A Trip Through the Meatgrinder

This post is likely to get a little wonky. It’s intended for those who are considering self-publishing through Smashwords, so I’m assuming you’re as interested in the mechanics of “meatgrinding” as I am.

What is this Meatgrinder I’ve been referring to? It’s the nickname for the software Smashwords uses to convert Word manuscripts to various e-book formats. While it conjures an amusing mental image, its results are a whole lot better than chopped liver. And let me hasten to add here that Smashwords is paying me nothing for sharing both my fascination with their process and my esteem for their services.

The trip to the Meatgrinder is the hard part for the writer—not just the writing but the formatting and the preparation of support materials. The meatgrinding itself is quick and painless if you’ve gotten all the formatting right. What Smashwords coaxes out of you is the cleanest manuscript possible (and I’m not talking about the content – they do accept erotica!). What I mean is that the simpler and less ambiguous your style commands are, the better your manuscript will do in the Meatgrinder. To that end, the Smashwords Style Guide (downloadable in Kindle or iBooks formats) takes you by the hand down the road to minimizing errors and qualifying for their Premium Catalog. The only really odd thing about Smashwords is that they ask for your manuscript to be in the old Word.doc format instead of the newer .docx, or InDesign, for that matter. (Let them explain that to you!) But if you didn’t know Word well before using the guide, you’ll be a pro by the time you’re done with your formatting—especially the proper and precise use of styles and how to do a hyperlinked table of contents.

In my next post I’ll be describing the formatting process in detail, so let’s skip to the upload process. This assumes that you have a totally renovated document, complete with title and copyright pages, a working table of contents, back matter, and a sharp-looking cover that Smashwords recommends you have designed professionally (a caveat I ignored). You’re ready to tackle the Publish page on the Smashwords site! This page is visible only to people who have created accounts at Smashwords, which I encourage you to do so you can see what’s expected and how to prepare. Basically, you should already have been working on and refining your bio, your short blurb (400 characters), and long synopsis (4,000 characters) because these are going to appear everywhere—not just in the Smashwords store but at all the retailer sites and libraries—and they need to effectively draw people in.

Once you’ve uploaded your blurbs, you’ll continue on down the Publish page—this is the fun stuff! You’ll set the price of your book (generally somewhere between free and $9.99, but there are exceptions), decide what percentage of your book can be sampled for free, choose a genre and subgenre, create some tags to describe the content so shoppers can find your book according to their interests, and decide what formats you want your book to be available in. I described these formats in my previous post, but it’s worth repeating some of it.

The Meatgrinder can create all of the following e-book versions: EPUB, MOBI, PDF, LRF (old Sony Readers), PDB (Palm Doc), Plain Text, and Online Reader. I chose all but Palm Doc and Plain Text, which wouldn’t have worked with my photograph-heavy format. (Yes, my novel has photos!) Smashwords sends the EPUB version to Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble (Nook), Sony, Kobo, Android Aldiko, Blio, Inktera, Scribd, and various library channels. The MOBI version is invaluable because it’s the format for Kindles, the “amazon” of e-readers, and it may be the only way you’ll reach Kindle readers outside of publishing directly with Amazon. PDFs are good for people who don’t have devices and somehow manage to read whole books on their desktop computers or laptops. I’m not sure I see the use of the Online Reader option at the Smashwords site because it tends to mangle your format.

When I was ready to upload my precious Word document and cover, I had my husband sit next to me for moral support. Since he’s an Apple developer, he was also interested in how this process might be similar to submitting an app to the Apple store. He can write his own post about that! Some of this surprisingly fast trip through the Meatgrinder is a blur because I was so excited and nervous, but my overall impression was that it went incredibly smoothly after one initial hitch: my manuscript didn’t upload on the first try, maybe because it was so big, so I got an error and tried again with success. We thought we were going to see the Meatgrinder’s wheels turning or teeth gnashing, so we were a little disappointed when only a progress page popped up. But there, for the next five minutes which felt like an eternity, we could monitor the status of each format as it was completed. And then suddenly this page was replaced with a “Congratulations…you’re published” notice!

At that point New Old World was in the Smashwords store, at the top of the list—this is the “fifteen minutes of fame” that is somewhat overhyped by Smashwords. For those authors who have received error meVersion 2ssages, this 15 minutes (not to mention the whole next day!) can be chewed up fixing the errors. In my case, I had survived the dreaded “AutoVetter,” a rather Star-Warsian term for the program that looks for fatal formatting problems that will keep you from premium status. Even without any errors to fix (thanks, Style Guide and help desk!), there was one more hurdle—the EPUB check, which required downloading Adobe Digital Editions and running the EPUB version through it. That produced a long list of gobbledygook that both my husband and the Smashwords FAQ page said I could ignore. So I did, and the book was launched into review for the Premium Catalog!

Somewhere along the line, almost as an afterthought even though it was a high point for me, I was prompted to fetch my ISBN number, which Smashwords assigns. I’ll never commit those thirteen digits to memory, but it was very satisfying to receive them after 27 years of dreaming, writing, and editing my novel. And it was a nice convenience for Smashwords to provide the ISBN rather than having to buy it myself from Bowker.com. (Note: I’ve since learned that only the EPUB version receives the automatic ISBN. You have to get your own ISBNs for other versions, if you feel the need.)

It took about 24 hours for my e-book to go through the premium review, and by the time I was notified of the acceptance, I’d already sold two books at Smashwords—to my son and to a good friend! As soon as New Old World was approved for the Premium Catalog, Smashwords began shipping it to Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, with other retailers to follow. I think it was just a day or two before it started showing up on other sites. And that’s when I threw a monkey wrench into the Meatgrinder!

I wasn’t happy with how two graphics were displaying, and the title of one poem had been left out of the automatically generated table of contents, so the perfectionist in me spent the next day trying to figure out how to solve these problems. When I uploaded my improved version, it not only got the Meatgrinder going again but it triggered a second premium review process! This was an expedited review, though, so it only took a few hours instead of a day. Good thing, because I triggered the review process inadvertently one more time when I added the PDF version to my list of formats!

After about three days of fiddling and reviewing, the best possible version of my book was out there, so it was safe to start notifying my family and friends. But that’s another story. The rest of the week was happily spent checking and rechecking iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Blio, and Scribd for signs of New Old World. And one by one, they showed up, though so far 99% of my sales have been through Smashwords.

Maybe I amuse easily, or I just have a high tolerance and respect for tech, but I found this Meatgrinder process fascinating. I promise that future posts will have more to do with the content of my novel…after I’ve described the formatting of an e-book!

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Why Smashwords?

The decision to use Smashwords as my e-book converter and distributor was somewhat unexpected. Smashwords was on my radar, but I had been leaning toward self-publishing through Kindle Direct at Amazon. I participated in an Amazon webinar and downloaded their formatting guide, Building Your Book for Kindle. Then I heard about the Multnomah County Library Writers Project, and I made a quick 90-degree turn.

Our library was inviting local authors to submit their novels to be considered for the library’s e-book catalog, and one of their few requirements was that the book come through Smashwords. I studied up on what Smashwords had to offer and realized that once I followed all their guidelines, not only would I have an acceptable product for the library but New Old World would be available in a number of formats, including Kindle, and would be distributed around the world! I had nothing to lose, and most importantly, I now had a deadline: Dec. 15, 2016.

It was by then October and I was still doing my “final” edit. (There had been other “final” edits, and I even continued to edit while I was reformatting the manuscript for the e-book!) Once I’d downloaded and skimmed the Smashwords Style Guide, I was raring to go, and any thoughts I’d entertained of hiring a professional to do the formatting went by the wayside. I realized I could easily do it myself and retain complete control over the special design considerations of my book, including the use of photographs, a few pages of poetry, and a couple of other touches. Perhaps what nudged me over the edge was that I could format the book in Word and not have to learn Adobe InDesign.

With Smashwords’ very clear instructions, and some super e-mail support, I had my manuscript ready by the first of December. I spent the weekend polishing my bio and the two synopses (short and long) that accompany the book in the various retail catalogs. You really want to make sure you’ve captured the spirit and content of your book (and yourself!), so it’s a little nerve-wracking. That Monday, Dec. 5, I uploaded the formatted Word document and the support materials to the Smashwords “Meatgrinder,” which is what they affectionately call their e-book converter. And later that same day, New Old World was available for purchase in the Smashwords catalog!

But my goal was to get my book into the Smashwords Premium Catalog, not only because that’s what the library required but because once a book achieves premium status, Smashwords distributes it to an extensive network of retailers worldwide.  I was excited out of all proportion to learn that through one of their channels my book might reach retailers in England and France, the settings of large parts of my novel!   More practically, a great appeal for me was that instead of creating my e-book in different formats for different distributors or retailers, I could do it once and Smashwords would not only ship it, but handle the financial end so I wouldn’t have to manage multiple outlets and accounts.

The cost for all this? Free! Smashwords takes a cut of the retail price (about 10-15%), as do the retailers Smashwords distributes to (30%), but there’s no upfront cost to publishing with Smashwords. As the author, you retain all rights to both the original manuscript and the published e-book, and you simply license Smashwords and other retailers to sell it.  As the publisher of your work, you can unpublish at any time or take the same work to another publisher/distributor, like Amazon.  The downside of all this freedom is that your Smashwords e-book is not DRM-protected (DRM=Digital Rights Management) so it’s relatively easy for people to share your book without paying for multiple copies.  Pricing it low and making it available as many places as possible helps head off such piracy.

A word about the formats churned out by the Meatgrinder:  I focused on EPUB because that’s what the library wanted from me, but I’ve come to understand that it’s also Smashwords’ most “powerful” format, used by Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble (Nook), Kobo, Sony readers, and Android Aldiko, as well as other retailers, subscription services, and libraries.  Smashwords also produces a MOBI version for Kindle readers, so technically you don’t have to publish at Amazon to reach Kindles.  If your book sells really well at Smashwords, they might send it on to Amazon, but there may be good reasons to do it yourself directly.  I need to study up on this!  There are lesser versions you can elect to have the Meatgrinder produce, too, like one for old Sony readers and a PDF for device-less folks.  Smashwords has most everyone covered—except print book lovers.

New Old World did make it into the Premium Catalog, and it could well be winging its way to England and France as I write this (in fact I think I’ll go check W.H. Smith and FNAC online!).  But I need to come full circle and finish my library story first.  With my book ensconced in the Smashwords catalog, I could now prepare my submission to the Library Writers Project. I wrote two short essays about why library members might be interested in my book, pasted in a link to my book page at Smashwords, and turned in the application with a week to spare! I’ll learn by February whether the library wants to acquire New Old World, but it’s more than reassuring to know that my novel is in the e-book marketplace—and several friends and family members are already reading it!

While they’re reading, I’m sitting at my nifty Smashwords Dashboard, watching sales come in, getting reports on page visits and download activity, generating coupons for complimentary books, and seeing what channels the book has been shipped to.  I can even upload a new version of New Old World from the Dashboard, a dangerous feature that makes it tempting to do more “final” editing!

But as easy and straightforward as it was to publish through Smashwords, it’ll be a while before I engage the Meatgrinder again.  Now that the book is out there and once the holidays and winter colds are over, I must begin promoting it more publicly.  It’s more fun, though, to reflect on my Smashwords experience and blog about it!

Of course time will tell if Smashwords is as good at distribution as it was in production.  At this point I can say unequivocally that Smashwords was a very professional enabler and ally in my quest to create an e-book.  Almost everything I needed to know to prepare my manuscript for publication was on the extensive FAQ page or in the Style Guide, and when I got stumped, I turned to their help desk and found a wonderful guy named Kevin who drilled down to bedrock with each of my issues. I’ll be doing future posts about the formatting and uploading processes, but in the meantime, you can peruse the Smashwords FAQ page.

And hopefully this post will encourage you to take the leap with your own book.


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Now available!

I’m excited to announce that my novel New Old World has been published as an e-book. You can download it now at the Smashwords website, in both the EPUB and MOBI formats, for $4.99. Here’s a link to the New Old World page at Smashwords:  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/687602

If you want to read New Old World on your Apple device, just download the EPUB version to iBooks.  EPUB is also the format for Kobo, Sony, and Barnes & Noble readers, as well as the Aldiko app on Android. MOBI is the format for Kindles or the Kindle app. I’ve also made a PDF version available for those who don’t have e-readers. For more info on the magic of purchasing and downloading at Smashwords, try consulting their FAQ page.

It may be a lot easier to buy New Old World directly from your devices at the iBooks Store, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.  You can also find it at Scribd (a subscription service) and Inktera.  Smashwords distributes to libraries, too, so you might check your local library’s catalog after a bit.  My next project will be to publish at Amazon, but remember you can get the Kindle version from Smashwords. See the “Where to Buy” widget at the right for links to various retailers.

Enough technical stuff and back to the book!  There are thorough descriptions of New Old World at Smashwords, but you can also click on the “About the Novel” tab above. Another option is to download a free sample from Smashwords to get a taste of the style and content. Keep checking back here for updates or to offer your comments and questions!


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E-book coming soon!

The novel New Old World by C. D. Stowell will be published in December 2016 as a Smashwords e-book title.  It will be available at smashwords.com in the EPUB and MOBI (Kindle) formats, as well as at iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and many other retailers.  I’m in the final stages of editing and formatting, so stay tuned!

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