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I really like Smashwords. But what if they go away?

This is kind of a nuts-and-bolts post. If you don’t care about ebook publishing from a business perspective, you might as well skip it.

Smashwords is an ebook distributor and retailer. Mostly. They’re also sort of a publisher, and their business model has some serious (but rarely mentioned) customer lock-in going on.

They offer indie publishers a pretty good deal. For a small piece of the action, they’ll take an ebook and distribute it to several retailers–Sony, Barnes & Noble, Page Foundry, Kobo, iBooks, and others. They also sell copies directly from their site.

I have no problem with them whatsoever. I like what they’re doing.

There are some interesting issues, though, that I’ve been wondering about:

1) Smashwords will assign a free ISBN to your book, if you want them to.

This is helpful, especially as you don’t get a lot of use out of your ISBN if you pay for one–Smashwords has a policy prohibiting you from using the same ISBN for non-Smashwords editions of your book. And I don’t think it really matters (more about this here) if Smashwords lists itself as the “publisher” for the editions they distribute. But…on all the sites you use Smashwords for, any reader reviews and retail history are going to be associated with the ISBN. Which they won’t let you use elsewhere. So, uh…it might be a good idea to register the ISBN yourself–just in case Smashwords goes away, or a retailer severs its relationship with them, or you sever your relationship with them, or something else goes wrong. It may not help you gain control of your editions that had been distributed by Smashwords, or tie reviews and such to new editions. On the other hand, it might…too bad it costs so much to buy an ISBN in the US, but they’re free in some countries. [UPDATE: Mark Coker from Smashwords addresses this in the comments below. I think his remarks are largely obfuscatory, but YMMV.]

2) Smashwords insists on a Word .doc version, and formats various ebooks from it.

Again this is not a sign of evil intent. I’d rather create each format of a book myself–but I do understand that they want to automate their processes. Plus, it’s neat that Smashwords will help us sell our ebooks in lots of different formats, and the ability to generate coupons (good only for sales directly via Smashwords) is a nice way to get books to…well, readers of one flavor or another.

But some of the formatting is just…dumb, when it comes out. [UPDATE: As of 12/31/2012 you can now upload an EPUB. There are still (as of 1/2/13) a few minor bugs in the process, but I’m very pleased about this.]

I don’t have a solution here. To be clear: I’m not mad at anybody either. I’ve had so much trouble with Barnes & Noble’s web application and customer service that I’m thinking I may cancel my publisher account with them and distribute to them only via Smashwords.

The ideal solution, I guess, is to hire somebody to create publisher accounts on all sites. Except…B&N, for example, won’t let indie publishers list their books for free. Neither will Amazon.

So to get free listings, you can go through Smashwords and list your book for free on B&N (among others). And, sometime later, Amazon will probably price-match. OTOH if you don’t anticipate setting a book to “free” you might as well list it directly. If you’re absolutely sure about that.


  • If you go through Smashwords, there’s a chance that your books will suddenly be de-listed and any re-introduction may not bring past reader reviews along.
  • If you don’t go through Smashwords, it’s hard to get a book listed as “free”…and you could find yourself suddenly excluded if a retailer decides it will only get books from a distributor rather than directly from indie publishers. Though this is a smaller risk, as it’d only be a particular retailer rather than all of them (at least at first).

Besides: who among us can afford a full-time business person to handle this stuff? A few, I suppose. Most of us will just have to wait until we can afford it–but the best time to set this up would be right now. Because the more successful you become with your current titles, the tighter the grip Smashwords will have on your finances.

There is a lot to manage in this “indie publisher” world. Many authors just upload their books to Amazon and call it a day. They’re not necessarily making a mistake–but then, of course, their income depends entirely on Amazon. Hmm.

I don’t have a perfect solution. In fact, as I’ll explain in my “New Year” post soon, I think I’ll focus my attention elsewhere for a while.

But…sheesh. There’s gotta be a better way. Maybe even this one.

I hope one of you has some good ideas you’re willing to share.

Be good out there. Pretty soon, Santa’s going to get over his PTSD and start watching us again.



Published inPublishing


  1. Hi David, Mark from Smashwords here. 🙂

    I’ll try to add some color here.

    Our retailers would never de-list a Smashwords book unless that book somehow violated their listing policies with illegal content.

    Smashwords isn’t going away. 🙂

    As much as a certain company in the Pacific Northwest region might wish us to go away, we’re running a healthy, profitable and growing business. We have great relationships with our retail partners. Our retailers – even the ones operating their own publishing platforms – know we’re 100% committed to helping their stores be successful. As the world’s largest distributor of self-published ebooks, we provide them fast and efficient onboarding and metadata updates for thousands of books each month. Most of the retailers also realize that the vast majority of our authors prefer to work through a distributor, because a distributor makes it faster and easier for authors to centrally manage book production, distribution, accounts receivable and tax accounting, as opposed spending the time,effort and often expense of uploading direct and managing disconnected islands.

    Each retailer handles ISBNs differently, but a safe rule is that once an ebook lands at a retailer, that listing is relatively static in that the retailer usually can’t change the ISBN after the fact, which is a good best practice, whether it’s tied to a free ISBN issued by Smashwords or an author-supplied ISBN they purchased directly from Bowker. This means that even if you purchase your own ISBN from Bowker, it won’t help you take your reviews and sales rank with you if you relist the book with another distributor, or upload direct.

    The characteristics of that listing can change (pricing, metadata) with either ISBN, so as a best practice, it’s never a good idea to remove listings. Modify instead.

    Most retailers also attach their own unique digital identifiers to a book’s listing, so even if the book is removed from Smashwords and the ISBN is later reused, it’ll usually lead to an entirely new listing and loss of prior reviews and sales rank.

    The International ISBN Agency are the folks that strongly recommend that authors/publishers issue a unique ISBN to each sellable format in distribution. If the author purchases their own ISBN from Bowker, then they can attach an ISBN to their EPUB, for example, and use that ISBN everywhere they sell their epub. However, that ISBN shouldn’t be attached to the print version.

    If they use our free ISBN, we’ll attach it to the epub version of the book.

    One of the many purposes of an ISBN is help connect potential buyers who use the ISBN for procurement with the version of the book they’re looking for.

    We often get emails from a library or educational institution that wants to purchase a print book from Smashwords, and it’s a case where (against our advice and against the advice of Bowker), the author used our free ISBN on their print book (either because they didn’t read our instructions, or they were trying to save money), and as a result potential institutional buyers can’t contact them. The author loses the sale. In the past, we’d try to track down the author and connect them with the buyer, but it became too burdensome for us to burn resources for authors who didn’t follow the simple instructions. Now, we just politely inform the buyer we don’t publish or sell print books.

    • Hi Mark-

      I hope it’s clear that I like what you guys are doing. But no company can guarantee either its own longevity or its relationships with its current partners/customers/clients/whatever. So we little guys really do need to look out for ourselves.

      I dealt with some of your other points in another post (here), but I have to say that if a librarian can’t figure out how to google my name or follow a link on an author page, most likely something else would have gone wrong along the path to a sale anyway. I mean…sheesh.

      Really, if using a “bespoke” ISBN can’t help tie reviews to future non-Smashwords editions even in the face of a catastrophe (which would most likely be a separate decision made by each retailer), I don’t see the point in paying for one.

      Again, I’m very pleased with Smashwords, and thanks for stopping by!

    • Also: according to this page (which may only be visible to people who have a publishing account with Smashwords) you have the following text: “REMINDER: The ISBN you attach below CANNOT be the same ISBN you use for your print version or another ebook version.”

      If you didn’t mean that I can’t use the same ISBN I’ve attached to, say, an Amazon version of one of my books–can you spell that out? Because I’d really rather use a single ISBN per ebook, across all retailers, instead of paying twice. OTOH, you also require “Smashwords Edition” or similar language in the .doc file, and to me that seems like a pretty reasonable requirement on your side–and one that fits well with your requirement of a Smashwords-only ISBN.

      I really don’t mean to be critical. I’m a pretty huge fan. I’m just also a business-guy who’s getting into this new area & trying to do it right.

  2. ISBNs are keyed to format. When you buy an ISBN from Bowker, they require that you specify not only the title but also the format; for ebooks, format is defined as ePub, Kindle, PDF, etc., For Amazon, obviously, you need a Kindle ISBN (not that Amazon requires it, but if you want it to have one, it has to be a Kindle-specific one) . Nook, iBooks, and most other retailers publish in ePub, so one ISBN will work for all of them.

    In that respect, there is no way a title on Smashword could comply with this rule if it gets only one ISBN, since one of the great things on Smashwords is that provides the same title in many formats, including some that can be easily printed, like PDF and RTF (although no page numbers are applied! what gives with that, Mr. Coker?). When a book club read my fantasy novella, I was able to steer non-ebook fans to Smashwords for a version they could print. That was really handy. They also don’t add DRM, which is another plus in my book.

    I believe Smashwords is also planning to accept ePub, although I don’t think I have heard anything on that lately.

    • I’ve bought ISBNs from Bowker within the last couple of weeks. They didn’t require specific format info. It’s just a recommendation–from the people who profit by selling ISBNs, so I wouldn’t give it a lot of weight.

      B&N, Amazon and Google Books also give authors a no-DRM option. Possibly others do too; I haven’t paid a lot of attention. The companies listed are those are I’ve dealt with directly.

  3. Y’know, there’s nothing magical about an ISBN. It’s just a number, usually but not always tied to some info in a database. (Nothing stops you from buying an ISBN and using it without registering it, if that’s your preference.)

    These days, there’s no compelling reason to care about that database. It’s easy to find books, and authors, through other means. I personally bought some ISBNs only because Google’s publishing app (for now) seems to work better with them and (as stated in my post) it’s possible that large retailers may resort to ISBN “publisher” identification in the event of an issue arising with Smashwords–whether a disagreement, a bankruptcy, or whatever. Along the same lines I’m also trying to use Smashwords for some but not all of my ebook distribution. Basic diversification, a fairly standard business strategy.

    But the Google Books publisher app actually will work without an ISBN. I know, b/c I’d done it that way to start with and had to get them to help me remove the non-ISBN versions of my books.

    Basically the whole notion of an ISBN is a relic of another age, and the fact that those with vested interests want to use the word “required” is…well, to be expected but otherwise not significant.

  4. Sam

    Thanks for this! Food for thought. I hadn’t really put it all together before.

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