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ISBNs: An elementary primer

  Posted by From The Write Angle , 17 August 2015 · 238 views

by Matt Sinclair

A few years ago, when I was planning to publish what became Spring Fevers, I started to look into what was involved in becoming a publisher. I was a neophyte to the whole independent publishing thing, but it seemed pretty exciting and I wanted to learn.

Initially, we planned to do everything electronically. It soon became apparent that I’d need to either use an ISBN provided for free by the distributors I’d be going through or buy one for myself. Free is one of my favorite words, but when big companies – or even medium-sized companies – offer you something for free, there’s usually a catch or at least a reason that is to their advantage. Well, in this case the reason was because they became the actual publisher.

In the United States, ISBNs, which is an abbreviation for International Standard Book Numbers, are administered by R.R. Bowker – and only Bowker. Each country has a single representative agency responsible for the registration of ISBNs. I imagine those folks around the world know each other pretty well and have little get-togethers every year where they talk about ISBNs while sipping wine and noshing on grapes and cheese. Anyway, the folks at Bowker sell the ISBNs to publishers.

Of course, in the twenty-first century, a lot of authors have decided to become their own publishers. Self-publishing is not a new thing. It’s been around for a long, long time. But it’s become super easy in the past five years or so when e-readers became popular -- and especially now that half of humanity reads books on their phones. Perhaps I’m exaggerating a little, but not by much.

So that free ISBN that Smashwords or Amazon Kindle will give you? It means they’re the publisher of your book. Now, for a lot of writers that’s perfectly fine. I mean who needs any additional headaches? In my case, I was publishing a collection of stories by several different writers. I’d had to develop contracts with them all.

To my mind, it would have been irresponsible for me to take the free ISBN when I’d entered into agreements with all these authors. Looking at the prices of ISBNs, however, I understood why many writers might opt for free. To buy a single ISBN cost upwards of $125. If the book had any success and inspired us to create a second anthology, then I’d presumably pay the money again. Or I could buy ten ISBNs for $250. It was one more milestone in my path toward creating Elephant’s Bookshelf Press.

In a little more than a month, EBP will publish its tenth book, Horrors: Real, Imagined, and Deadly. We’ve long since exhausted the ten ISBNs I bought back in 2012, and I bought a hundred more. So, I have ISBNs “to spare,” or so it would seem. But that’s the funny thing about ISBNs: you can’t give them away. What was it Uncle Ben in Spiderman said … With great cost comes great responsibility? Something like that.

As I mentioned earlier, each ISBN is associated with the publisher. So if I let a friend use an ISBN, I’d be publishing their book. That might not be a bad thing; I know some pretty darn good writers. But it’s something that carries responsibilities. At least nominally, the revenues would be associated with me and my company, for instance. I’ve learned that a good way to spoil a friendship is to get money involved. But even if that situation had been addressed appropriately to begin with, you might also have advertising issues to contend with as well as promotional sales and opportunities. All of a sudden, you and your buddy are in business together. Again, that could be wonderful. Or it could ruin a friendship.

That said, most self-publishers I know have opted for the free ISBN. And to my knowledge, they’ve not had any major problems and do not regret their decision.

Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, is also president and chief elephant officer of Elephant's Bookshelf Press, which recently published Billy Bobble Makes a Magic Wand by R.S. Mellette and Tales from the Bully Box, a collection of anti-bullying stories edited by Cat Woods. In September, EBP will publish its latest anthology, Horrors: Real, Imagined, and Deadly. Matt also blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68.


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