eBook publishing diary – Part #3: KDP vs. Smashwords vs. Scribd or “You can’t handle the truth!”.

Screwproof - the publishing diary

Getting to here is a lot harder than it looks


So you think you’re ready to publish?  Do you think Tom Cruise was ready for Jack Nicholson when he flew out to Guantanamo Bay to be subjected to homophobic abuse by an angry old man over breakfast?  The answer to both questions is, of course, “No”.  I wasn’t ready for publishing.  I was prepared, yes, but did I know how it was going to go?  No sir, I did not sir.  The good news is Kindle is like the official US Marine handbook.  The bad news is Smashwords is most definitely like having a rag stuffed down your throat whilst a dorm of angry jarheads beat the shit out of you with socks filled with bars of pink soap…


Kindle KDP

If you’re self-publishing, Kindle is the big daddy.  It’s the biggest market, largest share of the device market, most well known e-reader out there.  You need your book on Kindle if you want to get the reach you’ll need to sell a few copies. It has various deals, exclusives for Kindle only publishing, which I avoided because I want to get a handle on the whole e-book sales and distribution thing, but that fact alone demonstrates that Kindle is big enough for exclusive distribution to be an attractive deal.  The good news is, if you find Kindle is the main / only source of sales, you can choose to go Kindle-only later on, so you don’t burn any bridges.

Pros: It’s a reliable system, seems to understand whatever you upload (because you’ve slaved over it, right?) and you can simply copy and paste everything you’ve got prepped into the boxes and upload it.  Easy.

Cons: If you upload your cover or text, then want to change it, it takes hours to refresh on the Kindle store. So if you spot a last minute error once it’s live, it take a while between you correcting it on your dashboard and the changes going live.  The worst part of that is the cover thumbnail.  I mistakenly uploaded the wrong cover version (I did about twenty when I was designing it) and although I re-uploaded the right about 10 minutes later, it took 65 hrs to refresh the thumbnail on the store.  Some people have waited more than 72hrs for this to happen.



I chose Smashwords because it takes the hassle out of distributing your ePub version to all the major stores out there.  It will also distribute to Kindle too.  So in theory it saves you a lot of time publishing the book again and again via various stores.  However, theory and reality don’t always match-up.  If you, like me, don’t format the book the way Smashwords want you to do it, you’ll find it hard to get your book distributed.

In fact, I’d go as far to say Smashwords is the PC and Kindle is the Mac of the self-publishing world.  To explain, my Mac, iPhone, iPad, Airport etc. just work. You get them out of the box, follow the instructions, plug them in and you’re done.  Sure, there’s a learning curve, but it gets shallow very quickly and emphasises simplicity.  Smashwords, on the other hand, is like getting a Windows PC, a Sony android phone, a Samsung tablet etc.  They all say it works seamlessly and it’s simple, but eventually you wind up kicking the box across the room and saying “oh for fuck’s sake just fucking work”.


Pros: It’s a lot like the Kindle KDP upload process, that’s about it.

Cons: It’s deeply flawed as a publishing system.  Basically, unless you author your book using their Samshwords Style Guide, which wants you to use Microsoft Word, pre formatted styles and even a specific structure and use of typography (bolds, italics, face sizes, spacing etc.) your only choice is uploading an ePub file.  Now there is no way I’m authoring in word, using all that macro shit.  Why?  Because I’m an experienced designer and programmer, and as all designers and programmers know, Word fills every file with flaky, buggy code that screws everything up.  Plus I’ve slaved over my xhtml code to craft the source of my book into something that is of a consistent, high quality, observing the best practice methodology of data science.  Word isn’t a data processing tool, it’s a word processor… and not a particularly brilliant one, just widely used.

Additionally, my book is designed, typographically, to look and feel a certain way – specifically to work well on multiple devices across different platforms.  It’s a responsive, simple layout that uses good typographic styles to achieve a certain effect.  I slaved over that too.  I’m not reworking the book to look like I’ve designed it by the numbers in the guide – surely that defeats the whole point of SELF-PUBLISHING?  The clue is in the name… right?


ePub Hell

So my only option was their ePub upload.  Which is okay, I guess, except that if you use an ePub file, it’s got to pass their validator.  If it doesn’t, you get a very vague message about “tabs” (there were none in my xhtml, because I’d slaved over the code, remember?).

Smashwords autovetter errors picture

No really, the Tabs aren’t a problem…


Then you get an email which identifies specific issues like this:

smashwords - email problems?

Not much help here…


Have you ever had a PC where it won’t connect to a device and gives you a bunch of error codes?  And then you need to work out what they mean… after a day of Googling or whatever you discover you need a new driver, which you can only find buried in a basement of a website that’s almost impossible to find?  Yeah.  That’s what Smashwords does.

Fixing my ePub file

  1. So fixing the “‘’www.manvsbrain.com‘: referenced resource missing in the package (repeats 2 times)” was easy enough – I had two links in my book using a href=“www.manvs.brain.com” and it turns out I needed to properly reference the resource, I.e. Make that “a href=“http://www.manvsbrain.com”.  Which is fair enough.  I mean, obviously, every device in the world would be able to use either version of the a href syntax, but I guess it’s technically a perfectly valid point.  Like putting your elbows on the table at dinner, or saying “for free” instead of just “free”, which is bad grammar.  Fixed.
  2. bad value for attribute “preserveAspectRatio” again was an easy fix.  I hadn’t checked that option in Calibre’s ePub output screen.  A couple of seconds later, a re-uploaded file and it was fixed.
  3. “Text not allowed here” – is utterly useless feedback.  Where?  Where Smashwords?  WHERE IS THE TEXT NOT ALLOWED????


Needless to say, the website still said this:


Smashwords autovetter errors picture

No really, the Tabs aren’t a problem…

Who validates the validators?

Eventually you’ll discover that you’ll need to go here http://validator.idpf.org/application/validate and get some detail.  Which I did.  Here’s what happened…

Screen shot of validator results

More helpful… if you’re RoboCop


As you can see, it’s quite specific.  Of course, the problem is on a Mac, you can’t see inside a .ePub file very easily.  You’ll need to download this excellent zip file utility BetterZip from http://macitbetter.com/ – which lets you see inside the many html ‘split’ files that comprise an epub.  Which I did, then I saw the problem.

Screen shot of the problem line of code

Problem? What problem?


It’s highlighted in yellow.  It’s a line of text, formatted… er… with no errors at all.  So I tried removing all the spaces within the zipped html file, using BetterZip and Textmate, eliminating tabs etc. And revalidated the program… this happened.

Worse validation result feedback

Shoot me now…

Much, much worse.  So I re-edited my source file, recompiled the ePub, and this happened again when I validated it:

Screen shot of validator results

More helpful… if you’re RoboCop



Frustrating, yes?  Then I had a crazy idea.  Back in the day when I was writing software and stuff, sometimes a program like Calibre would write an error in the code usually towards the end of the file when it was running out of allocated memory for the process.  It was a reasonably common problem in batch processing big files into sets of smaller files back then.  I once had to PDF hundreds of pages of HTML for the Library association, and after staying up for hours, realised the only way I could do it was in batches of twenty or so, not all at once.

So I tested my thinking by re-formatting the last paragraph to look like this, so it would force Calibre to handle the text differently:

Reformatted code screen grab

Can you see what I did there?


And it passed validation!  But my reasoning was wrong.

validator feedback screen grab


To test my reasoning, I went back, took the original file and put it back to how it was supposed to be – but retyped the changes and importantly, re-wrote the P tags.  I figured maybe something was going wrong in the import process between my xhtml source file and Calibre.  Maybe there was some glitch in the source file.  Rewriting it should fix that… possibly.  Anyway I retyped the line so it looked like this again, remade the ePub file and tested it again:

Screen shot of the problem line of code

Problem? What problem?


And I got this (again)!  Woohoo!

validator feedback screen grab


But then I got this from Smashwords, boo ;(

Smashwords autovetter errors picture

No really, the Tabs aren’t a problem…


But then I got this email from Smashwords.  Er, yay?

Successful validation results

I love you

At this point, I have no idea where I am with Smashwords and their premium content distribution.  I’ve submitted my file for review, so hopefully that will work out.

Meanwhile on Amazon, everything is fine and I’ve sold a couple of copies.  And got a review too.  And five stars.


Sribd (for my PDF version)

This one is a wild card choice.  I wanted a saleable PDF version in a store for people who like PDFs.  Will it sell?  Who knows.  I made the PDF using Scrivener, which beats Calibre for it’s PDF simplicity and layout control.

Pros:  Uploading is easy.  Setting-up payment is easy (just add your Paypal address).  This was by far the simplest publishing process.

Cons:  Unless you’re part of their content programme, it’s not a book, it’s treated like a doc.  I get the impression they don’t want self-published types approaching them directly.  As it happens, Smashwords now distributes to Scribd, so that might get me into the Scribd book section – which has proper categories and useful features.  The Docs section has either “Instruction Manuals” or “Creative Writing” as categories that might vaguely describe the book.  However, marketing the book is helped by having a hosted, downloadable, buyable PDF option, so it’s better than nothing as a stop gap.


eBook publishing diary – Part #4: The “self-publishing half-life work cycle” and 10 practical tips for social media marketing

eBook publishing diary – part #2: 10 Tips for Publishing day