Smashworlds: How to Make "Smashwords" Much Better for Writers
I am aware that blogging is exactly as effective as hitting on girls by yelling swears at them from a moving car.

But I have decided that Smashwords (or a website exactly like it) is the best hope for a free and democratic publishing world in our time. Right now, Smashwords is still timid and shy, like a new boyfriend trying to impress his date's parents by seeming good natured and responsible. But we don't like you because you are good-natured and responsible, Smashwords. We like you for your motorcycle.

Smashwords is the best ebooks platform for one simple reason: when you buy a book from Smashwords, you unlock the ability to download this book in any format for any device, as many times as you want, forever. This is real, ludicrous value. This makes purchasing a Smashwords ebook a thousand times better than purchasing this ebook anywhere else.

But Smashwords also has it problems. Though they are endemic, I believe that these problems are not insurmountable.

Here is how the website Smashwords can challenge Amazon (competition is always, always good for creators), give birth to a small-publisher-controlled ebook marketplace, protect freedom of speech forever, and clear the path for lateral innovation in the world of ebook development.

1. Do not chase Amazon. Run away from Amazon.

Amazon has been very successful at marketing their electronic products to a very specific segment of the population: people who did not grow up with computers and who are baffled by this newfangled world of "internet possibilities."

Unfortunately, there is a tremendous overlap between the kind of person who likes to call themselves "a reader" while publicly disdaining tabloid checkout magazines as they buy red wine and pistachios on a Saturday night, and the kind of person who loooooooooves Amazon.

Amazon is cunning and canny. I respect Amazon. They have been very resourceful, so far. They make products and services for the kinds of people who do not understand how the internet works on even a basic level. But these kinds of people will not be around forever.

"Today's children do not sufficiently marvel at Mr. Edison's electrics! I wonder about the vigor of their moral imagination!"

Let Amazon do their thing and do not worry about these "spunky" Amazon customers. You don't really want Amazon's customers as your customers. They will only drag you down.

You have the capacity to create a brand new market full of fresh, unspoiled souls.

2. Be the dirty, dangerous underground where the real shit is.

"Shopping" at Amazon or Barnes and Noble feels exactly like shopping at Wal-mart. Do not be like this, Smashwords.

You have to understand: all writers are self-publishers now. All respectable dickheads (like me!) will always also have their books available at Amazon, so there is no sense in being exactly the same as them. You are the "grindhouse cinema" of books.

As I write this article, here are the two most recent books that you are publishing:

"Ghost Board Posse #1 London Screaming

Ebook Price: $0.99 USD. 38500 words. Fiction by Karen Bell-Brege on September 14, 2011
It's extreme sports vs the paranormal when five skateboarders from completely different walks of life win the biggest boarding competition ever ? having no idea what horrifying adventures lie ahead. They embark on a journey of terrifying mysteries and vicious secrets within one of England's most haunted and gruesome castles and the only way out is to solve the 250 year old murder mystery."

"Aliens - 12 21 2012 - Time Travel ..and Us - The Connection

Ebook Price: $6.49 USD. 17510 words. Non-Fiction by Richard Nivens on September 14, 2011
12 21 2012 is going to be a new beginning and a new life much different than we now know it today. Every aspect of our lives will change as well as our Earth and it's environment. Money will have no value. There will be no leaders. All who survive will pull together as one. A giant team working together for one common goal, survival. Governments will fall and the people shall reign."


You can't sell such books on a tranquil blue background with Helvetica font. You can't bury them either. Trying to pretend these books are only a small portion of your usually undemented content is callous and disingenous. These books are exactly the kinds of products that your website was designed to sell.

Be proud of publishing such books. Crazy shit is good. I try to exclusively read crazy shit, if I can help it.

"Ghost Board Posse" might be the best extreme sports / paranormal thriller series ever made. Who knows? If you have $.99, you can find out.

Many of the books that you sell are straight-up pornography. This is great. The more porn you sell, the more money you will make.

Listen: you are the publisher of the underground, independent weirdo. This is the most noble calling in the world. You must embrace this. The slogan: "your ebook, your way" is lame and tone-deaf. Your slogan should be:

"Good books for bad people."


"The slow, swelling roar of the disenfranchised masses."


"Punk as fuck as books."


"All formats, as many times as you want, forever."

Let Amazon publish all the writers who want to be the next Stephenie Meyer or Dr. Phil McGraw.

You need to create a safe place for the Marquis De Sade, Erica Jong, Kathy Acker, and Philip K. Dick; writers who the conventional publishing apparatus will not touch and yet who are too canny and obstreperous to be discouraged by "sensible criticism" and "failure."

These writers might actually be able to make insane cash for you if you empower them. Empowering them doesn't just mean doing the bare minimum, converting their books to every format and taking a percentage. Empowering these internet psychopaths means making a website that plays to their strengths.

These crazy-ass, sublime, independent books must be collated and correctly presented, the same way that the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas correctly presents the deranged cinema that its legions of fans prefer to Hollywood garbage.

Do not roll your eyes at the bestiality-fetish time-traveling-ninja porn. Revel in the bestiality-fetish time-traveling-ninja porn! Romance the kinds of writers who like having their books next to bestiality-fetish time-traveling-ninja porn!

These are real writers who are good people and will fight for you.

3. Make a firm commitment to non-censorship.

Amazon, Google, and Apple are terrifying to thinking people. They are sucking up intellectual property at an astounding rate, and yet they are multinational corporations without constitutions, ethics, or a "constituency."

A commitment to non-censorship is ALWAYS an unpopular stance that will not win you any friends and will only create problems...

...except when it comes to writers.

The problem that Amazon has is that it is made for consumers, not producers. They are trying to make a "safe place" where people can buy shoes and stuff.

Your website is ostensibly for writers. Writers don't want a safe place to sell their wares. They want a place that won't judge them, bury their work, or remove "objectionable" content.

Writers want a publisher who is not afraid to be sued. They want a publisher who will say: "Yeah, well, the law says I can can publish it, so I don't give a dainty dog-dish full of donkey piss whether it bothers you or not. If you don't like it, don't read it."

Amazon has already proven that they don't mind using top-down, tyrannical tactics to delist dangerous books and remove content from people's machines without asking permission from either creators or consumers.

They see no problem with this, because they are only interested in short-term tactical advantages over their perceived competitors.

I like how Amazon will do "anything to win." I want that in a publisher, but I also fear what might happen to me someday if Amazon decides my books are too evil to see the light of day.

Google is worse, in some ways. They seek to create a comprehensive database that holds all out-of-print literature, yet they will not include matter that is dangerous or objectionable, reserving the right to throttle the marketplace and "retcon" history by only preserving the works they deem clean and canonical.

Apple is the worst of all. They don't even pretend to like freedom of expression. Works that run on Apple machines must be submitted for approval to a white engineer (probably male, probably straight), who will determine whether or not they are good for the Apple brand.

Books you cannot buy from iBooks:

--"Fear of Flying," by Erica Jong
--Anything by William Burroughs, except poetry
--"Sharing" and "Shifting," by Miracle Jones

Smashwords should be the natural enemy of all three of these companies.

Writers will try to get their books available for sale everywhere they can. This is good and right. Smashwords should be known for publishing the things that these other companies won't publish.

People worry about human DNA becoming the sole property of corporations and will go to elaborate lengths to fight this. However, the real human legacy (our real DNA) is made-up stories.

The consolidation of publishing threatens to capture this DNA and concentrate it in the hands of a few fairly-to-moderately-evil corporations who do not even really want this power (made-up stories have never been profitable, unless they can be turned into television).

Smashwords should fight for freedom of expression at all turns in the arena of public discourse, making sure that everyone knows there is an alternative way to run an ebook publishing database where a firm commitment to J.S. Mill-style freedom of thought is still revered and protected.

4. Better front end for consumers.

Let's be honest: Smashwords is ugly as hell. It is insanely functional and fast -- but it is extraordinarily lame-looking. Every "design element" in Smashwords looks like a placeholder, as if the designer intended to come along later and actually "make a design choice," but never got around to it.

Smashwords could probably find a precocious junior high kid to do a better website design in about four hours. No one under thirty could ever look at Smashwords and think anything but "oh wow, this is somebody's first website."

Some kind of combination of Netflix, Goodreads, and Pitchfork would be a good idea for a redesign, but with bright colors and better traffic flow.

Also, Smashwords doesn't do a good job of steering people toward the kind of really specific niche markets that they might enjoy.

A wide diversity of genres can only be good for books, as it has been for music.


Writers should be able to tag their books as whatever genre they want, and strange subgenres of books ought to have their own definitions and pages, listing the top books in each specific, writer-created subgenre.

When writers publish books in specific genres, they should be invited to become members of groups of these niche genres, and they should also be invited to help curate and steer the fortunes of these communities.

A Smashwords magazine would also be excellent -- some kind of independent review board that doesn't necessarily review new books, but instead talks about general trends, interviews bestselling Smashwords authors, and works harder to create a real community among people who use the website.

5. Standard conversion to Espresso book machine format.

The Espresso book machine would be an asset to a website like Smashwords. It prints and binds a paperback in minutes, and there could theoretically be book machines like this in every drugstore, truck-stop, and country-and-western bar across America.

I think print-on-demand evangelists and ebook publishers are both waiting for someone else to make a bold first move and kickstart development. Or maybe they hate each other. Who knows?

Smashwords could definitely advance a POD renaissance by including conversion into Espresso book block form as an additional standard feature.

Creators would need to make a full front-and-back cover for their books, in addition to creating whole book blocks in InDesign. But once this is done, Smashwords could import the book block, metadata, and cover to Espresso's servers for their writers. Anyone in the world could then print up a paper copy of the book to read at their local kiosk (for a minimal fee).

Creating an easy, profit-sharing way to turn ebooks into Espresso books would be good for both companies. This would instantly turn Smashwords into the "iTunes" of publishing, and would increase the profile of POD devices, making strides toward creating a standard format for such books.

Books need an .mp3 form. This is a form which will not only work on any device, but which can also be printed, bound, and turned into a real book if necessary. Smashwords book pages should be this form.

6. More customizability for author pages.

Since authors are now be expected to run publishing, Smashwords author pages really need to improve.

Authors should be able to blog here, to link to other authors that they like, to show reviews that they have done of other Smashwords books, and to customize their pages with the facts about themselves that they find important.

Also, authors should be able to directly link to their own webpages -- or whatever webpages they want -- instead of having to create a Smashwords author page at all.

The website design of Smashwords is so amateur and bad that it creates a halo effect for the writers who sell their books there. Suddenly the writers also look amateurish and bad. If the website design can't be fixed, then authors ought to be able to circumvent it.

7. Better stats for authors.

The marketing statistics that Smashwords gives you are far better than the "no statistics" that Amazon or Apple gives you, but they are still pretty useless.

All Smashwords will tell you is how many people have visited your page and how many people have downloaded your book.

You don't get to know which pages they came from or how long they stuck around. You also don't get to see what book formats they downloaded.

Compared to the massive amount of extremely useful statistics that YouTube gives you, Smashwords statistics seem paltry and second-rate.

This has to be fixed.

8. More customizability for ebooks.

The best part about Smashwords is the philosophy behind the book pages.

Every format is available, and there is a lot of room for growth here.

When you buy an ebook at Smashwords, you unlock a page that is basically the entire presence of this book on the internet in every possible way you could want to experience this book, including formats that may someday be added in the future.

But Smashwords needs to go even further.

First of all, Smashwords needs to have some kind of default text-to-speech software for all ebooks in order to compete with the Kindle.

This placeholder, default text-to-speech .mp3 could be replaced by a professional recording if the author manages to make one.

Additionally, the .html version of each book ought to be accessible and editable by the author. If an author wants to make an illustrated, color, soundtracked .html version of their ebook, they ought to be able to do this, or at least link to it.

Authors ought to be either given a certain amount of space to do this, or given the ability to link to space where this is already done. Additionally, Smashwords also needs space where authors can add "enhanced" ebooks and any other extra media that writers want to include with the purchase of the Smashwords ebook experience.

In short, every "widget" of each individual ebook page ought to be able to replaced by the author, and improved with a better version if one is available.

No proprietary nonsense, Smashwords. You are not selling ebooks, really. You are selling access to a page where an author has put a book experience together.

This is an awesome philosophy and idea, and you need to keep exploring this, growing this standard while deepening it.

Another problem with Smashwords is that even though so many authors publish series fiction, each individual book is a discrete item.

This makes sense for purchasing purposes, but not for display purposes. Series fiction ought to have an umbrella page, where books in a series sit next to each other, so that authors can link to a page about an entire series instead of just individual books in that series.

These umbrella pages would be entire "Smashworlds."

The more customizability available on the author and book pages, the more books that authors will sell. All authors ought to be able to do what J.K. Rowling is doing with her "Pottermore" website.

Amazon suffers because they sell every book exactly the same way. Smashwords has the power to unleash creative powers lying dormant in the design world that Amazon can't help but squash.

9. Embeddable Smash code.

Finally, Smashwords needs some kind of "embed" code for books that will let people drop these books into other pages. When you click on this embedded object, it would take you to the Smashwords .html sample page for the book, and give you a message like: CLICK TO BUY THIS BOOK AND UNLOCK UNLIMITED DOWNLOADS OF IT IN EVERY FORMAT FOREVER.

This way, people can promote their books without having to send people to the Smashwords site, which is -- once again -- totally unsexy and mood-killing.

When I steer friends toward my books, I am tired of apologizing because Smashwords appears to be made by tired community college students, though it is clearly the best and most powerful ebook publishing hub.


I realize that Smashwords is cobbled together day by day, probably by a committed team of underpaid radicals who work long hours and suffer from severe mistreatment at the hands of megalomaniac writers who have all the time in the world to come up with new demands.

I also realize that Smashwords is the extreme underdog in the fight for the future of publishing. But this can be an advantage: the smaller you are, the more flexible you are.

Amazon, Google, and Apple cannot change as fast as Smashwords. Additionally, most of the changes that I am suggesting are slight additions; not a restructuring of the architecture or philosophy of the website.

Honestly, massive cosmetic changes done by professionals at Smashwords would massively improve revenue across the board. It would be a very good investment. All boats would rise together.

Those of us who have thrown our lot in with Smashwords instead of banging our head against the wall of conventional publishing are hoping that Smashwords will better respond to the changing technologies that define our generation than the big six publishing houses have.

We like your motorcycle, Smashwords. We like your sneer. Stop giving us empty compliments and start kicking some ass.

Posted by miracle on Mon, 19 Sep 2011 09:14:31 -0400 -- permanent link

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