I joined Smashwords sometime in 2012, in order to support a friend who sold their books through the service. Then another. And another. Soon Smashwords was my primary source of fiction, at least of the kind that costs money. (And not just written by my friends, either.) For readers, it’s an attractive enough outlet, with a review system, social features, ways to keep track of your favorites and so on; it wasn’t long before I was making extensive use of all that. Books being sold without DRM, in a variety of formats and with generous free samples were also a factor.
But it wasn’t until early next year that I decided to dip my toe into this self-pub thing myself. Beyond the obvious preparations like getting a cover, it involved becoming familiar with the way Smashwords wants you to submit manuscripts. As it turned out, what seemed like a daunting manual at first in fact boils down to a few simple rules. Which was great, because learning how to include LibreOffice in my workflow without pulling my hair was a challenge. See, Smashwords has this automated process for generating all those ebook formats such that they’ll actually, you know, work on a wide variety of devices. And automated processes by definition aren’t very smart. But hey, most people use Word documents anyway, right? In any event, those I submitted never failed to pass basic validation, so at first it was smooth sailing.
In time, however, things started to become annoying. For one thing, Smashwords isn’t just an ebook store; mainly, they fancy themselves an ebook distributor, partnering with a dozen other retailers. And since each of those have their own rules, each book you submit has to be manually reviewed to ensure it conforms to the lowest common denominator. Worse, that goes not just for the manuscripts themselves, but any little change to the book blurb and such.
Granted, failing these checks doesn’t prevent you from selling in the Smashwords store itself. But see above: they don’t try very hard to sell directly: it’s fairly hard to discover books on your own — I rely mostly on recommendations — and you need an account before you can buy anything, which drives more casual buyers away. As for selling elsewhere through them, I could never find my own books on Barnes & Noble, where I sold a couple of copies; how am I even supposed to promote my presence there?
Just a week ago as of this writing, having some spare change on my debit card, I hopped on Leanpub to buy, you’ve guessed it, a friend’s debut book. First good impression: Leanpub doesn’t require you to make an account, and only asks for minimal information on the checkout form. But after the sale, the web page said something to the effect of, “okay, we e-mailed you a download link; by the way, we also made you an account if you’d like to use it”. Well, why not?
For one, Leanpub is a much smaller retailer than Smashwords: fewer than 4000 books as of August 1st, 2016, versus over four hundred thousand. Leanpub also apologizes for not having a very good store yet, but it looks fine to me: categories, sorting… no tags or recommendations, but book pages are prettier and with richer information. (By contrast, author profiles are barebones.) You also can’t bookmark books for later, or leave reviews at this time. Oh well.
Failing to find other titles of interest, I turned my attention to Leanpub’s other side: the publishing interface. Turns out, you can submit books to them in several different ways, starting with “bring your own book”, importing from a blog, or even from a Word file saved as a web page. More interesting to me were those choices involving Markdown — the format I prefer to write in. For comfort, I chose to enter my text straight in the browser — or rather, copy-paste from my manuscripts, as their online editor is terrible. (Deactivating the browser’s built-in search? Seriously?) And off we went.
Initially, navigating all the book customization options was a daunting proposition; after five titles, I still forget to tick this or that checkbox. But turnover is very fast, with fewer ebook files to generate and no manual approval process. Leanpub even lets me create previews to look over before hitting “publish”. Only ePub, Mobi and PDF files are supported, but the latter can come print-ready, in typical book sizes, with a choice of fonts and other details. Cover size restrictions are less stringent, and getting an ISBN is stated to be “completely optional”.
(Speaking of which, dear Smashwords, can you please stop pestering me about it? I don’t want ISBNs for my books. I just don’t. Trust me on this.)
If there’s one weird thing about Leanpub, it’s their tech support. Right away, I ran into an apparent bug, and e-mailed them. Got a friendly, helpful response before the weekend was over (wow), but then not another word in the intervening week, even though I tried to continue the conversation. Luckily it’s no big deal, but folks, do you even have an issue tracker? Informal e-mails get lost or buried all too easily. (Edit: they fixed it!)
Everything considered, my next ebook is going to hit Leanpub first, because it’s even easier to upload it there than make my own edition manually in Sigil and Calibre, never mind the contortions it takes to supply Smashwords with the special Word file they expect. Leanpub also happens to have a focus on technical books, meaning mine will look extra good in this first edition. How popular they really are with buyers remains to be seen though, and they don’t even provide a daily page view count except via external analytics.
Besides, you don’t want to put all your eggs in a single basket, no matter how well one or the other fits the way you work. The whole point with ebooks and self-publishing is that you’re free to put your wares in front of as many people as possible, and let them buy where they like, how they like. It’s worth putting in just a little more effort and patience to achieve that.
Self-pub is not a zero-sum game, so cast your net wide.