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Self-Publishing and the Book Trade, Part 1: ISBNs, Bar Codes, and Other Identifiers

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Self-Publishing and the Book Trade, Part 1: ISBNs, Bar Codes, and Other Identifiers

Article excerpt

Do-it-yourselfers may be disrupting publishing these days or are thinking that they do, but if you want to get books to consumers, you still have to play by established rules. Distributors, wholesalers, booksellers, and librarians exchange information in tried-and-true formats and won't accept materials that don't conform. Want to know how to get your books into their systems? Read on.

By the way, if you're not an author nor do you plan to become one someday, you might wonder why you should care about self-publishing. The reason? Disintermediation. As media and distribution move more and more into the hands of creators, librarians and information professionals need to understand the new environment. Google Book Search, the Open Content Alliance, Lulu, Amazon, and other major players offer more and more support to self-publishers. You may avoid self-published material today, but sooner or later, you will need to deal with it. And that's not a bad thing; some of it will be great stuff. In the meantime, this column should help you support the entrepreneurial patrons and clients looking into self-publishing.

Regardless of care in preparation, self-published books are usually shunned by professionals who fear amateurish execution. As if the self-publishing stigma weren't enough of an obstacle, there's more: Few companies (distributors, wholesalers, jobbers, etc.)--or even libraries--like to deal with individuals; they'd much prefer dealing with someone "official"--a person who can spout off a company name rather than a personal one. In fact, the big versus little problem is so pervasive that self-publishing guru Dan Poynter, author of the classic The Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book, advises self-publishers to make themselves look bigger by using unconnected names for company, publisher, and author. For example, I shouldn't "do business as" Berinstein Publishing; Paula Berinstein, publisher; and book by author, Paula Berinstein.

Industry insiders aren't merely being snobbish. They have good reasons for rejecting books that don't meet their standards. If your publication doesn't carry the right identifiers and accurate bibliographic information, no one will be able to find it. And if no one can find it, no one can purchase it or even borrow it from a library.


The sine qua non of the book industry is, of course, the good old ISBN (International Standard Book Number). The ISBN identifies the publisher, title, author, edition, binding, and language of a book and is used throughout the book trade to expedite a variety of functions: distribution, rights management, sales/order fulfillment, bibliographic control, warehouse management, stock control, accounting, cataloging, interlibrary loan, and more. You can't get into Books In Print, libraries, or most bookstores without an ISBN number.

Different countries host their own ISBN agencies (more than 160 now exist). In the U.S., R.R. Bowker issues and maintains the numbers. If you publish your book with a self-publishing company, the company can obtain ISBNs for you or you can get your own. More detail on the implications of your choice appears below.

When do I need an ISBN?

A separate ISBN is used on every edition of every book in every format, including electronic. That means in these cases:

* When a different language edition is issued

* When a stand-alone book is published again as part of a series

* When a book is significantly revised

* When a title is changed

* When a new format is issued (hardback, paperback, Braille, audiobook, ebook, etc.)

* When a different ebook format is issued (PDF, HTML, etc., each requires its own ISBN)

You do not have to assign a new ISBN when you change the cover design, color, or price of a book, nor when you correct minor errors.

What are the components of an ISBN? …

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