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art generated by Midjourney

Shout out to everyone who picked up free copies of my books at Smashwords during this July’s Summer Sale. Giving away hundreds of free copies of printed books can be a major marketing expense for self-publishing authors, but ebook giveaways are a low-cost alternative for those of us whose pockets are not as deep as those of the big boys at Penguin or Random House. This year, Smashwords made a deal to be acquired by another ebook provider, Draft2Digital, but many authors I talk to are not even aware Smashwords exists.

Just to be clear: I don’t work for Smashwords, and they don’t pay me to talk to about them. But I have been using them for years as an additional distribution channel for several reasons. I also want to cover some technical aspects of using Smashwords that authors should know before they dive right in and try it for themselves.

Increasing Your Distribution

First: While I like giving away free books in July and December using Smashwords, you don’t need to make them free. You can also set discount prices at a certain percentage of the list price, and you can use Smashwords to generate “coupon codes” to distribute to anyone you want. Although I don’t, it’s a handy tool for authors with an email marketing list or social media presence. I go with the “totally free” option because it gets dozens or even hundreds of books into the hands of new readers at no cost to me. Some of them write lovely four- and five-star reviews.

Second: While I am a big fan of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), they’ve always had gaps in their distribution. Amazon would—for obvious reasons—prefer that ebook readers stay within the Kindle environment rather than spend money elsewhere. Many years ago, I started using Smashwords because my friend in Australia preferred getting ebooks in the Apple/iTunes environment, and she could not get my books there. I did a little research and discovered Smashwords distributed to the Apple bookstore, so I set about learning how to use them. At the time, getting distribution through additional global retail outlets was, to me, icing on the cake. I really just wanted my friend to find the book!

Since then, I’ve realized that while KDP gets my paperback books into the catalogs that libraries can use, they don’t appear to be doing the same with ebooks. Amazon wants sales money for every single copy, and they don’t seem to care about people who check out free ebooks from public libraries and the increasing network of partner sites libraries use. (For example, Hoopla partners with the Pima County library system for ebooks, including graphic novels and comics. It’s just an app you download for free and log into with your library card credentials.)

Smashwords, on the other hand, distributes to ebook outlets such as OverDrive where libraries can buy ebooks. The Phoenix Public Library, for example, now has several of my ebooks available to check out because they buy through OverDrive. While readers can check them out for free, the library does buy them, so I got paid for those sales.

Plus, Smashwords allows you to set a different price for libraries than the retail price. Some authors might feel they should jack up the price for libraries, since a single library purchase can reach a theoretically unlimited number of readers. I take the opposite approach and lower my price for libraries, because not only do I love libraries and want to support them, but I am also a relatively unknown author who wants to make it easy for libraries to take a chance on my books without risking an arm and a leg.

One final bonus is that Smashwords will create an EPUB file that you as the author can download for free. So, if you want an ebook you can send for free to friends, family, reviewers, or contests, you can just get that file and email it to them. Anyone can get a free EPUB reader from Adobe, called Adobe Digital Editions.

Technical Difficulties

While the sales, giveaways, and added distribution are great reasons to use Smashwords, you do need some technical knowledge to work with them. If you are still using Microsoft Word like it’s a fancy electric typewriter, then you don’t yet have the skills required to work with Smashwords—unless you hire someone like me to deal with it for you. Here are some of the major things I’ve encountered and overcome in my years of working with them.

First, Smashwords will accept two kinds of files. One is a completely and properly formatted EPUB file, and if you don’t know how to create EPUBs on your own, that will be a challenge. Programs such as Calibre can help, but most authors I work with lack the technical skills to deal with it—and good luck finding any classes on it. Adobe’s InDesign program can create EPUBs, but it is most often used by professional graphic designers and is about as challenging to master as Photoshop or Illustrator, for which most authors don’t have any training.

For those who aren’t Adobe experts, Smashwords will also accept a .doc file. That’s not the current version of MS Word files, which are .docx, but the backwards-compatible and increasingly outdated version of Word files from a simpler, bygone era. Current versions of Word can absolutely save files as .doc, and that’s how I do it. I work on all my manuscripts in the current version of Word, but when it’s time to make a Smashwords edition, I save them as .doc files. That process causes some changes; for example, if you formatted anything in Small Caps, it will become All Caps in .doc. So, this requires some formatting expertise to make sure everything looks right on the virtual page.

The process becomes more complex if you have images and illustrations in your books. I have run into so many problems with images not being displayed correctly after Smashwords crunches my .doc file through their converter. The only solution that ever reliably works the first time for me is to delete every single image, save the file, then re-insert every image from scratch and make sure all of them are formatted as being positioned “In Line With Text”.

Probably the weirdest image problem I ever encountered—and it only happened once—was when the converter robots kept renaming embedded image files in a .doc to something even they didn’t recognize, so then they couldn’t find them in the converted file. Eventually, I fixed it by downloading Smashwords’ resultant EPUB file, opening it in Calibre, and using a repair function in Calibre to fix the EPUB. Then I uploaded that version instead of my .doc file and, magically, it solved the problem. I’ve never seen that happen before or since.

But there are even more time-consuming design challenges with .doc files for Smashwords. I think they boil down to the fact that the robotic Smashwords converter has even stricter demands than Kindle, because you can get away with all kinds of things that make for perfectly readable Kindle ebooks but which are total failures at Smashwords.

A common challenge is the hyperlinked Table of Contents (TOC). If you have an intermediate skill level with MS Word, then you know how to link something in your TOC to a specific place in your document. That’s easy stuff. But what you might not realize is that MS Word has a tendency to fill your document with all kinds of bookmarks you don’t know about. These Hidden Bookmarks confuse the Smashwords robots and wreck your TOC, preventing Premium Distribution to other outlets. (Note: Smashwords will not tell you the TOC is broken, but instead say that the “NCX file” is bad. The NCX file is, in simplest terms, a separate TOC generated for EPUB files. But in all cases where my NCX was broken, my own TOC links got corrupted, too.)

I am not a noob when it comes to Word. I have been working with it at an expert level for more than twenty years, taken advanced college classes and corporate training on it, and taught other people how to use it. I have done things with Word that professional graphic designers have assured me are impossible—until I showed them how it was done. So, hidden bookmarks were not a mystery to me, and whenever I work with bookmarks, I make sure there is a checkmark in the little box that says, “Show Hidden Bookmarks”.

But what I did not initially realize is that the checkbox is useless if you don’t uncheck it first, then check it again. MS Word apparently needs to reset its brain with the uncheck/check process before it displays all the actual bookmarks so you can delete the garbage bookmarks one-by-one. My failure to realize this resulted in many of my more complex books being rejected for Premium Distribution, which is how you get into places like Apple and library platforms. After struggling, I contacted Smashwords support, and they helped me get a clue. These days, I know about the problem and how to eliminate it, and my books are all approved for Premium Distribution on the first try.

Bookmarks in Word are also crucially important if your book has footnotes. When I upload a compressed HTML file with footnotes to KDP, their robots automatically convert them to hyperlinked endnotes that appear at the end of the book. It’s super convenient. (How I make compressed HTML files for KDP would require its own tutorial.)

But the robots at Smashwords hate footnotes. If you’re pretty good with MS Word, then you already know that it only takes a couple of clicks to convert all your footnotes to endnotes using the References tool bar. But guess what? Smashwords’ robots don’t like that either.

It took me years to figure out a solution—even after reading all of Smashwords’ formatting documentation and watching multiple, useless YouTube tutorials about it. The solution to getting workable endnotes with Smashwords is—in the simplest terms I can put it—to create a bookmark at every place where you have a numbered note in the text, then create a bookmark at every specific endnote, then create individual hyperlinks from the note number in the text to the specific endnote, and finally create another link from the note itself back to the place in the text.

The bookmarks also need to be named with the prefix “ref_”. (Don’t ask me why; it just keeps the robots from getting confused.) So, my first note in the text is named “ref_001”, and the corresponding endnote is named “ref_ftn_001”. If you only have a couple of notes, this is child’s play. If you have, like I sometimes do, upwards of 100 notes, it’s a time-consuming, brain-numbing clerical task—especially since the pop-up window MS Word gives you to work in is roughly the size of a couple of postage stamps.

Anyway, this four-step process of bookmarking and hyperlinking will allow readers to click on a note in the text so they can see the endnote, then click on that to get back to the original spot in the text.

But what if your document already has linked endnotes because you made it in Word? Sorry, but it’s now full of junk that will confuse the robots. The actual first step that I discovered is to remove every single hyperlink in the document.

I started out doing that manually. But when I got to books with copious notes, I suspected there must be an easier way, and I searched for it online. The “easy” way turns out to be running a Visual Basic script to remove all hyperlinks. Even as a Word expert, I don’t find writing Visual Basic to be easy. Fortunately, I copied the script from someone else who was kind enough to post it on their blog. It was a lifesaver.

Now, you might not need to get that technical to remove a handful of links and insert a couple of bookmarks manually. As far as I’m concerned, that is simple stuff. But one of my books had more than 200 footnotes, and doing this manually just to get approved by Smashwords and have a viable ebook that readers could use reliably was a massive project that took hours of my time, research, and so much mouse-clicking that I’ll probably end up with carpal tunnel syndrome.

The things we do for art.


Do I love Smashwords? Absolutely. They got me into libraries, ebook outlets around the world, and the hands of many readers who would have never discovered me otherwise. But because I often publish books with massive amounts of images, footnotes, and complex Tables of Contents, I had serious technical challenges to overcome to achieve my vision.

Fortunately, I solved those problems. Now, I can help other authors get past them and distribute their ebooks on a global scale through channels that KDP alone cannot or will not handle.

Tomorrow, the world.