eBook and ISBNs: A numbers game you can’t win

This is a guest post by John F. Harnish

Many, many folks have bought lottery tickets with hopes their numbers will match the machine generated random numbers winning them a huge cash jackpot. Hey, it’s a long shot. But it will pay off, right?

Many ebook author/publishers buy thirteen digit numbers with hopes the magic sequence brings fortunes from the sale of content identified by purchased official numbers. In this sluggish economy selling a significant number of anything is a long-shot. But you’ve paid for an official number that identifies your ebook content. Odds are, if you’re a first time author, your ebook hasn’t earned enough royalties to cover the cost of the long number—bummer when you’re short of cash but long with the worthless number. It’s especially bad when you didn’t have to buy an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for your digitally-born book.

Bear with me through a bit of background as I explain why you don’t need a fancy store-bought ID number for your ebook.

In 1972 I started CREATUS as a publishing company to publish and distribute my work. That was before ISBNs came into popular usage and “self-published” wasn’t a commonly used term. My first CREATUS published work was an essay—it sold off the charts via direct mail, there were more than a dozen offset press runs in increasing huge numbers, and then the printer retired, and after selling limited rights to the essay to a mainstream publisher I moved onto other marketing challenges. This was four decades ago, and I was younger.

After my premature “retirement” late in 2011 from a mid-size “publishing service,” I did a restart of CREATUS to publish more than 20 of my ebooks distributed via Amazon and B&N. Two ebook titles are also published by another publisher as paperback books identified by the publisher’s ISBN—no increase in paperback book sales can be attributed to having ebook versions. The ebook versions are rewritten, updated, and expanded beyond the paperback books released a decade ago. Based on sales from release to present it’s not cost-effective to release updated paperback book editions.

My other 18 ebooks were born digitally. Written specifically as ebooks for fun and profit with distribution limited to Amazon and B&N—they dominate the ebook marketplace. Both assign a unique alphanumeric identifier to each ebook, and I’ve been assigned an account number as an author/publisher.

The original function of the ISBN sold by and registered with R.R. Bowker was to identify the publisher of the book, and then the book is listed in “Books-in-Print” to stimulate pre-release orders. However, with the “big two ebook vendors’” free, direct publishing programs my ebooks are usually available for sale within hours after uploading. Therefore pre-release sales from an ISBN ain’t gonna happen, no way, no how. And, I’m not going to pay for an ISBN that has no benefit in it for me.

Then there’s the listing in Bowker’s “big book of books”—once the milestone achievement of a book officially made available for sale to the trade. Aha, “to the trade,” but the overwhelming percentage of ebook purchases are made by the consumer buying directly from the two giant distributors. And I love the part when the distributor pays monthly royalties on every download sold during the previous month directly to me, the author/publisher. That’s money in the bank for me!!!

It’s logical for Bowker to want to sell a different number for each ebook format because they’re in the number selling business and they don’t even need to put up a cash jackpot! If you upload your ebook to vendors requiring an ISBN use one, and only one, ISBN for all formatting versions because with all things considered an ISBN is a meaningless number on an ebook. If the lesser selling vendors want your ebook for sale via their retail windows, then let them assign their accounting number to identify your ebook; or, now here’s a novel idea, use a variation of the number generated by you, the author/publisher, to identify the ebook in your record keeping system.

Playing by Bowker’s rules, every time a new edition is released with a certain percentage of revised content you need a new ISBN to identify the fresh version. I’ve revised and updated my “Ebooks about Ebooks” series dozens of times and the identifiers assigned by Amazon and B&N stays the same—likewise when I changed the selling price. They are using their identifying alphanumeric to identify content/author/publisher regardless of which issued edition of the content. They earn their profits from selling lots of ebook, and not from selling long numbers.

Being a somewhat older dog, I’m weary of jumping through too many hoops to open windows of exposure on those other ebook vendor websites—especially when Amazon and B&N have made it so easy to publish ebooks. I’ve done the math and it’s not worth the hassle of the investment of my time and effort for a potentially small return—naturally less their percentage. In the early 1970s I learned a valuable marketing lesson from my infamous one-page essay: when you are blessed with content that’s in demand—the marketplace will find you. I also experienced the raw marketing power of word-of-mouth!

Now to those who will protest by saying the ISBN makes it a “real book.” I’m more interested in making real sales to real customers. The thirteen digit number blessed by the number gods ain’t gonna do nothing to produce ebook customers.

The process of assigning ISBNs to ebooks comes from the ass-backward ways of traditional publishers. They produce a paperback book first and then reformat the content to release an ebook. Naturally they put a new ISBN on the ebook to comply with Bowker’s requirement for a different ISBN for each issued variation of the content. The greedy folks at Bowker had dollar signs in their eyes as they zapped in place their stipulation that every ebook version needs a new ISBN. Bowker’s bottom line profits, but it’s a needless expense for authors publishing ebooks on a frugal budget. The traditional houses write this off as part of the cost of releasing overpriced ebook. The first-ebook author/publisher experiences this as bumping up their break even point when they buy the worthless ISBN.

Now some ebook authors will be quick to explain their ISBNs didn’t cost them a penny because it was provided by the publishing service, conversion service, distribution service, or whatever ebook servicing function applies. Mercy me, the cost of the number was included in the setup fee charged by the service, and if there wasn’t a setup fee then the service is taking it out of the back end from downloads sold through the service—you can bet your bippy the ISBN most likely identifies the service as the publisher of the ebook.

This means all those ebook vendor sites the service uploaded your ebook to will pay the service a percentage of the income received ebooks sold through their ebookstores. Eventually the service pays royalties to the author after taking a service charge for serving the author’s account. The cut taken by the service could be anywhere from a modest 10% to as much as 50% of the ebook sales revenue. “Eventually” could be a month to several months after the service has received the funds from the ebook vendors.

Be sure you read and understand the terms and conditions you are agreeing to before entering into a publishing/distribution agreement with any ebook service provider. Frankly, I like logging onto my Amazon and B&N direct publishing accounts to see how many and which ebooks have sold so far this month and knowing what I’ll be paid as royalties at the end of the following month.

One point you need to be clear about is the ownership of the ISBN assigned by the publishing service, usually the ISBN identifies the publishing service as the registered publisher of record. If you withdraw your ebook from the service your content will be without an ISBN—unless the ISBN was purchased directly from Bowker by you, the author/publisher, which makes you the publisher of record.

As they say, “and the beat goes on,” becomes “and the paying goes on and on” when the publishing service provides the ISBN and publishes your ebook. Charges will be incurred by the author whenever a new edition of the ebook is uploaded—odds are the service will not assign a new ISBN required to “officially” identify the revised edition. Likewise, additional fees must be paid to the publishing service to have them change the content description of the ebook, the price, the cover graphics, the keywords, the author’s bio, etc. It could take a week or several weeks for the service to make the changes you’ve paid for; but hey, the service provided the “free” ISBN.

The only truly free identifiers are the alphanumeric ones assigned to ebooks by Amazon and B&N through their free direct publishing programs.

In the interest of disclosure: prior to the downsizing of Bowker a few years ago, I was treated to several lunches and dinners while consulting with them on several of their previous book marketing programs.

That said, I see what was once a milestone for paperback books, is now a useless millstone for ebooks. It just isn’t good business sense buying a long number you don’t need for your ebook.

 

About this post’s author:

John F. Harnish, aka John Franklin, is the author of over two dozen printed and e-books. His recent series explains the marvelous opportunities ebooks provide for authors. John’s recent enovel is Blast the Hell Out of Tornados. He has been writing professionally and involved in various aspects of publishing for over five decades. John recently retired as a senior executive from a mid-size publisher. He has taught courses in advertising design, marketing, print production, and creative writing. John is a cancer survivor—“so far, so good.” He lives in the greater Philadelphia area with his loyal canine companion Aurora.


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