Buying Just One ISBN Number or Publishing Too Many Books

I originally posted how to obtain ISBN numbers back in July. It was one of the first subjects I addressed on this self publishing blog and in my book, because as far as the world is concerned, the difference between a publisher and an author is ownership of an ISBN number. During the three month break I took from posting, I got a number of requests from authors asking how they could buy one ISBN number. My stock reply has always been that an ISBN block of 10 numbers only costs around $250, and if you aren’t willing to invest that much in your publishing business, you’re starting out on the wrong foot.

I’m not one of the "publishing experts" who is going to tell you that reviewers study your ISBN number to see what size block you’ve been issued and use that to determine if your book is worthy of reviewing. The reason I’m not going to tell you that is because it’s baloney, nobody examines the hyphen position on ISBN blocks to determine the publisher size. Reviewers have either heard of your publishing company before or they haven’t. My reason for discouraging the purchase of a single ISBN number is that it greatly increases the chance that you’ll be adding profits to Bowker’s bottom line in the future, and I really hate a monopoly.

Bowker doesn’t offer the option to purchase a single ISBN on their website, but some self-publishers have reported that if you write to them or talk to a rep on the phone, they will sell you a single number. The prices I’ve heard vary with rounding, but the last figure I heard was over half the cost of a block of ten numbers. In other words, if you decide to release a hardcover, an easy reading large type edition, a second edition, or another title, you’ve got to go back to the well and buy again. With that very next purchase, even if you only buy one ISBN number, you’re already over the cost of a block of ten. It just strikes me as penny wise and pound foolish.

On the other hand, I have seen a growing phenomena with small publishers who use print-on-demand but who purchased large ISBN blocks and get a little too careless with publishing new books. This can mean publishing books that they don’t really want to invest too much time into, or churning out public domain and out-of-copyright classics on the theory, "What can it hurt?" It can hurt the bottom line of a publishing business to publish too many titles just because it’s not that expensive. I’m not talking about damage to a publisher’s reputation, there aren’t any blacklists for sloppy publishers and it’s a rare customer who checks all the backlist reviews on Amazon before buying a new title.

It hurts the publisher’s bottom line to publish too many books because those inexpensive setup fees add up to something, in the thousands of dollars if you’re talking about dozens of titles. Even more importantly, packaging those titles still takes time, which is time stolen from researching the market for titles with a better chance of success, and marketing those titles already in print. Sometimes I suspect some publishers keep publishing new titles just because they want an excuse not to work at marketing their existing line-up. It’s just easier to keep throwing new ideas at the wall and waiting to see if one sticks – you know – the big trade approach:-)

New York Publishers and Doing Lunch

I received a number of invitations this year to do exactly the sorts of things I don’t like doing, public speaking, traveling, eating with strangers, the very things I feel an author shouldn’t have to do to get by. Fortunately, I’m earning a decent living self-publishing, so I was able to turn them all down. Thinking back on the year, I got some unexpected publicity through a brief collaboration on Amazon Longtail Analysis, through a DRM problem on one of my e-books, and through this blog. However, the most interesting proposal I got this year was to have dinner in New York with the Vice President of Sales for one of the top five trade publishers in the world.

I turned the proposal down without even thinking about it thanks to two of reasons I listed above: travel and eating. The funny thing that occurred to me this morning as I was thinking about restarting the blog is that I’d made the right decision for the wrong reasons. I came to this conclusion when I started trying to think of how the meeting could have benefited my publishing business and kept on drawing blanks. I suppose "doing lunch" (even when it’s dinner) in NYC with a publisher might have made a nice anecdote if I ever write another book about publishing. But, having already been published as an author by a top trade, I can truthfully say that there’s nothing I want from them at the moment.

Then the flash bulb went off! Is it possible that they wanted something from me? A big New York publisher with over a billion dollars in sales wanting to chat with a self-publisher who has yet to break $100K? Since I’m single and the VP in question is a woman, I suppose it might have been some elaborate setup for a blind date by friends or family with my best interests at heart, but I kind of doubt it. I think she was interested in picking my brain a little about Internet book marketing, which has become a sort of a public crusade with me. Having spoken to several editors at this publisher’s over the years, it was clear that they took the institutional view that Internet book marketing doesn’t work. A paraphrase from an acquisitions editor I spoke to back in the mid 90’s was "We tried that and it didn’t work."

I finally got to wondering what exactly they tried. Did they pick some title they’d been unable to give away on paper, much less sell, put the whole thing online, and then nod their heads sagely when nobody bought it? Did they take press-ready PDF’s (complete with crop marks) and bury them in some hidden corner of their website, accessed only by a small text link from a "New technology" page? Did they spend a lot of money and time setting up a whole website with access by registration only, and no way of knowing what the site contained until you signed up? I’m willing to bet that whatever traffic they got they tried to sell the book(s) at full retail plus shipping and handling, with some clunky form-driven process required to process the order that frequently made the browser lock-up.

Maybe it was some combination of all of the above, but the one thing that’s become clear to me, listening to big New York publishers talk about Internet marketing, is that they are all convinced that it’s some complicated new game. They’re all wrong. There’s nothing simpler than marketing non-fiction books on the web. All it requires is patience, large excerpts and a quality book. Patience is required because it takes time for web pages to earn traffic from the search engines based on how they are linked by other sites. Large excerpts are required, in standard HTML (i.e., web page format) because nobody is going to link to an advertisement. Finally, a quality book is required because the people who read the large excerpts aren’t going to be motivated to tell other people about it through linking if they don’t think that it’s good.

That may sound like a tall order to a NYC publisher, but it’s as close to child’s play as it gets for a self publisher. You don’t even need to master a basic HTML editor to post the excerpts, you can do it with a free blogging tool, like the one I used from to publish this. The one thing I left out above because it doesn’t apply to large publishers who already have established websites is that you need to get a couple initial links so that search engines can start finding your site. You can get them by posting informative comments to the types of discussion groups or blogs that welcome the practice, you can spend a few dollars on a PRweb or a similar service, you can submit to directories (though I wouldn’t waste too much time), or you can beg friends and co-workers. The most important thing you can do, and the advantage you have over the large publishers, is to start the web marketing process before you finish writing the book.

Cook Books and Nutrition for the Bachelor’s Diet

Fifteen or so years ago when I was unhappy about everything from the way the world worked to the way my stomach didn’t, I went on a vegetarian kick. I kept it up for a year or more, and while I didn’t go so far as eliminating tuna fish (one of my five basic food groups), I stayed away from meat and prepared foods. It’s the only period in my life that I bought any nutrition or cook books. I was actually forced to cook some when I was a vegetarian, and I worked as a cook a few places in my college days, but I do very little of it now. In fact, I haven’t had a stove for around ten years, and I’m currently staying in a temporary apartment in Jerusalem without a refrigerator for three months, but that’s another story.

Back in those aforementioned college days, my basic bachelor’s diet was dark tuna fish every other day (88 cents for two cans at Star on sale) and macaroni on the days that fell in between for dinner. I used to melt American cheese on the macaroni, not realizing at the time that it wasn’t so much cheese as solidified vegetable oil with cheese flavor. Sometimes I’d get creative and boil some rice and fry an onion instead. My roommate used to accuse me of being ascetic, but I saved my pennies for lunch, which was either a meatball sub from the roach coach on the quad or a slice of Sicilian pizza from the Greek place on Huntington Ave. Breakfast was coffee and a cigarette.

Twenty years later, I’m not really in a good position to write and publish a cook book, but I’d love to find one that met my needs. As a bachelor who really can’t be bothered to do much more than boil water on a hot plate, it would have to show some real imagination. Unlike the me of twenty years ago, I actually care about things like nutrition and dietary fiber these days. For example, I quit smoking cigarettes and started eating a little breakfast some years back, which eventually standardized on oatmeal. Then I got bored with plain oatmeal and wanted more fiber, so I ventured into bran cereal with yogurt, but the stuff requires refrigeration. About two years ago, I finally figured out how to combine the best feature of bran cereal (dietary fiber) with the best features of oatmeal (texture and hot) as follows:

Put one teaspoon of Taster’s Choice instant coffee in a ceramic mug. Fill to within a half-inch of the brim with bran cereal. Next add boiling water, noting that the level of the cereal will drop as the flakes become water logged, and stop adding water when the top flakes are just above the surface. Next, stir the mixture with a tablespoon, making sure to dissolve the instant coffee throughout the mixture, and let stand for 3 to 5 minutes to solidify. Eat bran-coffee cereal with a tablespoon and try not to get it on the laptop keyboard, because it hardens like cement.

Now why can’t somebody publish a cook book like that for me? Save me from the dinner I just had:

Open one can of tuna fish and drain oil. Use a fork to extract the tuna from the can onto a plate. Rinse one tomato and one small cucumber (pickling size). Dice the tomato and the cucumber onto the plate. Take an unsliced loaf of bread, slice off bread to taste, plate with the tuna, tomatoes and cucumber. Add salt. Sit in front of the TV, use the fork to get some of the tuna fish and vegetables onto a piece of bread, eat like a starving man.

A niche cook book for non-cooking bachelors might be a hit with a self publisher. I suppose it might even work for a trade publisher if it were humorous enough. The ideal for me would be a cookbook that features meals that can be prepared in seconds from ingredients that keep for years, and nutritional information. Focus on the fiber and the protein, please.