Some nuts and bolts

Before you guys worry that some pod has taken over and I no longer have any thoughts about what’s going on in the publishing world, fear not. The pods came and tried but my black thumb killed them before they could take hold (I never could grow any sort of plant that required any sort of care). It’s just been awhile since I’ve done a nuts and bolts sort of post and some questions have been raised in the comments recently — as well as on one of the pages I follow — so I thought I’d take today to answer some of the questions.

Let’s start with Laura’s question last week about ISBN’s. If you are e-publishing your work through Amazon or Barnes & Noble you don’t need an ISBN. Both will assign a unique identifier even if you have an ISBN. However, some digital retailers such is iTunes and, iirc, Sony, require an ISBN to be listed in their category. Apple even requires that the ISBN for your EPUB edition to be different from the MOBI edition (I’ll admit here that there is a split in opinion as to whether you need a different ISBN on each different digital format). The benefit of having an ISBN is that it gets your title listed in Books in Print.

So, where do you get your ISBNs? The safest albeit more expensive way is to go through This is the Bowker site that sells ISBNs direct to authors and small presses. You can buy them individually or in bulk. Like almost anything else, the more you buy, the bigger the discount.

You can also get your ISBNs through services like Smashwords. These third party sites will place your work with other retailers. Since I’m more familiar with Smashwords and the question was aimed specifically at them, I’ll address their ISBN program.

If you check the ISBN manager page from your Smashwords dashboard, you’ll see that there are three ways to do ISBNs with them. The first is to provide your own ISBN. The second, and what they call the “best” option, is to have Smashwords provide the ISBN for free. To do this, your work must be entered and accepted into their premium catalog. But, before you run off and use this option, note one important factor: it will list Smashwords as the publisher and you as the author. In other words, if you have set up a DBA that DBA won’t be listed.

Now, Smashwords says this is the best way to get an ISBN but it has a very big downside for you as an author: it immediately identifies your work as self-published. Now, before you start saying that I’m being hypocritical here because I have said the onus against self-publishing isn’t as bad as it once way, I’ll remind you there are still a number of readers who will not buy something if they think it is a self-pubbed e-book.Β  It doesn’t matter that Smashwords might not think of themselves as the “publisher”. What matters is that the reader will see Smashwords as the publisher and know this means the book is self-published.

Since I’m for doing whatever it takes to make money, I’m against going the free ISBN route because of the potential for lost sales.

There used to be another method to get an ISBN through Smashwords, their “premium ISBN”, but it appears that this option is no longer available.

So, the question comes down to what venues do you want to sell your e-books through? If you are mainly interested in Amazon and BN, you don’t need an ISBN. If you want to go into iTunes, use Smashwords and get their free ISBN, just remember that for that “edition”, S/W will be listed as the publisher. Or you can go through any of the other repackagers that offer ISBNs as part of their packages. Just read the fine print very carefully and make sure you aren’t going to wind up paying more for the “package” than you would if you were to buy the ISBN on your own.

Another question that’s come up recently — and it’s not a new question, but one that’s been around since Amazon opened the KDP program — is about editing a work after it has already been published. This is sort of a sore point with me for several reasons. The first is that no author, at least none I know and respect, is ever completely satisfied with their work. There is always that little detail that could be tweaked or the comma fault that could be fixed. Then there are the comments from fans — you know the ones I mean. Those “oh so helpful” comments about spelling or grammar or punctuation that aren’t always right. With e-books it is so easy simply edit the digital file and upload the new version.

If, and this is a big IF, there is a major problem with the book or you are getting more than one or two comments about spelling or formatting, etc., then you do need to at least consider what the complaint is. However, if you are getting it only from one person, unless there is a ring of truth in the comment/concern, don’t go rushing out to see if there’s an issue with the e-book. For one thing, you’ll drive yourself crazy doing it and, for another, that is time best spent writing your next book or short story.

Now, I’m not saying to completely ignore input from others. But remember this: every time you update your e-book, an email is sent out to those who have already bought it saying a new version is available for download. Personally, it gets annoying when I get those notices, especially when I get more than one for something I’ve already purchased. It is a clear indicator that the person doing it is an amateur. Sure, the occasional issue arises that means a new version needs to be updated. But that should be the exception and not the rule and no writer — NO writer — should allow themselves to rely on the fact that they can always go and change something because it’s easy.

Folks, this is what beta readers are for. Make sure you have at least one beta reader who reads for content and one who is a grammar/spelling/punctuation Nazi. As for formatting, check every page of the file once converted before accepting it. Every page. Don’t rely on the emulators. Accept the actual MOBI or ADZ file that Amazon allows you to download and then check it on your kindle/tablet/smartphone or desktop app. See how it looks in a native program. If there is a problem, fix it then. Believe me, you will save yourself a lot of time and headaches if you do.

Finally, read your contracts before you sign them. Never, ever give up rights forever. There should be a set period, clearly defined with a renewal provision — if all parties agree. If you write in a shared universe, there had better be a pretty damned good reason for your editor/publisher grabbing all rights to your story. But if they are trying to grab rights to the setting — unless it is so unique that it could never be used in another story without it being clear you’d just ripped it from that shared universe — or characters/character names, run from that contract as quickly as possible. You shouldn’t be forbidden from naming a character “Seth the Farmer” just because you had a farmer named Seth in some other work at some point in the past, nor should you be forbidden from writing a story set in Cleveland — or anywhere else — just because you set a story there for some anthology. If your publisher says their contracts are based on the contracts from another industry — run. You aren’t working for another industry. You are a writer. Your contracts deal with publishing, nothing else.

Any questions, comments or requests for other topics?



33 thoughts on “Some nuts and bolts

  1. Whew! I’m facing all this for the first time; it can get overwhelmening. Does there exist, anywhere, a checklist? At, I mean, a fairly high level of abstraction … i.e., “Get ISBN. Register copyright.” that kind of thing? Would it be helpful to the community to create and maintain one, with discussions such as you have here at a secondary level?


    1. Mark, there are various e-books out there with these sort of check-lists. The problem is that there is no one right checklist because it depends on what path you are taking at any number of different steps. I’ll see what I can come up with and post it next weekend.

      1. I just finished reading a post by Lindsay Buroker that, among other things, makes me think that the market is changing too fast even for e-books to offer pertinent advice, thus my wish for a fairly high level of abstraction — one that might have a hope of surviving some winds of change. Plus: the welter of advice, none of it QUITE dispositive, or exhaustive, or congruent with other sources, makes it hard to put together a personal and relevant checklist. I’d be willing to do such a thing myself and share, but wonder if I have sufficient knowledge even to research it.


        1. Like I said, let me see what I can pull together. There is always going to be certain things that have to be done, some things that should be done and others that can but aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things.

  2. Could you do a post on setting up the various Author pages, especially with considerations to those of us who write under Pen name(s).

  3. Amazon may well have changed its policy — Amazon has a habit of doing that — but my understanding and experience as of six or seven months ago is that readers aren’t automatically notified that a revised Kindle file is available. The updated version (supposedly) goes through a “review” process, lasting four weeks or longer, where Amazon decides whether or not the changes are substantial enough to justify notifying people who have already bought the book and replacing the old version in those readers’ Kindle Cloud library with the new one for download. What rates as “substantial” seems to depend on which Amazon employee is doing the actual review, though. And without the decision for a blanket notification from Amazon, a reader has to specifically request that Amazon to replace the old file with the new one in the reader’s Cloud library to be downloaded. And *that* generally involves two separate e-mails, because Amazon’s first response is usually to ask “Are you sure? You’ll lose your bookmark.”

    Like I said, though, this may have changed since earlier in the year. My info could be out of date. Anyone have a more recent experience with this?

    1. Actually, what appears to be happening now is in some cases you get the email notification and in others, it just shows that there is an updated version when you go to your “manage my kindle” page or try to download the e-book. Either way, do it too often and folks start pegging you as someone who doesn’t take enough pride in your work to have it “ready” when you first put it up.

      To put it in a different way, think how ticked folks get with all the updates and patches for Windows — or a game or anything digital — when it first comes out. If they did proper QC before publication, most of those patches wouldn’t be needed. But the rush to get it on the market leads to shortcuts. OS developers can get away with it, to a degree. Writers to a much lesser degree since there are so many other options out there for readers to choose from.

      1. This is making me nervous. I put my first book up two months ago. I haven’t touched the contents (never want to look at it again–until I start the sequel). However, I have fixed the cover and the blurb. Does that trigger Amazon sending emails?

          1. Thanks, Wesley. Good to know. I just made the fonts bigger on the title, but did not put up an entirely new cover so I’m likely safe on that front.
            Love the title of your essay collection, btw.

      2. Honestly, the very notion of the existing content of a work previously offered-up to the world being changed after the fact gives me almost Orwellian shivers.

        Commenting on stuff? Slapping yourself publicly in the forehead with a comment about what a silly mistake you made? Interacting with fans? Even putting out a corrected “second edition”? Sure, all cool…happens with print books all the time. But altering the content of what people already have feels like trying to change the past, and that’s Bad Juju(tm) indeed.

        (No, I am not writing to condemn anyone here who’s ever done it. But if folks wonder why some readers are turned off…well, there’s an answer. One among several, to be sure.)

    2. I have only ever received one notification email from Amazon. And that book needed to be revised, it had somehow managed to flip a couple chapters.

      1. You’re lucky. I seem to get at least one a week. And even more are listed on my “Manage your kindle” page.

  4. There is a technical, anal-retentive-librarian reason for having separate ISBNs for epub and mobi versions of an ebook. Not enough for me to shell out money to do it, though. I *do* assign ISBNs to the print and epub versions of my books. My guess is epub is going to win the format wars, since mobi is really just a version of epub. Also, it is my personal reminder to be professional. I have complete sympathy with those who find ISBNs unnecessary or too expensive, don’t get me wrong–but I want my books to be cataloged and look-up-able by librarians and researchers in the future. When I assign that number I imagine my book getting assigned in a “Critical Review of Early Ebook Authors” class or some such and it motivates me to do the best job I can. YMMV, that’s just the trick that works for my lazy hindbrain πŸ˜‰

    1. Sabrina, we assign ISBNs to all our titles for just that reason. But if you aren’t worried about being listed in Bowker’s and you aren’t going to put your work up in one of hte e-tailers that requires an ISBN, it is a price you can put off paying for awhile.

  5. Amanda, I’ve heard there were a lot of changes with patents recently. Any changes in copyright regulations we ought to know about?

  6. Amanda, thank you so much for the ISBN review. That was very helpful. Also, since you were so kind as to request other topics, I have one. On Amazon, I noticed that Dave Freer’s Forlorn made it to #80 in something called the Science Fiction/Colonization category. I dashed over to my Bookshelf to try to find such a sub-category, and couldn’t figure out how to describe things with more refinement than just science fiction, which is what mine is. Is there a route for the author to do sub-sub categories, or does Amazon have people at call centers doing that in their spare time? Also, do you think sub-sub-categories help?

    (I’m not stalking Dave. Just that one book, because it came out the same time as I put mine up and he has been very generously sharing his figures with us. It provides a basis for comparison as I puzzle over my ranking and what I can do about it.)

    1. Amazon has been expanding their sub-genre listings of late and I don’t think those new listings have made it to the KDP upload pages. What you may need to do is make sure your tags include the sub-genre heading. Remember, the tags are how a lot of searches are done by readers: ie, they will search for science fiction colonization or shapeshifting dolphins or whatever. So you want to be sure to have the right tags on your book. Remember also that readers can add tags. So you might want to see what those are as well.

  7. “Clients and other laymen read contracts for what’ll happen if things go right. Lawyers read contracts for what’ll happen when things go wrong.”

    My favorite lawyer said that to me, before telling a few tales about things that have gone horribly, horribly awry with contracts, and the parties in them. It’s something to keep in mind – because in business, “that’s not what I meant” or “that’s not what I thought it meant” are completely irrelevant compared to the actual text of the contract.

    1. Dorothy, absolutely. The fact that I have legal training — back in the dark ages — is one reason why I harp on contracts so. Just because someone tells you that they will do this or that, if you don’t have it in writing, signed and sealed and delivered in triplicate, it isn’t worth much. This is just one reason why I keep telling others in the field they have to look at writing as their business.

    2. Heh. I guess by his (?) standards, that makes me a lawyer. πŸ™‚

      “What happens when things go right” is the stuff you say while you’re shaking hands. The contract is entirely about who wins when things go so wrong that the parties are reduced to suing each other.

      It’s also a handy signalling device. Telling the difference between a good business partner and a con artist is hard. Con artists are highly skilled at making themselves seem like good people. But one of the tip-off tricks, when dealing with the sort of con artist that prefers to work within the confines of what’s technically legal, is that the contracts proffered by people who actually _are_ good business partners don’t usually have those horrifically abusive clauses in them. (You know the sort…”you immediately surrender title in fee simple to every thought that passes through your head beginning six weeks before you sign this agreement and ending when your state of brain death is confirmed by three qualified neurologists of our choosing and hired at your estate’s expense, and if you cease doing business with us, we reserve the right to enjoin you from ever working in your field again in any country with a functioning judicial system”…that kind of thing.)

  8. Just in case there are some others looking, beside me, who are just starting with self-publishing and are not Americans: if you can be considered the publisher you get the ISBN from your home country. I write in English and sell (now) through Amazon but I’m a Finn so I’ll get them from Finland (I asked from the Finnish ISBN center). No idea how that would go if you are a citizen of one country but live in another.

      1. From the email answer I got from the Finnish center – in the one I send to them I explained the details, I write in English and publish, for now, through Amazon, but I own the copyrights and am a Finnish citizen who lives in Finland – it seems that at least in Finland (and presumably EU) they think that if the copyright is in Finland (since I own them and I am here) the ISBNs should be Finnish, no matter where the books come out. Presumably the idea is that since I can be seen as the publisher (again because I have the copyrights) the books are published by a Finnish publisher, just sold through an American firm.

        The one thing I didn’t think to ask which is more important, that I am a citizen or that I live here, and would this change if I moved to an other country but still had the Finnish citizenship.

  9. Now wait a minute…

    One of the GREAT things about re-uploading an ebook is that you can fix errata. There’s no excuse not to. Any reader you might startle with an announcement is one who has already bought that book (and probably any other related work) vs the not-yet-bought reader who will get a better initial work as a result.

    You can also maintain an up-to-date “Also by author…” list page. Both of these things make for not-infrequent re-uploading.

    The first need dies away as all errata are weeded out (and there are plenty of trad published books with errata that can’t be bothered to clean up — I want my books to be better than that). But the second need does NOT die away. Each month that I put out a new story in my series I want to update the “Also by” page on the other works in that series (and with live links). If the series ends up with 4 novels and 10 short stories, then the oldest one will be updated at least 13 times, and that’s a GOOD thing. I’ve always hated buying a mid-series work in print in the old days and not knowing what else existed, putting a barrier in the way.

    Yes, I don’t want my customers to be told each time a trivial upload occurs, but I think that policy will become more sane over time. My desire for accurate, up-to-the-minute correct (no error) content and metadata is greater.

    1. Karen, I’m going to disagree — mildly — with updating to keep the author page updated. At least with regard to Amazon. You should have an Amazon Author Central Page. Most shoppers will look at that and not go back to a book they have already read to see what that author has out. Also, it gets lost with all the other back material that is starting to crop up in e-books such as the letter from the author asking readers to tweet and facebook and reddit, etc., about the book. Honestly, most readers don’t even look at the about the author etc., sections of the book. But that’s just me.

  10. 1) Not all Amazon regions have an Author Central page (of course I use them where they exist), and non-Amazon is worse, and not everyone looks at them. I have live links in the Also By pages that link to my website book pages whence they can click to any retailer to purchase, so it’s retailer independent.

    2) I treat Also By as front matter, since it helps establish credibility for the Preview reader to see how much of that series exists, whether the book they’re looking at is my only one, etc. It’s also a better match to traditional printed book layouts.

    It’s not that they can’t figure these things out by other means, it’s that many of them wouldn’t bother.

    I’m (re-)reading my way through the complete Chelsea Quinn Yarbro Saint-Germain backlist which is starting to appear on Kindle. Traditional publishers. They’ve been OCRd and there’s an error at least every couple of pages, or several dozen per book. Wouldn’t it be nice if the publishers thought their customers merited cleaner versions, and could be bothered to fix the errata at least afterwards, if not before? When’s the last time you saw a traditionally published book that supplied a way for you to contact them to report errata? (Never)

    I include an offer in my back matter to give people a free paperback if they find 5 new errors (as a way to “make my books better for everyone”). I give away one or two paperbacks and, lo, the errors that slipped thru multiple rounds of edit/proofread are gone from the copies on sale. One of my readers does legal contracts for a living — she reads the books as soon as they come out and earns her next paperback right away. A great deal for both of us.

    I know that the Amazon notification of an edition update exists, but I’ve bought almost 300 Kindle ebooks in the last couple of years, at least half of them indie, and I’ve only gotten 1 notification that I can recall, for The Belgariad, and that was for genuine new edition reasons — new/changed material. It can’t be that common. Anyone else have any numbers they can offer?

    1. Karen, to each their own. I’ve never said my way is the only way. I guess I’d rather be writing than spending time updating the “other works by” page, especially since I do link back to my page or, in NRP’s case, their home page. As for the email notifications, I have I don’t know how many kindle books and, in the last three months, I’ve received more than half a dozen email notifications of new versions of an e-book now being available. Checking my “manage your kindle” page, there are more listed there — I don’t have time this morning to check each of the multiple pages of titles to see exactly how many. So, as I’ve said earlier, it depends on each person’s account.

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