Full of dross or not, Smashwords still a boon to libraries

Funny how quick some people jump to conclusions. On Good e-Reader, Michael Kozlowski slams Smashwords’s new public library program to bring curated lists of its e-books to libraries inexpensively via OverDrive. Kozlowski feels that Smashwords is a slush pile, plain and simple, and it seeks to convince libraries to throw their money away on poorly-written, badly-edited rubbish.

Libraries are going to feel ripped off that they have bought titles that no one will read and if they do, will likely be very vocal about the poor writing quality and in the end, libraries will feel like they have wasted money. Trust me, they are wasting money with Smashwords, if you don’t believe me visit the main smashwords website and select 3 books at random, and let me know if they are any good. Even Mark Coker refuses to measure the quality of his service by doing this, which is a solid methodology to gauge the quality of a self-publishing website.

First of all, Kozlowski gets the price of the Overdrive books wrong, probably confusing it with how much bestsellers from the Big Five cost. He thinks it’s $4, when actually the price varies by what the author wants to set for their library retail price. It can go as low as $1.99 per title. (Due to the way OverDrive works, it can’t support free.)

Joanna Cabot, who called my attention to this story, points out that Smashwords isn’t just for independent, unedited books. Many legacy authors put their reverted backlist out through Smashwords. It offers an efficient way to get them into multiple e-book stores at once, as well as getting around the problem of needing to own a Mac to publish through iBooks. (For example, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller publish a lot of their separate and combined backlist that way.)

Furthermore, Mark Coker points out in a comment that Smashwords is building curated lists of bestselling titles using sales data from the retailers through which Smashwords distributes, including iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and others. Kozlowski isn’t impressed, noting that outside those lists, nonetheless 200,000 of its 300,000 titles are available and they can’t all be good.

Effectively, all you have to do to be eligible for library purchase is to publish your non-erotica title in Smashwords’s Premium Catalog. (Which means your book has to follow the formatting guidelines from the Smashwords Style Guide; have a validated EPUB file; have good metadata, cover, and copyright page; meet the Smashwords Terms of Service,;and be a complete work.) To be fair, that means an awful lot of rubbish probably will be available in the catalog, Sturgeon’s Law being what it is.

However, what Kozklowski misses is that libraries are not required to buy that rubbish, any more than they’re required to buy every title on offer from the Big Five publishers. They can pick and choose titles, or order just those titles their patrons specifically request. Indeed, they’re not required to buy even the curated lists if they don’t want.

And whether we’re talking print, Big Five e-book, or indie e-book, librarians don’t pick titles for their libraries by throwing darts at a list. They can do research on the titles on offer to find out if they’re actually any good before they shell out for them. It’s not as if it exactly takes a lot of time to google the book title, glance at reviews, and read a few pages of a sample chapter—and that’s leaving aside all the other bibliographic resources to which librarians have access. (And hey, you know what professionals ordinary people turn to when they need to do research? Librarians!)

As one of my friends who is a practicing professional librarian noted, deciding what goes into their collection is part of a librarian’s job. I also asked my parents, both retired librarians, their opinions, and my father stated:

Book selection is and has always been the great challenge of the acquisitions librarian, who is responsible for seeing that the library’s budget goes for wheat, rather than chaff.  The pre-e-book environment in which I worked was dominated by old standby publishers, large and small.  Even in those days there was plenty of chaff to avoid, and we relied on certain selection tools to light our way to worthwhile books.

He did note that he personally wouldn’t welcome a resource like Smashwords that was likely to have such a higher percentage of chaff than wheat when there were still so many good print books available, but admitted that was probably his own pre-e-book generation prejudices talking. My mother said, “I see the Smashwords resource in OverDrive as being something that large libraries might use, but probably not small ones like Barry-Lawrence [the small public library where they live], or high school libraries, which mostly have not ventured into e-books, at least around here.”

In offering a wide selection of titles, plus selection tools to help pick out the best of it, Smashwords is giving libraries a wider range of choices, and low prices at which to acquire those choices. Maybe caveat emptor is the order of the day—but then, as my Dad points out, it was back before e-books were invented, too, and still is, with or without Smashwords. So it’s not as if this is changing anything.

10 Comments on Full of dross or not, Smashwords still a boon to libraries

  1. Susan Lulgjuraj // June 3, 2014 at 6:50 pm //

    I wish we would never speak of this writer again. He’s the ultimate blogging troll and I hate when he gets attention (I have done it too and after the last time, I just gave up on his site, taking it out my RSS feed and refuse to click on any links that head over to this blog regardless of who wrote the post).

  2. I am convinced one reason self-publishing has taken off like it has is that publishers didn’t see it as a threat. Right now they just wait a co-opt any huge bestsellers by offering contracts after a book becomes a hit. But looking at the whole of the market, their insistence on higher prices, DRM, and limited features (no text-to-speech) have made ebooks on platforms like Smashwords very attractive to readers. Sure, some self-published books have a lot of typos, and some are not well written, but the free sample feature makes it easy to spot the bottom-of-the-barrel books. You can browse online and find books that look interesting and give them a try for free.

    As a self-published author, I kind of hope they don’t figure it out. :)

  3. This is great news. Smashwords had already offered their titles to those libraries who could afford to set up their own servers for lending ebooks, but most libraries don’t have that kind of budget. This will allow those libraries to have access. My library already purchases self-published books, but we have to get the POD version because usually the ebook isn’t available to us. Plus, then maybe OverDrive will stop recommending self-published authors go through Author Solutions to get into the OverDrive platform and instead recommend Smashwords.

  4. While there may be a worthy book or two at Smashwords — I can’t prove otherwise — I would be very disappointed if libraries spent their limited resources on self-published titles. That would like, a few years ago, libraries buying a lot of books from the vanity presses. On rare and special occasions — numerous request for a title — buying from Smashwords would be fine, but probably 99% of its catalog is slush pile quality and not worthy limited public funds, so large scale acquisitions should be verboten.

  5. Libraries already have limited resources that they are very careful to spend appropriately. We purchase books that are of interest to our patrons. That is the way we have always done it, and always will. There are indie-published books that fit the criteria so we purchase them. To decide ahead of time that a book will be junk without actually looking at it would be unprofessional. If the premise looks of interest to our patrons, OverDrive has a sample feature that allows us to check the quality of the writing and formatting, thereby determining if it is good value for our budget. So there is no reason to discriminate against a certain type of publishing.

    Re vanity presses: In the past, there was very often not a good way to determine the quality of the book in question, so many libraries instituted a policy of avoiding vanity presses to limit wasted money. Sampling has removed that issue, so no, it isn’t the same. Even there, specialized libraries would often still purchase books from vanity presses that fit their specific focus, because that was often the only way to get those niche books that larger publishers wouldn’t publish because the market was too small for it.

  6. Greg: Did you actually read my article? Lots of authors with rights-reverted titles (which is to say, books that were originally accepted, edited, and published via traditional publishers) use Smashwords to self-publish their stuff across multiple platforms at once, and get around the requirement of having a Mac to publish through iBooks.

    And even apart from those, I gather there are quite a number of Smashwords titles that sell pretty well through those stores. People buy and recommend stuff they like, so if something sells well, it’s at least good enough for all the people who bought it.

  7. @chris

    Yes I did read the article. Without hard numbers to back it up, I’m guessing 1% are rights reverted works. That’s about 3,100 out of 310,500 titles.

    Now for the remaining 307,400 self-published. Rumor has only 1 in 10,000 slush pile submits get published, but I’m going to go for a kindly 1 in 5,000 that are worthy. That’s 63 good self-published books in the catalog – well below 1% of the total available. That’s pretty much saying 99% (or 98% rounding up) is slush pile at Smashwords.

    So should libraries even be spending time searching for material there?

  8. michael kozlowski // June 4, 2014 at 5:45 pm //

    I am trying to inform libraries the type of content that is available via Overdrive by way of Smashwords. It is too easy to get lost in the hype, wow, such cheap titles, lets order 1,000! little do they know..

  9. Yes, some Smashwords titles are undoubtedly trash. Smashwords realized that. That’s why they’re using popularity as a filter to help libraries find books that will be popular with their clients.

    But heck, there are books from major publishers written by enormously successful authors that are utter trash. I call what those authors do ‘Gone with the Wind’ writing, after the 1930s bestseller whose success depended, in no small part, on catering to the bigotries and stereotypes of that day. All that’s changed are the distortions and lies of those fashionable today. As those who’ve read me know, no one could pay me enough to write that sort of stuff. I don’t pander, I challenge.

    Smashwords offers a marvelous service to any writer, including quite talented ones, who’ve got books they’d like to see widely distributed but don’t want to spend a lot of time with the publishing process. Give Smashwords a properly done Word document, and it’ll appear within a matter of days on almost every U.S. ebook distributor but Amazon. Smashwords even vets ebooks for Apple, so they appear there faster than when Apple checks them out for itself.

    Keep in mind what every author knows all too well. Publishing takes time away from writing. Even those who have publishers begging for their books have to spend time negotiating contracts and making editors happy. They are also often expected to make promotional trips, staying in noisy hotels and waiting in drafty airports.

    In contrast, Smashwords lets authors concentrate on writing. In fact, were I Mark Coker, I’d make “Just Write” the official slogan of Smashwords.

  10. Wow, I…agree with Michael W. Perry on something. Isn’t that one of the signs of the End Times? :)

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