Wow. Just wow. This week has been a blitzkrieg of editing, formatting, reformatting, pouring over documentation, and last-second editing again. Publishing takes a lot out of me. It’s finally done, though, and Shelter From the Storm is live on Smashwords now. It’s eligible for the premium catalog, and will ship to iBooks, Nook, Aldiko, Sony, and Stanza after that. It’s not quite live on Kindle yet, but it’s in the “publishing” phase where it is reviewed for about 24-48 hours, after which it will be available there.
Now that I finally have something in the market I can look back and think about what was hard, what was easy, and things I could do better. The first thing that stood out for me is that I was still editing – but I don’t think that was from procrastination. I got lots of reviews and crits on Shelter. It was a constantly morphing, breathing work that it immensely better now than it was a month ago, and light years better than it was a month before that. I’m proud of it. Despite all that prep work, I was editing right up until the final check-in. I was well beyond the point of spelling errors and such, but nontrivial changes were made in the story on publication day. I like all of the changes that went in, and I’d make them all again. Why did those particular changes wait so long? I really can’t say. They came to me as I was doing final formatting edits, and they were worth the hassle of making the changes. Shelter is 2000 words shorter because of the last change I made, and any time you can cut from your book, you should. My philosophy of self-editing has long been that if you catch yourself explaining the point of the scene as “it really shows the characters’ feelings/development/interests” then you need to cut it. Every scene should advance the plot somehow. Show those feelings as you’re moving along; don’t make the reader stop so you can beat him over the head with them.
Somewhere in that paragraph I went out on a tangent… but the point I was getting to was that I edited up until the last minute because (I think) you can always edit. There’s no such thing as a perfect work. I probably should have come to a “ship” date earlier and had a code freeze where I was only doing formatting and bugfixes (spelling, plot holes, anachronisms), but I’m not upset with myself for making the story better even at the last minute.
Formatting was another thing entirely. I had two very different experiences in the two places I published – Kindle and Smashwords. Both places had very powerful strengths and very powerful weaknesses. I’ll start with Smashwords.
Mark Coker & Co. over at Smashwords have the best-documented, most delightfully user-friendly site I’ve ever seen for publishing. You have a convenient Dashboard that you can always look at to manage all your books on Smashwords, edit which channels you want to be distributed through, and handle book updates, coupons, price changes, and basically anything else you want. Their tools to manage your works are powerful, easy to figure out, and wonderful to have at your fingertips. The ability to upload once and have your book be distributed to so many different locations is simply amazing – and the even better part is that at many of them you can get paid more if you distribute through Smashwords. This is particularly true on Nook; Nook has a 40% commission rate on books priced below or above the magic $2.99-$9.99 range that gets you the higher rate. I’ll be taking home nearly 60% via Smashwords even though Shelter is $0.99. That is a very important point, so I’ll say it again: you can get paid more (sometimes) if you distribute through Smashwords. This is the #1 reason I’ll be switching to distribute my Amazon books via Smashwords as well as soon as they can distribute through the Kindle store (which is already in the works). The #2 reason I loved publishing via Smashwords is that you get a FREE ISBN. That one was so important I had to put italics and make it all-caps, and I hate all-caps. ISBNs are required for distribution in iBooks and the Sony store. Neither of those markets are as large as Kindle, but I’d hate to miss out on them. ISBNs are really expensive, upwards of $100 for a single book, unless you want to buy them in book (get 1000 for $1000 at that site… egad). If you’re spending $100 on your eBook and you’re an indie author, you’d better be spending that on a world-beating cover artist (and you can get great stuff for much cheaper – I did).
Other things I loved about the Smashwords experience so far: thorough, detailed instructions on how to get things formatted and set up for publication in the premium catalog, clearly explained legal rules, and a generally friendly and beautiful site. I say this as someone who designs software user interfaces for a living – Smashwords has a fantastic and useable interface. Better than Kindle by a long shot.
Where Smashwords fell short was in the lead-up to one of their strengths; formatting for the Meatgrinder, their signature file.doc – to – file.* converter. To be clear, the instructions for formatting your document are first-rate and easy to follow. The process itself, though, still takes a long time. I’m thankful I was doing this with a 39K-word serial issue instead of a 150K-word novel. The safest way to get things started is to use “the nuclear option,” which is to copy your entire book and paste it into Notepad, then take the raw text and put it back into MS Word. The worst part about this is that you lose all in-paragraph microformatting, like italics for emphasis. You lose macroformatting as well, but it’s easy to fix your chapter headings again. Hunting down every place you used to have italics is a painful time sink. The most disappointing part about the Meatgrinder experience is that you can’t force page breaks. I used the triple paragraph return followed by “****” and another triple paragraph return (recommended in the style guide), but all that had the effect of doing in the ePub file was to put awkward spaces between my chapters. My ePub I created using Scrivener looked much better. To be fair, Coker mentions on Smashwords that they are going to have a Meatgrinder-bypass soon, so those of us who have invested in useful writing tools like Scrivener can just use the pretty formatting that they come up with instead. At the end of the day, I’m not angry at how it turned out format-wise, but it could have been better. I would prefer to have the ability to format on my own using tools that don’t rely on starting with a manually formatted Word document.
I did my Kindle publishing second, and it felt (at first) like it was a much better experience for one and only one reason – you can upload your own damn .mobi file if you want. Scrivener compiles to .mobi. Click, boom, upload, DONE. I almost couldn’t believe it. Seriously, Smashwords – If I could get your attention for a moment – You absolutely positively need this feature. It is absolutely worth the $50 for a fantastic tool like Scrivener that, besides being awesome as a writing IDE (Integrated development environment – give me a break, I’m a software guy), has the ability to very carefully format everything you need, and can do so from a place that Meatgrinder never can, a carefully formatted set of classes that it creates. Don’t get me wrong – Meatgrinder has a massively more difficult job than Scrivener – but Scrivener takes advantage of its resources to format better. I think it would be well-worth Smashwords’s time to implement even a weak version of the bypass as soon as possible, perhaps one that only works for low-to-no-images all-text no-tables works, a sizeable chunk of their portfolio.
Anyhow, that single luxury alone made Kindle feel much easier. It’s a gold star and a half that nearly gives Kindle the edge all by itself. That being said, Kindle has some drawbacks. There is no free, universal equivalent of the Smashwords Style Guide for Kindle that tells you absolutely everything you need to know. Now, Kindle has huge forums support and I doubt if it would be difficult to find all that information, but the fact was that for a first time author like myself, it was massively easier to find the directions on how to do everything just right on Smashwords than it was on Kindle. In particular – Kindle’s directions never say what to put on your copyright page. Do you need a licensing statement? Smashwords provides one for you. Is it important to say Kindle edition? What are the rules to linking out of the book to your other Kindle books? To your own blog? How do you edit your Kindle profile page that the public sees? All of these questions have answers that can be found with patient googling and searching through the forums, but searching forums and googling is harder than reading a single, clear, authoritative guide that tells you everything you need to know.
The other big place that Kindle looses out on is their royalties. If you’re outside the magic price range of $2.99-$9.99, you can only get 35% of the purchase price. Period. If you are in that sacred range, you can get up to 70% (though they then may take off some for “delivery” which may actually be a valid bandwidth charge, but who knows). Kindle can do that, though, because they are the biggest game in town, and that isn’t changing anytime soon. If you are an indie publisher, you would have to be insane not to be on Kindle. You don’t need an ISBN to publish on Amazon, nor do they give you one for free.
At the end of the day, both systems had their strengths at weaknesses. Kindle felt like a breath of fresh air when they didn’t make me go through formatting hell again, but their help sections were harder to find and their royalty rules weren’t as generous. I haven’t looked hard, but I didn’t see any way to give Kindle coupons for your works (it’s probably there, but the point is that it isn’t as blatantly obvious as it is in Smashwords). Kindle is also a little less clear about the rules of publishing – what is allowed and what is not? Again, all of the information is there, but they really need one style guide that is the authoritative guide to publishing on Kindle: do this and your book will be fine, do that and your book will get bounced.
Take it for what it is. I like the Smashwords interface, but I’d give my left pinky to be able to utilize Scrivener to make my Smashwords experience better. Still, I’ll probably move all my publishing over to the Smashwords system when they get integrated with Amazon; the convenience is too much to pass up. I just hope they let me do my own formatting when that time comes.
Update – One killer feature that Amazon makes easy and Smashwords lacks: the ability to group books into a series. Amazon has a nice little check box asking whether or not the book is in a series. If so, what is the title of the series? What is this book’s place in the series? It’s simple and incredibly useful. Shelter From the Storm is Book 1in the series Those Who Die Young on Kindle. Smashwords… completely lacks this feature. I was actually a little confused as to what I would consider Shelter’s title. Is it Shelter From the Storm? Those Who Die Young Issue 1 – Shelter From the Storm? I ended up going with Shelter From the Storm, which makes me ever so slightly nervous about the “rule” they have where your title page must match the title on your cover, as mine technically doesn’t (the series title is bigger on the cover and sits on top of the issue title). Hopefully the human reviewers will understand what I was trying to do.