Mark has done a lot of marvelous things and I've thanked him on blog posts, via Twitter and in emails but I think the man is doing a fairly thankless job. I still hear plenty of newbies coming along, villifying Smashwords and the Meatgrinder script (which translates MS Word files into eBooks) as being difficult to work with and turning out terribly-formatted products.
Today I'll address that complaint specifically and discuss publishing and distributing via Smashwords, generally, as well as looking at the idea of using the new (in Beta) Smashwords Direct system with an ePub file to circumvent the Meatgrinder. Click through the jump-break if this stuff interests you. If not, I hope to see you next Monday for more Marketing advice. Thanks for stopping by!
About the Smashwords "Meatgrinder" Script
This is a script, a snippet of programming, which examines a source file (a Microsoft Word ".doc" file or DOC) and checks it for the presence of required elements and absence of forbidden elements. In other words, the DOC file is checked and validated for compliance to standardized guidelines. These guidelines are outlined and explained in the (free) Smashwords Style Guide. The Meatgrinder literally grinds up your DOC, turning out code for a new file or files in whatever eBook format(s) you specified you wanted to get at the end.
Now, let me be perfectly clear: The Meatgrinder turns out precisely the quality YOU turn in. It is a classic case of GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). If your book is prepared in a quality fashion, from the source file in Word, to the cover art JPG file, then you're going to see an error-free, well-formatted eBook. Guaranteed.
If you have no idea how to use Word's built-in formatting tools, or if you use Word as though it is some kind of digital typewriter or if you just don't think any of the instructions in the Smashwords Style Guide even matter, then you're going to see a garbage formatting job come out of the Meatgrinder. That's also guaranteed. Think about it. If you put ground chuck into a meat grinder, you cannot get filet mignon out, can you? Same with your eBook.
I cannot tell you how many people I've seen commenting on how crappy their book looks coming out of the Meatgrinder. My advice to them is to take a better look at the book's content inside Word before even submitting it to, let alone accusing the Smashwords's Meatgrinder. Chances are, they are not using Word "correctly" and that is the problem. GIGO. Everytime.
Using the Smashwords Meatgrinder
So it's not hard to "do it right the first time," but even I had a few hiccups back when I ran my very first book (Dicky's Story) through a very early version of the Meatgrinder. I deliberately published Dicky's Story to be a vehicle through which I could learn, make mistakes and learn the tricks of the trade. I made a lot of mistakes with Dicky's Story and learned a lot of lessons. Hence part of why I haven't yet published another book. I know what I want to do and it will take time I don't have with my other life commitments. It's not just about writing the darned thing anymore!
Like everything out there in the Digital Publishing world, the Meatgrinder has evolved. It's really easy to use now--in January 2013. It was buggy when it started in 2009 and when I came upon it back in November, 2010 through March of 2011. That was nearly two (2) years ago. The Meatgrinder has changed and grown since then. Dramatically. All for the better!
In fact, due to the massive volume of books processed by the Chinese money-laundering thieves who hijacked the Smashwords Affiliates system in the winter holiday season of 2010/2011, Mark redoubled the efforts of the tech team. They were slaving away at refining and honing the code of the Meatgrinder. So thanks to the Chinese for assaulting us and stealing tens of thousands of dollars worth of books (nearly every penny of which Mark faithfully hunted down and retrieved for his Smashwords customers--authors and readers alike!)
If not for the Chinese sabateurs, we might not have had such focused effort applied in such a short time resulting in such a smooth-running Meatgrinder by March of 2011 when I ran my final/release copy of Dicky's Story through. I definitely saw changes in the Meatgrinder across the six (6) months I used it to produce Dicky's Story, but my final/release copy went through with no errors, smooth as could be. Oh, and every book I've submitted since has as well.
The number of books being processed by the Meatgrinder increased exponentially over the summer of 2011 and into the winter of 2012 so the lag time was longer but the errors--or lack thereof--remained about the same. I published two more titles (my two SciFi books) in April and August of 2012. I have not, personally, had a single failure through the Meatgrinder since March of 2011 and 100% of my ePub files out of the Meatgrinder have passed validation first try with zero errors ^_^
If you spend a little time up front setting up your MS Word environment and using it correctly, you can also experience error-free, hassle-free processing through the Smashwords Meatgrinder eBook conversion script.
Alternatives to Smashwords Meatgrinder
Smashwords has just launched a new method, still in beta, whereby you submit an ePub file directly to them. Hence, why it is called Smashwords Direct. In case you don't already know, ePub (locked, DRM'd or otherwise modified) is the format used by Apple, Nook, Kobo and by just about everyone except for Amazon, who has their own proprietary format (AZW has replaced the easy-to-produce and copy MobiPocket format so they can "lock" their files and prevent you from reading anywhere but where Amazon controls it/you--I couldn't even read a book I owned in my cloud reader because I had opened it somewhere else first!)
You should note that Apple, Kobo and Nook all have also created their own proprietary "wrapper" for the ePub files their respective readers use but at least they all comply with one universal ePub standard. It's a standard set and maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum ("<IDPF>") and they have an "ePub Validator" anyone can use, free of charge (just click here to submit your individual file). If you're an Indie Publisher with several authors and will need to process multiple ePub files, you really should download and install your own validator script - it's also free. Just click here to learn more about it and how to get it for your local administration.
I happen to prefer to read ePub files, but there are even more important reasons than "reader preference." I just love the way a fellow formatter/author/tutorial-writer, Guido Henkel, puts it in his blog on formatting from Sept. 2012:
"...even within the Kindle line of products, it is not possible to really create specialized builds for each platform. A fixed-format Kindle Fire eBook will inevitably make its way onto a regular Kindle – where it doesn’t belong – because Amazon does not give publishers the possibility to create specialized builds. As a result Kindle owners will look at a book that is horribly mangled and probably unreadable, while it looks mesmerizing on a Kindle Fire. I am not sure in whose best interest that is, but that’s the way Amazon does it."And he adds in his Oct. 2012 blog "...From a programming standpoint none of the features introduced in KF8 are in any way supercharged capabilities that require special hardware. Let’s face it. eBook reader software is, in effect, nothing more than a specialized web browser."
And yet, Amazon makes their eBook formats more and more restrictive, less and less flexible - less and less standardized.
Because ePub is more universally used by multiple platforms (e.g., Apple, Nook, Kobo, et al.) not just Amazon's proprietary Kindle platform, more hardware manufacturers have had to address ePub standardization and issues of display and formatting; more software writers have had to consider versatility and DRM issues for ePub. By virtue of the sheer volume of people working on making ePub-based books the best they can be, they are more robust, more flexible and more appealing to more people than are the restrictive and limited and inflexible proprietary formats on the Kindle platform(s).
I'm not saying that Amazon's Kindle books aren't popular. Of course, they are. Amazon is still the #1 Retailer in the World and holds (just barely) over 50% of the eBook market.
I'm saying that ePubs are more readily appealing across more platforms. I'm also saying I, personally, think it's a heck of a lot easier to reformat source for display on a ePub platform than it is to figure out Amazon's proprietary platform compliance. Amazon actively resists open source / community involvement while ePub was borne of it and thrives in it.
How to Jump Onto the ePub Bandwagon
If you're an Indie Author, you might be wondering how to exploit this ePub appeal. What is it the new Smashwords Direct offers you? Unless you already know what you're doing, it really doesn't offer you anything but a chance to do more work. First learn how to us Microsoft Word, then worry about getting more sophisticated and using ePub files directly.
If you're already formatting your Word files properly, experiencing no errors with Meatgrinder, and want to format and create your own ePub files (forex, with fully-fleshed out Metadata and prettily-formated chapter headings), then you can try doing so with Smashwords Direct. As Mark Coker noted in his recent blog announcement about Smashwords Direct, there are a lot of tools out there for generating your own ePub files. Personally, I use and love Calibre. It's free, it's easy and did I mention it's free?
Right now, my main use for Calibre is to translate a Kindle file into something more usable--like an ePub ((ggg)) However, you can use Calibre to do a lot more and there are other reasons for using your own ePub file via Smashwords Direct.
- Add metadata to an existing eBook
- Replace a cover image (Check out my tutorial on how to digitally autograph your eBooks)
- Use drop caps at the beginning of your chapters or format the chapter titles in a different font/color/style (see HTML Style Guides and CSS Web Standards before you do this kind of stuff).
- Include a nested NCX navigation system (not currently supported by Meatgrinder)
If you need help learning how to edit your eBook's source "code," there is an outstanding 9-part online tutorial written by the above-mentioned Guido Henkel (@GuidoHenkel). I've mentioned his tutorial before but here are the links to all the parts of his blogged tutorial:
Taking Pride in Your eBook Formatting by Guido Henkel:
Part I • Part II • Part III • Part IV • Part V • Part VI • Part VII • Part VIII • Part IX
If you want help doing the formatting (or designing an eBook cover) Guido can do that, too. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to hire him or one of his talented friends. Or (better?) hire me to do the cleanup, reformatting and design of your eBook interior -- not the cover though. I think Guido's game-design skills are far superior to my ability to do graphic design, as is evidenced by my covers versus his. I really need to just draw a new cover for Dicky's Story from scratch and be done with it! (LOL!)
Next week I'll return to Monday Marketing discussions of PR vs. Advertising. I hope to see you then! Thanks for stopping by.