Monday, 1 March 2010

To ISBN or not to ISBN?

Previously, everybody who published a book thought of ISBNs as a must have. For a start, before the copyright libraries got totally overwhelmed with works (some drivel, and others so poorly made that they needed to be held up with an elastic band), bookshops only stocked titles that had them. Now however, sure Waterstones will only stock them if you have one. But who buys books that aren't travel guides or the latest t.v. promotion, 'celebrity' ghost-written books or recipe books in Waterstones? Most of the independent or smaller bookshops are increasingly hard to find and hard pushed. Certainly some famous ones strong on a certain type of book (radical, poetry, cookbooks or whatever) survive, but tend to be specialists. A friend of mine has published many books, and stocks them in Waterstones, where they only ever shift if he holds a signing or related event.
Also, what guarantee have you got that the big retailers will stock (never mind sell) them when you have to badger their distributor first, and they may turn you down anyway?
People say you have to have an ISBN to be stocked on Amazon. This is true, but how many small press publications have you bought from Amazon lately? And what of the cut they take? True they stock obscure and wonderful books you can't get elsewhere, but most of those I buy, for instance, tend to be by authors known in classic circles, like Cocteau, or Kandinsky. And if I do want to buy a poetry book by a fine author whose collection isn't in the mass media's narrow circles a lot, (say James Turner's 'Forgeries') then I already know enough of either author or publisher to contact them directly to buy my copy knowing that they'll get more of the money than if I'd gone through Amazon!
If someone's heard of The Books of...Trilogy, it would be surprising if they also didn't know of either my name or that of the Cartwheels Collective & Publishing arm. Anyone looking up 'Porlock the Warlock' on Google should get the Cartwheels Collective website and hence Webshop. Why bother with Amazon? The same goes for Barnes & Noble.

Most people don't need the 10 ISBNs you have to buy for £110 plus £18 postage. In their dreams they might, but other friends of mine who have bought 10, they have helped sell no copies at all and they've only ever used one. Cartwheels Collective Publishing has eight titles out (well, the last one will be available in a couple of weeks) and two more in the pipeline. It was at this point that we were always going to review editorial policy as to ISBNs. We've thought about it and rejected it - indeed my co-editor is at this moment writing a piece about the decision on the Cartwheels Collective Publishing google site.
People have got to hear about your work (and it should be work) because of your efforts. ISBNs are not a magic bullet to help shift copies. Once sales are comfortably at the next level, then they will have been issued along the way - when to bother will be self-evident. But starting selling books in limited editions, and the way you get people to know about them is at events, small mags, recommendations, word of mouth and via the web - including (see the last post) tools like Facebook. Never ever expect ornamental accessories from a vanished past like the ISBN (and when it did make a book stand out simply because there were less of them) to do the work for you.

Since ISBNs have effectively been privatized (they are now run by Nielson Book Data), it has become about making money out of book publishers and authors not for book publishers and authors. Hence the end decision of CCP's editorial board not to have them.

An independent publisher with an explicit 'no ISBN' policy is Magic Realms Publications. Check out their well argued case at;
If ISBNs have done you any favours, I would love to hear from you! Either via comments below or by e-mailing.

Works referred to;
James Turner's 'Forgeries'

The Books of...Trilogy;