Friday, July 25, 2008

What's the Deal With ISBNs And Bookstores?

Bottom Line It For Me, Baby Version (200 Words Or Less):
I've been fielding a lot of email questions about the nuts-and-bolts aspects of self-publishing lately. Rather than answering the same questions over and over again in private messages which don't benefit the self-publishing community at large, I've decided to blog a series based on content from my how-to reference book on self-publishing, The IndieAuthor Guide. I can't just copy and paste everything from the manuscript, because the thing is 300pp long and heavily illustrated besides. But I will present topics from the book to the extent of detail possible in a blog post. Note that I'm not covering editing, designing your own book cover, creating your brand or publishing to the Kindle here, since those topics are already presented on my website in the form of free pdf guides.

I’ll include links to previous posts in the series here in the Bottom Line It section. So far, I've posted topics on Publishing Options and Rights, Royalties and Advances. Today's post is about ISBNs and brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Go On An Run Yo Mouth, I Ain’t Got Nuthin’ But Time Version (Can’t Promise It Won’t Go On Forever):

What’s the Deal With ISBNs?
Any commercially-sold, physical book must have a unique International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, assigned, and each different edition of a given book (i.e., hardcover, paperback, audiobook) must have its own ISBN. EBooks, which are essentially digital files, don’t require ISBNs. The ISBN is a unique identifier assigned to all commercially-sold books being sold in any physical format, consisting of a 10- to 13-digit number and associated barcode. Bowker
is the only agency allowed to distribute ISBNs in the U.S. Bowker sells ISBNs to publishers and authors in blocks of ten at the minimum. It’s not unusual for self-published authors to purchase their own ISBN blocks, though unless you’re very prolific or issue your books in multiple editions, you may not ever use up a whole block of ten.

Some publishers require authors to obtain their own ISBNs at their own expense, some will provide ISBNs to authors for a separate fee, and still others include ISBN assignment as part of their standard publishing package. If you buy your own block of ISBNs, each ISBN in the block can only be used once, and only for a specific edition of your book.
For example, let’s say you use the first ISBN in your block for a paperback edition of Novel A, the second for a hardcover edition of Novel A, and the third for an audiobook edition of Novel A. A couple of years later, when you’re ready to publish Novel B, you must assign ISBNs to all its editions beginning with the fourth ISBN in your block. Once assigned, an ISBN can never be re-used, not even if the book to which it was assigned goes out of print. In Europe, books are tracked with a European Article Number, or EAN. Some publishers can assign an EAN to your book, but check with your publisher to be sure that service is available if you intend to sell your book in Europe, or through online vendors that accept international orders.

This is all I have to say about ISBNs in The IndieAuthor Guide, but a much more thorough treatment of the topic can be found in a series written by Walt Shiel in his View From the Publishing Trenches blog. The first entry in the series can be found
here, and from there you can follow links to the second and third installments. Note that Mr. Shiel and many others in the publishing industry warn authors against accepting the free ISBNs offered by publishers like CreateSpace and BookSurge, for reasons best summed up by this quote from Mr. Shiel:

Suppose you publish your book through Amazon’s CreateSpace or BookSurge service and allow them to assign it an ISBN. Two years later, you decide you prefer to print your book with another printer or even a different subsidy publisher. Your book MUST be assigned a new ISBN, since the original one was owned by the original publisher (CreateSpace or BookSurge). And that original ISBN can never be reassigned to a different book, even if the publisher declares their edition of your book as out-of-print. From that point forward, your book will have two ISBNs associate with it. If a bookseller or library tries to order it, they will have to guess which one is the current one. You will have to rely on some (possibly clueless) clerk to make that guess. They may just pick the first one they stumble on. If that one turns up as OP (out-of-print) or otherwise unavailable, that’s what they’ll tell the customer.

As you'll see in the upcoming discussion about book stores, I believe this is a non-issue for the vast majority of self-published authors because very few, if any, libraries or brick-and-mortar bookstores are likely to be looking for your book in the first place. Mr. Shiel goes on to say:

And those two version of your book will continue to show up on Amazon with different publishers, possibly different prices, etc. An Amazon search on your title may not turn up the current version near the top of the results (or, possibly, at all).

Also a non-issue in my opinion, because the older version of your book will list as either out of print or only available from resellers, and most of your buyers won't find your book while casually browsing the Amazon site anyway. Most will find it via a direct link from your website or online posting, from the 'customers who ordered this book also ordered' section of an Amazon or B&N product page, or other promotion that leads them directly to your product page. Moreover, there's not really any reason I can think of why you would elect to switch publishers on a POD book that's already published and on sale, with you just kicking back and collecting royalties. You already did all your comparison shopping before you chose your POD publisher, already went through the publishing process, and in the case of a revised edition, a new ISBN must be assigned anyway. Even if a new POD outfit opens up tomorrow and offers better terms, they'd have to be a whole lot better to make it worth your while to re-publish the same book in the same edition all over again.

What About Book Stores?
You may be wondering how you can sell significant quantities of your books when it’s very difficult to get brick-and-mortar stores to stock them. The answer is, you don’t necessarily need brick and mortar bookstores to stock them. I covered many of the reasons why in this previous post,
Big Chain Bookstore Death Watch. While some very outgoing and industrious authors can significantly increase their sales and visibility by cultivating relationships with brick-and-mortar stores and doing in-store events and readings, getting a brick-and-mortar store to stock your book does not automatically guarantee any increase in sales. Getting your book stocked can seem a daunting task in and of itself, but accomplishing that task will do you little good if you aren’t also prepared to focus considerable time and effort on raising public awareness of your book in the communities where it’s being carried by one or more brick-and-mortar stores.

At the minimum you should be prepared to lobby hard for in-store reading and signing events, but don’t stop there. You will also want to publicize the events in any way you can, contact local newspapers to try and get a timely interview or book review in advance of the events, and get in touch with local book clubs and writers groups to drum up interest as well. I go into much more detail on promotional activities in
The IndieAuthor Guide, and will be providing much of that information later on in this series, but in my opinion a brick-and-mortar store campaign isn’t the best strategy for a POD book that’s already being sold through a major online outlet (i.e., Amazon, B&N online store) anyway. There’s the time and effort to consider, but an even bigger issue is up-front expense.

You must provide copies of your books to brick-and-mortar stores willing to stock them, and must also have substantial quantities on hand to sell at in-store events. Assuming your cost for author copies of a book retailing at $14 is just $6, if you have a very successful event and sell a copy of your book to all 50 attendees, your gross earnings are $700. Sounds good for a couple of hours’ work, but you haven’t accounted for expenses yet. Begin by subtracting the $300 plus maybe another $25 in shipping costs you paid up front to buy the 50 books and have them shipped to you. Next comes the bookseller’s ‘cut’, for which 40% of the book’s list price is standard, so subtract an additional $280 for this. Now take into account the cost of travel to and from the store (gas, at the minimum), expenses for any printed materials you provide (business cards, post cards, bookmarks, etc.), and expenses for any drinks or snacks along the way. Let’s say you manage to keep all those costs down to just $50. Your net profit for the evening is only $45, or 90 cents per book sold. And that’s the result of a completely successful event; imagine how much more disappointing the figures are if you sell fewer books.

Now look at the numbers for copies of your books stocked on a brick-and-mortar store shelf. No brick-and-mortar bookseller is likely to stock more than two or three copies of your book at a time. Let’s assume three copies are stocked and all three sell. Even if we disregard shipping, gas and other minor expenses related to getting the books into the store and getting your royalty payment from the store, your profit is only $7.20. It’s an awful lot of hassle and up-front expense for less than ten dollars at the back end.

While it’s true that in most cases, Amazon or any other online bookseller will take the same 40% as a brick-and-mortar store, the advantage of working with an online seller is that you don’t usually have to order, pay for, or deliver any books up front. Most online sellers can list your book on their sites, and when a customer orders your book, send an electronic order to the publisher. The book is printed and sent directly to the customer with no involvement from you whatsoever. The online seller gets its 40%, thereby reducing the amount of royalty paid to you, but you haven’t incurred any expense or hassle in the process. Once your POD book goes on sale, all you're doing is promoting it and collecting royalty payments. Bear in mind, I’m only talking about individual authors selling their own books here. The situation is very different for people who own and operate their own online bookstores, whether completely independently or as a ‘partner’ or ‘affiliate’ of a major online retailer. The fee structures for that type of arrangement are variable, and outside the scope of this discussion.

Coming up next time: ---REVISED--- How To Choose A Publisher


Walt said...


I know you and I have had this discussion on my blog, and we seem to be at an agree-to-disagree point.

However, I think you have missed my point (maybe I wasn't as clear as I thought) about the chaos two different ISBNs for the same book can cause on Amazon.

Chaos that can dramatically affect your book sales!

Amazon's mysterious method of calculating a book's numerical position is based on a lot of factors (some of which seem to change periodically). Among them is historical sales and recent sales.

If the first edition of your book (with ISBN 1) had decent sales over a long period and maybe some helpful recent sales (even if some of those are due to Marketplace, or third party, sales), it will almost certainly show higher in all relevant searches on Amazon.

And the newer edition (with ISBN 2) may not show up at all for a long -- and indeterminate -- time. You can try to drive buyers to the new page in hopes of getting folks to buy the newer edition, but that can take quite a while.

In the meantime, you may have lost sales that you will never know about when buyers find themselves on the ISBN 1 page that carries the notation "out of print."

I would not dismiss this problem out of hand. I know many people who have had a similar problem after issuing a significantly revised edition with a new ISBN.

The system will sort itself out over time -- eventually.

So, you pays your money and takes your chances.

Walt Shiel
Publisher, Slipdown Mountain Publications LLC

April L. Hamilton said...

Dear Walt -
Thanks for your input, and again, for your much more-detailed series on ISBNs. I didn't spell this out in my blog entry, but you really hit the nail on the head when you said, "I know many people who have had a similar problem after issuing a significantly revised edition with a new ISBN."

This seems to support my notion that the issue isn't of *particular* interest or concern to self-published authors of POD books, because mainstream-published authors have the exact same ISBN difficulties as *we* do. Recall that once a POD book is published and being sold, all the author need do is promote the book and collect royalties as copies sell. There's no reason to re-publish the book with a different publisher, under a new ISBN. In fact, the potential for ISBN confusion is just one of many reasons *not* to do so.

The only reason the author of such a book would have to get a new, second ISBN is to release a revised edition. It doesn't matter at that point if the ISBN on the original edition was registered to the author personally, CreateSpace, BookSurge, or Harper-Collins. ISBN confusion can come into play when the revised edition goes on sale, regardless.

It seems to me that with the relatively recent advent of things like POD, ebooks and audiobooks for digital download, the ISBN system is in need of a major overhaul. It was created based on an exclusively hard-copy, minimum-print-run publishing paradigm, and that paradigm has shifted dramatically in recent years.