To ISBN or Not To ISBN – That Is the Question

by Janis Patterson

There is an evergreen discussion that flowers repeatedly on most writers’ loops, especially on those that have more non-professional writers. Do you need an ISBN? Should you buy your own ISBN? Why should you want an ISBN?

The answer to all the questions above is … it depends.

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, a number of either 10 or 13 digits that is unique to a certain book/edition/format. Almost every book has one.

I say almost, because there are mitigating factors. You can release a book without an ISBN, but then especially with paper it would be difficult to downright impossible for anyone to order or stock it. Neither would you be able to track any sales you might have.

If you are publishing an ebook with Amazon, or some other online retailers only, you do not have to have an ISBN because almost every retailer has their own internal identifying numbers. Amazon’s (the biggest ebook retailer) numbers are called ASIN.

Let’s be honest – ISBNs are expensive. Prices for one – just one! – start at $125. While much more economical, a hundred still go for close to $600. That’s big money in almost anyone’s wallet, but especially for self-publishing writers, many of whom are just starting out.

There are several ways to get ISBNs. First, and the one I like best, is to buy your own directly from Bowker/MyIdentifiers. Bowker is the only company licensed to sell ISBNs in the United States. (If you are from another country, you will have to check on where and what ISBN prices and availabilities are. I don’t know. I do know that the citizens of Canada get theirs free – if they meet certain criteria – lucky stiffs!) If you buy your own ISBNs you are shown as the publisher.

Second, there are those who will be happy to sell you a couple of single ISBNs for a lot less than Bowker. I advise you not to do that, even though it saves you a couple of bucks. These people are called re-sellers, because they buy large amounts of ISBNs from Bowker, where they are much cheaper per number, and then sell one or two or three to you for a profit.

Now I am a big believer in profit, but this particular ploy comes at a price – namely that you are not listed as the official publisher. When someone buys an ISBN from Bowker, they automatically become the publisher of record. If you buy (or get a free) an ISBN from JoeBlow, Inc., since JoeBlow, Inc. bought the ISBN from Bowker, he/it is now the publisher of record.

At the moment this particular little quirk doesn’t mean much, just a bit of legalese – but my concern is that we don’t know what the publishing laws will be down the road. I wrote the book, so I want to be on record as the publisher of record and be able to control my book throughout its life. More simply, my book is my book.

This same principle applies when some company and/or retailer offers to give you a ‘free’ ISBN if you publish with them. No adult today should believe that anything is ever truly ‘free’ – someone somewhere somehow sometime has to pay for it, and in this circumstance it might be you by losing control of your book. The entity giving you the ‘free’ ISBN is on record as the publisher of record – not you.

So should you pay for ISBNs? If you are writing short little books that you intend to sell as ebooks on Amazon (for example) and on Amazon only – you certainly don’t have to. If, though, you decide to take those ebooks to print or start your publishing career in print, yes, most definitely you need an ISBN.

You should have an ISBN for every version of your book – one for ebook (which should cover all ebook retailers, no matter what Bowker says – remember, they sell ISBNs!), one for print, one for large print, one for audio. Remember, one of the main purposes of ISBNs is to track sales and you don’t want the data on your sales tracks muddied. (And a little hint – if you are doing a paper copy Bowker will try to sell you bar codes for a fair chunk of change. You don’t need to. The publisher – Amazon, Draft2Digital, Ingram, whoever – will put one on for you without charge – just be sure to leave a space for it in your cover design.)

As there are brick-and-mortar stores who refuse to do business with Amazon (a complicated set of affairs I’m not going to go deeper into now) many authors give their print editions two ISBNs. These authors do one print edition through Amazon print and give it a discrete ISBN with limited distribution, which means that book is sold only on Amazon only. Then they go through another publishing venue such as Ingram’s or Draft2Digital for another print version and give it another separate ISBN. Whatever you think of the practice, remember more brick-and-mortar stores will order from Ingram’s (which has the all-encompassing industry standard catalogue) and Draft2Digital and all the others where they will not from Amazon.

Now I am going to talk about pure personal opinion. When you self-publish in any format, you are a publisher. Everyone admits – or they should! – that editing, covers and publicity are legitimate business expenses; you should regard ISBNs as the same thing. If you are going to compete against the biggest traditional publishers you need to play by the same rules. You are a publisher; act like one.

Who? When?

by Janis Patterson

If there’s one thing in the writing world you learn very quickly it’s that no matter what you do you cannot please everyone. Sometimes it seems almost impossible to please anyone! Another thing you learn is that the ‘rules’ change almost as quickly as the weather.

Well, I don’t believe in ‘rules’ – other than the hard and fast ones like good grammar and spelling and a cohesive, interesting book, of course. What I dislike are the God-like pronouncements of how a story should be structured. Such as in romance, for example, say you have to have a ‘cute meet’ between the hero and heroine in the first three pages or (in certain kinds of romance) a hot sexual encounter no later than the second chapter. A corollary in mystery is that the body has to appear early in the book – ideally in the first three pages.

Well, being by nature a dedicated contrarian, I find such ‘rules’ to be inimical to the integrity of a story. They smack of ‘writing by pattern’ and while each genre has certain expectations like as a happy ending and justice done such arbitrary ‘rules’ are the antithesis of creativity… and all too often good storytelling.

That said, I have written – sometimes at the ‘behest’ (i.e., orders) of a publisher or out of pure mischief –  some stories that follow these ‘rules’ and some which most delightfully turned them on their heads. One example is a Regency Romance (written as Janis Susan May) where the hero and heroine, though lovers a decade or so before, do not meet in the here-and-now present of the novel until the last chapter. This particular book has won a couple of awards… and been used as an example of how not to write a romance.

On a different note, I once wrote a mystery where the body appeared as demanded in the second or third paragraph, and that was a very hard book to write. Murder is by definition a violent crime, no matter how delicately it is committed, and one should feel outraged that someone – anyone – should have their life taken from them. However, there is almost a prerequisite that to feel sympathy for a character you have to know them, and that’s almost impossible when said character first appears as a lifeless lump on someone’s rug.

How do you create empathy for a character about whom no one knows anything and feels less? This victim, this human, this person, is perforce little more than a stage prop who elicits very little feeling or sympathy. I gave him a name, simply because it was more convenient than calling him ‘the body’ or ‘the decedent’ or ‘the dead guy,’ but although he had the requisite number of arms and legs he never really became a real person – merely a humanoid construct.

I have been dinged and called down because in my mysteries (save that one) the murder doesn’t happen until one-third or one-half through the book. I feel by giving the reader such a delay it creates two mysteries instead of one. The first is, who is going to be murdered? while the second is, who is going to be the murder?

When I write a murder I want the reader to be outraged at the deliberate taking of a human life, no matter how much that person deserved to be offed – and believe me, in my mysteries there are several characters who deserve it. Don’t know why bad people are so interesting, but they are, so I always have several of them… just like in real life.

A murder victim – whether in a book or in real life – deserves to be more than a stage prop.

Call Out the T-Rex!

by Janis Patterson

Whether a plotter or a pantser or anything in between, I’m sure every writer has reached a point in their current work where they despair. The characters aren’t behaving. An enormous and seemingly insoluble plothole has developed. The timeline makes no sense and crumbles under the slightest scrutiny. The whole project has turned into a dogs’ dinner of a mess and simply doesn’t make any kind of sense.

This kind of despair usually hits in the last few chapters, where the writer is desperately trying to wrap up all the plot threads and create a satisfying ending. Usually at this point the only thing that keeps you from tearing everything up is the sad knowledge that nothing new could be any better. This is why some writers drink. Others, like me, tend to wear out their hot tubs and wonder why they didn’t become a plumber.

Fortunately, though, professionals have learned how best to deal with the situation. I’m not going to say how, because the answer is different for every writer and sometimes for every book. What counts is the result, not the process.

When a writer is brainstorming trying to get past these obstructions, we sometimes have strange fancies. Not too long ago I was trying to finish up a novella that had given me trouble from the beginning. My stories are very character driven, meaning that after the initial set-up what transpires is the result of the characters and how they react/behave. (The opposite is called plot oriented, where the plot is fixed and, however illogically, the characters are required to behave in a way that forwards the pre-determined plot. Both versions have their reasons and their adherents.)

Well, I did have a skeletal story framework (it was an historical romance), but my characters rebelled. Instead of being a benevolent ringmaster guiding the characters through their logical paces, I had to become something between a dictator and a prison warden, forcing my recalcitrant and obstreperous characters to do what they were supposed to do to preserve the integrity of the story. It wasn’t a fault of the plot/story, because that worked out perfectly – in theory. The characters were just acting out and refusing to behave. Yes, for most writers the story develops to a point where the characters take over – and that’s a good thing, most of the time, because it means you have created real people, even if they do exist only in your head. (There is a reason writing has been called controlled schizophrenia for fun and profit…)

Anyway, I had been fighting this kind of rebellion for several days and the deadline was approaching with alarming speed. Had there been more time I just might have started over and locked this story away for a year or two, but that luxury wasn’t available. Finally I just sat back and decided that the best way to solve this was an unexpected ending – I would just have a T-Rex arise from the ornamental lake and gleefully eat all the characters. A nice, clean (except for the resultant and inevitable mess on the lawn) ending that resolved all problems.

Don’t worry – it remained a fantasy, but a most satisfying fantasy. I of course kept at it and finally figured out a way to resolve the problems, bring my recalcitrant characters back into line and end the story as planned. And I guess rather successfully, as the resulting book is one of my better sellers.

This ‘solution’ has been very beneficial, so much so that it has almost become standard in our house. As I near the end of a book The Husband has become canny enough to read my moods – and at certain times generally stay out of my way for his own safety! In these times he asks, “Is it time to call for the T-Rex?” If I say yes, he usually knows that it would be wise for him either to cook dinner or take me out. (I am so blessed to have him…)

As the word of this development spread through the family my nephew (who shares my somewhat skewed sense of humor) gave me a plastic T-Rex about six inches tall. This little gem resides in a small box decorated to look like a lake… until it is time to call him out; then he sits in proud glory on my desk, just waiting to devour any misbehaving characters.

Hey – it works for me, and no one ever said that writers have to be sane all the time!

The Murder Person Redux

by Janis Patterson

We’ve talked a lot about the myriad murder weapons present in the average home, and a little about what deadly things a murderer can carry on his person, on which I intend to expand a little after this warning.

If your murderer is going to use something clever (i.e., more than a rock or a gun or a knife) that he carries on his person he not only needs to be extremely smart but very careful. especially if the murder method results in instantaneous death. Then everyone who was with the victim is likely to be carefully scrutinized. We cannot rely on the police overlooking anything suspicious.

So with that caveat in mind, let’s talk about the actual killing. If your villain is going to be gone before death occurs there’s a lot more leeway in method.


How will your murderer handle such risk of exposure? Usually it will involve some specialized equipment,  barring the expected – and lamentably common – belts and scarves, etc. Here is where the ingenuity – and the sneakiness – of the murderer becomes paramount. If specialized equipment is necessary and the murderer can’t manufacture it himself, he must find a safe and secret way of obtaining it. Remember, the more people who know a secret the less of a secret it becomes and the more of a risk exists for the murderer.

If your killer is a woman, jewelry is a good choice. An earring with an edge sharpened so fine it can slice arteries. A garotte wire woven through a chunky metal necklace, though with this method you must be sure that it leaves no identifiable imprint in flesh as chain patterns are very recognizable. There is also the question of disposability. You don’t want to be caught wearing the murder weapon.

One way of murder requires a very daring and brave – if not downright foolhardy – killer. This would not work where there is a possibility of a body search of witnesses and would probably work best in a crowded venue. The murderer secretes a thin needle to the inside of a finger, with thin surgical tubing running up his arm to a bladder secreted somewhere on his person. Under the clothes under the arm to a pocket where it could be manipulated with the free hand would be the best choices. Fill the bladder with the poison of choice – a very fast acting one would be my preference, as you don’t want your victim to remember he felt a sharp prick or that your murderer was standing very close by at the time!

Personally, my choice would be curare, the South American neurotoxin. Fill the bladder, grasp the hand or arm or neck of your victim, make sure the needle enters the skin, squeeze the bladder… almost instantaneous death. And most likely untraceable if you did your sourcing cleverly, as one of the benefits of curare is that it dissipates almost instantly and leaves no trace in the body, which makes finding ‘cause of death’ almost impossible. Of course, your murderer would need superb neuromuscular skills in order to make sure he didn’t jab himself. I’m too much of a klutz to even think of trying this method. I would probably end up being my first victim! And if you worry about supply sourcing, you can order curare over the internet. It’s amazing what you can find out there if you just search creatively.

So – if you want a memorable murder, if you want something different, just let your imagination roam. While it’s terrifying, it’s also true that almost every object in this world can be used as a murder weapon in the hands of a clever villain. Your murderer is limited only by your imagination… and his conscience.

Return to the Murder House

by Janis Patterson

I want to thank everyone for their lovely comments both personal and public on my last Ladies of Mystery blog The Murder House. It did surprise me, though, that so many of you said you would take care to stay away from me and would never eat at my house. (Not eating at my house might be a good idea, however, not because I’m particularly murderous, but because I’m a lousy cook!) I do assure you, though, that I am the kindest and most charming of people… as long as I get everything I want, that is!

Unfortunately the last blog only scraped the very top of the dangers awaiting the unwary in an ordinary house. For a creative mystery writer there are all kinds of murderous methods, though some have taken steps to put a stop to some of the dangers.

For example – antifreeze. Yes, the ordinary antifreeze you put in your car. It used to be that all varieties were toxic and, as an added help for the domestic murderer, it tasted sweet! Mixed in a tall, cooling drink it would be almost undetectable. However, there were too many ‘accidents’ over the years, so the manufacturers started replacing the deadly ingredient with one harmless to anything but ice. I’m not sure if all manufacturers complied (but probably – too much risk of lawsuits) but one could always check. Or, if your murderer is very fortunate, they can find a forgotten half-used jug of the old type in someone’s garage. Or perhaps in anticipation of future need, they could have put back a couple of gallons of the ‘good stuff.’

Unfortunately, most murderers are not so forward-looking. All too often murder is a spur-of-the-moment decision – perhaps spur-of-the-week might be a better term, as spur-of-the-moment crimes are usually of the handy blunt instrument or bladed weapon type.

In this case, knowledge is your murderer’s best bet. A walk through a regular medicine chest can be a cornucopia of termination mechanisms. Many people take many medications, and although they are individually benign when taken as directed, when combined or overdosed can be deadly. That you will have to do your own research on – just be sure when you write you don’t put the entire formula or instructions down. We’re entertainers, not teachers… nor should we be accessories!

Two of the medicine chest items come to mind. First is the common diuretic; powdered (obtained either by opening the gelatin capsule or crushing the tablets) it can be given to the victim hidden in food, which will – over time – reduce the potassium in the body to fatal levels. This does take time, however, and requires patience. Second is synthetic epinephrine, perhaps not so common a drug but not at all uncommon; given in large quantities it can and probably will induce a massive heart attack. For the thoughtful murderer, assuming he can get hold of this chemical, it is an almost perfect murder weapon as it metabolizes so quickly it is undetectable almost immediately. Just delay the discovery of the body and what is a murder is regarded as a natural heart attack with no proof to the contrary, except perhaps an injection site, and we’re all clever enough to be able to hide that, aren’t we?

If your victim takes vitamins overdosing or cross-blending of certain of these generally benign substances can be fatal; however, while some supplements can be lethal when combined with others, they are not as strong as regular medicines and can necessitate repeated dosing. Patience – and a lot of dosing – is required, however.

If you want to go out into the garden, even more methods await you. As the wonderful novelist Marilyn Meredith said in her comments about the first Murder House, castor beans grow wild over most of the country and are deadly poison. If one is chemically (and perhaps suicidally) inclined, one can make the deadly poison ricin out of castor beans, but that is an unnecessary step. Just the plain old beans themselves are enough. Chop and use as a garnish, or cook in with tonight’s dinner beans – just be sure that no one else eats any, unless you are intent on creating a massacre. Cover them with chocolate as a candy. A single bean ingested can kill a child, so these are sure-fire killers if used properly.

Another deadly plant is the beautiful oleander, which not only grows wild in the southern part of the country but is used as a decorative yard planting or even a potted plant. Every part of this dark-green, glossy leaved beauty is poisonous, even the large and fabulous flowers – though I believe you’d have to use a lot of the blooms to get the desired fatal result, and just how many flower-laced edibles can you expect a victim to consume? Better to take the leaves, cut them into small bits and candy them to use as decorations on sweets or even some savory dishes. This might require several applications, though. My favorite story of oleander death is how a clever murderer chose fairly long, straight sticks from the plant, skewered hot dogs on them and used them to roast over a campfire during a camping trip. Enough poison leached into the hot dogs to be quickly fatal.

If you remember your ancient history, Socrates was executed by drinking a poison made from hemlock. Hemlock and its equally deadly brother water hemlock grow wild in many parts of the country. It would take no skill at all to pick and make a deadly drink from it. (Not quite within the purview of the Murder House, but close enough to be available to the ordinary murderer.)

Don’t have a green thumb? Don’t worry – there is an entire arsenal under the kitchen sink of almost every house in America. Mix bleach and ammonia and you’ll have chloramine gas, which is both toxic and corrosive. Plus, since both are fairly anonymous looking liquids, they can be placed into other, more innocent containers to make it easier for the victim to mix. Just be sure to get rid of them afterwards so the mixing looks like a stupid accident. However – one has to mix a fairly large amount to be effective unless the mixing is done in a fairly confined space. A small bathroom or shower stall would be ideal…

Nor does the chemical connection have to end there. If you’re interested in more detailed information about how ordinary household chemicals can be to create murder and mayhem, may I suggest you seek out the books THE POOR MAN’S JAMES BOND and THE ANARCHIST’S COOKBOOK. Both are heavy on chemistry and somewhat hard to find, but excellent information.

If you’re willing to cause some destruction, I have heard that burning wool or silk gives off cyanide gas, though how much fabric or how confined a space is required I don’t know. If you’re interested in this, you must do some research.

A thin – like size Zero – knitting needle or a long, old-fashioned hat pin can make a delightful murder weapon. Slip the instrument into the heart, avoiding the rib cage and sternum of course, and leave there for a while. (How you accomplish this is up to you…) The puncture to the heart will not kill the victim immediately, but leave it there a couple of minutes and with each beat the heart will tear the puncture hole a little bit more until there is a large enough breech to make the heart bleed out. Or shove your improvised stiletto up through the base of the skull, hopefully piercing the brainstem and entering the brain; then wiggle it back and forth, causing the semi-gelatinous brain to ‘scramble.’ The only two drawbacks to this method are even a number Zero knitting needle and a hat pin leave an external trace, but it is possible that the hat pin to the brain can be overlooked. If your murderer is lucky – or carefully foresighted – the death occurs in a county with an incompetent or careless ME or, even better, an untrained Coroner.

How to keep your victim still during such a lengthy and invasive procedure, though, is a test of your creativity.

Now go walk through your house and look at everything as if you had never seen them before and visualize how each could be used as a murder weapon. It is astounding and not a little unnerving. Forget exotic poisons and complicated mechanisms. Some of the most efficient and generally untraceable killing tools are right at your fingers. Please – just remember that we are not writing textbooks or instruction manuals. Always leave something out, so the momentarily angry reader won’t be able to duplicate your method. If they’re really going to kill someone they can figure out how, but we don’t have to hand it to them on a plate. Again, I cannot emphasize enough that we are entertainers… we should not be accessories!