Battle of the Distributors: Smashwords vs Draft2Digital

Since I started self-publishing in 2011, Smashwords has been the overwhelming favorite for savvy self-publishers who wanted or needed a distributor to reach non-Amazon e-bookstores. However, a new competitor called Draft2Digital launched a beta version of their service earlier this year and has been gaining popularity. In July, they hit 1,000 users, 10,000 titles, and 1,000,000 books sold.

I’ve been getting lots of questions about Draft2Digital, and experimenting with them myself, so I thought it was a good time for a side-by-side comparison as there are distinct pros and cons to each service. But before we get into that, let’s look at the question of whether you need to use a distributor at all.

The virtues of going direct

In my experience, it’s almost always advantageous to go direct where you can. Benefits include faster payments, up-to-date sales figures (crucial for measuring the effectiveness of any marketing), more direct control of which categories you appear in (important for both discoverability and visibility), and the ability to make changes to your metadata quickly (to change price for a temporary sale). In addition to all that, of course, distributors like Smashwords and Draft2Digital take a cut – typically 15% (it varies depending on the retail partner and the price you have set).

The only real drawback to going direct is that each retailer tends to have their own requirements in terms of the file they require (MOBI for Amazon, EPUB for everyone else), and has their own set of rules (e.g. Apple tends to freak out at any mention of Amazon or the Kindle), and each upload has to be handled separately. The extra steps this adds on the production side may seem trivial as you launch each book, but can become a major headache when you have a catalog of 20 titles and need to update the back-matter on everything to link to your latest release.

That aside, not everyone is in a position to go direct everywhere. Barnes & Noble only allows US self-publishers to use Nook Press – as was the case with its predecessor, PubIt! I’ve little confidence that this will change in the near future, given that opening up to international self-publishers was promised “soon” at the original launch of PubIt! in December 2010. Apple famously requires self-publishers to use a Mac to upload, and many (such as myself) would rather use a distributor than go through that expense of purchasing a Mac or the hassle of borrowing one (or using emulator software like MacinCloud).

There’s one further reason to use Smashwords in particular: perma-free. To my knowledge, Smashwords remains the only way through which you can set a book free on Barnes & Noble (if you know of alternatives, please share in the comments).

Finally, whatever your reasons for using a distributor, you should always go direct with Amazon’s KDP. It will likely be the overwhelming majority of your sales (for reasons I explained in detail in Let’s Get Visible, but also touch on in this post). As such, you really should go direct to get those near-live sales reports, to maximize royalty payments, to place your book in the right granular sub-categories, and to have the ability to change your price quickly.

Smashwords Pros

Smashwords offers a number of unique features. Most obviously, the distribution network is wider. With Draft2Digital, you can only reach Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, but Smashwords adds Sony, Diesel as well as a number of library services. This may or may not be important to you (I have one Sony reader, *waves*), but it’s worth mentioning.

On top of that Smashwords also has a retail store. This is a bone of contention for some who feel that it looks dated and should be improved. Personally, I would much rather Smashwords to focus their time, energy, and investment on other areas of the business (highlighted below). Smashwords is primarily a distributor, not a retailer, and I see the retail store (such as it is) as a bonus which enables me to serve customers in certain parts of the world who get hit by the Amazon Surcharge and allows me to do handy things like coupons. Smashwords also runs regular on-site promotions which can drive some sales.

As a more established player, Smashwords has growing clout with retailers. This has afforded Smashwords authors lucrative merchandizing opportunities at stores like Apple. This clout also means they are less likely to suffer outages (unlike my experience with Draft2Digital, detailed below). Perhaps most notably of all, Smashwords is now using this clout to roll out attractive new features, such as pre-orders (the reason why this is so cool is explained in this article and the comments underneath).

Finally, Smashwords’ CEO Mark Coker is very visible in the publishing community. He uses his platform to share his company’s data on important topics like pricing, to fight against scammers like Author Solutions, and has gone to the mat for indies on issues like the PayPal/erotica dispute. While you don’t necessarily have to be a Smashwords author to benefit from that, he regularly promotes Smashwords authors when speaking to the media.

Smashwords Cons

The two most frequent criticisms I hear about Smashwords are in relation to customer service and the sales reports. I’m actually not going to crucify them for either issue, because, to be frank, that’s an issue at almost all distributors and retailers. With regard to customer service (which has been patchy in my experience too), I’d rather focus on solving issues before they become a problem. More on that below.

While the Smashwords sales reports are particularly unintelligible, I’m more concerned with the speed with which those sales are reported. It’s not unusual to go two months without an update to, say, Barnes & Noble numbers – which is maddening and makes it difficult to measure the effect of any marketing.

Of even greater concern is the slowness with which books get published to partner sites, and the speed that price (and other metadata) changes get processed.

Some of the slowness in publishing speed is caused by the manual review system at Apple and can’t be avoided. But there should be no such issues with Barnes & Noble, and there can still be considerable lag in getting titles to appear there even when they have already passed the Premium Catalog review at Smashwords.

This latter issue caused me to switch to Draft2Digital for my last release. This was a new book, and it was live on Barnes & Noble and Apple within a few hours – quicker even than KDP. Smashwords has huge room for improvement here, and it’s really important for indies hitting their mailing lists that titles are live everywhere ASAP (because we really only want to hit that list once). I should note though that the ability to set up pre-orders may be a workaround, but I haven’t tried it yet so can’t confirm – if you have, please note in the comments.

Regarding price/metadata changes, Smashwords really needs to speed up here too. When I was last using Smashwords (around March this year), the connection to Apple was really good, and price changes seemed to be taking effect within hours. But the connection to Barnes & Noble was still very hit-and-miss. I know that Smashwords now claim they do daily shipments of price/metadata changes to Barnes & Noble, but I’ve also heard reports that it’s not quite working this way in practice (again, let me know your experience in the comments).

For authors using reader sites like BookBub to promote a limited-time 99c sale, it’s crucial that these price changes happen faster. Again, this slowness was the main reason I switched already-published titles over to Draft2Digital (where price changes on Apple and Barnes & Noble seem to happen in a couple of hours). With Smashwords, even if you push the price change through in advance to ensure it’s ready for your ad spot, you can get caught in price-matching hell on the other side after the promotion – which is the time you really make money, when you are back to full price and visible in the charts.

Finally, Smashwords needs to look at how books are being categorized on partner sites, and how blurbs are appearing. Most of my Smashwords titles seemed to end up in arbitrary categories on Barnes & Noble and Apple, and the blurbs were often either screwy or missing altogether. I don’t seem to have had any such issues with Draft2Digital to date.

Draft2Digital Pros

Draft2Digital is strong where Smashwords is weak. Sales reports are updated daily. The reports themselves aren’t great, but are a lot more intelligible than Smashwords. The reporting speed is key though. I can tell straight away if my marketing initiatives have made a dent.

Publishing speed has been very quick for me too. In March/April it was taking around a day to publish to Barnes & Noble and Kobo (I go direct with Kobo, but was testing the connection), and about a week for Apple (because of that manual review). By May, it was even faster: a few hours each for both Barnes & Noble and Apple. I don’t know what they did to speed up that review time at Apple, but it was really fast for me. However, other authors have had issues with the publishing speed at Apple (with one friend taking a couple of weeks to publish), so please note your own experience in the comments.

My experience with price/metadata changes is even faster. Changes can go live in a few hours tops, sometimes less than an hour. The speed of this makes it easy to include non-Amazon stores in any 99c promotions I run – something that was extremely problematic when I was reaching those stores via Smashwords.

One nifty feature Draft2Digital has – which Smashwords could (and should) replicate – is their system sends you an automated email when your book has published to each store (including when you just change the price). This is so handy, and means I don’t have to continually refresh my listings at, say, Barnes & Noble to see if a price has dropped or a book has gone live. It’s especially useful for Apple as finding your books via search can be problematic, and building direct HTML links to those titles is awkward.

Blurbs are in much better shape than via Smashwords. For some reason, on Barnes & Noble, Smashwords defaults to the truncated version of your blurb it asks you to input on publishing – and in my experience it often didn’t appear at all, or the formatting was all over the place (extra blank spaces etc.). With Draft2Digital, I have had no such issues and can make the blurb appear exactly how I like.

Finally, Draft2Digital appears to do a much better job in getting your book in the appropriate category on those partner sites – crucial for the reasons outlined above.

Draft2Digital Cons

As a smaller, newer company, Draft2Digital doesn’t have the same clout as Smashwords. This means that you probably won’t get those merchandizing opportunities with Apple that can be such a game-changer. That may change as the site grows, but growth itself will present its own challenges.

While Draft2Digital is superior right now in the areas of publishing speed, price/metadata changes, and categories, it very much remains to be seen whether it can keep up those service levels as it has to deal with more and more customers (i.e. whatever solution they have come up with to those problems may or may not be scalable).

The automated system for telling you when a book is published is cool, but it doesn’t tell you when a book has been rejected by Apple, or (and this is more likely) when your book is stuck in manual review limbo for whatever reason. Even when customer service is contacted, they don’t seem to know the reasons for the hold-up either. Some work could be done on their communication with Apple (and then to affected customers). Smashwords has a slight edge here in that their Premium Catalog review system often tends to flag such issues in advance.

As Draft2Digital is in beta, there is a question mark about reliability. Last month they suffered a serious outage when Barnes & Noble pulled all Draft2Digital titles, without warning or explanation.

Unfortunately for me, that was the day I was running a BookBub ad, and my books disappeared for several hours just as the BookBub email went out. Of course, the promo was pretty much a bust on Barnes & Noble that day, and screwed up any chance of getting traction there for several months.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the communications from Draft2Digital afterwards. I asked them if they had figured out what caused the problem, and put in place any steps to prevent it recurring but only really got a non-answer in response. Quite frankly, that’s not good enough. We need to know that our titles won’t be arbitrarily pulled from the partner sites. Aside from costing us lost sales for the period they are missing, it also costs us crucial momentum. It’s hard enough to get sales going outside Amazon as it is.

Finally, Draft2Digital is missing some features unique to Smashwords: wider distribution, library sales, retail store, coupons, and, probably most important of all, the ability to set books free at Barnes & Noble. You can set books free via Draft2Digital, but that free price is only passed on to Apple and Kobo, and a price of 99c appears at Barnes & Noble instead.

The Verdict

As you can see from the above, there’s plenty of room for both services to improve. Each has motive too. Draft2Digital is the upstart, and will need to work on reliability if they want to keep growing, and make sure that service levels maintain as it get more popular (which is a real challenge and where it could potentially fall down). Smashwords finally has some serious competition, and that can only help spur it on. Having two real competitors both seeking to improve their services can only benefit self-publishers.

But who comes out on top right now? If you had asked me a month ago, I might have given an unqualified recommendation to Draft2Digital, but the Barnes & Noble outage hit me pretty hard. I suspect that Smashwords has too much clout at this point for Barnes & Noble to pull something like that with them.

Smashwords has also made some interesting improvements lately. Perhaps it’s in response to competition, perhaps it was in the pipeline anyway. Either way, adding pre-orders is a huge move. Aside from the considerable benefits of the facility itself, I’m interested what it signifies: that Smashwords is thinking outside the box and seeking to use their clout with retailers to carve out benefits for its clients. This bodes well for the future.

But Smashwords still has a lot of work to do. Reporting needs to be hugely improved – Draft2Digital wins hands down on that front right now. And even more important, they need to really focus on the speed of those metadata changes. The main reason I switched to Draft2Digital was because they could publish a book quickly, and change a price even faster. If Smashwords could match them on that front, I’d be back in a heartbeat.

In short, my ideal distributor would take elements of both services. From Draft2Digital, speedy publishing and price/metadata changes, along with their superior blurb formatting and categorization. From Smashwords, the clout, reliability, and merchandizing opportunities, as well as cool new features like pre-orders and existing ones like coupons.

Consider this before you switch

One wrinkle, which is relevant to people switching in either direction, or indeed those contemplating ditching distributors altogether: you will likely lose any (extremely) hard-won momentum you have built up on those non-Amazon retailers. You may also lose your reviews.

When I switched to go direct with Kobo, I lost all momentum on the one title that was actually selling there (which I never recovered), and the Kobo-specific reviews on all titles were wiped. When I switched from Smashwords to Draft2Digital, I seemed to keep my reviews at Barnes & Noble (but not Apple).

Keep this in mind, particularly if you are already selling well and/or have built up some nice reviews. If I had the non-Amazon sales of someone like Sarah Woodbury or Shayne Parkinson, there’s no way in hell I’d risk switching distributor (for existing titles at least).

What about you? Which distributor are you currently using? How do you rate their performance? What features are they not offering that you would like to see?

One final thing before I sign off:

If any Smashwords/Draft2Digital peeps are reading this, I hope you take the criticism in the spirit it’s intended. I genuinely want to see both services improve and hope that each can spur the other on to greater things. For my commenters, something about this topic can bring out the crazy. I definitely want to hear your frank opinions on each service, but please keep your comments respectful and constructive. Saying “X sucks” isn’t very useful, but saying “X needs to improve Y, and maybe this is how they could do it” benefits everyone.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.