The Making of An eBook: Part 2

Hi again. I’ve got a lot to say this week, so I’m going to do two posts in this series, one today and one tomorrow. Over the last few days, I’ve been looking into Smashwords. After last week’s post, Smashwords founder Mark Coker contacted me to let me know what Smashwords has to offer a publisher like mine, BOA Editions. Coker pointed out that over 100 small presses are using Smashwords as their eBook platform, and he sent me the Smashwords Style Guide, which he wrote, and which gives very accessible instructions for how to prepare a manuscript for uploading to Smashwords. After looking into it for a week, I concluded that Smashwords isn’t quite appropriate for a press like BOA (I’ll explain why later), but that it offers some very cool functionality, and real ease-of-use, that makes it a very handy way for as aspiring author, or an all-eBook press publishing longform prose, to make their books widely available.

Here’s a bit of what Coker wrote me: “If you wrote the book in Word, it would probably take under 1 hour to prepare the file for Smashwords. Your publisher could even hire one of the freelancers on my list (all Smashwords authors) who format books for as little as $25/hr. Or, better yet, you could do it yourself,” Coker wrote.

From what I saw, it would indeed take only about an hour for a reasonably computer savvy user. Here’s how Smashwords works: when you upload a book to Smashwords, you use a system the company calls “Meatgrinder,” an affectionate and humorous allusion to the fact that it takes documents and rapidly churns out eBooks in various formats, including EPub, Mobi (for Kindle), PDF, RTF and others. The Style Guide is very upfront about the fact that this system won’t “format my eBook to make it perfect,” as one FAQ hopes. “If we did that,” answers Smashwords, “our service would not be free. Our technology is completely automated. All file conversions are automated by our Meatgrinder file conversion system.”

The Style Guide takes you through the process of turning a Word or .RTF document into a Smashwords eBook. Basically, the process involves cleaning out any irregularities in your original file, as well as anything else Smashwords has found to not work well with Meatgrinder, such as too many returns between paragraphs, certain kinds of indenting, stuff like that. The book takes you through the cleanup step by step, offers advice as to what kinds of books work best (fiction, poetry, anything without lots of chapters and notes).

Once you do all of that stuff, basically, you upload your book and Meatgrinder turns it into whatever kinds of eBooks you want. Then, it can live in Smashwords regular catalog for distribution on the Smashwords site, and/or the new Premium Catalog, which gets your book distributed to other online retailers like B&N and Amazon. For inclusion in this catalog, “your book must satisfy higher mechanical standards such as having a quality book cover image, good formatting, a proper copyright page, and other requirements,” according to the guide.

So all of this sounds great. But here’s why it won’t work for me and BOA. Smashwords does not support linked tables of contents (except for in PDF format). My book is a collection of flash fiction–1-3 page prose pieces that a reader needs to be able to choose and quickly jump between. No linked TOC won’t permit that and make for a clunky reading experience, like listening to an album of 13 songs all on one track (I guess I mean, like a tape–remember tapes?). Plus, BOA is an old, longstanding press that’s used to having lots of control over how their books look and feel. With their first three Kindle books, BOA made a lot of effort to make sure it could control all aspects of the reading experience. I don’t think they’re ready to give that up.

Coker understands this problem, and says there might be a solution in the near future. Here’s what he told me when I asked him about the TOC issue:

As we explain in the Style Guide, we encourage authors and publishers to simplify their books down to essential formatting so we can automatically generate nine reasonably good formats that can easily shape shift across all e-reading platforms, apps and devices, as well as different screen sizes. For most fiction, the lack of linked TOCs isn’t a big deal since we tend to read fiction serially from page one forward. For non-fiction, TOCs are more important.

In the next couple months, we’re going to create a Meatgrinder bypass system that will allow publishers to upload their own full-featured ebook formats. So, for example, this will allow a publisher to replace our TOC-less EPUB with their own file.

Ok, more tomorrow from BOA on this and other issues.