Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Smashwords: All Function and No Form - Part 1

Let me start by saying I love Smashwords. It's a great platform for the distribution of eBooks to multiple platforms with relatively little effort on the part of the author. I also like their coupon system, which allows me to hand out 100% off coupons to readers who agree to write a review of either of my eBooks. So as I get into what I perceive as deficiencies in the Smashwords way of doing things, I'm not demeaning them out of disrespect but because I don't think they're reaching their full potential. I would really like them to do well because then I do well.

I'm going to assume you're already familiar with Smashwords. But in case you aren't, here's the founder's explanation of what it's all about:

Smashwords is an ebook distributor.  We make if fast, free and easy for authors and publishers to distribute ebooks to the world's largest ebook retailers.  Authors and publishers retain full control over how their works are published, sampled, priced and sold. If an author wants to give it away for free, they have that freedom.

I'm going to break this post into two parts. First I'll look at some of the deficiencies I feel are holding Smashwords back. Then, next post in this short series, I'll make suggestions on how I think they can improve the experience for both authors and readers alike.

Here, then, are what I perceive as areas in need of improvement.

1. The Web Site

The site design is horrific, primitive, and, in too many ways, useless. Smashwords exists to connect readers with great new reads. It's not going to do this via a web site Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, himself feels is stuck somewhere in the 90's:

When people tell us the design of the Smashwords store is so circa 2000, we take it as a compliment because we think they’re being generous by at least a decade. The Smashwords web site user interface is outdated.

Outdated is right. The site really needs a complete overhaul. It's just not all that aesthetically pleasing or inviting. Also, it's too difficult and time-consuming to sift through the massive number of books there and far too difficult or possible at all to filter all those books down to a useable level.

In my ePublishing predictions for 2013 post, prediction #6 was that Smashwords would revamp its site. I'm happy to say that it looks like that particular prediction is going to come true as Mark Coker, Smashwords' founder, states in his Smashwords Year In Review post:

2013 is the year we will give the Smashwords store a facelift, not because we have designs on becoming a large ebook retailer (well, actually, we already are, even though that’s not our focus), but because we think an updated site will help us attract more books and more customers that we can feed to our retail partners.

Hallelujah!

2. The Filtering

The filtering is fairly basic. You can see the options. You can also trim the list of results by genre and sub-genre, which reduces the ocean down to a sea. Now, I'm not saying Smashwords is any worse than other retailers, but they need to do more to help discoverability. Amazon, for example, has their "Customers also bought…" lists. I've tried finding my book using Amazon's conventional means of searching and gave up after around 20 pages of results. As for Smashwords, it's no better. The single best way for someone to find my book is to filter by "Highest Rated", "$2.99 or less", and "Epic" after you've already whittled the list down by genre. Even then you have to wade through too many pages of information. If I can't use the filtering to find my own book, how is a potential reader going to discover it? Tagging isn't a solution to this as authors too often manipulate the system. Amazon, I believe, has done away with tagging altogether.

3. Search

Search doesn't work hand-in-hand with filtering, which makes it almost useless. I chose "Fantasy" as my genre and "Epic" as my sub-genre, searched for "witches", and got so many results unrelated to either of my genre/sub-genre selections that the search was not very helpful. Searching for "witches fantasy" was a little better, but it still ignored my previous filtering selections.

4. Top Lists

Smashwords has some feature lists: Top 100 Downloaded, Top 25 Bestsellers, and Top 25 Most Viewed Authors. Unfortunately, all three of these lists cut across ALL books on the site making them of no use at all. As one might expect, the Top 100 Downloaded is full of erotica, Top 25 Bestsellers has a bit of everything under the sun but probably nothing most people will find of interest, and the last… most viewed authors? What does that even mean and why is that useful at all?

5. Coupon discoverability

Unless I'm completely missing something I've never seen a way for a reader who comes across a book to know there is a coupon available for it. Coupons are one of the biggest and best ways Smashwords has separated itself from the other eRetailers. But, as an author, I have to send these coupons out and make people aware of them myself. I do that, of course, but my influence is often much smaller than the sheer number of people who visit the Smashwords site. They should do more to highlight books that are on sale via coupons. The brick-and-mortar retailers do it, so why not the digital ones too?

6. Reviews

Smashwords doesn't allow anonymous reviews. That's a very good thing. But they also don't let other people comment on or "up/down vote" those reviews. This is something that I think works on Amazon as less useful reviews are moved to the bottom and more useful ones to the top. Smashwords just lets the reviews fall in the order in which they are entered rather than allowing readers to have a say in which ones influenced their decision to make a purchase.

7. The Logo

Here's the Smashwords logo:

Like the site, it seems stuck in the yesteryear of the Internet when silly animated gif's and purple backgrounds abounded. Hopefully with the site redesign the logo also gets a refresh.

Personally, I don't want this logo on my site. To that end, I created a simple 'S' button instead of using it.

Conclusion

Smashwords has an information overload problem, which isn't necessarily a bad thing until you consider that they don't make it easy for their customers (authors or readers) to deal with this. Plus, their site is not very inviting. It's an immediate put-off for potential readers.

Next post in this series I'll make some proposals on how they can fix these things.

Further Reading