I’ve mentioned the Smashwords site before, but thought it was time to write something a bit more in-depth about my experiences with the service. Frankly, it’s hard to do so without coming over as a gushing fangirl, but I will do my best.

The site is aimed at anyone who wants to get their work into the hands (onto the screens) of readers with the minimum of expenditure. You can put a set price on your book, permit readers to set their own price, or make it available for free. The first two options work best if you are based in the US or already have a relationship with the US tax system. If you don’t, then you will either lose 30% of your income to the Internal Revenue Service or you have to do a lot of form-filling in order to meet the IRS regulations. Even if you live in a country which has a 0% tax agreement with the US. Smashwords gives a lot of information about how to deal with the various forms. Other self-publishing websites (Amazon and Lulu, for example) are effectively closed to non-US writers at the moment. Apple recently announced that you can publish directly to the iBookstore. If you own an up-to-date Mac. Luckily, Smashwords already distributes to the iBookstore, so I don’t need to get as irritated by that stipulation as I could if I put my mind to it…

I’ve talked before about the requirements that Smashwords places on texts: they’re mainly concerned with technical formatting issues, rather than content. I have noticed over the nine months that I’ve had my book with them that the formatting requirements have gradually got tighter. Every time you upload a revised version of the book, it goes through an automatic and manual checking process. Twice now, a new version of The Roman and the Runaway has been rejected in the manual check for something that was considered fine in the previous version. I originally had the book in block paragraphs and had to change it to indents to satisfy one of these checks. Then, more recently, I had to go through and alter the spacing between paragraphs.

To make books acceptable to the various other distributors that Smashwords deals with, there are often other changes that need to be made: the size of the cover image and hyperlinked tables of contents, for example. These evolving requirements involve some time on the part of the author to make sure that their books comply. The most significant change was the requirement for an ISBN number (in order to ship books to Sony and Apple). Again, detailed instructions were given for this and Smashwords is able to assign free ISBNs. In Canada, our ISBNs are free anyway, but the process of dealing with the Canadian ISBN Service System (CISS) is fairly complex and time-consuming. I think it’s worth it to get your name as the publisher, rather than Smashwords’. I found Sarah Ettrich’s post very helpful in getting mine. Randolphe Lalonde has also recently posted on this subject.

There’s a huge amount of helpful information on the Smashwords site itself – the Smashwords Style Guide covers a lot of the formatting issues and the Smashwords Marketing Guide gives useful tips on how to promote your work (including some great general advice about using Twitter). Overall, the ethos of the site is one of support and empathy with writers. Books in the system get (or are going to get) distributed to Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, Apple and Amazon. All for relatively little effort on the part of the writer.

There are some things I’d like to see on the site that aren’t there yet. Statistics on the download of different ebook formats would be interesting (though that’s a bit geeky, perhaps). I’d also be interested to know how people got to the download page and whereabouts in the world they came from (the Feedbooks site offers this functionality): some detailed referral stats would be great. It would also be good if the Site Updates page had an RSS feed so that I could monitor it in my feed reader.

Overall, if you’re a writer who’s wondering about the best way of getting your work out into the big wide world, then I can’t recommend Smashwords too highly.