Tag Archives: independent book publishing

The Paperwork of Publishing (part two)

Copyright symbolThere’s a long discussion about copyright in my guild to independent publishing, Publish Your Book Your Way but here’s the core lesson you need to know—you are not required to register your work with the U.S. Copyright office in order for your rights to be protected.

HOWEVER, if you ever get into a dispute over copyright, the entity who registers it with the U.S. Copyright office has the stronger case.

That’s why we recommend you handle this part of publishing yourself. You can do this online here: U.S. Copyright office.

Now, traditional publishers generally do this for their authors, and under these circumstances, it’s legit as long as you understand that you’ll never have complete control over your own work again. This is how traditional publishing works—they pay you money, you relinquish rights in return.

If you’re publishing your work independently, then please register your own copyright. It’s $35 if you do it online, $65 if you do it through the mail. The copyright form is pretty straightforward. Just remember to send them two copies of your book when it’s published.

The real rub over copyright comes in the self-publishing realm. Every self-publishing company brags about the fact that “you retain your copyright” to your work. And it’s true that some of them will register your work in your name with the U.S. Copyright office.

But there’s a significant percentage of self-publishing companies who will register your work under their name. In essence, they are stealing (yep, let’s call it what it is) the rights to your work.

Our advice from here is simple—buy your own ISBNs and register your own copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. That way, there’s no question who’s in control of your work.

Who Controls Your Book?

In this age of audio, electronic, web-ready and paper books, how do authors control their work?
iUniverse crossed out
The most direct answer is this: The one who controls the master file that makes a book manifest controls the book.

So what in the heck does that mean?

Let’s start with a familiar example to help explain this important concept. All books-on-paper are now printed from digital files (PDFs) that function just like the digital files you have on your computer. Chances are that you’re using word processing software of some sort to write your book. When you do that, you are creating a digital file that makes your book manifest (real).

This is an important concept in copyright law as well.

As long as your work is on your computer and your computer alone, there’s no question about control. It’s yours. You control it.

But what happens if you take that word processing document and send it to a self-publishing company such as iUniverse so that they can turn it into a “real book”?

If you go this route (and we sincerely hope you do not), you will send a sizable check to iUniverse for their work, and they will create a PDF of your book’s interior and a PDF of its cover.

Let’s be clear about this—if you choose this path to publishing, you will be paying a company to make your Word doc into a hold-it-in-your-hands book-on-paper. So the digital file that gets used to print your book should be yours to control, right? In other words, you’ve paid for this work so the result should be controlled by you. Right?

Nope. Not even close.

Every self-publishing company touts the fact that authors who use them always own the rights to their work. Theoretically, that’s true (in most cases). What you don’t own are the digital master files—that you’ve paid for—that are used to make copies of your book.

So what if you’re unhappy with sales on the iUniverse website and want to print your book somewhere else? iUniverse will give you those files—for an additional fee—IF IF IF your contract allows for that.

Or you could be stuck…forever.

This is standard procedure in the self-publishing industry—you pay to create your work but you don’t really own the results.

There’s gotta be a better way, right?

Creative and Business Control

What Would William Shakespeare Do? will be available in the fall of 2014
What Would William Shakespeare Do? will be available in the fall of 2014

Let’s face it, authors who choose to publish their work independently (which means not with a traditional publisher or self-publishing company) are the new kids on the publishing block, relatively speaking. As a group, not much is known about them—how they think, why they choose this path to publishing, what they earn, etc.

So any time these authors are surveyed about anything, there’s a lot of interest in their answers. Such is the case with one of the first surveys of independent authors done by Digital Book World. Their answer to one of the key questions made a pretty big splash in publishing circles.

The question was this: Why did you choose to independently publish?

Most folks expected the answer to be “money” because independent publishing authors keep the publisher and author portions of the royalties earned on their books. But the number one answer, by a very wide margin, was CREATIVE CONTROL!

On the face of it, creative control means choosing what’s on your book’s cover, how a book is edited, and what it looks like on the inside.

But behind the scenes, creative control means taking charge of who prints your book, deciding when it will be published, choosing the format for your work (paper/electronic/audio), and where it’s distributed.

In order to do that, you must own your own ISBN numbers. In fact, we recommend that you make using your own ISBNs one of the criteria for choosing a publishing partner.

The only exception to this rule (and we make this recommendation with some reservations) is if you publish with a reputable traditional publishing company, one with a long track record of bringing quality books to readers. They will assign one of their ISBNs to your book.

Outside of traditional publishing, if a potential publishing partner insists on using their own ISBNs, turn around and walk away because the unwritten rule behind ISBN ownership is that it confers publishing rights.


As pointed out earlier, ISBNs are assigned to publishers. And yes, individuals are now considered publishers in the ISBN world so you can put out your books under your name if that is what you choose to do.

There is only one agency in the U.S. from which you can purchase legitimate ISBNs and that is the R.R. Bowker Company, the same folks who put out Books in Print. Their website is: www.ISBN.org. When you click on the button on their home page that says “Buy Your ISBNs Today,” it will bring you to their commercial site which is www.MyIdentifiers.com.

Please be absolutely sure that you are on the correct site when you do this. There are bogus imitators out there ready and willing to take your money for fake ISBNs.

Once you are on the MyIdentifiers site, follow the prompts to set up your account (you will need a publishing company name and a credit card). Once you’ve hit the “Buy Now” button, you will be assigned your own unique set of numbers.

Please notice two things as you go through the ISBN purchasing process—the price and a prompt to purchase bar codes.

You can buy a single ISBN for $125. Believe us when we tell you that this is not a good deal because you can buy ten ISBNs for $250, and if you decide to publish on paper and electronically, you will need at least two (one number per format).

ISBNs do not have an expiration date. You will have them forever so go ahead and buy ten.

As for the bar codes, don’t bother. Most printers generate bar codes for free when you give them your ISBN.

Once you have your ISBNs in order, you can claim to be your own publishing company!

There’s more about ISBN ownership and what it means in upcoming chapters on traditional and self-publishing.

Johannes Gutenberg Still Matters

Sonja Hakala’s Your Book, Your Way is being revised and renamed. You can enjoy What Would William Shakespeare Do? in real time right here. If you want to start at the beginning, you can by clicking here.
Rolloff pile for web
Chapter One

The book publishing industry developed in the quintessential middle ground between those who produce the raw materials of a book (writers and their manuscripts) and those who manufacture finished products from those raw materials (printers and their printing presses).

When you study the history of the book publishing industry, you realize its internal structure has always been dictated by the technology of printing. To put this in a contemporary perspective, the chaos in contemporary book publishing was not caused by changes among writers or new demands from readers or booksellers. Nope, book publishing as we’ve known it from the mid-19th century to today is coming apart at the seams because of digital printing.

If you really want to understand how book publishing works—knowledge you can use to your advantage as an author—then you need to understand a little bit about printing.

In 1439, in Germany, a clever goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg got involved in a secret operation that included a wine press, ink, oil, paper, and a device that could mold multiples of the same letter out of metal. The result of this man’s secret operation is credited with changing the course of history in western Europe, changes that eventually touched every corner of the world.

When you say the name Gutenberg, everyone thinks “Oh, the movable-type guy.” But crediting Gutenberg with merely inventing movable type is actually an injustice. What Gutenberg really invented was a complete printing system.

Think about what you need to write a letter by hand—a writing implement (pencil or pen) that holds a substance (ink or graphite) with which you can make a mark on a surface (paper) that can be read by someone else. At each step in this process, these objects—the pen, the ink, the paper—must work together in a very explicit way so that you can write a letter and someone else can read it. But what would you do if you didn’t have ink that flowed easily or only a paper towel to write on? What if you wanted to print hundreds of copies of your letter? What would you do? These are the challenges that Gutenberg faced.

Let’s define movable type before we go much further. When you use movable type, you create swaths of text by combining hundreds of individual metal components—letters, numerals, spaces, punctuation marks—so they function as a single unit. The beauty of movable type is that when your printing job is done, you can take all those individual components apart and reconfigure them in a new block of text.

Compare this type of printing to a rubber stamp. With a rubber stamp, every letter, space and punctuation mark is fixed, to be used in one configuration only. You can see the advantages of movable type, I’m sure.

The concept of movable type was well-known in Europe by the time of Gutenberg. It was already in use in different parts of Asia—primarily China and Korea—in the 11th century. But the Asian versions of movable type were made primarily of ceramic and wood, substances that function like rubber stamps, not movable type.

Asian printers faces another problem that put them at a disadvantage when it came to the full-scale development of movable type—their pictographic alphabets. Depending on what authority you consult, there’s a minimum of 20,000 characters in the Chinese alphabet. Imagine, if you will, trying to carve 20,000 characters out of wood or molding them into ceramic in a way that they could be used over and over again.

Compare this scenario with the one Gutenberg faced—26 letters, ten numerals, and a handful of common punctuation marks. Our symbolic alphabet gave team Gutenberg a distinct advantage in the development of a method to print massive quantities of words on paper.

Since Gutenberg was a goldsmith by profession, the choice of using metal to create letters that could be used again and again must have been obvious. Metal stands up well to being inked and pressed on paper. When it gets worn, you can melt it and reuse it. But you need the right combination of metals to make type that leaves a clear impression on paper without punching holes in its surface. To solve this problem, Gutenberg mixed lead, tin, and antimony for his type. This combination is still in use in letterpress printing today.

At the time Gutenberg began his work, ink was simply a mixture of colorant in water, and the quality of paper was haphazard at best. So Gutenberg developed an oil-based ink that dried on the surface of paper without blurring or soaking in. And he developed a way to make paper with a consistent finish to hold just the right amount of ink.

Of all his inventions, Gutenberg’s matrix molding system for creating metal copies of the same letter over and over again was the most significant. Imagine the time it would take to individually carve every letter e on this page! Using Gutenberg’s method, you could carve a single letter e and then make as many of them as you wanted.

Printers Rule

Sonja Hakala’s Your Book, Your Way is being revised and renamed. You can enjoy What Would William Shakespeare Do? in real time right here. If you want to start at the beginning, you can by clicking right here.
Bed made of books

Back at the dawn of the 21st century, I was at a dinner party with an author who had received a sizable advance for her first book, as in a six-figure sizable advance. But by the time of the dinner party, her first novel was long past, and she was struggling with her second book.

Not writing it but getting it published.

She told me that her agency, a large one in New York, now required all of its clients to have their work edited before it would be considered for submission to a publisher. At the time, that was a new trend. Nowadays, it’s the norm. In fact, it is very rare for an agent or acquisitions editor in a traditional publishing company to consider a book that has not been professionally edited.

In other words, no editing = automatic rejection letter.

My dinner partner had more to say, however. “I don’t think that editor liked one word of my book. She told me it wouldn’t sell enough,” the author said. “There was a time when publishers took on works that had real merit. Now it’s all money, money, money.”

Like most writers, this author believed that writers held the keys to the book publishing industry. But she was wrong.

Book publishing was not created to serve the needs of writers.

Book publishing was created by printers to ferret out the best ways to make money by putting ink on paper.

Writers and writing existed long before Johannes Gutenberg figured out how to mass produce books. Publishing did not.

Most folks believe, as my dinner companion did, that writers are the key to understanding the book publishing industry. After all, that’s what the bestseller lists are all about, right?

But bestseller lists merely track trends in reading habits (or in marketing, if the truth be told). If you watch closely, you’ll soon realize that book publishers are a bit like lemmings when it comes to these lists, figuring that if one boy wizard sells really well, then the reading public wants more boy wizards.

But trends do not have any longterm impact on book publishing. They are merely blips on a sales chart. If you really want to understand how this insane industry works, then you need to understand how books are produced and how they get to their readers.

The process we now refer to as traditional publishing solidified in the late 19th century, about the time Mark Twain, E.M. Forster, Henry James and Edith Wharton were publishing their work. In a nutshell, traditional publishers select books they think will sell, pay to have them produced, and then deliver them to readers via physical bookstores.

Book publishing was, and is, a gated community, with entry denied to all but the lucky few whose books are chosen through a process that ranges from serious to silly to arcane and back again. Fifteen years ago, traditional publishing was your only recourse if you were a writer who wanted to see your books in the hands of readers.

That is no longer true because the structure of traditional publishing has been torn apart by digital print technology, electronic books and reading devices, and the internet. In other words, you no longer need a publisher to get your work to readers. Now you can publish, print or digitize, and sell your own books without waiting for anyone else’s blessing.

In fact, there’s now a path to publishing to satisfy every literary need.

Welcome to the evolution.

Who Controls Your Book?

Books in redWhat, exactly, is a book?

Is it the raw manuscript that you have on your desk top in MS Word or Pages?

Is it the thing on paper between two covers?

Is it the electronic version that someone downloads onto a Kindle or iPad or Android?

Is it the spoken version on CD?

Is it the PDF the you posted on FaceBook?

When you think about it, they’re all books, aren’t they?

Or rather, they are all different forms of the same collection of words by the same author(s).

Prior to the 1960s or so, it’s probable that a book existed in only two versions—the one that an author had meticulously pecked into a typewriter and the one that had a cover with printed pages on the inside.

Since then, we’ve added books on computers, talking books, and a proliferating number of electronic versions. All the same collection of words by the same author(s) and all called books. But they’re so different from one another.

It used to be that the acid test of book ownership rested on what entity (author or publisher) owned a book’s ISBN. And that’s still a pretty good test.
But now there’s an even better one, one with more stringent conditions, and it’s this: the entity that controls the digital file of a book owns the book.

In other words, if the digital file(s) of your book are on your computer, then you are in control of your book, its distribution, and its destiny.

If the file(s) are elsewhere, a place where you can’t control them, then something or someone else controls them.