“I would no more omit my ISBN from a book I’ve written than I would take away my name,” asserts indie author and publisher Karen Myers. Here’s why she believes depending on retailers’ own identifiers (ASINs, etc) is a false econony, long term.
Independent publishers and author/publishers aren’t supporting corporate boardrooms, expense accounts, or Manhattan addresses (by and large), and frugality is a common theme. Avoiding the purchase and use of an ISBN number for their published work (if they are US-based) seems to many to be another opportunity to cut cost.
But let’s step back a minute. I write for many reasons but one of them is to communicate with someone else. I’m sure that resonates with many writers. Right behind that is the sense that I am joining that long river of communication that is the world of books, a stream that has flowed for hundreds of years, and I want my little drops to join in and make that stream just a little larger. Maybe I will communicate with someone who finds my work decades after my own death.
If you want your work to survive and be part of that river, you have to treat what you’re making as an honest-to-god book that could live forever, not just a document that gets thrown up in digital form somewhere and makes you a little money.
Using ISBNs to Future-proof Your Books
My name is my brand. My books belong to me, and my stamp upon them is an ISBN number, a unique and universal identifier that will bring them out of darkness to anyone’s search, years from now and in databases I cannot envision. It doesn’t matter whether the book is printed or in digital form – that’s just a detail. I would no more omit my ISBN from a book I’ve written than I would take away my name.
I’ve heard people comment, well, you don’t need an ISBN to publish an ebook at this site or that, and that’s a true statement. But when you’re caught up in the here and now of the latest development in the explosion that is new indie publishing, it’s easy to lose perspective.
Consider the following situation:
- I publish a book, digital only. I don’t bother with an ISBN number.
- I distribute it on Amazon, which assigns it an ASIN number, an Amazon product code.
- I distribute it on Barnes & Noble, which assigns it a B&N product code.
- I distribute it on Kobo, which assigns it an ISBN number owned by Kobo, so my book will appear to be published by Kobo, not me.
- I distribute it on Smashwords, which assigns it an ISBN number owned by Smashwords, so my book will appear to be published by Smashwords, not me.
With the exception of Smashwords, none of these identifiers appear within the eBook itself.
And now, let twenty years go by… Barnes & Noble & Smashwords are out of business. Amazon changes its product code conventions and no longer uses ASIN numbers. There is no searchable database made available by Amazon for the old ASIN numbers. Kobo, which owns the ISBN it provided, controls what the Bowker Books In Print or successor database contains and updates the information about your book in ways you would not approve of, and since you have no ISBN number of your own that’s the only record of your book in Books In Print. Someone who chanced across a reference to your book based on an old copy from Barnes & Noble can’t find it because the B&N identifier is no longer alive, and may or may not connect it with a Kobo record in Books In Print which has a completely different identifier.
Does this seem like a good thing to you?
Old Standards Die Hard
We forget how shallow the history of digital technology is and if we’re not in the information technology industry (I am) we have a natural human tendency to think that whatever’s available today will always be available. But the real world is limited by money and time, and databases, formats, and standards evolve or die on a daily basis. The older standards are the most stable, and the standards for books, embodied by ISBNs, are as stable as anything we have, because books have been around longer as cultural and commercial objects than any other medium.
When I publish a book, and it’s usually in both print and digital form, I always use my own ISBN and control all the Books In Print data about the book. I use a different ISBN (as required) for the print and digital editions. I have my doubts that the current practical divide of the digital format between MOBI and EPUB will last, and so I use a single ISBN for both of my digital format editions, since the standards haven’t quite settled in this area and Bowker permits it. (I probably should pony up and do that right).
Think in the long term. Buy a batch of ISBNs (much cheaper in bulk), use them, and help your books speak to other generations for as long as they have anything to say.
Addendum: How big a block of ISBNs should you buy?
Here’s how I think about it…
Bowker offers the following blocks:
- $125 – 1 ISBN
- $250 – 10 ISBNs
- $575 – 100 ISBNs
- $1000 – 1000 ISBNs
I thought the no-brainer should be 100 ISBNs, but then I started doing some calculations. I’m nearing the end of my first series (it could go on, and I might return to it, but I’m planning to start the next one soon, so let’s call it a full set.) Here’s the ISBN count needed, if I do everything by the rules.
- 4 novels, 1 omnibus story collection: Print, MOBI, EPUB
- 10 short stories, 2 mini-story collections (no print): MOBI, EPUB
That works out to (5 x 3) + (12 x 2) = 39 ISBNs. It will likely be more as I create bundles, but let’s ignore that.
This represents a bit less than two years of work (darn those day jobs). Let’s call it two years and 40 ISBNs to keep the numbers easy to handle.
Right now, I’m coasting on a 10 ISBN block I bought 20 years ago of which I used one at the time, but I’m also not following the rules. I don’t have ISBNs for the ebook-onlies, for example. That will change as soon as I get my next chunk of change in hand, and I will retro-add the missing ISBNs. Amazon doesn’t care if you do that, and I bet B&N and Kobo won’t either. Kobo’s the only one that substitutes its own ISBN and, if necessary, I’ll just republish them – I have so few sales on Kobo at the moment that it won’t make any difference.
So, why not just buy that block of 100 ISBNs? Because that represents only about five years’ worth of output for me. Do I expect to still be writing in three to five years? Why, yes, I do. If I buy a block of 100, then when I need the 101st ISBN, I will have to buy another block of 100, and then I will have spent $575+$575 = $1150 for the privilege. If I buy 1000 ISBNs for $1000 now, then it’s much cheaper. I don’t need to ever use 1000 ISBNs, I just have to use 101 for this argument to make sense, and I’ll use that in three more years at this rate. This also gives me the freedom to experiment with all sorts of bundling, etc., without worrying about ISBN costs, at $1/unit.