Smashwords: Can You Say Conflict of Interest?

publishing.pngSmashwords has lots of ardent supporters. Yet I’ve been consistently negative about them. I’m also puzzled why the DIY/VIP/indie crowd points to Smashwords as an independent solution, when they’re (IMHO) replicating the bad portions of Big Publishing. Meanwhile, my friends in the VIP/DIY/indie crowd wonder why I’m so skeptical of Smashwords.

There are two reasons for my position – and both relate to my concept of thinking of digital publishing as an investment. (As mentioned there, you may disagree with me, and it’s all cool.)

  • Smashwords is three business models in one, and they cannot (at present) stand independently.
  • Smashwords locks you into all of the business models rather than competing individually on the free market.

Yesterday, I wrote about the three business models; today I’m going to talk about the second – and how it’s a conflict of interest.

Second: Smashwords locks you into all of the business models rather than competing individually on the free market.

When you convert a book with Smashword’s Meatgrinder software, you do not have rights to the output. The converted eBook is not yours to sell. You must use Smashwords to distribute your eBook, and let them sell it at their store.

  1. Direct sales (obviously) put more money in the pocket of the author. You are prohibited from doing this if you use Meatgrinder. Sure, you still have a specifically formatted Word document – but that’s of no use if you’re selling to people with nooks and Kindles.
  2. If Smashwords goes kaput, you no longer have that converted book to upload or sell on your own.
  3. The document required by Smashwords takes about as much time to specially format1 as it does to make a nice ePub file yourself. (Seriously. It did for me. Making an ePub from a basic text document is fairly easy, just a bit time-consuming.) Except that if you make your own ePub file (which easily converts to Kindle formats using Calibre), then you own the thing and can sell it wherever you want to. Instead, using Smashwords, you can only have your eBook available where Smashwords distributes to.
  4. It’s a conflict of interest. Seriously, one of the traditional ways that you tell a … well, not-good … publishing service from a good one is whether or not you must use all of their options. Smashwords fails this test horribly. You must use their converter. You must use their distribution. You have to sell in their marketplace. This all bothers me. (Seriously – for me it’s just as bad as the "agent-as-publisher" stuff.)

    As mentioned in the post about thinking of eBooks as an investment, feel free to use Smashwords. Seriously. Go right ahead. Just like I won’t stop you from investing your money in buying the Brooklyn Bridge. But I have enough problems with their setup that I’m only going to use Smashwords when specifically asked to do so.

    Further, I’m going to quit whining and bitching and promote a specific alternative. Me. Alliteration Ink.

    Later this week, I intend to put up the publishing/distribution framework to get your book into the iBookstore and Kobo. (If you really want me to distribute to Amazon and B&N for you, I will.) I will charge for my time, and a small percentage (probably 5%) to cover administrative costs of doing the billing. If you want an ISBN, I’ll sell it to you. If not, I won’t. If you want me to convert the book, I will. If you have one already, that’s fine too.

    When/if the iBookstore and Kobo become completely open and easy to use, I’ll be happy to let you distribute it yourself instead. Hell, I’d be happy if nobody needed to use me for any of this. But I’d rather promote a truly DIY solution, one where Yog’s Law is enshrined, and where you’re encouraged to make it happen yourself first. That’s why I’m (slowly) putting out "So You Want to Make an eBook?".

    Maybe this post – or service – will shake up things at Smashwords so that they go from "not as bad as the others" to "pro-author". If not, there will be at least one alternative out there.

    1 At least, if you want in the "premium catalog" so that you can be distributed to other outlets… (Yes, that’s right, you don’t automatically get distributed elsewhere.)


    On Facebook, Rigel asked me:

Good post. I’m a fan of Smashwords, but I’m always interested in more information so I was glad to read your comments.

I admit, though, I don’t understand why you’re fixated on Smashwords owning a “format” that they can NOT do anything with… besides sell as the author allows and then give the author money?

Plus, as you said, the author is free to sell the same story through as many outlets as s/he choses.

Apologies if I missed the point, but I’m interested in understanding better.

It’s a good question.

It’s because the author is going to spend time and effort (as well as energy learning how to make a Meatgrinder compatible document) instead of learning how to do it for themselves – and keeping the money in the hands of the author.

It also locks the author into using Smashwords as a distribution outlet. So if you’ve got a work there and you decide that you’d rather just work directly with AMZ and B&N … you’ve got to do the same work all over again to get it converted, even though a converted version exists.

It’s the "printer is cheap but the ink refills are expensive" model of business. The eBook conversion is cheap (free – except for the time and effort in getting something to convert), and then they make their money off of being a distributor. If you don’t like their service for whatever reason, then you’re screwed.

Again, many of my objections to Smashwords would disappear if authors could pick and choose which bits (storefront/conversion/distribution) they wanted to use – but I suspect we’ll never see that.

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