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Smashwords vs. Amazon: An ebook comparison

The next two days will feature posts about ebook distribution and affiliate marketing for blogs. Today’s post will compare two leading ebook distributors (Amazon and Smashwords). Tomorrow’s post (which is here) will explore the dilemmas faced by a blogger in promoting purchases from one distributor over another.

Amazon and Smashwords both sell ebooks, and lately I’ve been keeping a list of the pluses and minus of both distributors. Comparing the two is slightly absurd because ebooks are Smashword’s core competency (perhaps its only competency), while for Amazon, ebooks are just one part of its commercial empire. Amazon sells not only dedicated devices but creates apps for major mobile platforms. It sells digital content which you can own or stream or rent. It’s tempting to say that because Amazon is bigger, it’s also better. That’s not necessarily true. As a smaller (and more nimble) ebook provider, Smashwords offers several advantages over Amazon’s.

Author-Friendliness

  • Author royalties for low cost books? Smashwords wins. (Below 2.99, amazon pays 30% to author, while Smashwords pays 50-70%).
  • Buyer has full access and use of the purchased ebook file (without drm)? Smashwords wins.
  • Supports epub — the international standard for ebooks? Smashwords wins. Amazon’s ebook readers and reading systems lets you import pdf, mobi and MS Word, but it plays dumb when it comes to epub files.
  • Allows free and pay-what-you-want ebooks? Smashwords wins.
  • Author can make coupons to distribute to fans? Smashwords wins. Coupon manager is one of their best features.
  • Offers ebook creation tools? Both suck, but amazon has more tools and Kindle Previewer for testing. Also, smashwords allows direct epub upload (but not mobi upload).
  • Author can put videos on book page? Smashwords wins. Amazon only lets you do it on Author Central book page
  • Affiliate marketing features? Smashwords has better rates and features, but a smaller customer base.
  • Author giveaways. Amazon requires authors to buy their own ebooks to give them away. Smashwords lets you make unlimited number of freebie coupons.
  • Provide ways to produce printed books? Only Amazon does this. To be fair, smashwords lets you add urls for the printed book page (even if it’s on amazon).
  • Book page. Smashwords has much fewer distractions. Book marketing guru David Gaughran wrote, “As I write these words, there are currently 248 different titles on the product page of the Kindle edition of “Let’s Get Digital.” Between the ads, Also Boughts, Also Vieweds, Amazon promotion, and other links, there are hundreds of things that could distract a reader before they purchase.

Consumer Side of Ebooks

  • Has a nice cloud-based solution for multiple devices? Amazon wins. Smashwords doesn’t have a cloud-based ereader, but the consumer has the freedom to import purchases into whatever reading system can read DRM-free ebook files. Smashwords also can serve files to Dropbox.
  • Offers ebook samples? Amazon wins. Smashwords occasionally offers samples, but it’s clumsy.
  • Is easier to get ebooks on a preferred device? Amazon wins. Amazon has built reading systems for almost any device. It will automatically forward purchased items to your device. Smashwords requires that you choose a third party reading system which you will manually upload the file to your preferred device and reading system.
  • Has price-alert tools? Amazon wins by a long shot. Ereaderiq and others.
  • More freebies? Smashwords wins. Amazon has lots of freebies too, but often they are temporary or made through special arrangement between a publisher and amazon.
  • User-friendly shopping cart? Amazon is better, but Smashwords paypal shopping cart has gotten somewhat better over the years
  • Offers a monthly all you-can-eat option? Amazon wins with Kindle Unlimited (KU). On the other hand, most authors on KU are promising to let amazon be exclusive distributor, which is wrong.
  • Lets you view word count? Smashwords gives exact word counts of ebooks it sells. With Amazon, it’s less clear how much content is in an individual ebook.
  • Easier for non-us audiences? Smashwords has one store for everybody; Amazon has different stores for each region. This sounds easier, but it also means that consumers are not eligible for certain promotions.
  • Resolves customer service issues? Amazon wins slightly. You can ask for an ebook refund within a week, which is extremely generous. Smashwords customer support tickets are handled very promptly (and I have never had issues with them).
  • Which ebooks are better formatted? Varies widely, but generally because amazon has a higher percentage of ebooks by professional publishers, their ebooks look better.
  • Which has better ebook management/font options/annotation? Amazon wins simply because Smashwords doesn’t have a cloud-based reading system; you must choose your own solution. That said, Amazon’s reading system is powerful; it lets you organize by bookshelves and collections. You assign ebooks into one or more collections either from within the Kindle itself or the Amazon site.
  • Which website is easier to browse? Smashwords has many different ways to browse through and filter results. Often it’s easier to view ebook descriptions. Amazon used to be good, but they disabled audience-created lists. Amazon search results show a definite favoritism towards bigger publishers and those who have paid to advertise. On the plus side, amazon has autogenerated “also boughts” which show up on the ebook page; this occasionally can lead you to interesting titles.
  • Which let you browse by publisher? Smashwords is much better. On Smashwords, it’s relatively easy to view titles by one publisher (such as Fomite Press) You could search on Amazon, but often the results are harder to browse through.
  • Which allows lending? Tie. Amazon has a nifty lending feature, but most big publishers have disabled this feature. Because Smashwords sell everything without drm, lending is always permitted, though it must be done manually.
  • Can you keep your ebooks if the distributor goes bankrupt? Presumably Amazon is big enough not to be in danger of going bankrupt anytime soon. But unless Amazon makes alternate arrangements, it’s not likely that books bought there will transfer to another ebook platform. Smashwords lets you keep the ebook files and import them into another reading system later.

Overall mindshare in the reading world

I define mindshare as the benefits that accrue from a product having a bigger audience. How does the size of the audience enhance the service for customers?

  • Which has more reviews? Amazon wins by a long shot (but Smashwords customers can simply look at Amazon reviews too!)
  • More technical/professional ebooks? Amazon is the market leader, smashwords doesn’t even come close, mainly because until recently publishers had to use the company’s ebook creation tool. (Now, you can upload an epub file directly).
  • which has more ebooks and authors? Amazon has probably 10x the number, but prices on Smashwords are generally cheaper and quality freebies are easier to find.
  • Which have more name brand authors and publishers? Definitely Amazon. Smashwords has very few major publishers or authors. (Major publishers avoid distributors which lack drm)
  • Which has cheaper prices? Smashwords has more seasonal sales and deep discount sales. Amazon has more tools (inhouse-and third party) to manage pricing and promotions.
  • Which is publishing/promoting individual authors? Definitely Amazon wins. A few years ago, amazon started various ebook imprints — Amazon Crossing, little a, etc which has delivered many incredible low-cost exclusive ebooks to consumers. One week in 2018 they offered a dozen freebie titles of extremely talented international authors. Amazon has the big bucks and the inhouse expertise to pull off stunts like this. Smashwords has stayed out of the review/recommendation game altogether
  • which have more sexually explicit titles? Smashwords is much better. It has more liberal policies towards sexually explicit content while letting consumers filter what they want. Amazon has a lot of explicit content too, but I’ve heard some authors complain about Amazon blocking their ebook (or at least a ebook with a racy title or cover).
  • Which has the better book community? Amazon runs GoodReads which is an extremely active and book-friendly community (and not too centered around loving Amazon). On the other hand, Amazon is marketed towards everybody while Smashwords is marketed specifically at rabid ebook fans who are more willing to take a chance with an unfamiliar author, less likely to read the next bestseller. Amazon definitely has a long tail, but they also offer a lot of books by celebrities and right-wing pundits and self-help gurus. Amazon reflects the priorities of big publishers and bestseller lists, while Smashwords just offers a collection of random self-published authors who are trying to thrive outside of Amazon’s reach. On Smashwords you get a lot more amateurish stuff, but also edgier, less commercial stuff.

Have I forgotten any key features for this comparison matrix? Feel free to add in the comments below.

Feb 19 Update. I just noticed that Smashwords is making tweaks to customer-facing interfaces: wishlists, libraries, etc. This is a very good sign.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Pamela Cummins 2/14/2019, 8:53 am

    Great comparison between Smashwords and Amazon, Robert. Here’s another win for Smashwords, the company is much more supportive of Indie authors, they did a podcast series to educate authors, and even the owner, Mark Coker, will reply to comments on his and other’s blog posts. At Amazon you’re just another number, although they will “favor you” if your eBooks are enroll in their Select program, or lining their pockets with a lot of money.

  • Carla King 4/26/2019, 5:46 pm

    Thanks Robert, and thanks for posting a link to this comparison on my BookWorks post at https://www.bookworks.com/2019/03/comparing-5-popular-ebook-distribution/

    Honestly, it’s difficult for me to get my head around comparing Amazon KDP with Smashwords as they are complementary and not competing. I think authors should upload their books to both Amazon KDP and Smashwords (or one of the other distribution companies listed above). 

    In other words, Amazon KDP is not a distributor. It only gets ebooks into the Amazon store. (Never mind the Amazon Expanded Distribution Program, it’s useless.) Amazon KDP is a direct-to-retailer tool (let’s call it an apple) and Smashwords is a distributor (let’s call it an orange), which is why Amazon KDP is not included in my comparison.

    Amazon KDP should be compared with other apples, the “Big 5” indie stores: B&N Press, Kobo Writing Life, Apple iBooks Author, and Google Play. Smashwords needs to be compared with the other oranges: PublishDrive, Draft2Digital, and StreetLib.

    Re your criticism of Smashwords’ lack of ability to convert EPUB into the other formats – I’m not sure why you’re taking issue with that. Authors can and should upload a doc file to Smashwords – and probably most authors will have a doc file to upload rather than an EPUB, or a doc plus an EPUB. That doc file gets converted by Smashwords into many formats including MOBI for Kindle devices, even legacy formats, and EPUB, too. So readers who own Kindles can purchase the MOBI from Smashwords, no problem, and people who own old/legacy e-reading devices can purchase it, too. People can only purchase MOBI-for-Kindle formatted ebooks from Amazon, which is the way it’s meant to be.

    The recent feature by Smashwords to allow us to upload EPUBs was a bonus for authors who have created a beautifully-formatted EPUB. Perhaps they’ve used Vellum, Leanpub, or Pressbooks or hired a professional formatter to create an EPUB from their doc. So now, these authors can upload that EPUB to Smashwords IN ADDITION to their doc file. That way, their beautiful EPUB will be distributed to the stores that deliver EPUBs – Apple, B&N, Kobo, etc., – so those readers will get the more sophisticated formatting – but readers who choose the MOBI will also be able to read the book, though in its more simple format. There’s no negative there. It’s all positive.

    So, again, I always recommend uploading your doc or MOBI or EPUB (or HTML) to Amazon KDP to sell it in the Amazon Kindle Store, and uploading the doc to Smashwords, followed by an (optional) upload of your EPUB if you have a pretty one to Smashwords. 

    Regarding lending – Smashwords and the other distribution companies deliver your ebook to libraries, which anyone with a library card can access for free. Amazon has their own customer-based lending (Kindle Unlimited, Amazon Prime) which is not free or a public service. This paid subscription service competes with Kobo’s and Scribd’s all-you-can-read subscription services and not with the library system enabled by Overdrive. 

    There’s a lot more in your comparison I could address, such as communities, pricing, and quantity of ebooks for sale but I’m sorry, I don’t believe the comparison is relevant. You’ve got a lot of good data here but my advice is to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges and avoid comparing apples (KDP and other direct-to-retailer tools) with oranges (Smashwords and the other distributors in this review). I hope that makes sense and that you and your readers take advantage of the ability to go direct-to-retailer and reach a wide array of other stores with the distribution companies. 

  • Robert Nagle 5/4/2019, 3:41 pm

    (Copy of my response on Carla’s post — put into a single comment)

    Smashwords (SW) is a hybrid service because it sells directly to consumers and also distributes to channels. It offers several advantages: 1) DRM-free downloads, 2)better royalty splits below 2.99 and 3)its prices tend to be lower than Amazon (because public coupons aren’t scraped by Amazon’s price-matching bot). BN, Google Play and Kobo are simply following Amazon’s business model (and losing!), and the other distribution services offer interesting marketing tools, but ultimately they are tied to Amazon. The biggest weakness of Smashwords is that you are dependent on SW’s method of uploading/creating ebooks. I can upload epub files directly, but I already have a well-tested mobi file; why can’t I upload it to SW?

    (Recently I purchased poetry titles on SW from various indie publishers. Formatting looked terrible on several SW titles — even though ironically these publishers had uploaded a perfectly formatted mobi file to KDP).

    I think there is a room for a third party to create an ebook reading system not tied to a single vendor. Maybe SW or Tor or Packt or Oreilly should chip in to support this system — Adobe has a fine epub reading system, but hasn’t really tried to make a cloud-based system which you can upload easily to. (They expect device manufacturers to do these things).

    About lending, while Kindle’s lending feature was cool when it was implemented, but it now lags significantly behind Overdrive’s Libby. Amazon needs to allow Libby and other epub reading apps to be downloaded onto Kindle Fires.

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