Tuesday, August 31, 2010

ISBNs Don't Matter As Much As You Probably Think They Do, But You Might Want To Start Owning Your Own Anyway

I was about to post an overlong response in a comment thread on Joel Friedlander's The Book Designer blog, but on reflection, realized what I was about to post wasn't a response, it was a blog entry in its own right. The article associated with the comment thread is about Library of Congress registration information, and the subject of ISBN ownership came up in the discussion going on beneath the article, in the comments. And here's what I have to say about ISBN ownership:

In the case of an individual author who only self-publishes his own manuscripts (as opposed to someone running an imprint, publishing works by other authors) what does it matter, really, who's the registered owner of the ISBN on a book? There's no legal or regulatory tie between ISBN ownership/registration and copyright or intellectual property rights. ISBN registration only designates ownership of the ISBN, not ownership of the content of the book to which the ISBN has been assigned.

I've used Createspace's free ISBNs on all of my self-published books to date, and while this technically makes Createspace the 'publisher of record' in the ISBN records, I still retain all rights to the published material and I still own the copyrights. CS's terms of use state this explicitly, and CS is also very adamant that their company not be listed as Publisher on their clients' books' copyright pages.

ISBN ownership can help to establish the legitimacy of a publisher's claim to profits from a given book in a legal challenge situation, but given that CS has made it abundantly clear it never wants to be named as the publisher of record for any of the books it prints and distributes, the likelihood of CS trying to usurp my royalties seems pretty remote. Also, since copyright is the most meaningful measure of intellectual property ownership in the case of a book, and I own the copyrights on my books, the fact that CS is the registered owner of my books' ISBNs wouldn't allow CS to claim my intellectual property rights, either. One caveat: the financial and legal waters would be a bit murkier if I were running an imprint and publishing other authors' works as well as my own, and in that case I would absolutely want to purchase and register all the ISBNs in the name of my imprint.

While not being the registered ISBN owner prevents me from listing the books with wholesale catalogs myself, since Createspace now offers to create wholesale catalog listings as part of their service, it's a non-issue for me. My CS books are available on Amazon, Amazon UK, through Barnes and Noble, and through every other bookseller and retailer that stocks its inventory via the Ingram or Baker & Taylor catalogs, and that's most of them.

Borders is a special case, in that its online and in-store inventory is stocked from an internally-maintained catalog; the only way any publisher, indie or mainstream, gets her books listed with Borders is to get one of Borders' buyers to add them to Borders' internal catalog. Since my CS books are listed in the Ingram and Baker & Taylor catalogs, from which Borders draws entries for its internal catalog, I could approach a Borders buyer and inquire about getting my CS books added to Borders' catalog if I wanted to, but I haven't bothered.

True, my books aren't available through European wholesale book catalogs (since only the registered ISBN owner can list books with those catalogs), but since I'm not promoting my books in foreign markets nor releasing them in foreign language editions, I don't think I'm missing out on many sales there. Amazon UK is the #1 bookseller for English-language books in Europe, and my CS books are already listed on that site.

While not being the registered ISBN owner also prevents me from registering my books with the Library of Congress, I don't really care about that and I don't think anyone else does either---with respect to my books, anyway. It would matter if I were trying to get my self-pub books stocked by public and institutional libraries, but let's face it: self-pub books, novels especially, aren't likely to be stocked by those libraries anyway.

If I self-publish anything new in the future I'll most likely purchase my own ISBN/barcode blocks for the new projects, but only because "premium" or "expanded" distribution options offered by print and digital publishing service providers increasingly require that the author/imprint be the registered owner of the ISBN. Since this is already a requirement for Smashwords' premium ebook catalog, I expect it's going to become commonplace for ebooks to have ISBNs just like print books and hard media audiobooks.

Even so, I still see the whole thing as little more than an administrative hoop through which I'll soon be forced to jump and an extra expense I'll be forced to shoulder to make retailers' lives easier. Cost of doing business, and all that. I'm still not likely to list my self-published books with European wholesale catalogs, nor Borders' internal catalog, and I definitely won't bother registering them with the Library of Congress.

I have always maintained, and still maintain, that ISBNs are merely tracking numbers used by retailers, libraries and government agencies to organize, and retain control over, their inventory of books---nothing more, and nothing less. Some people (and I'm not talking about Joel Friedlander or anyone who's commented on his article) treat ISBN purchase and ownership like some kind of mark of legitimacy, and others even go so far as to tell self-publishers that if your book's ISBN isn't registered in your name, that fact alone makes your book a "vanity" project and you an amateur who doesn't deserve to wear the name "author".

Horsefeathers. There may be compelling business reasons for this or that indie author to purchase and register his own ISBNs, and there are definitely compelling business reasons for imprints to do so. But that's all they are: business reasons.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Whither The Author-Artiste?

Seth Godin's announcement yesterday that his future works will not be traditionally published seems, to me anyway, to have finally knocked over the "Tipping Point" domino in a chain that's long been poised to open the floodgates of true acceptance and respectability for indie authorship. For authors like Godin, JA Konrath, Steven Covey, and lesser-known indies like me, this is a wonderful development. It's a clear signal that going indie can be a big step in the right direction for any author, established or aspiring, who's got an entrepreneurial spirit and commercial sensibilities. But what about all those other authors, published and aspiring, who are more in tune with art than commerce? How would a Flannery O'Connor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Camus, Dostoevsky or Salinger fare in this brave new world of indie authorship? Not too well, I suspect.

These are authors of seminal literature which has inspired whole generations of writers, thinkers and artists, and their works will continue to inspire thought and action for generations to come. Yet somehow I doubt any of them would've been very excited about, or done very well with, something as worldly and mundane as author platform. And this begs the question: where, and how, is the important and challenging literature of tomorrow to be discovered and brought to the public's attention? Will it be lost to the ages for want of a Twitter account and Amazon Rush?

I'm not saying the rise of indie authorship has somehow created this problem. If anything, indie authorship has opened a door of opportunity for those few authors of literary fiction and philosophical or metaphysical nonfiction who are also web savvy and/or highly motivated to get their work out to the world. After all, it's not as if mainstream presses have been clamoring for more edgy, unclassifiable, non-commercial manuscripts. Trade publishing in the United States hasn't been primarily about enlarging the canon of quality American literature for quite some time.

While there have always been passionate and compassionate editors, agents and others willing to champion this or that "great" book, regardless of its apparent commercial potential, these have increasingly been diminished to the role of mere voices in the wilderness. Because the publishing business is, first and foremost, a business, and there's nothing wrong, illegal, or unethical about that. A book that doesn't look like a substantial moneymaker isn't likely to be picked up by a big, mainstream house. Small, independent presses can bridge the gap between art and commerce to some extent, but those presses have to turn a profit to survive too. Great reviews and a slew of doctoral theses based on a given book won't pay the rent.

I've turned this over in my head again and again, but there are no easy answers. Plenty of people have gone through the exercise of sending some literary classic or other to a mainstream house or agent under a different title just to get it rejected and then knowingly blog about the generalized cluelessness of trade publishing (and in so doing, entirely overlook the fact that publishers are engaged in a for-profit business), but this exercise barely pays lip service to the larger issue. If we agree as a culture that important, if non-commercial, literature deserves wide exposure, study and discussion, who's supposed to foot the bill for getting it out there in front of eyeballs?

Indie authors like me who've worked long and hard to master platform and publishing skills may feel some righteous indignation at the notion of our artier, less business-savvy counterparts getting somewhat of a free ride when it comes to the labor involved in indie authorship, but we should try to get past this tit-for-tat mentality and look at the big picture. I know all kinds of things about self-publishing, trade publishing, setting up and maintaining an author platform, and the business side of indie authorship, and I'm a pretty good writer of entertaining little novels and instructional nonfiction, too. But I'm no Salinger, O'Connor, Dostoevsky, Garcia Marquez or Camus, and I never will be.

Is it better for the culture at large if the only new authors to achieve any meaningful level of exposure or acclaim are like me, succeeding largely for reasons having at least as much (if not more) to do with our business and marketing skills than our writerly gifts? I'm thinking, no. I have come up with some ideas to address the problem, but it's a woefully short list. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments area.

1. Introductory self-publishing, author platform and publishing business courses should be added to the core curriculum of all creative writing degree programs; many students in such programs may have no intention of ever self-publishing, but these subject areas are so commonplace in the publishing world of today that to be ignorant of them is indicative of an incomplete education.

2. The National Endowment for the Arts has grants on offer each year, but admittedly, they're limited to pretty specific categories and putting together an acceptable grant proposal is scarcely easier than setting up and maintaining an author blog and Twitter account.

3. Anyone who's mastered a crucial publishing or author platform skill like podcasting, ebook creation, book cover design or the like should share the wealth of those skills by providing some free instruction to their fellow writers in the form of how-to videos, articles, or podcasts.

4. Any author or publishing pro who's in a position to give wider exposure to a deserving non-commercial manuscript, book or story should do whatever they can to lend a hand to the writer in need.

Remember: it was probably some classic of literature, not a NY Times Bestseller, that originally inspired you to become a writer in the first place. Let's all do what we can to give that same gift of meaning and inspiration to future generations of writers, thinkers and artists everywhere.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

When Redesigning Your Site Or Blog, Don't Forget To Grandfather

I recently redesigned my author website. It's something many of you will do at some point, whether to add features, get a more professional look, put the focus on a specific book or service, or just because you think it's time. Whatever the reason, when bringing in the new, be careful not to get too overzealous about throwing out the old.

Some of the content on your site may be quite popular, with many links, tweets, backtracks and so on all over the web. Check your site statistics or pageviews to get a quick read on which pages or articles are getting the most traffic, check for backtracks/backlinks on any of your content (backtracks and backlinks are instances of other sites linking to yours) and also take a trip down memory lane to remind yourself which pages or articles you have heavily promoted in the past. Be particularly alert to any content that has been mentioned in the media or highlighted on others' websites and blogs.

When revamping your site or blog, be sure to keep that popular and much-linked content, and keep all of the associated web page addresses and links intact. After all, you've already put in the effort to create the content, and it's bringing new visitors to your site or blog on a regular basis. Why on Earth would you want to toss that valuable information and goodwill asset on the junk heap?

In the case of my old site, there was a very popular page containing a BookBuzzr widget which displayed the first edition of my book, The Indie Author Guide, online in its entirety for free, as well as a free guide to Kindle publishing. This page has received numerous positive mentions (with links) in the mainstream media. It was no cakewalk building my author platform up to a point where outlets like The New York Times, MSN Money, CNET and The Huffington Post were sending new site visitors my way, and the articles in which my guide had been mentioned will still be on the web for years, or even decades, to come. Even though that Kindle publishing guide is currently out of date and I'm in the process of updating it, and an updated and revised edition of The Indie Author Guide is on its way as well, it would've been a mistake to completely eliminate the page and leave a slew of broken links in the wake of my site redesign.

It so happens that I didn't intend to include this specific page in my new site. I'd created a new organizational scheme and the page just didn't fit. However, I didn't want to turn away any new visitors who might discover me through all those links to the page.

So I created a new version of the old page, to match the new site design, and ensured it had the same title and web address. I added a statement indicating I'm in the process of updating the guide and when I expect the new version to be posted, plus a statement with information about the revised and updated edition of The Indie Author Guide, so anyone landing on that page will get the most up to date information.

Note to those who actually write the code for their sites or blogs: even though the new page didn't have any need for HTML anchors to be included on it, I ensured all anchors present on the old page were included in the new one, so that any links pointing to those old anchors wouldn't be broken, either.

I didn't include this page in my site's navigation bar, because again, it just doesn't fit the new scheme. But anyone who clicks on one of those old links will not be disappointed, and since the navigation bar for my new site is on that "secret" page too, it's possible new visitors may click around a bit and learn more about me and my books.