Smashwords: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Smashwords is one of my favorite ebookstores. I probably buy more ebooks there than from any other ebookstore. A lot of that has to do with price, but it also has to do with my desire to find great reads from indie authors rather than supporting Agency 6 overpricing of ebooks.

The good of Smashwords is that it is a place where one can find true gems, true masterpieces among the slush, and find them at very reasonable prices. Some excellent, even outstanding, authors I have found at Smashwords are Richard S. Tuttle, Vicki Tyley, Shayne Parkinson, Lee Goldberg, Catherine Durkin Robinson, Saffina Desforges, and Markus Kane.

The bad of Smashwords is how difficult it can be to find these authors.

Consider this week (March 6 to 12), which is Read an eBook Week, both worldwide and at Smashwords. Many authors are running specials on their ebooks at Smashwords, from 25% to 100% off the normal retail price (which is often not very high to begin with). If you want to peruse all of the ebook specials, you have to wade through 12,224 ebooks. To peruse all of the ebooks available at Smashwords, you have to wade through 37,249 ebooks, a number that grows daily.

Until today, searching the eBook Week specials didn’t permit you to search by coupon code. Fortunately, that filter has been added as of this morning. The primary filters are limited. If you choose “New Releases,” “‘RE100’ 100% Off,” and “Longs (25,000+ words),” that helps cut the list to 66 ebooks, but it doesn’t show you those ebooks that have coupon codes of 75%, 50%, or 25% off that are free as well once the discount is applied, nor does it include those ebooks that are free without a coupon code.

The point is that even with the addition of filtering by coupon code, two people are getting short-changed — the reader looking for a bargain and a quality read, and the author who is trying to build a following — because there are just too many variations that are not inclusive enough. I know this from my own experience of the past few days at Smashwords.

Through last evening, I have purchased about 40 ebooks — all ultimately for free because of the coupons — yet that has taken me through only the first 1,750 ebooks in the specials over the course of many hours. I’ll never get through all 5,771 ebooks that are part of the eBook Week special event and are filtered by “New Releases” and “Longs (25,000+ words).”

The bad and the ugly of Smashwords are the filtering and the remembering. Both are inadequate considering how many ebooks Smashwords hosts and how important it is to expose readers to authors. Consequently, I think Smashwords needs to add these features to make the site better for both readers and authors.

First, it needs to give the reader the option to exclude from display ebooks already purchased. I’ve already purchased Vicki Tyley’s three ebooks; do I need to see them again when I search for more ebooks to read?

Unfortunately, just excluding what I have bought from a search won’t help me enough when I return to Smashwords tomorrow. Consequently, second, I should also be able to exclude ebooks that I have already seen in the past 30 days. After 30 days, they should be readded to the visible list because what didn’t interest me last month may interest me this month. Yet, I shouldn’t have to keep struggling to get through ebooks because there are so many of them to get through.

This raises another issue: If a book is regularly priced as free at Smashwords, you can download it immediately. You don’t have to go through the checkout process. But by not going through the checkout process, the ebook is not added to your list of purchased ebooks. In addition to not being added to your purchased list, you do not have to have purchased the ebook to write a review about it, whereas with ebooks that you have to purchase — even if they are free after a coupon is applied — you must have purchased the ebook to write a review. I think that all ebooks should be added to one’s purchased list and that should be a prerequisite to being able to review an ebook.

Third, Smashwords should add another length category: Medium (25,000 to 50,000 words) and change Longs to 50,000+ words. I generally prefer longer books and know that I will never read poetry or short stories — they just are not to my liking.

Which brings me to a fourth suggestion: Instead of having categories from which I can choose a single category to search, such as Historical, why not offer me categories to exclude. I do not like books about vampires and am not interested in erotica, among other categories. Why not make a search an excluding one rather than an including one? This way, I can exclude all the topics I am not interested in at all, yet see what books are available in the multiple topics that I am interested in.

image via flickr

As part of the fourth suggestion, Smashwords really — desperately — needs, fifth, to add more categories and subcategories. For example, the category “Fiction: Historical” covers an ocean, not a waterfront. But I’m not interested in caveman historical fiction and probably not in pre-Elizabethan historical fiction. I suggest that it would be beneficial to both readers and authors for more extensive categories and subcategories along the lines that Barnes & Noble provides.

Overall, I can’t recommend Smashwords enough. It is a great place to find some great ebooks at a reasonable price. You simply have to be willing to give authors a chance. My experience has been that for every 20 ebooks I obtain at Smashwords 2 or 3 will be excellent or outstanding, 4 or 5 will be good, and the rest unreadable for one reason or another.

But for Smashwords to keep being a great place to find ebooks from indie authors, it needs to improve the experience by which ebooks are found. I’ve given a few suggestions; perhaps down the road there will be more.

reposted with permission from An American Editor


  1. Jason Evans9 March, 2011

    I wish there were a comparison guide for new/indy authors. I’d love to read more of them but I’m particular about what I read. Something like, if you like the epic fantasy of Robert Jordan, you’ll love XYZ would be helpful.

    1. Ryan9 March, 2011

      I think this is a great idea, Jason. For all that Smashwords does right, I think that not doing this is a glaring oversight.

      1. Tracy Marchini14 March, 2011

        Shouldn’t this really fall upon the author though, not Smashwords? Part of becoming an indy author is learning how to become a successful marketer, and I think you’ve hit on something they should pay attention to when they write their book description.

        1. chandra19 December, 2011

          Yes, That is very true if the author wants exposure, but we are not really talking about what is good for authors. This article is about what’s good for readers.
          I have “bought” some free books, but the sheer number of books on their site is daunting. I wouldn’t even think of looking up by similar author. Even if I did think of that I most likely would get one or two and they could have a list of every popular author in their long description.

  2. TaosJohn9 March, 2011

    From an author’s point of view, what Smashwords could do is enable uploading of other formats and lose those horrible MS Word files. Also permit title pages w/o the awful required Smashwords layout which just looks cheap and tawdry.

    And of course, there’s the “meatgrinder.” My one Smashwords book looks fine in the iBook store but has ghastly, amateurish layout errors in every other instance. You give them something, and it comes out looking like crap. Very discouraging…

    1. Mark Coker9 March, 2011

      Hi John, I took a look at your source file, and it looks well-formatted. Your epub looks good too, though I see a glitch in your NCX that might resolve if you click “upload new version” from your Dashboard and regrind it. We’ve made some recent improvements to our automatic TOC detection. If something else is wrong, drop me an email.

  3. Mike Cane9 March, 2011

    Welcome to the hell of search, filtering, and selecting. It will only get worse too, not better. All of these services make money no matter HOW bad discovery is, so they have zero incentive to do what’s right.

    1. Mark Coker9 March, 2011

      Our incentive to do it better is this: We don’t earn income if our books don’t sell. To the extent we make our books more discoverable, findable and purchasable, we sell more books and everyone’s happy.

  4. Doug9 March, 2011

    Yeah, discovery is a bit of a problem at Smashwords’ site. Things are somewhat better at their resellers.

    As for adding new categories, Smashwords tries to keep to the BISAC category list so that each book’s categories can be unambiguously transmitted to the resellers. BISAC only offers the following Historical fiction codes:
    FIC049040: African American, Historical
    FIC042030: Christian, Historical
    FIC009030: Fantasy, Historical
    FIC014000: Historical
    FIC022060: Mystery & Detective, Historical
    FIC027050: Romance, Historical
    FIC040000: Alternative History

    There’s nothing prevent the author of, say, an historical romance from tagging it as both historical romance and historical, with the result that “Historical” can be a catch-all.

  5. Marv Walker30 October, 2011

    I’d like to see an “ingredient” list for source upload, i.e., 1.) Cover, 2.) Intro, 3.) Copyright, 4.) TOC, 5.) Chapter 1 and so on.

  6. […] statement was taken from a blog posted by The Digital Reader on Smashwords, ” The good of Smashwords is that it is a place where one can find true gems, […]


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