The Meatgrinder and eBook Publishing

Mark Coker, the CEO and founder of Smashwords, calls it The Meatgrinder. So much so, he happily—and rightly—refers to Smashwords’ file-crunching e-book conversion application by the same name. It may be the bane of many self-published authors frustrations and late nights, but Coker never meant the process of loading a book file to an online e-book conversion tool to be a hair-pulling experience. As far back as 2005, Coker realised that the open playing field for e-book distribution was going to attract many players with different file formats and devices in an effort to control the market.
 
Today, independent authors and publishers are faced with a myriad of e-book formats to service the distribution channels. Add in the complication that companies like Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble are not just retailers now, but all of them have developed their own e-book devices. Any innovations and developments in the e-book market are purely driven by the companies to establishment their devices and distribution channels as the primary source for authors and publishers in the industry.
While publishers may not be happy with the current decline in the physical retail landscape, sadly, the biggest and boldest of publishers in the industry have long given up on the hold and influence they once had on the retail market. The book industry has now allowed itself to become enslaved to the retail sector. The funny thing is that neither can now survive without the support of the other. With the rise of companies like Apple, Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords, the distinction between retailer and publisher is becoming less clear and the B2B clients of retailers is not longer the exclusive preserve of publishing houses and independent presses. Publishers have for many decades moved away from a model of business where direct selling to end line customers is takes any kind of precedent, though, the advent of social media and digital publishing suggests we may be seeing a return to such a sales model. It has allowed online retailers to enter the book market and also become publishers, dealing directly with self-published authors. The physical bookstore trade in the high street has certainly been turned on its head in recent years.
I have talked to quite a number of booksellers in recent months, from Minneapolis, London, Dublin to Amsterdam, and based on their feedback, I’m not sure they even know where their future lies over the coming two years, let alone by the year 2020. The more astute booksellers understand that the nature of the bookstore must change to survive. That means a bookstore being more than just a physical environment to discover and sell books, whether it means providing additional services from online sales to improved customer facilities, public readings by authors, writing workshops, events, on demand print machines, and anything else which might improve and enrich the experience of the customer.
We have entering an era where the gap between authors and retailers is growing closer. The industry calls it disintermediation—where much of the middleman steps are eliminated. Authors can go directly to Amazon, Apple and self-publishing services like Smashwords and reach retailers in a more direct way. We might also refer to it as democratization of the book and publishing industries. In short, you don’t need to be specifically a traditional publisher or retailer to sell books. But you still need to subject your book to some form of meatgrinder if you want your work to be taken seriously as an author and reach—at the very least—large online retailers. The file submission process is the same in the most part, whether you are a publisher or an author, though the book files might have a diverse quality of editing and design before reaching the online meatgrinder applications.
The meatgrinder is not a replacement for a professional editor and designer—no matter how many times you need to tweak a source file and reload it. In the newly democratized world of publishing, it’s still not the role of the retailer or distributor to tell the author that his or her book has several hundred spelling and grammatical errors and a flawed plot line. That responsibility and role remains firmly in the court of author and publisher and I see neither having any particular reason to hold the moral ground on quality. I’ve seen examples of appalling e-books from both camps in the sprint to enter the marketplace and I don’t buy into the argument that a professionally edited e-book with poor formatting from a major publisher is better than a poorly edited self-published book, regardless.
While digital publishing remains in its infancy throughout the industry, I’m still amazed how many large publishers are willing to invest a great deal of money in sales and marketing budgets while still neglecting basic functionality and streaming of the process between publisher and distributor. There’s just as much of an attitude of ‘bang it up online as quickly as possible’ with the traditional industry as there is within the self-published and author service communities.
What the modern online meatgrinders will do (the better ones used by Smashwords and Amazon KDP) is reject and spit out a self-published opus because the formatting is shit—whether it is because the file creator used spaces or tabs to indent paragraphs, returns to create blank lines, ridiculously sized fonts and images—and the whole experience for the reader is going to be like walking on uneven crazy paving after a night out on the town. Sure, the online meatgrinder software is not perfect and has its glitches, but it at least stops the charging bull author in their tracks and forces him or her to re-examine the quality and layout of what is being submitted. Amazon and Smashwords both have strict guidelines to follow when submitting files for publication (Smashwords in particular) and it does go a long way to teaching self-published authors the difference between print and e-book editions.
I’ve worked with the Amazon and Smashwords meatgrinders. Yes, they can be frustrating, but there is a reason why this is. Self-publishing for an author is not and should not be easy for many reasons. Oh, hang on. It is easy! Well, at least that is the perception by many. Maybe it is why so many bad self-published books appear online. You can be an expert at formatting and loading badly written rubbish online, but that doesn’t make you a great writer. Equally, I’ve come across some wonderful self-published writers who just can’t get their heads around e-books and file load up to retail distributors.
Mark Coker’s advice on formatting and preparation for e-books is probably the best and most concise I’ve come across. If you are about to self-publish an e-book, then you should definitely read his guide on the process. It works just as well for many other e-publishing platforms when preparing a file as it does for Smashwords.
So, time to stop fearing the online meatgrinders. They might prove to be your best friend if you respect and treat them nicely. Another good alternative to the vagaries and battles with the meatgrinder is to get hold of Calibre software.    

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