Copyshop Binding and Book Publishing Without an ISBN

In the eyes of the retail world, the difference between a "real" publisher and somebody who binds a bunch of pages into a book and sells it is an ISBN number. Without the ISBN number, the retail and distribution world have a very limited ability to request the book and process the sale, if it somehow manages to become popular. Even books with comb or staple bindings need to have an ISBN number if you want the major chains to be able to process an order. There’s only one way to sell books without an ISBN number, and that’s direct to the customer. You can’t sign up with Lightning Source to do print-on-demand publishing without first purchasing an ISBN block. They only deal with publishers, and the ISBN block is how they differentiate between a publisher and an author.

All that said, I published my first book without an ISBN number back in 1995, I’m not sure I even knew what one was at the time. The book was a copyshop job, not from disk, but from a laser printed master copy that I produced at home. The format was 8.5" x 11", and the binding was perfect (glued), but with a two piece cover. In other words, the cover didn’t wrap around the book, it was just two pieces of colored card stock with a black adhesive for a spine, and the pages glued into place. Nobody would do it that way now, just about every copyshop can print direct from an Acrobat file you bring them on disk, and covers are usually produced at a single sheet on treated paper on a large format color laser or inkjet.

Given a nice four color cover and a perfect binding, there aren’t that many people who can tell the difference between a paperback produced at a copy shop and one from a trade publisher. The cut size and the paper choice can be a give-away in some cases, but for the main part, the toner based copying is sufficiently high resolution to pass as offset, and depending on the equipment, may come out better than production print-on-demand books. Copyshops are an excellent option for producing books with comb bindings, particularly craft books and cookbooks. Not only are comb bindings a requirement for books to lie perfectly flat, but a copyshop gives you the opportunity to hand collate the contents. That means you can use color copying to produce a few expensive color inserts and black and white copying for the balance. That’s appreciably cheaper than doing a whole book with color print-on-demand, though it requires a bit of labor on your part, or an extra payment to the copyshop.

If you are publishing special purpose crafts books that you’ll primarily be selling direct to customers, either face-to-face or through your own shop or Internet site, you can get by without an ISBN. However, you’ll be missing out on the special orders market these books can reach, even without being stocked in stores or available through regular distribution. You can add an ISBN number at any time if you decide to purchase a block, and you may be surprised to find that your book becomes quite a hit on Amazon. There’s no problem selling copyshop published books through Amazon once you have an ISBN, you just sign up through Advantage or sell them strictly through Marketplace. Amazon does allow vendors with merchant accounts to sell books without ISBN numbers by creating an ASIN (Amazon) number for them.

Unfortunately, my own adventure in copyshop book publishing came to a premature end back before anybody had ever heard of Amazon. The problem wasn’t with the quality, the lack of distribution or an ISBN, or even the marketing, since I was able to generate orders through my website. The problem was with the money processing. At the time, it was extremely difficult for a new business to get authorized to accept people’s plastic over the web, and solutions like PayPal were nonexistent. The first few checks that came in from the U.K. and cost me more to deposit than the face value convinced me that I was in over my head, and I sold an expanded version of that book to McGraw-Hill rather than continuing to publish at that time. Biggest mistake I ever made in the publishing business

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