Lessons From Publishing, Part 1: Registering Works
Three and a half years ago, I set out on the adventure of becoming a publisher. Although I have shut down the economic entity representing my publishing endeavors, known as Fuzzy Hedgehog Press, the parts of publishing most interesting and valuable for me remain. As I discovered, those valuable bits have nothing to do with the operation of a business unit.
If, like me, you are a writer and publisher more interested in crafting literary art than in turning a monetary profit or becoming popular, then this series is for you.
As a part of operating Fuzzy Hedgehog Press, I acquainted myself with the many ways it is possible to register writing with various economic and political entities. By the time I was shutting down my business, I had discovered that the most highly recommended form of registration was useless to me, and the most discouraged form was the one I should have been focusing my attention on all along.
Methods of registration differ depending on what country you reside in, especially in terms of cost. My examples are from the United States of America.
International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs)
ISBNs serve a strictly commercial interest. They are the reference number that bookstores and distributors use to identify titles and their formats. Publishers that sell their books directly to customers exclusively through their own sales portals, like The Folio Society, don’t register ISBNs for their books, since they are bypassing bookstores and distributors.
Due to ISBNs' commercial necessity, online sources for independent authors and publishers tend to play up the importance of acquiring ISBNs.
In the United States, ISBN registration is operated by a company called Bowker. ISBNs must be purchased from the Bowker website and assigned to books using Bowker’s web portal. Each title must have its own ISBN (source). If the title has multiple formats, such as paperback, hardcover, ebook, audio book, etc., then each format must also have its own ISBN.
At the time of this writing, Bowker’s price structure is as follows: 1 ISBN costs $125, 10 ISBNs costs $295, 100 ISBNs costs $575, and 1,000 ISBNs costs $1,500 (source; all prices are USD). These prices represent a 25-50% markup from Bowker’s price structure when I was looking at ISBNs for Fuzzy Hedgehog Press three and a half years ago.
In Canada and some other countries, independent authors can apply for ISBNs from their government at no cost (source). No such government service exists in the United States at the time of this writing.
Having an ISBN is necessary to get your book carried with a distributor, and most bookstores will not order your book unless is carried by a distributor. The ISBN must be turned into a barcode and displayed prominently on the back cover of your book, along with the human-readable price (which you can also optionally encode into the barcode).
I am no longer interested in assigning ISBNs to my books, and, if you are also interested in writing and publishing for the art of it, and not the business, then I can’t recommend that you do so either. At the prices charged for ISBNs in the United States, you had better be certain that your book is going to turn a profit if you go down that road.
Library of Congress Control Numbers (LCCNs)
Some resources for independent authors and publishers mention LCCNs, and I’ve never seen it mentioned negatively, but advice in their favor occurs less frequent than ISBNs, probably because this form of registration is of unknown interest to bookstores, distributors, and vendors such as Amazon (their interest is probably very little).
However, getting one certainly won’t hurt sales, and, unlike the expensive ISBNs, there is no direct fee associated with LCCN registration. However, you must ship a single copy of the printed book to the Library of Congress upon its first printing (source). Ebooks are not accepted, and an LCCN will not be assigned to electronic-only publications (source).
Public libraries in the United States will order books based on readers making a request for the title. At some certain threshold of requests, a copy of the book is ordered. It will depend on the individual libraries’ policies, and these are opaque. I believe having an LCCN can only help libraries find a book, but I also believe that books do not need an LCCN in order for most libraries to be willing to make a purchase. The only way to find out about the threshold of requests necessary to result in an order being placed or other requirements for doing so (that I am aware of), is to ask the staff at a particular branch, and I would not expect individual librarians to be particularly forthcoming about such information.
I eventually came to the conclusion that libraries in the United States are operating nowadays much like bookstores: they are supplying customers with things that they want. Gone are the days when librarians helped shape public discourse by intentionally curating texts (if those days ever existed). I have little use for such a system in my current endeavors. I can recommend this method for others if they simply want one more copy of their book out there in the world, even if it’s just somewhere in the Library of Congress, but I wouldn’t count on this leading to any more or less visibility for your art.
Amazon Standard Identification Numbers (ASINs)
Amazon maintains their own book identification system independent of both international standards and the United States government. Amazon assigns them automatically to both ebooks and print books when the author or publisher registers them for sale on Amazon.
Unlike ISBNs and LCCNs, ASINs do not typically appear on a book’s copyright page, either in independently or professionally published books. They are, however, a crucial component of a book’s Amazon URL (source).
Since Amazon controls an enormous portion of the print and ebook markets, most sources of information for independent authors strongly encourage selling their books through Amazon.
I no longer have any interest in participating with Amazon in any way. According to the fine print, any book registered with Amazon gives the company perpetual distribution rights to all portions of your writing anywhere within Amazon properties (“Amazon versus non-Amazon properties” is a distinction that is on the verge of meaning very little within the media realm; source). If you agree to these terms, I wouldn't count on maintaining any control over where and how your writing gets reproduced. Amazon is banking on the fact that most writers these days will just want to become popular and get paid royalties, and hence will be more interested in the scope of their book’s distribution than the manner in which such distribution is accomplished or the compensation such distribution should entitle them to.
The most fascinating element of this situation to me is that the dashboards indicating sales and book metrics are entirely owned and controlled by Amazon. They offer no receipts, no proofs of purchase, and everyone just assumes that these dashboards are displaying fair and accurate information. Color me paranoid if you want, but after reading through Amazon's terms of service, I have little confidence in the overall fairness of their system.
Goodreads is a social network for book readers. Readers mark which books they are reading and which books they have finished. Anyone can register a book on the Goodreads system for free (source). It is up to readers to mark that book as “reading” or “read,” or to perform various other social features with it, such as curating lists.
Advice for independent authors generally suggests adding a book to Goodreads.
I still register my books on Goodreads, and I have yet to find any reason not to, even reading the terms of service (general and writer-content specific). Registration does not necessarily entail handing over a copy of the book over to Goodreads, so they only get access to the publication metadata, which I'm happy to make public. That said, I keep an eye on those terms periodically, as Goodreads is a subsidiary of Amazon.
Registering for a copyright with the United States Copyright Office grants authors the means of legally enforcing distribution control of their work. Registration can be completed by filling out an online form and submitting a Word document or PDF copy of the work (source). Each work an author registers for copyright costs $35 USD at the time of this writing.
Online sources for information for independent authors are generally pretty negative about applying for copyrights. The crux of most arguments is that copyrights aren’t “necessary.” A variety of reasons are given, everything from not worrying oneself over the possibility of theft and illegal distribution, to copyrights being offensive to potential publishers (a very old-school variation on sales and popularity being more important than quality; source). Having been a publisher myself, I would be extremely skeptical of the motives of any publisher who got upset with me for possessing a copyright to my writing, and I certainly would never allow a publisher to copyright my work. Contracts from publishers should grant them distribution rights, not copyright ownership!
I now hold such sources of advice about copyright in contempt. In my opinion, copyright protection is the most important form of registration the quality-oriented author can engage in. It is not terribly cheap, but it is also not terribly expensive. It is also ideologically congruent with “art over profit.” Copyright is about enforcing the form in which your writing is presented to the world and demanding appropriate compensation when such presentation is enacted by a second party.
I can no longer recommend ISBNs and LCCNs, since I see them to be of limited value. I discourage purchasing ISBNs on the basis of cost. I make no suggestion regarding LCCNs. If you can afford the single copy and the shipping, go for it, but don’t expect to get much for it, either. My stance toward Amazon and their ASINs is decidedly contrary. I am neutral toward Goodreads.
I highly recommend that independent authors register copyrights for their work.