Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

The Five Elements (The Alchemancer: Book One) - 75% off

The Five Elements - 75% off at Smashwords

For the final week of the Smashwords "July Summer/Winter Sale", The Five Elements is 75% off when you use coupon code SSW75 at checkout. At its usual price of $4.99, that brings it down to $1.25.

Now is a great time to get familiar with Aaron, Shanna, Ensel Rhe, and even the despicable  Erlek because why? Because The Nullification Engine (The Alchemancer: Book Two) is coming out soon. That's why.

The sale only lasts until the end of July, so take advantage while you can.

Smashwords: All Function and No Form - Part 2

In Part 1 of this series I talked about some of the problems I think Smashwords has. In this post, I'd like to offer up some suggestions for ways they can improve.

Here goes.

1. Give the site a facelift

This one is obvious. I railed on the site enough last time. Mark Coker has indicated they're going to give the site some love this year, so we'll leave it at that.

2. Add moderated forums

Smashwords needs forums. Not like the Amazon forums, which run amuck with foul villainy, but forums like those on Fantasy Faction, Kindleboards, or Goodreads. Those forums are moderated by individuals who volunteer their time to keep the trolls from entering the castle. These forums could be a great place for readers to discuss books and for authors and readers to connect.

Attracting volunteers might be an issue. So, as an alternative, Smashwords could form a partnership with someone like Goodreads. Kobo already has formed a sort of partnership since it's possible to display Goodreads reviews and ratings on the Kobo web site. Smashwords could do something similar, pulling in Goodreads forum content.

3. Do more to help sell books

Smashwords falls flat in this area and Amazon… well, Amazon shines. Features of the Week, Deals of the Day, Fiction Hit of the Month. Whatever you want to call it, Amazon does a nice job of highlighting specific books for limited amounts of time. Smashwords should do the same. Except Smashwords, by its very nature, would highlight indie books and not those from the traditional publishers. This would be HUGE for people like me. There exists an absolute sea of titles on Smashwords and elsewhere, and rising above the "noise" is damn near impossible. Smashwords can and should do a lot to help promote individual titles.

4. Advertising

Why the heck not? Goodreads does it in a fairly unobtrusive manner. Why not Smashwords? Use a pay per click model so authors only pay when someone clicks on the ad and this might potentially be another revenue stream for Smashwords. Everyone likes more money (except that baby in the Capital One commercials). This is an untapped gold mine for both Smashwords and indie authors.

5. Improve the filtering

I talked enough about this last time. Suffice to say Smashwords should give us more options for filtering. First and foremost, break the price down more or let it be free-form.


That's it from me. I'm sure Coker is presented many ideas all the time. A lot of people like Smashwords (myself included). We all want to see it get better. I hope someone at Smashwords stumbles upon this post and takes some of the suggestions to heart.

Further Reading

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.


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.


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

Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 5: Smashwords

This is the next post in a multi-part series about self-publishing your eBook. Posts include:

1. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 1: Introduction
2. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 2: E-book Formatting
3. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 3: Book Covers
4. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 4:  
5. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 5: Smashwords (this post)
6. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 6: Scribd
7. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 7: Lulu
8. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 8: Selling Strategy

Unlike Amazon, which I talked about in the previous post in this series, I know next to nothing about Smashwords. That, therefore, is the point of this post: to do some research into what Smashwords is and what it can offer as an electronic self-publishing platform.

What is Smashwords?

Smashwords is best described by this excerpt from their About page:

Smashwords is an ebook publishing and distribution platform for ebook authors, publishers and readers. We offer multi-format, DRM-free ebooks, ready for immediate sampling and purchase, and readable on any e-reading device.

Key takeaways from that include "DRM-free" and "multi-format". We'll see which formats below.

Founded in February of 2008 by Mark Coker, Smashwords is a place for serious writers to showcase and sell their literary work. Unlike Amazon's Kindle store, free is an option; you do not have to charge anything if you do not want.

Smashwords has made recent headlines with deals to begin distributing their catalog to the likes of Amazon, Sony, and even Barnes & Noble. That gives them access to three of the biggest sellers of e-books, and means if you publish with Smashwords your e-book just might end up on one or more of those storefronts (of course, you can already sell your e-book through Amazon, though the direct-through-Amazon model pays less).

On Twitter, you can follow Smashwords via it's founder, @markcoker. The Twitter RSS feed is another good option for keeping up with everything-Smashwords. Also, there is a Smashwords blog.

How much does Smashwords pay authors per sale?

Assuming you are charging a fee to download your e-book, Smashwords generally pays "up to 85% of the net sale". They offer the following formula:

Net proceeds to author = (sales price minus PayPal payment processing fees) * .85

I question how up-to-date this formula is because, as you'll see below, you actually make far less than 85% based on the sales breakdown provided when you set a price for a your e-book. Still, on a $0.99 e-book, you can expect to make $0.56, or 57% of the asking price. The rest goes to "billing fees" and Smashwords. See "Pricing and Sampling" below for more info.

Contrast that with Amazon's 35% payout and Smashwords still looks like a pretty good deal.

Who owns the rights after publishing to Smashwords?

From the Smashwords' About page:

The author retains all ownership rights to their works, and is still free to publish their work elsewhere if they choose. Authors can remove their works from Smashwords at any time (although they cannot take back works that have already been purchased or sampled by readers).

The Smashwords Storefront

Upon visiting the Smashwords home page you can immediately begin browsing e-books:


At left are a number of choices for narrowing your browsing:


Or you have other options at top:


Each book is listed as:


With much of the information you might expect, as well as ratings (if readers took the time to do so) and reviews:


I'm a huge believer in the ratings system for online retailers and especially publishers. It's the single best way (though not fool-proof) of judging quality.

Author Page

Each author who publishes on Smashwords gets an author page which includes bio information, web site, blog, twitter account, etc. It's much more comprehensive and progressive than what Amazon offers in their own version of this. The author page is, of course, the place where potential readers can find out more about you.

Since I'd already signed up for a Smashwords account, I went ahead and filled in the information for my own author page:


You'll notice at the bottom it says "You have not published any books". So I haven't. I think I will remedy that.

Publishing with Smashwords

While uploading an e-book to Smashwords appears to be pretty straightforward, there are a lot of steps:

1. Title and Synopsis

2. Pricing and Sampling

3. Categories

4. Tags

5. eBook Formats

6. Cover Image

7. Select File of Book to Publish

8. Publishing Agreement

I'll go through each one as I get my first fantasy novel, The Hall of the Wood, on Smashwords.

Step 1: Title and Synopsis

Easy enough since I already have a synopsis from having published in the Kindle store, and I also keep such information on my fiction page. Smashwords limits this to 400 characters, though, so I'll have to trim.

Here's my completed step 1:


Step 2: Pricing and Sampling

A. Pricing

Pricing is simple enough: this is where you set a price for your e-book. Smashwords provides a nice breakdown of where the money goes. For example, on a $0.99 sale price:


This bears some explaining.

"Non-affiliate sales" are sales made by a reader visiting Smashwords directly or through, perhaps, a link from your site and making a purchase.

Affiliate sales, like Amazon's Affiliates Program, is where someone has posted a link to your e-book and made a sale that way. As you can see, the affiliate claims a piece of the pie.

Premium Catalog Retailers is best described by the information I found on Smashwords web site. Suffice to say it is another, possibly greater outlet for sales. Here is the description:

This new catalog is distributed to major online retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Sony, Fictionwise and other distribution outlets that have higher mechanical standards such as requiring quality book cover images, books with copyright pages, and other simple requirements outlined below. If you're a serious author or publisher, you want your books included in Smashwords Premium Catalog.

B. Sampling

The second part of this step is sampling, where you specify how much of your e-book can be downloaded for free (i.e., previewed). I went with the default:


Step 3: Categories

Easy enough:


Step 4: Tags

I went with the tags shown:


Step 5: eBook Formats

I researched some of the different e-book formats previously, and I find it encouraging that Smashwords offers so many formats: epub, lrf, mobi, pdb, pdf, rtf, and txt. What this means for readers is that they have maximum selection, and can download their favorite (or their e-reader's) format and not get "locked in" to one particular format (like Amazon is doing with the Kindle, which only reads azw files Amazon supports PDF natively, as well as more basic formats like TXT, but in terms of eBooks AZW is still king when it comes to eBook formats and how well your eBook will look on the device).

The default is all formats; I left mine as available on each.

Step 6: Cover Image

I blogged about the importance of cover images already. I already have one for The Hall of the Wood, so I just needed to upload.

Step 7: Select File of Book to Publish

Smashwords lets you upload e-books in .doc or .rtf format (they do the conversion into the many e-book formats for you). If you want inclusion in the Premium Catalog, you'll want to follow the basic guidelines found here.

Step 8: Publish

This is the final and easiest step: just press "Publish" and you're done. You'll see a "Your book is now converting" page as Smashwords grinds through the e-book conversion process:


It takes a while…

Note that I did encounter some formatting errors once the process was complete: (1) I'd forgotten I have a table on my title page which makes the formatting a little nicer looking (Smashwords does not allow tables), (2) I had forgotten to put "Smashwords Edition" on my copyright page, and (3) it was suggested I "normalize" all font sizes to just one, with '12' being considered optimal. I corrected each of these items, updated (the update process is slightly more streamlined than the initial submission process), and everything was fine thereafter.

Now, I see my e-book listed under "Newest":


As a final step, I submitted my e-book for inclusion in the Premium Catalog. This is what might just get your e-book into the storefronts of Amazon, Sony, and Barnes & Noble.


While that may have seemed like a long process… it was. Some of it was lessons learned, though, while some of it I was able to breeze through since I'd already done most of the leg-work. Your experience may vary. Unfortunately, I do have to now maintain two different online "source" versions of my e-book: one for Kindle and another for Smashwords, since they each have different requirements. Hopefully as a next step I'll be able to merge some of those differences and lessen the maintenance. Of course, once it's uploaded, it's uploaded, and hopefully doesn't require too many modifications.

Next post, I'll take a look at Scribd.

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