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.

Encore Performance by Sally Carpenter

Carpenter photo_WEB gifOne of the nice things about publishing is the chance to do it all over again and better.

Five years ago my first book, The Baffled Beatlemanic Caper, went out of print. That publisher has since closed its doors, so the book was destined to go OOP eventually. At the time the second book in the series was finished. I was fortunately to find my current publisher, Cozy Cat Press, who was willing to pick up book two.

I had a new front cover made and self-pubbed Beatlemaniac as an ebook. Various NEW Beatlemaniac_final_webonline bookstores continued to sell used print copies, although I received no royalties on them. I was disappointed at having a book go OOP so quickly, but I moved ahead with other writing projects.

Since then, authors I knew, some who had been with large publishers, began reissuing their backlists with small presses. With new covers, their books were back on the shelves.

Earlier this year a reader said some of her friends were looking for print versions of Beatlemaniac. I had just about run out of print copies to hand sell. I was also getting tired of getting no payment for the used copies changing hands.

And I was not happy with the book. As a neophyte writer, I was in a rush to get published and the text had a number of errors. I hated the cover. The back cover was a dog’s breakfast of too many elements, and the front cover was printed so dark that the great artwork was obscured.

Encouraged by the backlist successes of others, I approached my publisher, Patricia Rockwell, about reissuing the book. Since 2013, I’d written four other books, a short story and a chapter for a group mystery novel for CCP—so I had a good track record.

I’m calling this reissue the “revised second edition.” We’re using cover my designer had made for the Beatlemaniac ebook, so we didn’t need new artwork. I like the “new” cover as it’s colorful—more suitable for a cozy, and it “pops” more on the screen/shelf.

I updated my author bio and revised the introduction and acknowledgements. I wanted to include more about how the book came about, but the book was already longer than most CCP books and I had to save space.

The Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys books have been extensively rewritten over the years for new generations. So why not take the opportunity to improve my book?

I carefully read it again. I corrected the misspellings and grammatical errors. I replaced “ands” with periods to alleviate run-on sentences. I toned down the strong language (when I wrote the book, I didn’t even know what a cozy was, let alone the “rules”) and cut a few words from the flashback seduction scene.

I had used the word “towards” a million times. I realized I had overused the phrase “I realized.” The characters also “gestured” frequently. Some gestures I left in, others I changed. After all, real people do “gesture”!

Some of the chapters run long, but making more sections would mean renumbering all the chapters and that can get dicey.

But I didn’t alter the story or the characters. I was surprised that the plot and red herrings worked so well. I have what some editors might consider “info dumps,” but they are interesting details about my character’s life in show biz that most people wouldn’t know and I left them in. It’s also good background on my protagonist that doesn’t show up in the other books.

After writing three other books with my protagonist, it was fun to go back and see where it all started. When book one begins, he isn’t terribly likeable. He’s just hopped on the wagon and is out of sorts. Sandy hates the character he played on his TV show. But by book four he’s comfortable with his sobriety and his alter ego.

BTW, in my book the correct spelling of the East Indian goddess in the Beatles movie Help! is Kaili, not Kali, the real Hindu goddess. Beatles fans would never forgive me if I got that wrong.

A nice offshoot is that I had planned to include a new Sandy Fairfax short story with the second edition, but my publisher said that would make the print book far too long. I have a good finished novelette on hand, so my next project is to write more stories to make a Sandy anthology. Stay tuned . . .

 

Some Thoughts on Writing and Publishing

by Janis Patterson

It is the best of times to be a self-published author.

We can put our own books out without having to deal with the ‘writing by committee’ mentality that infects the world of traditional publishing. We can reach directly to the reader without having to bow to the whims, prejudices and rules of the traditional publishing gatekeepers. And, as an added benefit, the reader can choose from a vast array of books instead of being held down to the narrow pigeonholes of traditional publishing. Plus, as a self-published author, you get the largest slice of the monetary pie, as opposed to  the minuscule percentages offered by traditional publishing.

It is the worst of times to be a self-published author.

We not only have to handle the necessary quality controls of creating good books – great writing, good editing, great covers, proofing and printing standards – but we also have to deal with publicity, marketing techniques and legal issues. Some writers make enough money to hire all these things done – most don’t, and every minute spent on publishing/publicizing/whatever is a minute not spent on writing.

Moving beyond the personal, there is also the wider world of self-publishing that seems to become more surreal every day. There are always pirates who take books and them put them up for free on the internet without the author’s consent. Their rallying cries are “If it’s on the internet it should be free!” (Wrong!) and “Writers should just be happy that their words are being read!” (Even wronger! Try that twisted logic with your doctor or plumber or just about any professional…) Other pirates take your book and sell it, but without the author’s consent – and without ever sending the author any of the proceeds.

Then there are what I call the literary pirates – the singularly untalented ones who want to be thought of as an author so badly that they take someone else’s book, change the title, the main characters’ names, probably the name of the town and maybe even the occupations, and then publish it as an original book under their own name. Sadly, this criminality is hard to detect, as most of the retailers simply accept books and don’t run any sort of comparison software to make sure it is an original work. Most examples of it are never caught, and the few that have been were brought to the author’s attention by dedicated fans who saw the similarity to one of the author’s books.

Even worse, there is a growing corruption in the self-publishing world. Book stuffing is a big problem at the moment in Amazon’s KU. Some Book Stuffers have used book stuffing to game the system for fantastic amounts of money and driving legitimate authors off bestseller lists, all the while delivering little more than a badly written short story and lots of garbage. Lots of them also use clickfarms to up their pages read count into the realm of KU bonuses, which is what gets them most of the page reads – and the money. What’s sad is that Amazon doesn’t seem to care. They’re getting the money customers pay for these bloated nothings. Although – I have heard that they are meeting with some concerned authors and writers’ organizations – and I hope that is true – so maybe something positive and good for real writers is being done.

Another thing is that even if a book meets the criteria for a real book (actually written by the person claiming it, page count not inflated by rubbish and repeated short stories) it’s really just a bad book. The internet is simply swamped with ‘books’ that are terribly written, worse plotted and which have never seen either an editor or even spellcheck. Some people are so stupid – or who want to be ‘an author’ so badly – that that they think merely stringing X number of words together with a rough semblance of a storyline equates a book. They buy a cheap cover (I don’t care how much it costs, most of them are definitely cheap), stick up the resultant product and wait impatiently for fame and fortune to come flooding in.

Add to that that the market is waaaay down now. Sales are bad. My sales are so low at the moment that if they get any worse I’ll have to start paying people to not read my books!

So perhaps the pertinent question should be, under these conditions, why would anyone become a writer?

The answer is simple – because we can’t do anything else. If we never sell another book, we will still write. If the publishing world turns upside down, we will still write. No matter what happens, we will still write. We’re writers.

What is “Real”?

by Janis Patterson

Writing is a time consuming occupation. Not only do we have to spend time plotting, thinking, and constructing our stories, we spend time putting them into a concrete form and then making them as polished a form as we possibly can. Then – if we want respectable sales – we must spend egregious amounts of time doing publicity and interacting with our readers.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, it ain’t.

It wouldn’t be easy even if life didn’t intrude. Writers have families and jobs and lives, to say nothing of accidents and incidents and attacks of the unexpected. There are writing gurus who say you must write every day for a certain amount of time. That’s great, if your life allows and that works for you. I’m certain that somewhere there is someone who does this, but I don’t know any.

So what do we do? My answer is, the best we can. It’s not only a matter of time management, it’s a matter of priorities. When your granddaughter is in a life-threatening accident your focus should not be on writing. When the laundry reaches Matterhorn proportions or your living room needs dusting, that is no excuse not to write. (Of course, The Husband says I take that last dictum much too much to heart, and lately he has started muttering about finding a sharecropper for the parlor.)

The question devolves down to : Are you a writer or a hobbyist? Assuming that there is nothing life-altering going on (dust does not count) you have to decide just how important writing is to you.

In my case, it’s very important. I am a professional novelist, and a few days ago finished my fifth book this year. Because of this job, I miss shopping expeditions and luncheons with girlfriends, theatre trips and even some family gatherings – as tempting as such frivols sound – and have to plan my books around the trips The Husband and I make. (And I have never journeyed anywhere in the last decade that a laptop or tablet did not go with me!)

I also have a life. While I am blessed not to have to have a regular-in-an-office job, there are still lots of things that must be done. Groceries must be bought and eventually cooked. Pets must go to the vet. The car must be attended to. Extended family needs attention. The minutiae of living must go on, whether you work outside the home or not. My family is very important to me, as is my activism for animal welfare and conservative causes. The Husband’s happiness is always paramount in my priorities, and there is no way either he or I will ever give up our interest in and studies of Ancient Egypt and the Civil War. Health issues also raise their ugly heads from time to time.

But I am a writer, and after the really important things – family, beliefs, home – writing comes first, before nearly all social events, before frivols, before self-indulgences. Most self-indulgences. Some of my friends become insulted when I cannot go to lunch or take the afternoon off to go shopping, though they would never have such a reaction if I worked a 9-to-5 in an office. It’s disheartening to think that after all this time so many people still think that if you work from home you don’t have a ‘real’ job… Or that if you’re a self-employed writer, you still don’t have a ‘real’ job… Or that if you’re self-publishing and don’t have a big contract with a major publisher you really don’t have a ‘real’ job. After all, aren’t all self-published writers just wanna-bes or hobbyists who couldn’t get a ‘real’ publisher?

Yes, I have heard almost those exact words from people who are otherwise intelligent and sophisticated. Some of them I have given up trying to convince that I do have a ‘real’ job. Some truly do equate writing with lounging around, tossing off X number of words in a string, having them published immediately and then sitting back while unbelievable riches roll in.

Don’t we all wish!

Of Concerts and Self-Publishing; Are They So Far Apart?

by Janis Patterson

I went to a concert a couple of nights ago. That’s not unusual – I’ve been in and out of concerts on both sides of the conductor for most of my life. What makes this one different is that it was an amateur orchestra – an organization of people who got together to play magnificent music just because they love it. No remuneration other than applause for a lot of time spent practicing and rehearsing. And the program was ambitious – all challenging works by Beethoven, Bizet, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mozart and Dvorak. As the concert was free, the members of the orchestra even paid for the audience’s intermission refreshments out of their own pockets. This is the truest and most shining example of the word amateur – one who does something for the love of it.

Was the concert flawless? No. There were unintended sharps and flats here and there, and one of the second violins definitely needed more practice on his/her fingering, but in spite of the flaws – or perhaps because of them – the evening was most definitely enjoyable. It was not the icily-perfect rendition of a professional world-class orchestra (which I also love), and perhaps was the more charming because of it. The mistakes were not egregious, and the love the performers had for the work shone through every note, even the ‘off’ ones.

Over the years the word amateur has been tarnished to a near-slur, degraded to mean a fumbler, an incompetent, any number of other derogatory terms, but that’s not right. A true amateur is one who does the best he can, one who learns and simply for the love of something

There are exceptions, though, and we can find far too many of them among the plethora of self-published books flooding the world. An amateur musician realizes that at the very least he must learn the basics of music, that he should be able to reach a certain level of knowledge and technical ability before even attempting a concert. It seems that the amateur writer does not.

No one would think of saying “I’ve always wanted to play in an orchestra” then sit down in front of an audience, grab an instrument and start banging away on it without any knowledge, instruction or practice.  That, however, is just what so many wanna-be writers do. Just because they speak English with a modicum of proficiency they think they can write a novel. They string together a fair number of words and, convinced that they are only minutes away from being rich and famous or at the very least being regarded as that magical creature ‘a published author,’ throw the book up on any sales platform they can reach. The words developmental editor, copy editor or even spell-check do not seem to exist in their vocabulary. The resulting messes degrade the entire idea of self-publishing.

Like a lot of currently/formerly traditionally published authors I self-publish. There is a growing number of authors who have never done anything but self-publish who produce wonderful books, books that are often better than the current examples of traditional releases. Despite this, ‘self-published’ is used among the ignorant and the spiteful as a code word for amateurish (in its worst connotation) rubbish, and this hurts us all. If we cannot raise the level of knowledge among the unprofessional writers, we can at least do our best to correct a wide-spread notion among the public that all self-published books are a thing inferior. Even if some of them are.