Some indie behind-the-scenes: distributors

I recently agreed to teach a publishing class at a local college—yay! I never thought I would ever get back into teaching, and yet here we are. Life is full of surprises. Anyway, in the process of getting my lesson plans together, I realized that I’ve been hoarding a vast quantity of publishing tips, practices and tidbits, and this blog might be a good place to share some of them, if anyone’s interested! So today, I’m going to talk about distributors.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of indie publishing, distributors are the ones who get your book on all the retailers out there. Some retailers allow you to upload directly to them, like Amazon. You can also upload directly to Kobo, Nook and iBooks—and there are advantages to this, such as a higher royalty rate—but I find it easier to use a distributor. The distributor I use the most frequently, and the one I recommend to most indie authors (especially beginners) is Draft2Digital.

The other non-Amazon distributor you’ll hear about the most is Smashwords. I actually used to use Smashwords quite a lot as a consumer—when indie books first were starting to get a lot of traction, a lot of authors preferred if you bought their books through Smash because they paid the highest royalty rate, and I wanted to support the authors. However, it seems like less and less authors are using them, and after becoming an author myself, I can see why—they are a pain in the butt to work with! This is an excellent post outlining many of the problems that I’ve experienced with them. The biggest problem for me is the Meatgrinder.

The Meatgrinder is Smashwords’ special tool that automatically generates an ebook for you using a Word document. The problem is that your Word document has to be formatted in a very specific and counterintuitive way in order to get a proper result. They have an instruction manual the length of an actual book called their Style Guide1)And as a former history major, let me just say that the Chicago Style Guide is probably easier to understand than this one. that explains to you how to format your Word document. But the problem for me, and for many authors, is that I don’t write my books in Word, I write them in Scrivener.2)Another popular Word alternative used by many of my author friends is OpenOffice, which apparently also leads to errors on the Meatgrinder. From there, I’m able to create every file that I need for every aspect of publishing—except Smashwords’ Meatgrinder. Compiling from Scrivener to Word and then uploading to Smashwords? Riddled with errors that take hours to rectify.

And the thing is, I don’t need their Meatgrinder. I know how to format an ebook myself, with professional styles and graphics, that’s 100% error free on the IDPF’s ePub validator. Furthermore, my own formatted books look a lot nicer than the auto-generated books made with the Meatgrinder. There is literally no point to me using the Meatgrinder. And you technically don’t have to—Smashwords does allow you to directly upload a formatted ePub to their site. BUT. They won’t offer your book in any other format besides ePub if you use Smashwords Direct. Even if you have a professionally formatted .mobi file ready to go, they won’t take it. You have to use the Meatgrinder in order for your books to be available in any format besides ePub.

So, with all these negatives against them, what exactly is the point to using Smashwords? Well, as of now, they are the only distributor that can get indie books into Overdrive, aka libraries. This isn’t to say that publishing your book through Smashwords will get it into library systems—the individual libraries have to order the books. BUT, if you want to give libraries that option (and to give library patrons the ability to request your book to be added to the system), at this point in time you have to publish with Smashwords.

My solution for the time being is to use Draft2Digital as my main (non-Amazon) distributor and to use Smashwords3)Specifically Smashwords Direct, which allowed me to upload an ePub instead of using the Meatgrinder only for those channels not available through Draft2Digital. This is somewhat complicated since, unlike D2D, Smashwords doesn’t allow you to pick your distribution channels before you hit publish. So the way I worked around it was to hit publish and then immediately head into my dashboard, select Channel Manager from the rightmost column, and select opt-out for every channel that my book is enrolled in through D2D. Since I updated my channels before the books had shipped, there won’t be a conflict (hopefully).

A snapshot of what my Smashwords distribution channels look like at the moment. As mentioned in this post, yes, the interface is a pain in the butt and doesn't fit on the screen unless you zoom out quite a bit.

A snapshot of what my Smashwords distribution channels look like at the moment. As mentioned in this post, yes, the interface is a pain in the butt and doesn’t fit on the screen unless you zoom out quite a bit.

The other thing I did is to opt out of being automatically enrolled in any future distribution channels on Smashwords. If you want to do this yourself, it’s a small text link on the bottom of the Channel Manager that says, “Manage preemptive opt out settings.” They really don’t want you to use this, which is why it’s hard to find. After clicking the link, you have to jump through 2 or 3 pages of “THIS IS A REALLY BAD IDEA, ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO?” Yes, I am sure, Smashwords.

The reason I opted out is because I want to use Draft2Digital as my main distributor, and, not being psychic, I’m not sure if any distributors Smashwords adds in the future will also be available through D2D. If I have a choice, D2D is the one I want to use. If you don’t opt out preemptively, Smash will enroll you in new distribution channels automatically, which will interfere with your D2D distribution. So, this is heading that off at the pass. Since I am primarily only interested in Smashwords for library distribution, I am fine with that.

My one grumbly-complaint about this method is that I feel bad about the fact that the book is only available in ePub for Smashwords shoppers, because I used to do a lot of shopping on there back in the day, and I have a Kindle so I needed .mobi format. If I was browsing the deals today and saw my own book, I wouldn’t be able to buy it because it’s only an ePub.

There is a solution for that, though it is a pain in the butt on the consumer’s end. The file is DRM-free, so if you download Calibre you can easily convert it to a .mobi and add it to your Kindle that way. I know that’s a pain, so if you’re a Smashwords shopper, I am really sorry. But it’s just not worth it for me to go to all the trouble of completely reformatting my book for one distributor when so few of my sales come from non-Amazon channels; particularly when I’m in the process of adding graphics to the Fourth World ebooks and the Meatgrinder would just strip all of that out anyway.

So, with all that said, if you do use Smashwords and have been wanting to pick up a copy of Fourth World, it is available for 50% off ($1.50) in their big July ebook sale. Just use the coupon code SSW50 at checkout 🙂 Another option if you want to support the author with highest royalties would be to order the book through my online store, which gets you a DRM-free copy of both the ePub and .mobi version. (And it will be on sale to coincide with Different Worlds‘ release in September, so if you want to wait and grab it at a discount…!)

I will try to post more publishing tips like this in the future as I continue to iron out my lesson plans, so watch this space if you want more! You can also sign up for my mailing list; I usually do a round-up of my blog posts on my newsletter.

NOTES   [ + ]

1. And as a former history major, let me just say that the Chicago Style Guide is probably easier to understand than this one.
2. Another popular Word alternative used by many of my author friends is OpenOffice, which apparently also leads to errors on the Meatgrinder.
3. Specifically Smashwords Direct, which allowed me to upload an ePub instead of using the Meatgrinder

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