followup on Smashwords & the publishing industry

Another of my books, Lost and Not Found, is now available through Smashwords – so you can download and read it directly on your iPhone or iPod Touch through Stanza.  In addition, I’ve updated the kindle version of the book – there was something strange going on with the left margin in the one that was available before, but it should be corrected now.  (Sorry about that.)

I had some difficulties with Smashwords over the weekend – I kept trying to upload my book and it kept timing out or getting stuck or something.  I was time consuming to deal with, because it would often freeze up on an actively loading page that said it was working and not to refresh.  So I would wait what I was sure was long enough before interrupting it.  I thought it was possibly on my end, to before I even contacted Smashwords for help (they have a link at the top of every page that allows you to contact them with any questions, comments, or problems) I tried uploading through 4 different browsers on 2 operating systems, tried deleting cookies, checking over my code…

I did, eventually, contact Smashwords to ask for help.  And immediately had a response.  From the founder, Mark Coker (who I had several interesting conversations with at Tools of Change, last month).  We emailed back and forth and he went way above and beyond (especially considering this was taking place on the weekend – the bulk of the back and forth taking place on a Saturday night!) to try to figure out why my book wasn’t going through the meatgrinder.  Eventually, looking at the HTML I was feeding it, he ran it through the W3C validator and discovered that I had some errors.  Okay, that’s my fault.  (Then we each went out for the evening – neither of us is staying in all night on a Saturday night fiddling with eBook conversions!)

Turns out that when I had initially exported from Adobe’s software to HTML, it had both put in the incorrect doctype and had failed to close the head tag.  WTF, Adobe?  I fixed that & still had trouble, but Mark was there trying to help along the way.  Sunday I didn’t work on it, and since he hadn’t heard from me and we hadn’t had it resolved yet, he even followed up with me this morning.  (Right after I’d got everything working, actually.)  The meatgrinder doesn’t seem to like big HTML files (it works best with Word .doc files, I’m told), but Smashwords has amazing/fantastic/excellent/astounding customer service and a real dedication to helping authors/publishers and to creating a tool that works.  They’ve earned a lot of loyalty from me by actually caring about doing a good job and supporting the authors they’re trying to provide a service to.

Now, how did I get it working?  I just used TextEdit (on OS X, where I do most of my work) to save the HTML file as an .rtf, adjusted font sizes a bit (TextEdit seems to make everything a couple of sizes bigger), and Smashwords’ meatgrinder worked great.  So if you’re thinking of uploading your books to Smashwords, first look at their style guide, but then try to upload a .doc or .rtf file.  It should give you awesome output.

Which brings me around to the other subject I wanted to address: Why does the publishing industry use Microsoft Word as the de-facto standard for writing/editing/et cetera?  Word isn’t good at handling book-length manuscripts.  It isn’t good at multi-user editing, tracking changes, and the like.  It isn’t good at layout.  I’m not sure what it’s good at.  I’ve used the Windows versions and the Mac versions, and I even wrote a book in it once. Ugh.  It’s terribly unstable when you have a document of book length. How does the publishing industry function?  As soon as I had Apple’s Pages available, I imported from my Word .doc (cleaned up the formatting) and the stability, speed, ease of editing and layout was instantly orders of magnitude better.  Pages wasn’t really designed for book-length documents, either -its strength is the brochure and the full-color newsletter with lots of pictures and complicated layouts, not the block of text that is a novel- but at least it handles them well.  After the first version, Pages refused to output text in CMYK, which is a bizarre sort of a problem that means it isn’t of much use if you’re outputting for a professional printer, but for the couple of books I wrote in it, it was oh-so-easy.  And stable.  Never crashed, never froze, didn’t get slower the more I wrote.  Nice.

Of course, since I do have to do professional layouts and put out files my printer can use, I started using InDesign for layout… and then, for my last book, I just wrote the first draft directly into an InDesign template.  I was able to make layout decisions as I was writing the book, so that – when the first draft was done, so was 90% of the layout work.  Editing in InDesign (for the one person that I am) is simple enough -easier than Word, though not as smooth (yet) as Pages- and I can immediately see how my changes will look when printed.  I don’t know for sure what layout software is ‘industry standard’ -though anecdotally I have an impression that InDesign is fairly widespread in use- but I’m sure it isn’t MS Word.  So why do they do everything else in Word?  Why are all the tools designed assuming that I’m going to work in Word, Smashwords & kindle included?  Word is terrible at this sort of work.

For writing, I’d rather use something like Scrivener or even just WriteRoom.  For layout, obviously I’d use a professional layout software (which Pages does well enough – too bad about the CMYK).  Why Word?

I think it’s the ongoing acceptance of standards like the industry-wide use of MS Word that are indicative of why old-school, big publishers are going out of business.  They aren’t thinking clearly about what would be the best way to do what they’re doing, they just keep doing it the same way they’ve been doing it.  If you aren’t looking forward, if you aren’t concerned with whether you’re using the best tools for the job, you’re going to face stiff competition from those of us who are.

For now, I can give Smashwords the .rtf files it likes.  No problem.  But XML is the future (and, yes, the publishing industry is trying to figure out how to integrate XML into its MS Word-based workflows.  Seriously.), the open epub standard is the future, and I talked to Mark about it at ToC and hopefully, eventually, the meatgrinder will be able to take the soon-to-be-worldwide-standard epub format and grind it out into all the old, dying, proprietary formats.  And hopefully someone will create an easy to use tool for originating documents in XML – that doesn’t involve plugging something into MS Word.

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Author, artist, romantic, insomniac, exorcist, creative visionary, lover, and all-around-crazy-person.

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