I had never heard of Smashwords before having read Ali Luke's Publishing E-Books for Dummies. Based on Luke's presentation, Smashwords seemed a likely option for one seeking to place an ebook on as many digital bookshelves as possible. The company has agreements with Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Sony. As of February 2014, Smashwords has also resumed limited distribution to Amazon. When it came time to publish my first novel, New York Sonata, last November I therefore took another look at Smashwords to see what it offers.
First, to my way of thinking, there are really only two players in the ebook market as far as indie authors are concerned. Those are Amazon, which supports the Kindle, and Barnes & Noble, which supports the Nook reader. The others - Apple, Kobe and Sony - at least at the present time, do not have a large enough share of the market to merit serious consideration. Second, since Smashwords's distribution to Amazon is presently "limited," it is still necessary for an author to submit to that site separately if he wishes to have his ebooks available in Kindle format. If one also chooses to self-publish on B&N, there's little incentive then to use Smashwords.
Both Amazon and B&N have done a good job creating interfaces that are efficient and user-friendly, even for those attempting to publish on their respective sites for the first time. It's not necessary for one to have a great deal of technical expertise in order to create an account and upload one's manuscript to either vendor. The process becomes even easier if an author first downloads Calibre and converts his MS Word manuscript to mobi (Kindle) and epub (Nook) formats beforehand. These can then be previewed for layout errors before actually uploading them, thus obviating the need to resubmit corrected copies of one's work.
On the other hand, Smashwords is not at all intuitive to use when it comes to placing one's manuscript online. Before even attempting to upload a Word document (the only format accepted), one must first download The Smashwords Style Guide in pdf format. This is not easy reading, nor (at 103 pages!!!) is it brief. There are also some regrettable lapses in documentation. For example, nowhere is it mentioned when discussing source files that a document created in a more recent version of Word must be saved as an older version. There are so many restrictions on formatting, in fact, that it may actually be easier for an author to save his work in RTF format before submitting to what is euphemistically termed the "Meatgrinder." As one would expect, the results are not pretty - for one thing, it is not possible to have page breaks between chapters - even though appearance is definitely important for any author who wishes readers to finish perusing his book. The final straw came when I downloaded the epub file created in Smashwords for a photo book I had created and found it could not be opened in the Kindle Previewer. I quickly "unpublished" the work and decided not to use the site again.
To be fair, there may be times when Smashwords is the only option available. At one point, at least according to Publishing E-Books for Dummies, B&N required a user to have a U.S. bank account in order to collect royalties. For those authors who are located overseas and who wish to publish on B&N, Smashwords (which compensates authors via PayPal) might end up being the only game in town. For me, however, there is just too much inconvenience involved for it to be a viable choice.