Tomorrow (or maybe today or last week, depending on when you’re served this post) I’ll be taking part in a Book Industry Communication debate on the future of ISBNs. I’m providing the author perspective, so as part of my research I canvassed opinions to see what the mood is.
Much of the feedback centred on whether authors should buy ISBNs or use the free ones from CreateSpace, Smashwords et al. There were sound arguments on each side. But what emerged for me was the way self-publishers view ourselves. It’s a snapshot of our times that goes a lot further than a little piece of industry bureaucracy.
For and against
Julia Jones, one of my co-conspirators at Authors Electric, said she bought ISBNs ‘to behave like a publisher in every way’ – a view shared by many. Plenty of authors feel to have their own ISBN is more professional, lets you be seen and counted, and gives you control.
Other writers – among them author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn – feel having their own ISBN makes no difference: ‘I can’t see any benefit, or evidence that having a paid ISBN helps you sell more books’. As Joanna sells whopping numbers of her novels and non-fiction books, we certainly can’t argue with that. (I agree with her. Personally I’d rather put the money towards a better cover or more editing time.)
But it was a comment from Michael N Marcus, who writes and publishes books about self-publishing that hit a bullseye for me: ‘If you want to be known as an author, the ownership of the ISBN is unimportant. If you want to be known as a publisher, own the ISBNs you use.’
Now that’s a very interesting view. We’ll return to that in a moment.
But look, no ISBNs at all
Most striking was Dan Holloway, who publishes experimental fiction and poetry – both his own and that of others. He doesn’t use ISBNs at all – even for printed books. He says: ‘I write and publish for a niche, dedicated audience, providing an experience they can’t get elsewhere. I work with selected independent bookstores and galleries and send customers to them for my books, rather than having my books available everywhere.’ He’s not even on Amazon.
Dan is a firm believer in direct selling: ‘We should be trying to get our fans to buy direct from our websites if we can to foster community – we want to nurture fans with stickability, who will become our bedrock over the years, and the best way to do that is to have a hub that exposes them to us, our ideas and worlds, and all that we have to offer. I buy all my music direct from bands, for example.’
You might think this is a recipe for obscurity. Au contraire, Dan’s ISBN-free books have twice received special mentions for the Guardian‘s first book award, been shortlisted for the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize, and been voted ‘favourite Oxford novel’ by readers at the Oxford branch of Blackwell’s.
Author or publisher? Or something else?
I keep coming back to Michael’s interesting distinction and I think he’s nailed something important. Certainly I put most effort into building an identity as an author rather than a publisher. Like Dan, I am most keen to find people who like my imagination and preoccupations, my way of thinking. Having said that, I like publishing and I want to publish myself; I enjoy the control and creativity. I can also, if needed, wave a CV that demonstrates years as a production editor/chief sub/editorial manager, so perhaps that’s why it’s no big deal for me and you should discount my view as I’m not typical of self-publishers.
Other authors feel ISBNs are an important part of their brand and image – one of many signifiers of their professionalism.
Now, more than ever, there is no ‘one right way’ to self-publish well. We’re all finding our own paths. You might be a Dan, a Julia, a Roz, a Joanna. Most probably you’re something else again. I’d love to know. Oh, and wish me luck tomorrow.
What kind of self-publisher are you?