Better Investments for Authors than ISBNs

If you want to buy ISBNs in the US, Bowker (the only purveyor of said, but we won’t even start with the monopoly in effect) charges the following:

  • $125 for 1 ISBN
  • $295 for 10 ISBNs
  • $575 for 100 ISBNs
  • $1500 for 1000 ISBNs

Obviously this rewards buying in bulk, and my guess is for a corporate publisher like Random House or HarperCollins, they probably have even better deals in place, purchasing tens of thousands at a time.

But you’re not a corporation. You’re an author, with one book you want to sell. You’re looking at that single ISBN, which would be fine except as far as I know you can’t fully personalize that option enough to list yourself as publisher if that’s the one you chose. Also, as you read more, you’ll learn more about Bowker’s proposed best practices for ISBN usage, like that each version of your book should have its own (which to me renders the whole “My book has one unique 13-digit identifier” argument moot, but like I said, none of the arguments have made sense or convinced me thus far). So you need one for the print version, and even though you don’t need any for digital versions, Bowker says you need not only another but another for each version. So you’ll need one for the Amazon (.mobi) version, and another for the version for other stores (.epub, most likely). But I mean  why stop there? You might at some point need a .pdf, and who knows, maybe someone will want as plain .txt for some reason, and hey you wrote the thing in a .doc, and don’t forget the semaphore  and smoke signal versions!

Even for one book, the proposal is to invest that $300, because out of the gate you’ll need three (print, .mobi, .epub), and you’ll probably write more books, or . . .

But you’re looking at this as an investment, which is because, I propose, you’re looking at writing as a potential career. You want to write lots more books, and that $575 option is looking like the best bang for your buck.

Here are better ways to spend that money.

A 4k Monitor

A lot is made about how good videos and games look on 4K monitors, but you know what it really makes a difference for? Text. Simple black letters on a white screen. I’ve found it reduces eye strain, and you can get some awesome, large monitors for a fairly good price on Amazon.

A Mac

MacOS is great software. Pages is a terrific program that lets you save a document on your desktop and access those latest changes via your iPhone or iPad without actually taking any other steps. It’s like magic! But that’s not all; you can get to the iBookstore through a distributor (like Draft2Digital or Smashwords), but if you want to go direct, you’ll need iTunes Producer, which Apple unfortunately makes only for the Mac. Also, I think some distributors require you have an ISBN for very, very niche venues. You can get an entry-level Mac mini for $500, or you can check Apple’s online refurbished section. I just got a great mini with better than entry-level specs for a barely-more-than-entry-level price.


Vellum is a Mac-only ebook formatting program that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. It’s wonderfully visual and lets you accomplish complex graphics and layout options with simplicity. What’s more: it’s free to use, and the only charge comes when you actually generate your ebook, at which point it’s $10 per ebook (and I believe that’s all formats), or you can just buy a license that lets you generate unlimited ebooks for $200.

Setting up an LLC

I noted some people think that an ISBN somehow confers professionalism or legitimacy. I say find a small-business lawyer, set up a consultation, talk to them for an hour about what you’re doing and how you want to do it, get their counsel, and with them set yourself up as the small business you are. Because all indie authors are at the very least small presses whose lists happen to be books by a single author (and who knows, maybe one day you’ll want to work with other authors). Prices will vary by lawyer fees, but when I founded Exciting Press, I worked with a lawyer who advised me about business structures, helped me file, and worked with me on a relatively standard, easy-to-read agreement I could use going forward, and the full price for all that was less than Bowker wants for 1000 ISBNs.

A Good Editor/Cover

I’ve seen some bad covers. I’ve seen places that offer pre-made covers for, like, $150. I think if you want a professional-quality cover you need to work with a professional designer, which I’d wager would start around $300. Editing? A professional content edit (both typos and story structure) would probably go as high as $1500 or $2000, but I think if you shop around, you could probably manage both for that $1500 you wanted to give Bowker, and believe me it’s better spent going back to the creative community and when your book stands out, it won’t be because of a  13-digit number.

That should give you a good start.

No, You Still Don’t Need an ISBN for Digital

Almost four years ago now, I wrote on my own site about ISBNs: “Why You Don’t Need an ISBN (and What You Should Invest in Instead)”

That post still gets a lot of traffic, and I see a lot of people on Twitter and Facebook still sharing it. Some ask me whether it’s still the case.

A week or so ago, the ever-anonymous Data Guy, who collaborates with Hugh Howey on Author Earnings, released a new report. February 2017 Big, Bad, Wide & International Report: covering Amazon, Apple, B&N, and Kobo ebook sales in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

It was interesting to dive into. It covered the big four digital retailers in what I think is the big five English-language markets.

Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. Kindle, iBookstore, nook, and, well, Kobo, respectively. Data Guy sums it up thusly:

So this time, we rolled up our sleeves and basically went for the whole enchilada:

  • The top five English-language countries
  • The fifteen largest ebook stores
  • 750,000 top-selling ebook titles, in all genres and categories.
  • All of it calibrated against 700,000 points of raw, unfiltered daily sales data, from over 20,000 distinct ebook titles across all 15 stores.

When we were done, we were looking at the most comprehensive international picture of English-language ebook sales available anywhere. And now, we’re excited to share it with authors everywhere around the world.

That seems a pretty big swath of the digital market.

There are a couple of things that those digital retailers all have in common. They’re all part of big corporations: Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Rakuten. Together they possess, what, like a hundred years of bookselling experience? Barnes & Noble has been in business since around the seventies, I think. Amazon started in the late 90s. Apple and Kobo entered much later; Apple with the iBookstore at the launch of the iPad, and Kobo in 2009 in within Canada’s Indigo ecosystem.

Know what else they all have in common?

None require an ISBN for you to list your ebook for sale in their respective marketplaces. In fact, Apple is really the only one that requires any sort of specialized or proprietary anything, and that’s because in order to upload a book directly to the iBookstore, you have to use Apple’s iTunes Producer software, which is Mac only.

Should you get one anyway?

I mean, that’s a decision for you to make, but I still haven’t seen a compelling reason. Usually, the arguments for ISBNs fall into four categories:


Because what if Amazon goes out of business!? This argument basically posits that associating a unique identifying number with a particular version of a book has a positive benefit for the life of that version. And I mean, I guess. But to me it feels a pretty flimsy case for an at-least-$250 investment. I don’t know your financial situation, but me, if I’m spending north of $250 on something, I like for that something to be more of a need than a want.


Because access to some niche not covered among those mentioned in that block quote up above is apparently exceedingly important. But hey, maybe people want to list their books as “#1 Books-a-Dozen Bestseller.”


The argument here seems to be that no matter where your book is, a reader would be able to look it up by this convenient 13-digit number, as if any reader ever has looked up a book by its ISBN. “Excuse me, my bookclub is reading 573-689078540542789480-2589026. Do you have that in stock, or can you order it for me?”

The Appearance of Professionalism

I’ve read authors argue that having an ISBN makes them seem more “legitimate.” Because it’s what “traditional” publishers use. I say if you’re relying on a random 13-digit number for the appearance of either professionalism or legitimacy you’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Now, provided, all this would be moot elsewhere. In the US, ISBNs are divvied about by Bowker, who uses a bulk pricing system. Want one? Last I looked, one is $100 and has limitations like you can’t list yourself as publisher (and there went that whole professionalism/legitimacy thing), which means you’re automatically looking at the next tier, which is $250 for 10. So $25 per. Up to $1000 for 1000.

Me, I go back to necessity and intention.

Do you want your book in bookstores?

If so, you shouldn’t be trying indie anyway. If you want your book in print and on retailers shelves, get to querying. I wish you luck.

Do you want a high quality ebook for sale on all major digital platforms?

In that case, you don’t need one. If you want one anyway, that’s one thing. But you shouldn’t think you need one.

So I stand by the thoughts in that original post. You don’t need an ISBN for your ebooks, and you’d arguably do better investing the money you’d spend on one in something else instead. More on that next post.



A Softer Launch

Nothing like a soft launch.

I don’t remember when I learned of the availability of new domains, but the moment I saw .press was among them, I picked it up. Because Exciting Press was doing well in terms of content, but I wanted more.

Not just more sales, though there is that, as I’m sure all the authors I work with agree.

No, I wanted more than that. I wanted better, deeper engagement. I wanted to think more, and write more. I felt I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the platforms available; I wanted to focus on ideas that couldn’t be contained in 140 characters, and reception and response not summed up by emojis.

But I didn’t want a blog. I’m on record as despising the word. It sounds like the internet got drunk and puked in its navel — and very often reads that way, too. And let’s be honest, there are few things worse than the egregiously drunk guy at the bar. You know the one I mean. He just tried to hit on you but threw up on your shoes. Maybe both.

But knowing what you don’t want doesn’t help. So I had to figure out what I did want.

I always wanted to connect readers with authors, and I realized that included more than laying out books and publishing them on Kindle.

I went back to the beginning. I became a writer because the books I wanted to read weren’t available; I had to write them. I went back to the same principle here; what did I want to read?

I started with that, building toward that. Behind the scenes, I’m tweaking pages, making this site not just easy to navigate but easy for people to find new stories. Putting writing and books and authors front and center.

As I envision this, you’ll eventually find writing from the authors I work with, where they can talk about — well, whatever they want, and we can all chat about exciting things. You’ll find reviews, thoughts on craft and writing and publishing. I hope, eventually, you’ll find things that surprise you, make you think, and inspire you.

That’s what I’ve always hoped for Exciting Press.


Behind the Scenes

Two in a row!

You know, it’s been years since I’ve posted anything anywhere, much less two in a row. Maybe Twitter, but I’m going to be honest that I just can’t even with Twitter right now.

Not much to say here; I’m building pages. Of authors! Check out Miya’s! And Nick’s! And everyone’s!

Still, I want to post something here every day.

More Exciting Than Ever

Once upon a time — ten years ago today (but really tomorrow, because I’m typing this to publish on 3/1), I sort of accidentally started Exciting Press when I published a collection of stories, essays, and poetry that I gave my own surname as a title but more importantly attributed to Exciting Books.

That was in 2007. The year Kindle was born.

Five years later, Kindle had grown up, and so had I. I had published two novels by then, and was ready to start working with other authors, which meant I was also ready to make Exciting a thing.

But by then I wasn’t reading books anymore. I was reading all digital, all on my Kindle.

So when it came down to put an official name on this entity, “Exciting Books” felt anachronistic; by then it had already been at least months since I’d last held a book in my hands.

So I went a different route. Because what was important so many years ago in connecting readers with stories wasn’t the paper or the ink or the books but the press.

Not long after I published The Prodigal Hour, I started thinking more deeply about the whole writing/publishing thing. The lines, at that point, had begun to blur, and I think now, when we carry our screens in our pockets and get notifications from any app we want and are literally always connected to information unless we turn it off, there basically aren’t any lines anymore.

I’ve now published dozens of books via Exciting Press, and work with the greatest authors I’ve ever known. Authors who aren’t just fine writers but who are also pushing the boundaries of stories and how they’re sharing them with readers.

I have an idea for where I want Exciting Press to go. How I want it to now evolve. This is the start.