Saturday, May 26, 2012

Smashed by Smashwords Conversion

Update! My Book Passed their Premium Catalog, and I now offer Smashwords Conversion Services. Please see my Book Formatting Page.

I saved Smashwords for last. After all, I've already tackled Kindlegen, .opf files, .ncx, know how to type in HTML and wrestled with style sheets. How hard would Smashwords be? It's ONLY Microsoft Word, right? And formatting for Createspace and dealing with mirrored margins, odd/even pages, and renumbering of pages was a much bigger pain, right?

Well, technically, Smashwords is for dummies. So I guess it makes me a dummy. Following their instructions was easy. It's getting a good looking .mobi file and .epub file that was the killer.

You see? Smashwords only takes a Word doc of .doc type, not .docx type [which is what Office 2010 automatically saves a Word doc as]. So first of all, make sure to save your doc as [Office 1997-2003 compatible]. This makes it a .doc type. Secondly, delete that Table of Contents you put in and all the hidden bookmarks you used to generate your toc.ncx and toc.htm files. That's right. You must now type in all your own bookmarks.
And notice where that red arrow is pointed? Make sure that "paragraph" mark is NOT highlighted, i.e. not blue. Requires very precise mouse, or use "Shift-left arrow" after it is all selected to deselect the "paragraph" mark. Furthermore, notice how Chapter 5 is centered? Get rid of it. Trust me! Your Kindle on PC will left-justify it whenever you hyperlink to the Chapter heading, but leave it centered when you page to it.

As if that wasn't frustrating enough, you must delete the guide bookmarks you put in for Kindlegen, "toc", "start", "cover" and "text" and place them on empty Paragraph Marks so as NOT to interfere with the Smashwords marks. Otherwise, your table of contents could be cut off at the offending mark.

So, how did I get Kindle for PC to recognize where my "toc" guidepoint? I created a blank paragraph before "Table of Contents" and attach "toc" bookmark it. I also did two blank paragraphs before where I wanted my document to start, attached the "start" bookmark and "text" bookmark, but I have to admit that the converted .mobi file starts at the Acknowledgments which is the first Smashword file TOC entry. Not having access to the conversion code, I cannot tell you why it does not pay attention to the "start" and "text" bookmarks. It just doesn't.

Have you ever wanted to go "topless", er, I mean "coverless?" on your Kindle app? The only way to have your image show up is to import your cover image into your Title Page and select the image and bookmark it "cover". If you don't, your Kindle book on Kindle for PC will be coverless. You've seen those, right? The ones you downloaded and it only has the generic blue book with the golden bookmark. Well, now you know how to join the blue book club.

Images. Here's the rub. Smashwords will not resize your image to fit the epub file. Whatever doesn't fit will be cut off. I just randomly made my images smaller and hoped for the best, not having a Nook to test with. So make sure your inline cover image is small. How small? I went for 4" or less for width. The other trick is to remove the first line indent on your image or it might get kicked into the next page. Having a blank page in an e-reader always looks bad.

As if that weren't enough, Smashwords takes your file and converts it to ten different formats. Different bugs hit different formats. So you download and view each format, fix a bug in one format and introduce it in another format. Some, like PDB are hopeless. They don't recognize extended character set so all of your curly single and double quotes are mangled. Ditto with foreign characters.

The final result is that you must save different Word documents for different bug fixes. Then when you upload the doc, make sure to uncheck the formats that will not work with that particular fix. Then make sure the last doc you upload is one that works with the HTML and Javascript. Although who'd want to read online when the HTML links don't work!

Technically, nothing in the Style Guide is hard to do. If you want them to generate your table of contents, or you trust them, they will sweep up everything that is in Header <H1> format and make a TOC entry. This is after they told you to make everything "Normal" The lesson in all of this is to use your Smashword formatted document as the template for all of your subsequent works. Then generate your Kindlegen and ePub from altering the Smashwords doc.

The problem with having no table of contents is that the user cannot easily jump through your document in EPUB, and we all know that EPUB is an important format now that almost all devices are moving toward it. For example, I want the reader to be able to refer to the map at any time with a single click. If all my chapter headings had been named "Chapter X", it would have been easier.

Therefore it is worth your while to make sure you have a Table of Contents generated into NCX form, and not just one that is hyperlinked at the beginning of the book. The unfortunate thing is that Smashwords does not receive the MSFT Word generated TOC. Wouldn't want to make our lives too easy!

I hope this document has helped you to avoid a few pitfalls. I do not know if my file will pass their "Premium Screen" yet. Wish me luck!

Anyone know any hints and tips? Please add to the comments. Perhaps it was easy for you, please share. Thanks.


  1. I wish you the very best of luck with Smashwords, Rachelle. If your file passes, you have my admiration.

    I'm not a complete tech newbie. I've built a couple of sites with Wordpress and done book-length layouts in Indesign, including one with a few dozen photos and illustrations. I know a tiny bit about HTML and CSS. But I've never been able to create an ePub file without errors. In the end I paid a pro $80 to create it for me. A small price to pay for my sanity.

  2. The trick to Smashwords is to give them a .doc file with a consistent set of styles. I exported RTF out of Scrivener, cleaned it up in OpenOffice, and followed the bookmarking directions in the Smashwords Style Guide. It sailed through on the first try, Premium and all (it took them a few days to look it over for Premium, though). For Amazon, I just exported a MOBI file. Now exporting out of Scrivener (they call it "Compiling") has its own set of pitfalls, which are worth a blog post on their own; I ought to write it up this week. But once it's set up, you're done. My own experience suggests Smashwords is more work for very little return, but I'm sure other people's experience is different.

    Mary, I threw an ePUB together by hand once — out of an 800-page technical document I maintain in my dayjob, using GNU troff markup. The huge tables and graphics made it look awful, but it loaded in Stanza (an ePUB app) and Calibre's ePUB viewer. I'd feel strange, taking $80 to format a novel into ePUB, but I could change my tune if I got laid off. ;-) With a good ePUB, you can use Amazon's KindleGen tool to convert that to MOBI.

    If you want to look at your ePUB w/o buying a Nook, B&N has a Nook app that you can run on your computer. Amazon has a Kindle Previewer program as well.

    Hope some of this helps!

    — Larry Kollar [Twitter: @FARfetched58]

  3. Thanks Larry! My biggest hangup was the Map. In both Epub and .mobi, I hotlinked the Map Image to a TOC entry and it worked great. In Smashwords I had to hotlink it to the word "MAP", and the readers would move the image to the next page. So I'd have one page with "MAP" and the next page with the image. I even reduced the size of the image. Epub readers do not resize the image automatically where as Kindle previewer and Kindle apps will.

    I sort of go backwards from you. I convert Word to HTML and strip most of the office tags. Then I generate Kindle .mobi. I take the .mobi and go to .epub. I then take the html file that generated the .mobi and reload it back to Word. If I didn't have the map, I think everything would have been easy.

    I know about "troff" before it was GNU! I had "vi" wired in my fingers, coded my first UI with "curses" and used "troff" before "tex" and "latex" were available. Now you know how OLD I am. Did you ever play "rogue" and "robots"?

    1. I don't remember doing anything with a Map for Smashwords, I just fed it a bookmarked .doc file & the cover art, and it did the rest.

      I'm probably at least as old… I used troff on a Sun 1 in my first job out of college, and I also have vi wired in my fingers — and will find myself jackhammering the J key and wondering why the cursor isn't moving when I start talking about the old days. Yup, I played both Rogue and Robots. Lots of fun!

  4. I'm giving up on Smashwords. It's WAY too complicated and metagrinder is WAY to OCD to allow any content to go through. I don't about you, but for one of my books I submit revision after revision after revision after revision after revision ad infitum - each time fixing what they suggest I fix and yet it still comes up with something new each time. And something outrageously trivial. I finally just cut my book to a simple, no headers, no formatting no nothering extremely boring version to test smashwords - and it STILL got rejected by metagrinder's review process.

    Smashwords is IMPOSSIBLE, it's just another red herring for authors. While we are wasting our time going back and forth with smashwords' complicated system that will never let a book through until you're ready to kill yourself from frustration - other authors are beating us to the market.

    Does anyone know a good smashwords alternative for free publishing?

  5. Update on Smashwords. The way to handle mystery documents is to export the document to HTML, edit the HTML and force everything to MsoNormal. Sometimes when you do it in Word, it doesn't REALLY put things to MsoNormal. I've seen paragraphs still in BodyText. Others with all sorts of special formatting in the MsoNormal tag.

    Make sure all your font-sizes are 12pt, none of your titles are larger than 16pt. Reimport this HTML document into Word, save as Word 2003 compatible format, and continue formatting.

    I had a client document where all the fonts were mis-sized, sometimes bold, sometimes big, sometimes small. When viewed in word everything looked great! The problem is the HTML was chock full of "span" tags that changed fonts, sizes, paragraph spacing, colors, etc. The more you try to do inside of Word, the worse it gets. You highlight, change, highlight, change and all you do is add "span" tags.

    Edit HTML, import into Word and you'll have a cleaner document. Whenever you have a document that misbehaves, look at the exported HTML. It'll give you a clue on what's really going on. Hope this helps someone.