the Smashwords store. So getting your book in the Smashwords store is the first step in publishing and distributing with Smashwords.
Does it cost money to publish and distribute on Smashwords?
Smashwords does not charge to list your books. How does it stay in business? It charges a commission when your book sells.
If someone buys your book on the Smashwords site, you get about 80 percent of the cover price you’ve set for the book.
If someone buys your book at a retailer Smashwords distributed your book to, you get about 60 percent of the cover price, the retailer gets about 30 percent, and Smashwords gets about 10 percent. (These rates are comparable to or better than what other ebook distributors offer. Note that they don’t have much control over the retailer’s percentage. While most retailers tend to charge around 30 percent, some retailers—notably Kobo—charge more.)
How do I get my money?
Smashwords pays within 40 days of receiving money from a sale, though they usually pay faster than that. If you sign up to receive payment electronically and you make a sale, you’ll get your payment at the beginning of the next month (or, in rare cases, the month after).
Say you sell a book in the Smashwords store on January 3. You will receive your payment at the beginning of February. if you sell a book on January 27, you will receive payment for that sale at the beginning of March.
Retailers do not pay Smashwords as soon as your book is sold. They usually pay at the end of the month or, in some cases, after 60 days. Smashwords pays you after they receive that money from the retailer. So if you sell a book on Barnes & Noble in January, you won’t receive payment for it in February because Smashwords hasn’t received the payment yet. Once Smashwords receives the payment, they will forward your share to you.
If you prefer to receive a paper check to electronic payment, you need to earn $75 before Smashwords sends your payment. There is no minimum for electronic payment.
Great! So how do I publish my book on Smashwords?
In this article, I’ll show you how to publish a formatted ebook to the Smashwords store, walking you through the steps I used to publish my preformatted ebook Chance & Possibility: Seven Fantastical Tales of Gay Desire.
If you don’t have a formatted ebook ready, you’ll find some links in this post to help you prepare your manuscript.
A separate article will cover distribution through Smashwords.
Step 0: Get ready
Before you get started, make sure you have everything you need. At minimum, this includes:
- The title of your book
- A blurb
- Your ebook, formatted as an epub or Microsoft Word doc file following the directions in Smashwords Style Guide
- A book cover that is at least 1,400 pixels wide, and taller than it is wide, in jpg or png format (I provide resources for cover design below)
- An account at Smashwords (they’re free and easy to set up)
It’s also a good idea to read over these instructions first so you know what to expect.
Now, log into Smashwords and click Publish in the Menu bar on any page of the Smashwords website.
- Step 1: Title and synopsis
- Step 2: Pricing and Sampling
- Step 3: Categorization
- Step 4: Tags
- Step 5: Ebook Formats
- Step 6: Cover Image
- Step 7: Select file of book to publish
- Step 8: Publishing Agreement
Now that you’re oriented, let’s go through each step.
Step 1: Title and synopsis ()
In the first section, you provide the title of your book, a short synopsis, and a longer synopsis. You’ll also set the date of your book’s release.
Step 1a: Title
Enter the title of your work. It can include a subtitle and be up to 250 characters long.
Smashwords will warn you if the title of the book seems similar to one you’ve already published (see image below). Ignore the warning if it’s not the same book, or change the title if you prefer.
Step 1b: Release Date & Synopsis
Under Release date, select whether you want to release the title immediately or offer it for preorder.
Then enter your synopsis. Smashwords asks for two versions: long and short.
If you want it to have any special formatting like italics, bold, or bullet points, too bad.
Yes, you can try entering the text in HTML. Use an online HTML editor to write your blurb normally, then copy and past the HTML code it produces into the Smashwords Synopsis box. (See example in next slide.)
Other bookstores let you do this, so Smashwords should too, right?
Warning: Smashwords will mess up your HMTL formatting anyway, so you might not want to bother.
Step 1c: Short Synopsis
Enter your short synopsis.
Note the maximum character counts apply to characters in your HTML, not just the characters in your words. Any special formatting you add increases your character count.
Step 2: Pricing and Sampling ()
In this section, you set the price of your ebook and whether or not you want readers to be able to preview a portion for free.
Step 2a: Price
First, set your book’s price in US dollars. You can:
- set the price as free
- let readers pick a price
- set a specific price.
After you set your price, Smashwords displays a few pie charts to show how much you’ll make from:
- sales on the Smashwords site
- sales made when an affiliate refers readers to your Smashwords page (if you elect into the Smashwords affiliate program, which lets you reward people who advertise your book by sharing a percentage of sales with them)
- sales on non-Smashwords retailer sites
The chart below shows proceeds from retail sales on a book priced at $2.99.
Step 2b: Sampling
Under Sampling, you can choose whether to make a sample of your title available for reading before purchasing, as well as what percentage of the book can be sampled. The default is 20%, but you can tweak it lower or higher.
Step 3: Categorization ()
In the Categorization step, you make it easier for readers to find your book on Smashwords and the stores it distributes to. Categories note whether your book is fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or a play; genres it falls into, such as romance, sci-fi, mystery, or horror; or whether it is focused on a particular culture or cultural group, like African American, gay, and so forth.
The categorization system is imperfect, but it’s better than nothing.
Step 3a: Primary Category
Smashwords lets you choose two categories: a primary category and a secondary category. The book I was posting to Smashwords is fiction, so I chose Fiction as the first step in narrowing down my primary category.
Smashwords then prompts you to choose a subcategory. I chose Gay & Lesbian Fiction.
Smashwords prompted me to drill down deeper. I chose “Gay” since the characters in this book are primarily gay men.
Step 3b: Secondary Category
You can also choose a second category. The options under Secondary Category are the same as those under Primary Category, but you should pick a something different that still represents your book. This helps more readers find you.
I chose Fiction > Fantasy > Short Stories.
Next you need to answer two questions before you’re done with categorization.
Step 3c: Adult Content
The first question—Or rather, question in the form of a statement—is whether your book contains “adult material.” The question is vaguely worded as “In order to protect minors from viewing inappropriate material, please let us know whether this book contains language, situations or images inappropriate for children under 18 years of age.”
So let me clarify this for you. Adult Content isn’t asking if your book is intended for adults. It’s not asking if it contains violence that should only be viewed by people above the age of 18 in a war zone, and probably not even by them. It’s not asking if it’s heady material that would be hard even for high school seniors to understand, like a treatise on theoretical physics.
Nope. It’s asking if your book is erotica. Answer the question with that in mind.
If your work is erotica, you should answer yes. Not answering “yes” can piss off retailers who accidentally shelve your scorching hot BDSM leather-daddy novel I Love My Daddy in the kids’ books. They get complaints from their customers, and in turn complain to Smashwords, who then asks you why you didn’t mark your book erotica like they asked you to.
Sure, you can say. “Um, you never asked me if my book was erotica. Also, in my jurisdiction it’s legal for people ages 16 to 18 to be leather-daddies as long as they’re only playing with people in the same age range. Nor is it illegal for them to access books that positively portray safe, sane, and consensual BDSM.”
But will Smashwords think you are obfuscating? Probably.
Step 3d: Supplemental Erotic Title Information()
So, if you’ve answered “yes” to adult content and chosen a category that includes the word “erotic” or “erotica,” Smashwords asks further questions about whether your work contains content that some ebookstores refuse to carry. If you don’t answer these questions truthfully, you risk having your Smashwords account closed.
You need to let Smashwords know if your ebook contains any of these themes:
- Incest or pseudo-incest
- Rape for titillation
- Age Play
- Dubious consent (dubcon)
- Non-consensual sexual slavery
Smashwords implemented these tick boxes earlier this year. Smashwords wants to ensure that retailers don’t get books they don’t want. For example, some retailers are fine with depictions of rape but not of pseudo-incest or vice versa. Or they’re okay with explicit sex but not with any of the themes in the check-off list. Without the ability to determine what themes are depicted in an erotica work, the tendency of retailers is to prohibit all erotica sales.
You can read more about these categories and requirements on the Smashwords blog.
You also need to certify that your work does not contain pedophilia, necrophilia, or coprophilia, which would put you in violation of Smashwords’ terms of service.
Step 3e: Box Set
Finally, tell Smashwords whether your title is a box set.
Step 4: Tags ()
In this step,
throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. No, wait—I mean, add tags or keywords to your book.
Tags are words that people might enter into a search engine when they’re looking for a book like yours.
You can enter up to 10 tags.
Not sure what to use? When you start typing, and Smashwords will suggest tags for you to use.
Step 5: Ebook formats ()
What formats will you sell?
Here’s where you tell Smashwords what formats you’d like your ebook to be available in on the Smashwords site. Formats include epub (for most ereaders), mobi (for Kindle), PDF (for computers and phones not equipped with ereaders), text files, and more
Some writers advise against allowing downloads of PDFs, because this format is one typically found on ebook pirating sites. Similarly, text files can be easily ripped off.
But pirates can download free software from the Internet to convert epubs and mobis into PDFs and text, so it’s unclear whether not making such files unavailable has any effect on piracy.
By default, Smashwords has all formats selected. Smashwords’ policy is that the best way to discourage e-book piracy is “to make purchasing preferable to pirating.” They believe this can be done by making e-books available for legitimate purchase in all parts of the world in as many formats as possible.
Note 1: The options you choose don’t apply to other retailers Smashwords works with. Smashwords distributes books only as epubs (to most retailers and libraries) or mobi files (to Amazon).
Note 2: If you are uploading an epub file to Smashwords, you can sell only epubs on the Smashwords site. If you want your book to be available in any other format, you have to upload your book as a Microsoft Word document (the old .doc format, not .docx), which Smashwords then converts to the desired formats. I find this to be a total pain, because I prefer formatting epubs to formatting Microsoft Word documents. Therefore, some of my Smashwords listings are available only as epubs.
Step 6: Cover Image ()
Finally! It’s time to upload your cover image!
Now that you have your image, click on Choose File.
Navigate to your cover and click the Open button.
Whoop! There it is.
Step 7: Select file of book to publish ()
You’ve created your book already, right? I sure hope so.
As mentioned before, you can upload only Microsoft Word .doc files or epubs.
Use the Smashwords Style Guide to properly format your Word document. If you’ve decided to upload an epub instead, I assume you know what you’re doing. Just make sure to debug and validate it before uploading.
Now, click on Choose File.
Open your ebook file.
It’s the chosen one!
Step 8: Publishing Agreement ()
OMG, you’re almost done!
All you need to do is agree to Smashwords’ terms of service, verify that you are the copyright holder or have the right to act on behalf of the copyright holder, and that you authorize Smashwords to publish and distribute the work.
Step 9: You’re done!
Congratulations! Sort of … because you’re not actually done if you want your book to be distributed beyond Smashwords. (Also, in this example, Smashwords messed up my HTML, so I’ll have to go back in and re-enter as plain text.)
I’ll tell you all about Smashwords distribution and updating your listings in future posts in this series.