The Smashwords Formatting Fiasco

I’ve been tweeting bitchfully all week about how I’ve been having some trouble getting the third volume of SuperMegaNet approved for premium distribution over at Smashwords. The problem? I’ve (intentionally) defined multiple paragraph styles in my source document, which is something I’ve done since the beginning. But as of this month it seems the new unofficial Smashwords policy is one paragraph style per document. No more, no less. And, apparently, using paragraph returns / blank line insertions instead of trailing spaces designated in the stylesheet has come back into fashion—which is where I’m most confused. The note from the screener recommends using this method to create space between paragraphs, while the most recent Smashwords Style Guide still strongly recommends against using blank line insertions for the purpose of layout. So…huh?

Judging by the days-long conversion times and spotty site performance, the Smashwords staff is no doubt focusing all its attention on meeting the server demand caused by this week’s Read an Ebook Week promotion. And a recent site update mentioned that they’ve hired some new team members who are probably still learning the ropes. So, I won’t start going apeshit for at least another week. In the meantime, I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who might know: Is Smashwords taking on a new one-size-fits-all policy?

My heart’s broken if they have. The one-paragraph-style-per-document rule is helpful for beginners, but what about those of us who are comfortable enough using Word (or OpenOffice, in the case of Linux users such as myself) to actually implement multiple paragraph styles responsibly?

My books basically have four styles:

  • Front Matter
  • Chapter Titles
  • Body Text
  • Scene Breaks

When done right, having different paragraph styles actually increases readability: Front matter text is centered, with trailing space defined beneath each paragraph; chapter titles are formatted similarly to front matter text, with the addition of bolding and / or a slightly larger font; body text is justified, and first-line indented, just like you’d see in any good fiction novel; scene breaks are almost identical to chapter titles, without the bolding. But if multiple styles are outright banned, it would mean having my front matter pages going from a neatly-spaced title / copyright page like this:

smashwords-front-matter-block

to this (blech!):

smashwords-front-matter-1st-line-indent

You tell me which is more readable and more professional-looking.

Meanwhile, my body text looks like this (note the stylized first paragraph, a popular alternative to drop caps):

smashwords-body-text-1st-line-indent

See? A paragraph style for every occasion.

As mentioned on my Twitter page, I’ve e-mailed Smashwords asking for clarification on the matter, but have yet to receive a response. For the time being all I can do is twiddle my thumbs and entertain my worst fears while repeating my formatting mantra and rocking slowly back and forth: Properly-formatted book files should define multiple paragraph styles where appropriate.

Smashwords is a great service, offering a convenient way to get multiple e-book formats to a variety of online retailers—but forcing a single style for an entire document is not only oversimplification, it makes for some very amateur-looking books. And not the good kind of amateur where you have a really hot couple banging in front of a camcorder on a nude beach. No, the kind of amateur that gets people wondering out loud, “Why didn’t this doofus use multiple paragraph styles where appropriate?”

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About jesse

Book designer and formatter based in southern California. Supreme overlord of the SuperMegaNet pseudoverse.
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5 Responses to The Smashwords Formatting Fiasco

  1. I agree with you completely. It’s my biggest bitch about ebookery: why can’t it be easy and easily supported by the distributors to make them look like decent-looking “real” books? I am publisher who does both print and electronic stuff, and it is the bane of my existence to make the ebooks work the way I want them to. This formatting style issue is, by the way, not confined to ebooks. A lot of micro-publishers make really ugly print books, too. I hate unsightly books whether on screen or on paper. Makes me crazy. I don’t get why style has been and seems to remain an afterthought in this business. It should have been the first thing anyone worked on.

  2. jesse says:

    I tend to fuss over my books a lot too. Someone once told me that I obsess too much, that no one cares or notices things like typefaces or the width of first-line indents. I agree: Readers aren’t supposed to notice. A book is supposed to flow, it’s supposed to be laid out in a manner that’s easy on the eyes. If you start skimping on the elegance aspect of layout, readers *will* notice. In this respect, getting readers *not* to notice is the reason for all the fussing over layout and such. LOL

    I’ve seen trade paperbacks without right-hand text justification, or with *gigantic* first-line indents that look like the half-inch default in Word. Charging industry standard retail prices for something like that just seems wrong to me. :p

  3. Sue Dent says:

    Smashwords is one tiny step away from doing things yourself and not worrying about how they “want” to do things anyway. So forget about them I say. I create my own DRM free PDF and sell them through my publisher. If anyone wants to go to one of the many legitimate conversion sites to convert to KINDLE or NOOK or whatever than they can take it and run. 😉

    The DRM free PDF’s of mine that my publisher sells looks WAAAAAYYY better than anything Smashwords can provide.

  4. jesse says:

    It would be unfortunate if Smashwords earned a reputation as a “one tiny step away from doing things yourself” sort of outfit. Truthfully, the main reason I like them is, there’s no convenient (free) ePub / Kindle converter out there. Calibre can do it, but not without applying its own formatting to source documents. Amazon’s KDP is more flexible than Smashwords in terms of formatting, but you have to know HTML.

    Ideally, I’d love the ability to create ePub / Mobi files directly from OpenOffice, then upload said file(s) to whichever distribution service floats my boat, keeping my layout intact. As long as my ePubs are compliant, it would theoretically be a match made in heaven.

  5. RL Ferguson says:

    Been beating my head against the wall with smashwords as well.

    Got books up to both BN and Kindle in one evening, on fourth upload with 1500 deep queue.

    As I have found that a combination of smart formating of a base document, a conversion to html-stripped, and then a run through the old calibre convert with a series of hard won import adjustments is all I need to get on the big boys, why can’t they just accept my kindle approved mobi and my BN approved epub. And I own acrobat so I can make my own pdf.

    So really what are they doing? Supplying access to a handful of lazy ebook retailers. This is making me want to just put up my own storefront for those people who don’t want to hit the big stores.

    Honestly, I don’t even know if the apple store is worth it.

    Sorry, Rambling and Pissed.

    Really, couldn’t they cludge together a python script to let us test the books before loading them?

    I try hard to make good looking books, but this is driving my OCD over the edge.

    Oh, and don’t get me started on their shitty “how to make an doc file dance for our stupid converter” that book is not only ugly, but organized like a third graders science project. And their holier than thou attitude that undlies everything, while they have a website that looks oh so 1998.

    Think the venting is over.

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