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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