Planning to Self-Publish an Ebook? Beware of Smashwords!

By Shawn Hansen

There are plenty of fantastic reasons to self-publish your book or eBook.  The primary reason most people choose to self-publish a book or eBook has to do with control.

(When I say self-publish, I am talking about you – the author – hiring or using a third party to produce the resulting for-sale item.)

When you self-publish, you control all kinds of elements:

  • The Cover
  • The List Price
  • The Release Date
  • The Distribution
  • Discounts & Special Offers
  • Giveaways

In other words, you can hire CreateSpace to print a physical copy of your book, and you can also hire them for various distribution tasks.

Depending on what you choose, you will pay varying amounts of money in exchange for services.

Likewise, you can use Smashwords’ Meatgrinder to format your manuscript for the various eBook platforms including Apple’s iBooks, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and the Sony eReader.

However, if you use Smashwords’ Meatgrinder, you CANNOT use the resulting files in any way outside of Smashwords.

I want to be sure you understand this because I think it’s a serious problem.

Once you “use” Smashwords’ free Meatgrinder, you MUST use them to distribute your work.

Here is the relevant paragraph from the Smashwords Terms of Service (with emphasis added by me):

5. Formats of Digital Conversions.

Author shall submit their Work as a Microsoft Word .doc file. Smashwords shall utilize its proprietary Meatgrinder technology to convert the book into multiple ebook formats, and publish the work for use in sampling, distributing and selling the work. The author/publisher is not authorized to independently sell or distribute Smashwords-generated file conversions outside of the Smashwords site or Smashwords distribution network without first receiving written permission from Smashwords (in other words, you cannot use Smashwords as a free file conversion service so you can sell the files elsewhere). [highlighter color=”yellow-vibrant” ]You acknowledge that if you violate this requirement, you may forfeit any accrued earnings at Smashwords, and your account may be deleted without notification.[/highlighter]

Simply put, Smashwords is not providing a free tool to authors: They are inviting authors who wish to publish and distribute through them to use their “proprietary Meatgrinder technology as the first step in eBook publication and distribution through THEM.

And if you want to publish with Smashwords, YOU HAVE TO USE THE MEATGRINDER!

If you use the Smashwords Meatgrinder, you are no longer in control.

  • They become your sole distributor.
  • You have to get written permission to sell copies of your book on your own Web Site.  (You can only sell files created by the Meatgrinder via Smashwords.)
  • You have to get written permission to GIVE AWAY copies of your own book on your own Web Site.  (You have to set up coupons at Smashwords or distribute free copies through their platform.)
  • You authorize Smashwords to distribute free samples of your work in any form.  (They say this is to promote you “and/or” the Smashwords service.)

Smashwords also has a questionable content policy.  Here are some highlights from 9b of their TOS:

9b. You further warrant that the Work contains no materials which:

• advocate hateful, discriminatory or racist views or actions toward others

[Shawn says: This is censorship—plain and simple.  This type of logic is THE reason certain classics have been banned off and on.  By this standard, Smashwords might find To Kill a Mockingbird and The Kite Runner in violation of their TOS.]

• contain images or illustrations depicting individuals perpetrating graphic violence upon another individual or individuals

[Shawn says: Kiss every issue of Superman ever published goodbye, and there is no room for Watchmen either.  More censorship.]

• contain advertisements for services, or contain partial books for the purpose of promoting the purchase of the same book elsewhere or on Smashwords

[Shawn says: How many of us have read an excerpt of an author’s next book in the back of the book we purchased?  Smashwords says I can’t include the first chapter of my next book in my current book.  That’s insane.]

• if you publish erotica content, neither the book cover nor the book interior may contain graphic images of nudity (either photographic or illustrated) or persons involved in sex acts, and does not include children or underage minors engaged in sexual acts or situations, witnessing such situations, considering sexual acts, or thinking about sexual acts.  Fine art books of a non-erotic nature that contain nudity may be accepted on a case by case basis at the sole discretion of Smashwords and/or its retail partners

[Shawn says: I could write an entire book on how ridiculous this is, but let’s focus on the most frightening element here.  “Fine art books of a non-erotic nature that contain nudity may be accepted on a case by case basis at the sole discretion of Smashwords and/or its retail partners.”  Wow—talk about ultimate censorship!  First of all, fine art that incorporates the human body is not erotica.  Period.  If a statue or sculpture or painting with a penis, vagina, or breasts turns you on, that’s an issue for your therapist.  Might these items be erotic?  I sure hope so, or the artist hasn’t done the human form justice.  It’s biology 101, and it’s not dirty or worthy of being censored.]

To be fair, Smashwords isn’t the only company who claims sole rights to your eBook file once they format it.  Author House takes ownership of your eBook file too, and they’ll let you buy a high resolution PDF copy from them for several hundred dollars!  But they charge you upfront for their service, and that’s what makes what Smashwords is doing so egregious.

Lots of authors I know who are self-publishing are flocking to the Smashwords’ Meatgrinder to create their eBook files because it’s “free.”  They are not reading the TOS, and many of them are in direct violation of the distribution rules.

Remember, if you get caught violating Smashwords TOS regarding distribution, “you may forfeit any accrued earnings at Smashwords, and your account may be deleted without notification.”

Smashwords boasts of  “Ebook Distribution Made Fast, FREE and Easy.”  They go on to say, “Come learn why Smashwords is the #1 ebook distributor for indie authors.”

That’s lovely, but it’s deceptive.  By offering a conversion service that’s “free,” Smashwords is preying on many indie authors whose budgets are very tight.  When it comes to figuring out a book’s bottom line, a “free,” service is tempting.  However, the “free” offered by Smashwords comes with a hefty price: loss of control.

If Smashwords is going to serve the indie author community, they need to let those authors retain control of their formatted files, and let those authors choose to distribute through them because it’s their best option, not because they must.

My advice?  When it comes to self-publishing, retain as much control as you can.  Do your own due diligence, and know what you are paying for and/or what the service(s) you’re using obligate you to do or not do.

Format your own eBook files, or pay a professional to do it.  Be your own distributor, or provide your own files to a distributor.

As an author who’s self-publishing and independent, you must BEWARE of companies who strip you of one or more of your hard-earned, well-deserved rights.

Above all, read the TOS before entering into any contract with a third party.

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