Tag Archives: ISBN

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.

The Paperwork of Publishing (part one)

ISBN scanIf you want to maintain full control of your work, there are four criteria that are absolute.

  1. You purchase and use your own ISBN numbers.
  2. You register your work with the U.S. Copyright office.
  3. You maintain total control of the digital files that create books for your readers.
  4. You direct all the proceeds from sales to your own financial coffers.

Let’s start with a quick lesson on ISBNs, International Standard Book Numbers.

These are the 13-digit numbers you find printed at the top of the bar code on a book’s back cover. In this country, the ONLY place to buy legal ISBNs (the ones recognized by the entire industry) is the R.R. Bowker Company, our friends who are responsible for Books-in-Print. Here’s the correct website: ISBN.

Why is this so important? A book’s ISBN (and this is true for ebooks, audiobooks, and books-on-paper) functions like its Social Security number. No matter where you work in the U.S., the money you earn for Social Security goes into your account. If your book has a legitimate ISBN, no matter where it’s sold, the proceeds of the sale are yours.

There are some circumstances when using another company’s ISBN is OK. At the moment, those circumstances include: publishing with Blurb.com, Lulu.com, Create Space.com and Kindle.com because so far, these companies have not tried to control books bearing their ISBNs. If you’re just starting out in the publishing business and you don’t want to spend a lot of money, using an ISBN from these companies just to gain the experience of publishing is OK.

But once you get serious, purchase and use your own ISBNs. They cost $125 for one but buy ten because it’s $250. There’s no expiration date. They are unique to you or your publishing company if you decide to give yourself a name. No one else but you can use them. Don’t bother purchasing bar codes because the major digital book printers will supply them.

When it’s your ISBN, it’s very, very clear who controls the money earned by your book.

On the dark side of this coin, run as fast as you can away from any company that will not agree to let you use your own ISBN (unless you’re dealing with a reputable traditional publisher). In the self-publishing world, owning a book’s ISBN is analogous to owning the rights to a book, and it’s a sure sign of a company with less than stellar ethics.

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.


Sonja Hakala’s Your Book, Your Way is being revised and renamed. You can read sections of What Would William Shakespeare Do? in real time right here. If you want to start at the beginning, you can by clicking here.
If you turn over just about any printed book published in the past thirty years, chances are good you’ll find a bar code with a row of 13 digits across its top. The digits are preceded by the letters ISBN, an acronym that stands for one of the most important concepts in publishing whether it’s on paper or electronically.

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. ISBNs are used on books all over the world, part of an inventory and financial network that ensures that the money paid for a book eventually makes it way to its publisher.

They are very important. In fact, it’s safe to say that whoever owns a book’s ISBN controls its financial life.

The ISBN number featured in this illustration is from my first book on publishing, Your Book Your Way. It is a code that can be read by any bookseller in North America and beyond. Here’s what it means:

978: This prefix is part of every ISBN issued to publishers in North America. When you see these three digits on a contemporary book, it means it was published in the U.S., Canada or Mexico.

0: This single digit means that the book was published in the English language.

9790046: These six digits represent the meat of an ISBN. These numbers are generated and sold to publishers (an individual can be considered a publisher), and are unique to that publisher. In this ISBN, 9790046 means Full Circle Press LLC. This company is the sole designated owner of every ISBN with this combination of six digits. They are different from every other publisher’s ISBN designation.

Whenever a book published by Full Circle Press LLC is sold, the money it earns follows the financial trail created by its ISBNs.

1-2: The last two digits of an ISBN are check digits, different for every title in a publisher’s catalog. In other words, the ISBNs for Full Circle Press LLC are identical to one another except for the last two.

So, to put this particular ISBN all together, here is what these 13 digits tell you:

Your Book, Your Way was published in English in North America by Full Circle Press LLC.

“Follow the money” is the most quoted line from the movie All the President’s Men. (It never actually appears in the book but was part of the screenplay written by William Goldman, to give proper credit where credit is due.) To use this same concept in book-speak, money follows ISBNs.

Let’s use a concrete example of how this works.

If you buy a copy of What Would William Shakespeare Do? on Amazon.com (and it will be available there), Amazon records your payment, takes its share of the proceeds, and then moves the money along to the book’s printer and distributor, Lightning Source in this case.

Lightning Source records the sale, subtracts the cost of printing from the proceeds from Amazon, and then pays the remainder to the book’s publisher, Full Circle Press LLC.

If What Would William Shakespeare Do? was published by Random House, Amazon would send the money from its sales there.

If What Would William Shakespeare Do? was published by iUniverse (perish the thought), proceeds from the sales would end up at iUniverse.

Now here’s where this gets tricky—and important for authors to understand. Once sales revenue reaches a book’s publisher, that entity is responsible for the accounting of sales to the book’s author.

If you are traditionally published, this means that you need to trust the quarterly accounting reports (royalty reports) you get from your publisher. Same rule applies if you use a self-publishing company such as iUniverse or Author House or Publish America.

However, if you independently publish your work—in essence, set up your own publishing company—then the sales reports and money flow directly to you.

No middle man.

Next week: Why owning your own ISBNs is as important as controlling your copyright.