Convert MS Word docs to e-books for free

The Smashwords e-book-publishing service transforms Word's DOC files into the EPUB, MOBI, and other e-book formats, but only if you shun text boxes, tables, and other common formatting elements in the file, as the handy Smashwords guide explains.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
6 min read

The first time I heard someone say "Everybody has a book in them," I recommended that they see a doctor right away.

At least that explains all those books I've read that appear to have traveled through the author's colon. Writing can be painful, but there are limits.

Lots of people have unpublished novels and other book-length documents sitting forlornly on their hard drive, waiting and waiting for an audience. If your magnum opus (or even half-pint opus) is a Word document that's ready for the world to fall in love with, give the free Smashwords e-book-publishing service a try.

Follow the style guide's formatting tips before submitting to the Meatgrinder
The universe of e-books is huge. CNET's David Carnoy has written two great overviews of the current state of e-book publishing, both of which he recently updated: "How to self-publish an ebook," and "Self-publishing a book: 25 things you need to know."

David's stories mention Smashwords along with several e-book-publishing alternatives. My goal was simply to convert about a dozen of my blog posts on managing contacts into a free e-book: Workers' Edge Guide to Contact Management.

I chose contact-management tips for my initial foray because the tips are among the most popular I've written, and the resulting e-book would be a manageable length (just under 8,500 words).

It took me about 6 hours to combine the tips into a DOC file, reformat the file following the 29 steps in the Smashwords Style Guide (pdf), and upload the file to Smashwords' Meatgrinder file converter. The style guide is written by Mark Coker, Smashwords' creator. It includes an extensive FAQ and links to Coker's publications on marketing your e-books.

Because the contact-management tips were written and published in HTML originally, much of my production time entailed copying and pasting the text and images from their Web pages into Word. Even if you wrote your book in Word, the file will likely require quite a bit of reformatting to make it through the Smashwords Meatgrinder without encountering some errors during the conversion.

As a for instance, your file likely has tabs, tables, or text boxes. These are among the formatting elements that will give the Meatgrinder fits. I may have benefited from having the e-book material in a non-Word format to begin with because I was able to start the book-formatting process from scratch.

The Smashwords guide explains how to remove all existing formatting from a Word DOC file and then reformat the material in a way that will display well as an e-book. (Appropriately, the first of the guide's 29 steps is to make a backup copy of the file before you do anything else.)

Steps two and three are handy for all Word users: show paragraph marks (aka "pilcrows") and other formatting, and disable Word's auto-correct and auto-format features. Perhaps the most difficult instruction for me to follow was to use only the Normal paragraph style. Doing so requires that you create custom paragraph styles for each font size and style your document uses.

Create your own TOC rather than let Word make one for you
The style guide walks you through the process of creating a linked table of contents for the book, which entails deleting the internal bookmarks Word creates automatically in addition to creating section links manually. (Coker warns you not to use Word's automatic ToC creator.) You may also need to change Word's default setting for line spacing.

The only formatting error in the e-book I created was the result of ignoring this advice. I changed each tip's title to 24 points via Word's font-size drop-down menu rather than choosing the font size as a custom style under the Normal drop-down menu in the paragraph-style section. In one ebook format, the tip titles reverted to the default Normal size of 12 points.

I was pleased to find that my first attempt to upload a DOC file to the Smashwords Meatgrinder resulted in zero reported errors. The Smashwords AutoVetter analyzes the uploaded material and identifies the "glaring" format errors that will prevent the book from being included in the service's Premium Catalog.

The actual file upload is as simple as clicking the Publish button on the site's home page, providing the book's title and a summary, setting its price (or designating it a freebie), entering a category and tags, choosing the e-book formats you want to use, uploading the cover image (JPEG at least 2,400 pixels tall by 1,600 pixels wide), uploading the DOC file itself, and agreeing to the site's terms of service.

One-stop e-book publisher handles all the details for you
Smashwords does an admirable job of anticipating the pitfalls newbie book publishers face and offering timely advice. For instance, the service's style guide provides boilerplate text for the all-important front- and back-matter, such as a license statement for the copyright page, an "about the author" template, and ideas for promotional blurbs.

Yes, books are judged by their covers, and Coker emphasizes the importance of a quality cover image for your e-book. Smashwords recommends that the image be in the standard 3:2 ratio length to width. The service links to several sites that offer to create a cover for your book at affordable rates.

Being the cheapskate that I am, I ignored the advice to pay a pro to come up with a cover for my contact-management book. My lame attempt to devise my own cover sticks out like a sore thumb next to the professionally crafted covers.

If you're uncertain about the price to set for your e-book, you can let readers set the price by selecting that option on the Smashwords upload form. You're also reminded that Apple requires e-books it sells to be priced at 99 cents, $1.99, $2.99, or some other amount ending in .99.

Smashwords e-book price-setting options on file-upload page
Set the price of your book (or designate it a freebie) before you upload the DOC file it's based on to the Smashwords Meatgrinder for conversion to e-book formats. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

After your book is converted, you're prompted to create a profile that includes a list of the Smashwords books you've published (along with your picture, a brief biography, and links to your site or blog, among other information). Smashwords also prompts you to assign the book an ISBN, which the service provides free of charge. You can purchase your own ISBNs singly or in batches or do without an ISBN, although Apple, Sony, and Kobo require ISBNs.

The book's own Smashwords page has a link to your profile along with information about the book: publication date, number of words, the description you provided when you uploaded the file, and tags. Below this are download links in the formats you specified prior to the file conversion: EPUB, PDF, RTF, MOBI, PDB, LRF, TXT, HTML, and JavaScript.

Smashwords e-book page for sample contact-management title
Once your e-book has been converted you can view and edit information about the title via its page on Smashwords. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Smashwords encourages authors to review their book in all the formats they selected. I was pleasantly surprised that my test book appeared about the same in the EPUB, MOBI, and PDF versions, but the HTML version showed the book's section headings in the normal 12-point font rather than the 24-point font I had specified in the DOC file.

Heeding the advice in the Smashwords style guide, I kept the book's formatting simple, simple, simple. More care will be required if your book uses paragraph indents, drop caps, lists, or other special formatting, all of which Coker covers in his style guide.

Likewise, the contact-management book is a free download, so I haven't had to deal with the Smashwords payment system, which pays via paper check or PayPal. Smashwords claims to pay authors about 85 percent of the revenue generated from sales of the book on the Smashwords site, and about 70 percent of the sales from affiliates.

My initial venture into the world of self-publishing via Smashwords went smoothly. I'm inclined to publish other compendia of Workers' Edge tips as e-books, although I might spring for a cover by a professional graphic artist.

There's a lot to learn about e-book publishing, and through my limited experience with Smashwords I'm aware of how much I don't know about the process. Still, I can't think of a better starting point for would-be publishing moguls than Smashwords.