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Ether for Authors: Rumors of the ISBN’s Demise


Table of Contents

  1. Rumors of the ISBN’s Demise
  2. Jane Friedman’s Guidance: Forget Fiction Platforming
  3. Hash it Out: #IBT13
  4. When It’s All Coming Up Roses: Patrick Wensink
  5. The Used-Digital Debate: Nag­ging at You?
  6. Conferences Coming Up
  7. Last Gas: On Writ­ing and Read­ing, Boys and Matt Haig

Rumors of the ISBN’s Demise

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN), invented in Britain in 1965, took off rapidly as an international system for classifying books, with 150 agencies (one per country, with two for bilingual Canada) now issuing the codes. Set up by retailers to ease their distribution and sales, it increasingly hampers new, small and individual publishers. Yet digital publishing is weakening its monopoly.

Those lines caught a lot of folks by surprise when published earlier this month in The Economist.

(I can’t credit the author of the piece, of course, because of The Economist‘s long-standing and rightly derided policy that asserts the news is more important than its reporters. Anyone in the industry! the industry! of publishing will reject this tradition of not bylining journalists as a shameful denial of the essential centricity of writers.)

The story in question, headlined Book-keeping: Digital publishing may doom yet another analogue standard, points out that in the UK, Nielsen, the ISBN agency there, charges about $190 for 10 ISBNs. It then writes, “Americans can pay $125 for a one-off number to R.R. Bowker, another data provider, but subsequent editions require another fee.” What’s left out is the fact that Bowker sells 10 ISBNs for $250–$25 each.

In November, here at Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors led with a point that we don’t actually know how many ebooks there are, in fact, because ISBNs aren’t used consistently enough.

In Can We See You?, I looked at what can’t be looked at — without ISBNs going onto ebooks, they’re rendered invisible to statistical tracking. While Bowker Research can count some 32.8 million titles in its Books in Print scan, we know that this figure can’t take into account many, many ebooks that have been published—often self-published—without the industry-standard tracking device on them, the ISBN.

The Economist‘s writer gets awfully close to this problem of untracked books without seeing it:

Self-published writers are booming; sales of their books increased by a third in America in 2011. Digital self-publishing was up by 129%. This ends the distinction between publisher, distributor and bookshop, making ISBNs less necessary.

Contrary to what our anonymous journalist thinks, we don’t actually know how much sales of self-publishers’ books went up, again because we can’t track all the books or all the sales, in part because the ISBN isn’t used in many instances. What’s more, sales figures aren’t reported by certain retailers — I’m looking at you, Seattle — so we have anything but the clear picture of an upturn in 2011.

As an aside, I should add that I have yet to meet a self-published writer who is “booming.” Some are bellowing, of course. But I think our byline-less author here meant that self-publication, not its authors, are booming. Good writing is never the wrong choice, you know.

Boom all you like, without the universal code that establishes a book’s presence (and each format needs its own ISBN), then we’re looking at what appears to be an empty shelf.

What should be the primary interest of our industry? Producing literature and serving its readership, of course. Our artists and their readers are the key points. But is there something inherently wrong — or somehow too determinedly journalistic — in wanting to be able to quantify, categorize, and track the progress of the industry through the “tagging” of its output?

When The Economist piece came out, Publishing Perspectives Editor-in-Chief Edward Nawotka wrote it  up and asked readers for their responses to a simple, quick vote on the ISBN system’s effectiveness.

Nawotka asked it this way in Survey: Is It Time to Get Rid of the ISBN?:

Is it now time for the system, a legacy largely tied to print, to end? Or should it be revised and updated to reflect new digital, financial and political realities? Take our survey and let us know what you think in the comments.

Oddly, The Economist‘s story writer seems to think that several proprietary tags might take the place of the long-established ISBN:

Amazon has introduced the Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN). Digital Object Identifiers (DOI) tag articles in academic journals. Walmart, an American supermarket chain, has a Universal Product Code (UPC) for everything it stocks — including books. Humans are also getting labels: the Open Researcher and Contributor ID system (ORCID) identifies academics by codes, not their names. And ISBNs are not mandatory at Google Books.

Michael Cairns

Among the first to respond to The Economist‘s piece is Michael Cairns. He leads off the comments on the story with the succinct overview, “This is a curious article: In some cases, it misses the point and, in others, it misinforms the reader about how the publishing industry currently works.”

He repeats his comments in full at his Personanondata column. In MediaWeek (V7, N9): ISBNs, Books & Commuting, Course Guides, Music Money + More, addressing the unnamed writer of the piece:

It is hard to agree with your statement that the ISBN hampers small publishers when the past ten years have seen the most significant growth in small- and medium-sized publishers in history. Both Bowker and Nielsen report these numbers each year for the US and UK markets. One circumstance you allude to is that in ‘olden times’–when we had more than two significant bookstore chains (in the US)–there was no question as to whether to obtain an ISBN; however, a publisher today could make a perfectly valid decision not to acquire an ISBN and simply sell their book or eBook through Amazon . . . and they could do okay with that. But why would any publisher with a book offering legitimate sales potential want to exclude all other retailers? That would be hard to understand.

Mick Rooney

By the time Mick Rooney, a leader in the international self-publishing community and publisher in Ireland of The Independent Publishing Magazine, joins the responses, you have to wonder if The Economist‘s enforced anonymity isn’t merciful in this case. Rooney writes:

Some articles on publishing from the mainstream media are just dumb. This is one of them. While the whole ISBN system for books has been under review for a couple of years, and has its limitations in view of digital publishing, the writer of this article in The Economist clearly knows Jack Shit about how the publishing and bookselling industries work.

A frequent commenter on the publishing scene, our Canadian colleague Thad McIlroy also gets into the discussion at The Economist. His intent is to deepen the discussion, developing a point indicated but not clearly landed by The Economist:

To remain within the spirit and the practice of the ISBN system, each digital permutation should be awarded a unique identifier. It’s at this moment that the ISBN system collapses. Assuming a publisher even wanted to assign an ISBN to each permutation the cost would be prohibitive (particularly for self-published authors and smaller general trade or academic publishers).

Laura Dawson

But Bowker’s chief of identifiers, Laura Dawson, who leads the Friday “ISBN Hour” on Twitter and who was my interviewee in the November piece, has a deeply experienced and dramatically different view.

In The ISBN still has a place in the digital world, Dawson is interviewed by Jenn Webb at the O’Reilly Media Tools of Change blog and Radar series,

Dawson tells Webb:

ISBNs are necessary if the self-published author intends to sell her books using the traditional book supply chain. If the author is selling direct from her own website, or solely through Amazon (which doesn’t require ISBNs), then no ISBN is necessary. But if the author is distributing her books through a third-party distributor (such as Ingram, or Bookmasters, etc.), then an ISBN will be required. If the author is placing books at Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million or Hastings, an ISBN will be required.

Jenn Webb

And here’s one of the most compelling reasons Dawson offers for entrepreneurial authors to be sure to get ISBNs—control of a book’s data:

If an author insists on not getting her own ISBNs for her books, then they will be assigned for her by the trading partners who need them to do business. Then it becomes a question of ownership and control. The organization that maintains the ISBN data (the title of the book, the suggested retail price, the descriptions, cover image, etc.) will have more influence over how the book appears on websites and where it gets shelved in stores simply because industry systems operate on that data. If I were a self-publisher, I would want to have as much influence as possible in these areas, rather than passively allowing my trading partners to make those decisions for me.

What about Amazon’s ASIN and other identifiers, Webb asks? Dawson:

The ASIN is a great identifier — if you’re within Amazon’s “walled garden.” Outside of Amazon’s environment, it’s a fairly meaningless number.

In her interview with Webb, Dawson also explains the relation to the ISBN of the UPC (the bar code standard) and the EAN, formerly the European Article Number, “an ISO number that forms the backbone of global trade of both physical and digital items.”

Ian Lamont

Still, Rooney balances his own commentary on The Economist‘s story, with a view that prevails among some authors, in a guest post from Ian Lamont headlined Guest Post: How Bowker uses its U.S. ISBN monopoly to rip off new authors.

Lamont asserts that Bowker “enjoyed multi-million dollar profits on the backs of new and independent authors and small publishers” — but he doesn’t have this information from the company. Instead, he extrapolates it from reports of small-press self-published titles. He concedes that Bowker “did not respond to my March 5 email about ISBN pricing.”

He also seems to equate Bowker’s recommendation that each format of a book have an ISBN with saying that books must have ISBNs. He writes:

Even though ISBNs are not necessary for ebooks, Bowker urges new authors to buy ISBNs “for each format of your book…ISBNs may be used for either print or digital versions” while admitting to the publishing establishment that “no ISBN is necessary” for authors using Amazon.

Lamont refers in his piece to The Economist‘s article, and repeatedly asserts in his story what is already known to be true, that some ebook publishing platforms don’t require authors to use ISBNs.

But while Bowker doesn’t, to my knowledge, falsely assert that an ebook absolutely must have an ISBN, the company’s Laura Dawson tells Jenn Webb:

In the digital realm, the number that a publisher gives a book is even more important! How else will a search find it? You can search by title and author, but how will you know — without some kind of number differentiating it — whether it’s a PDF or an EPUB? A hardcover or a paperback? The ISBN is the machine’s shorthand for these formats, and without it, searches are much more ambiguous.

And Cairns’ reply to the unknown writer at The Economist rounds out the response of those who think ISBNs have a lot of usefulness ahead. He writes:

Even if a book can be easily downloaded and paid for, someone still has to do the accounting and make sure the right publisher gets the right payment so they can the pay the author and contributors their share. Individuals and small publishers could possibly do without an ISBN but, in doing so, they may only be limiting their opportunities.

Back to Table of Contents

 

Jane Friedman’s Guidance: Forget Fiction Platforming

I’ll make a bold statement right here that I don’t think I’ve made before. If you’re a totally new, unpublished writer who is focused on fiction, memoir, poetry, or any type of narrative-driven work, forget you ever heard the word platform.

Jane Friedman

Time is short as this item arrives, so I’m going to direct you quickly to Jane Friedman’s new guest post at Writer Unboxed, Five Industry Trends Requiring Every Writer’s Attention. Note that Friedman is talking fiction. And primarily about new writers of fiction.

Exception to the rule: Nonfiction/non-narrative authors and entrepreneurial authors who are self-publishing. Sorry, but you should probably focus on platform as much as the writing.

But this is, even in fiction, probably the most direct guidance yet suggesting that the emphasis on platforming has been at the least over-stressed and perhaps over-weighted. Friedman writes:

I think it’s causing more damage than good. It’s causing writers to do things that they dislike (even hate), and that are unnatural for them at an early stage of their careers. They’re confused, for good reason, and platform building grows into a raging distraction from the work at hand—the writing.

I have to agree with Friedman, having seen many writers all but carried off by their platform efforts, the work lying behind them undone. More discussion of this clarification from a highly influential member of the community’s thinking will follow in coming days and weeks. For now, do check out this brand-new post, and here’s a bit more:

Build your platform by writing and publishing in outlets that are a good fit for you, lead to professional growth, and build your network. The other pieces will start to fall into place. It might take longer, but who cares if you’re feeling productive and enjoying yourself? Go be a writer and take a chance on the writing. Writing and publishing good work always supports the growth of your platform—and I’m willing to bet more valuable platform building will get done that way, especially for narrative-driven writers.

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Hash it Out: #IBT13

And where do I wish I were? Well, okay, the forecast rain and snow sounds a bit daunting after the frozen slush-hell of Boston last week for AWP. But I’d like to be in Milano for If Book Then, a daylong conference that has a rather elegant sequential layout to its program.

Javier Celaya

There’s a keynote titled “Publishing is Technology” from our colleague Javier Celaya, followed by a first-rate panel on the proposition. Then there’s a keynote titled “Publishing is Data.” That one is given by my own long-suffering editor here at Publishing Perspectives, Ed Nawotka, and is followed, again, by a panel discussion. And finally, there’s a keynote titled “Publishing is Content,” a favorite theme of its presenter, Kassia Krozser. The panel that follows that one includes “radical advocacy” agent Jason Allen Ashlock of The Rogue Reader collective and Movable Type Management, and digital author Kate Pullinger of Bath Spa University. Keep an eye March 19 on that #ibt13 hashtag. Because if nothing else, there’s something to be said for such a graceful layout of a day’s debates.

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When It’s All Coming Up Roses: Patrick Wensink

That was the rumor circulating around my wife’s family. One more week on Amazon’s best-seller list and I would have seven figures in the bank, easily. Her cousin had looked this fact up on the Internet, so it had to be true.

Patrick Wensink

It’s the kind of article authors do and don’t want to read. Patrick Wensink’s tale of coveted success is a relief, yes, because maybe that grass on the other side isn’t all that green, after all. And it’s a nightmare, too, because maybe that grass on the other side isn’t all that green, after all.

My book was the No. 6 bestselling title in America for a while, right behind all the different “50 Shades of Grey” and “Gone Girl.” It was selling more copies than “Hunger Games” and “Bossypants.” So, I can sort of see why people thought I was going to start wearing monogrammed silk pajamas and smoking a pipe.

In My Amazon bestseller made me nothing at Salon, Wensink doesn’t just burst the bubble, he smears the soap all over that face of mystical anticipation. After all, no matter how fervently authors might tell themselves that the real breakaway successes are flukes, that the runaway hits are one in a million, that the takeaway is never really taken away…who can give up that dancing  dream? Well, Wensink is here to help you sit one out.

There’s a reason most well-known writers still teach English. There’s a reason most authors drive dented cars. There’s a reason most writers have bad teeth. It’s not because we’ve chosen a life of poverty. It’s that poverty has chosen our profession.

Ready for it?

This is what it’s like, financially, to have the indie book publicity story of the year and be near the top of the bestseller list. Drum roll. $12,000. Hi-hat crash.

That’s what he made on the hit he’s talking about, Broken Piano for President. It’s worth noting that Wensink on his Twitter biography terms himself:

“America’s 103rd most popular humorist. (Right behind Dane Cook.)”

But as with Matt Haig’s excellent material for Booktrust (see our Last Gas in this column, the final segment), Wensink gets himself right past even the dodge of self-deprecation before he’s done here.

Why didn’t I just tell my wife’s family the truth to begin with? Why don’t most authors talk about money? My theory: because it’s embarrassing.

Nobody’s favorite part of writing, maybe, but there it is. In the same way I’d like to ask a lot of the greats how they allowed the industry! the industry! to so nearly infantilize authors for so long — actually, I’d like to kick their asses for it — I’d also like to know why the collective psyche somehow seems to see inadequate compensation of authors as okay, even as right or prideful. I’m no more enamored of the new price range for books than I’m encouraged by 99 cents as “the new free.” Wensink hasn’t got these answers, either. But he’s got the routine down pat:

I did the most rock star thing imaginable for a stay-at-home-dad/recipient-of-a-famous-cease-and-desist: I used the money to send my kid to daycare two days a week so I can have more time to write.

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The Used-Digital Debate: Nag­ging at You?

“This will wreak havoc with the business model,” said New York-based copyright lawyer Lloyd Jassin, adding, “this shows just how creaky the publishing business model is.”

In Thursday’s Writing on the Ether segment on the steady hubbub around this phrase “used digital content”—lots of folks still trying to wrap their heads around “the dog-eared ebook”—we heard from some good people, including Joe Wikert, Brian O’Leary, Jenny Shank, Rachel Deahl.

Jeremy Greenfield

This time, it’s Digital Book World’s Jeremy Greenfield in his Forbes column, talking with attorney Lloyd Jassin. I’m wondering these days why such long headlines are in vogue, usually saying so much that no one has to read the story. Maybe that’s the ADD idea, huh?  This one is: What Happens to Publishers and Authors If a Used Ebook Market Becomes Legal? There’s no beating around the bush on the proposed answer:

For consumers, this could be very good news indeed. Imagine seeing on an ebook’s Kindle page a link that will take you to a sell page for the exact same product for half the price. Same ebook, same user experience, even lower cost. For publishers, this would undoubtedly be very bad news.

The doctrine of first sale, of course, provides the right to sell what you’ve bought without reverting to the original seller, Jassin and Greenfield point out. That’s how used print books are sold by their owners.

In this scenario, the publisher (and author) get no compensation. If the same were true for the resale of digital goods, it could be devastating for publishers.

Lloyd Jassin

In the case of reselling digital goods, however, there may be something different in the offing. Greenfield writes that Apple’s ebook patent proposal and ReDigi’s (music reselling) business model provide for publishers “and, perhaps, by extension authors) would get a piece of the resale.” Apple‘s ebook patent and ReDigi’s business model…factor in these fears. Under their systems, publishers (and, perhaps, by extension authors) would get a piece of the resale.

“If the publisher can’t control the resale of a book but they get compensated, perhaps that’s good enough,” said Jassin.

And for authors? Here, a cloak of secrecy comes into play. Greenfield references an attorney “who specializes in ebook contracts (but) did not want to be named.” He quotes this mystery man or woman:

“There are potentially catchall licensing agreements in publishing contracts that might apply to a resale,” the lawyer said, adding that if not, “authors may now want to negotiate a provision for that purpose.”

 

Oh, good. Another day, another negotiation worry. Isn’t the digital dynamic swell? Greenfield goes on to hypothesize a scenario in which Amazon — which has achieved a relevant patent—creates a standing marketplace format for used ebooks.

Let’s say for example that in the new world of used ebooks, Amazon offers readers who have reached the last page of an ebook the option to put it up for sale in the Amazon Used Ebook Marketplace. By checking a box, the user would now have that file up for sale at a predetermined price stipulated by publisher-retailer contracts — say 50% of digital list price. If the digital list price is $14.99, then the resale price would be $7.49.

I’ll let you follow where this exercise takes him. Suffice it to say here that Greenfield gets eventually to this line:

Not quite as good for the publisher or the author.

 

These troublesome elements of the digital doo-dah, of course, always take root in a that far-flung Land o’ Speculation beloved of our many publishing pundits—the ones who seem to have hours of time daily to fire off showy emails that usually reflect on how they told us so long ago.

This is not the province of Greenfield’s article, but it’s the nursery in which these worrisome questions will be nurtured like finicky children by folks who enjoy alarm more than most of us. Remember, we have not heard from Amazon what its plans are, if any, for its digital-resale patent. No such marketplace has been built by Seattle to date. ReDigi’s effort is the closest thing so far, and there are legal issues already in play there regarding music, not books. Nevertheless, Greenfield’s piece is a step in the business’ thought about this thorny issue, one that many never saw coming (no matter how eager some will be to tell you they told you so long ago, etc., etc., etc.). Because digital goods don’t degrade as physical ones do, and because we had attached our general ideas of “used” to something the condition of which might reveal its use, a “used digital” thing hadn’t easily sprung to mind for a lot of folks.

As Greenfield puts it:

With ebooks…the file would be no worse for wear than when it originally rolled off the assembly line. It would be so easy that I would predict many people would wait until they could get a used copy of an ebook before they bought a new one — especially of best-selling titles — hurting initial sales; not to mention the effect it would have on sales long-term.

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Conferences Coming Up

If you have a publishing conference in the offing, let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term.

March 19 Milan IfBookThen: “This year IfBookThen opens to a European synergy, thanks to a partnership with Sweden and Spain.” That partnership will see the conference seated in Stockholm, Barcelona and Madrid, as well as Milan. This iteration in Milan features our good colleagues Ed Nawotka of Publishing Perspectives here, and Jason Allen Ashlock, Kate Pullinger and Sebastian Posth, plus Frank Rose, Andrew Rhomberg, Luca de Biase, Christian Damke, Bob Stein, Suzanne Azzopardi, Adrian Todd Zuniga, Evan Ratliff, David Walter, and Serena Danna.

March 21 Stockholm IfBookThen: The second iteration of the year for this conference, in Sweden, sees a roster of speakers that includes: Andrew Rhomberg, Evan Ratliff, Svein Moe Ihler, Nille Svensson, Marco Ghezzi, Joakim Formo, Suw Charman-Anderson, Tove Leffler, Joanna Ellis, and Molly Barton.

March 24 Bologna Children’s Book Fair O’Reilly Tools of Change (TOC) Bologna: “This unique event covers new developments that relate to the whole children’s book industry. Whether you are an editor or writer, a publisher or illustrator, a marketeer or web producer this is one place to gather practical tools and insights into the changing face of children’s publishing.”

April 5 New York City Writer’s Digest Conference East Boot CampJoin me in a participatory special-focus workshop, Public Speaking for Writers: How To Turn Your Readings Into Book Sales. Learn what a public reading is really about; what an audience wants from an author at a reading and how to give it to them; how to choose what to read, rehearse it, prep your listeners (it’s not about “setting the scene”), and how to present yourself to your audience. Bring a couple of pages of a manuscript, we’re going to get you up on your feet for this one.  (Note: The Writer’s Digest Conference Boot Camp sessions have an additional charge, check for details.)

April 5-7 New York City Writer’s Digest Conference East: Author James Scott Bell, who knows the value of coffee, gives the opening keynote address this year at “one of the most popular writing and publishing conference in the U.S. Writer’s Digest Conference 2013 is coming back to New York at the Sheraton New York Hotel. Whether you are developing an interest in the craft of writing, seeking an agent or editor and publisher for your work, or a veteran hoping to keep current on the latest and best insights into reaching a broader readership, Writer’s Digest Conference is the the best event of its kind on the East Coast.” (This conference’s hashtag is #WDCE. I’ve started an Epilogger account on it, which you might find useful in keeping up with materials in one spot.) Discount: Writer’s Digest is offering a reduced rate to registrants using the code PORTER.

April 5-7 New York City Screenwriters World Conference EastLed by Jeanne Bowerman, this is the East Coast iteration of the Los Angeles conference held last fall. Complete with a “pitch slam” like that of the Writer’s Digest conference, Screenwriters World is, the material tells us, “your chance to meet and learn from professionals in every aspect of the entertainment industry. Our panels, sessions, and workshops are hosted by leading experts that can help you improve your craft, find and agent, and sell it to the people who make movies and television shows. You’ll receive real feedback from successful screenwriters, agents, execs, actors, filmmakers and more.” (This conference’s hashtag is #SWCE. I’ve started an Epilogger account on it,  which you might find useful in keeping up with materials in one spot.)

April 17 New York City paidContent Live: Riding the Transformation of the Media IndustryBrisk and bracing, last year’s paidContent Live conference was efficient, engaging, and enlightening, not least for the chance to see many of the talented journalists of Om Malik’s GigaOM/paidContent team work onstage — Laura Hazard Owen, Mathew Ingram, Jeff John Roberts, Robert Andrews, Ernie Sander, et al. Among speakers listed for this year’s busy day: Jonah Peretti, Jason Pontin, Chris Mohney, Erik Martin, David Karp, Mark Johnson, Aria Haghighi, Matt Galligan, Rachel Chou, Lewis D’Vorkin, John Borthwick, Andrew Sullivan, Jon Steinberg, Alan Rusbridger, Evan Ratliff, and, of course, Dominique Raccah and Michael Tamblyn.

May 2-5 Oxford, Mississippi Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference & Workshops: Susan Cushman follows her Memphis Creative Nonfiction confab with this year’s gathering at the shrine. Among faculty members: Neil White, Leigh Feldman, Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, Beth Ann Fennelly, Bob Guccione Jr. and Lee Martin. Pre-conference workshops or just the creature itself, your choice.

May 3-5 Boston The Muse & the Marketplace 2013 is a production of Eve Bridburg’s fast-rising non-profit Grub Street program. Its material tells us that organizers plan more than “110 craft and publishing sessions led by top-notch authors, editors, agents and publicists from around the country. The Manuscript Mart, the very popular and effective one-on-one manuscript reviews with agents and editors, will also span three days. We expect nearly 800 writers and publishing professionals to attend, while maintaining the conference’s wonderfully intimate, ‘grubby’ energy that we love.” Back to Table of Contents

Last Gas: On Writ­ing and Read­ing, Boys and Matt Haig

Writers have always been self-publicists. Mark Twain, for instance, always went around in a white suit saying ‘look at me, here I come in my white suit’. Maigret author Georges Simenon once had the very real plan of writing a novel while sitting inside a glass box so his readers could watch him as he wrote. Now Twitter is our glass box. And you can walk past it if you want.

Matt Haig

Sheffield-born author Matt Haig is the current author-in-blogging-residence with Booktrust, Viv Bird’s UK “independent reading and writing charity.”

We are lonely. We are impossibly lonely. Up in the attic, eating toast and wondering when we should have a shower and trying to remember what wearing shoes felt like. We therefore like to chat to people.

Haig’s voice, his own voice, outside his work in The Radleys — or maybe in the upcoming The Humans (looks like May in the UK, July in the States) — is the sort of literary presence that gets termed “delightfully weird” by critics.

Maybe “delightfully weird” sells books. But what I appreciate about Haig’s blogging for Booktrust is that it’s not weird, not even delightfully so. It’s rather studied, terse, and telling. As the eighth such resident for Booktrust, he’s taking the assignment seriously.

In Writers and Twitter, for example:

No writer started off writing for money. A writer writes primarily to be understood, to share their strange imagination, to feel validated, to entertain, to make you laugh and cry, to delight, to thrill through the magic of words, to provoke thought, to shout to humanity and shine torches on our mistakes, to be Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’.

And in What Being Published Has Taught Me:

It is not about the advance. My debut got £5000 and sold a respectable 60,000 copies in the UK. My third got an advance ten times that and had zero promotion. It struggled to shift 2,000 copies. Sometimes, for longevity, it is better to sneak in under the radar and prove your worth.

And in How Writing Saved My Life:

At my lowest point, in February 2000, I stopped believing in words. Until then I hadn’t realised that the act of using language is an act of faith. (‘In the beginning there was the word…’) But it is. You have to believe there is a point of there being words, and that they can offer real meaning. Normally this belief is taken for granted, but that is because normally we are taking the world itself for granted. But when your mind crumbles to dust everything you thought you knew suddenly becomes something to question.

Speaking of minds crumbling to dust, back to Writers and Twitter:

Writing books is hard. It is like holding a hot coal tight in your hand. And the Internet is like a bucket of ice. And I really have no idea where I am going with this analogy. But if Gogol and Woolf and Hemingway and Sexton had the ability to chat online about amusing gifs featuring kittens, well, they might have lived a bit longer. Possibly.

And finally, I want to leave you with an installment of Haig’s series that has special meaning for me. I wish it had special meaning for all of us. Haig here takes on the issue of men and reading, particularly boys and reading. Without overlaying my own opinions of how—inadvertently but steadily — many women are contributing to this while thinking they’re working to better things, I can commend to you what Haig does here. There’s a certain bravery to saying these things because he’s walking around the outer edges of some accepted masculinities here to say them. Not always easy in a culture that likes to stay well, well within the lines on these issues.

The post is Books, Boys, and Football:

A very dark cloud passes across my soul when I hear that footballer Frank Lampard has been commissioned to write five – five! – kids books. Why does it bother me? Because it is patronising, that’s why. Just as it is patronising when Theo Walcott or any other footballer or B-list celeb is commissioned to write a book.

How good that there’s nothing “delightfully weird” going on now, huh? This is Haig, the man. What a welcome, welcome, anything-but-weird voice:

Why is it patronising? Okay, here goes: It is patronising to boys to think they’ll be interested in something just because it has something to do with football/celeb world. They like footballers playing football. They might buy a pair of trainers because a footballer tells them to, but are they going to sit through 50,000 words of drivel? Doubtful.

He’s not done.

It is patronising to writers because yet again it confirms the myth that anyone can be a writer, and that the creation of brilliant stories is far simpler than playing football. I am waiting for the call from Manchester United, but apparently this football-to-writer thing operates on a one-way system.

See why I said this takes guts? And he’s still not done:

Most of all though it is patronising to books and literature as a whole, to say that they need added value from the world of celebrity. If you are a publisher or bookseller who seriously believes that a good story isn’t what is important then I have to wonder why you are in the business of books, and why you aren’t working for Heat magazine or for Match of the Day or something.

I hope you’ll read some of what Booktrust has brought about in giving us this un-weird voice of the author Haig. We all have our preferences, which is great. This voice is mine.

The way to get anyone to read anything is to write and publish and sell good books that appeal to actual and potential readers. As a twelve year old I discovered the power of books via the brilliance of S E Hinton, a woman who understood the teen boy mind better than anyone ever. Would I have been made to love books more if I had been reading stories written by Gary Linekar instead? I seriously doubt it.

And if we treat boys — of all ages — as the readers they really are and stop telling them they’re not readers, not writers? Done and done. No sports stars needed to denigrate us and them and literature.

Matt Haig:

It may sound like a novel concept, but the route to readers is through writing. Good writing – just like good football or good TV – will always be valued on its own terms. So let’s not be insecure. Let’s not wish books were more brash and shiny. Let’s be proud to love books, and let’s not try and turn them into yet more throwaway artefacts of celebrity culture.

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Writing on the Ether is read Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. More of his writings at Publishing Perspectives. More about him at PorterAnderson.com.

Main image / iStockphoto: SolarSeven

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9 Comments

  1. Posted March 19, 2013 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    I have never used ISBNs, either as a self-publisher or for books I publish through my small imprints. I explained the ethical case why in an interview with Jane Friedman back in 2010, but I also raised my eyebrow in that interview in incredulity at the passive acceptance of ISBNs.

    You correctly say that literature exists primarily to serve readers (I would clarify that as current and future readers – art is about shaping our culture, which is a forward-looking exercise). What you haven’t spelled out is the way that ISBNs are still being used as a gatekeeping mechanism that narrows readers’ access to the very best, most groundbreaking literature because many of the leading literary prizes define possession of an ISBN as their definition of publication for eligibility purposes.

  2. Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Definitely agree with you and Jane Friedman. Much too much effort by writers on platform (which they don’t have yet, usually) and promotion and not enough on craft. In the “good old days” most writers didn’t sell their first or two or three manuscripts anyway. So they had to put their head down and continue writing since they had nothing to platform or promote. Now that’s skewed. There’s a rush to publish before the material is ready.

    About the only thing I advise is not building platform, but build community. Find those people in the industry whose advice is valuable and follow their blogs, tweets, etc. Learn what is going on and keep track of it. Make connections with others.

  3. Posted March 19, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Hi, Dan, thanks for your comment, good to have you with us.

    Per your idea that ISBNs are a gatekeeping device used by some prize organizations, two questions for you.

    (a) If that does indeed happen — that prize committees limit eligibility to ISBN-ed material — is that the fault of the ISBN and its agencies? Or is this a mis-use by prize committees? And doesn’t it mean that you should have ISBNs on your good work and thus be in contention?

    (b) Wouldn’t the widest possible application of ISBNs thus render everything prize-eligible and defeat any such perceived gatekeeping function?

    While I’m actually getting rather tired of authors and others crying “gatekeeper!” every 10 minutes — of course gatekeepers exist, like wolves, and the digital dynamic is changing that — why would someone cut him- or herself out of consideration for well-deserved award attention for so small a feature (even if it does reflect evil gatekeeping, rather than simply a useful eligibility criterion) as the ISBN?

    Sorry, but it seems to me you cut off your nose to spite your face if you stand out from competition because ISBNs may be used as an eligibility point. An ISBN is something you can get for yourself and foil any chance of a gatekeeper trying to say you don’t have such a badge of publishing.

    I’m not condoning using ISBN as an eligibility requirement, just saying it’s something you can surely overcome. You deserve to be in competition. So however unpleasant such a regulation might be, my advice is get one.

    Thanks!
    -p.
    @Porter_Anderson

  4. Posted March 19, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    My recent ISBN-related experience:

    My first two books will be included by a company that sets up book displays at academic conferences (they show a sample copy and take orders for you). I’m going to do a book signing during the conference.

    But the conference organizers made a clear distinction between books sold with and without ISBNs. Only books with ISBNs could be included in this company’s display. If your books have no ISBN, you’ll have to buy your own booth (an option with those with ISBNs, but not a requirement).

    I’ve been asked by local bookstore owners if my books had ISBNs, if they were available through Ingram, etc. I want people to have multiple ways of finding/buying my books. So why not ISBNs if it achieves that goal? And I didn’t feel ripped off by Bowker, because I knew in advance I’d need multiple ISBNs.

    What I’ve never been clear on, though: do I need separate ISBNs for epub and mobi or just one for all electronic formats?

    Back to work, Porter. ;)

    Viki

  5. Posted March 19, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the good input, Bob, I think you’re right.

    I do think that some in the industry — especially those peddling the author platform courses — have made every effort to make it seem that the platform came first and was the important thing to do. Such direct instructions as “start at least a year ahead of publication” and “nobody will touch your book if you don’t have your platform in place” have unnerved and confused many people, especially, as Jane points out, on the fiction side. I know that I’ve felt this confusion, myself, at times. Throughout the industry, I think we need to make it clearer when we’re talking about issues in nonfiction and when we’re talking about fiction. We tend to just say “books,” but there are stark differences we don’t highlight enough.

    Those who do teach author platforming and are eager to lure in paying students for those courses don’t always tell writers, even when asked, that the platform-first mandate applies primarily to the nonfiction folks, not to the fiction people. (In fact, literary fiction people are constantly being led astray, since platforming for literary is a far different proposition from platforming, even for standard genres.)

    So in fact there are many levels of confusion and anxiety here, a lot of badly wasted time on this in the last few years, and I don’t think it’s going too far to say that there have been people willing to obfuscate this for the purposes of snagging students.

    It’s great to see some new clarity on the topic, and yeah, I agree with you — the connections are the thing. As we used to say it, back before all this became all that, it’s all in who you know. And without making that mean celebs or tacky quid-pro-quo deals, it really is in who you know who can help you handle the things you need to do at each point in your career.

    Community through connection, just as you say.
    Thanks again!

    -p.
    @Porter_Anderson

  6. Posted March 19, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Viki, I’m so proud, I actually do know the exact answer to your final question! (How rarely do we have precise, clear answers anymore!)

    Yes, you do need a separate ISBN for each format. This is Bowker’s recommendation. So your .mobi version needs its own ISBN, your epub version needs its own, a PDF version needs its own, etc. This I know from interviewing Laura Dawson at Bowker on this several times. She always stresses that the metadata you provide in your My ISBNs dashboard at Bowker will tell their system to merge all the ISBNs that refer to one format or another into one work. So the machines won’t think you’ve published five books, when you’ve really published one book in five formats. But they need to see a separate ISBN on each format so they can properly track what’s happening to each one and catalog it correctly (and list it as being under your control). Do be sure to get logged onto Bowker’s site (and remember they have a new conversion service, if you like, to turn your book into the formats you need).

    This, in fact, is why Bowker sells the 10-pack as such a deal. As Laura always says, you’ll actually need them for multiple formats — especially true in your case, doing a series. You can assign any ISBN to any book/format, so just hang on to the extras from #1 or #2, they’ll be usable on #3 and #4 and so on.

    And yeah, I’m baffled why folks would be so resistant to the industry standard for making their work visible and trackable. I’d think writers wanted to be counted. As we see in the interesting comment from Dan Holloway, though, some authors see Bowker as yet another “gatekeeper.” To my amazement, he’s apparently willing to take himself out of eligibility for prize consideration rather than slap an ISBN on his work. He seems to feel that this is how he should strike a blow against the ISBN “gatekeepers” — and, of course, I doubt that the ISO ever asked to be the gatekeepers on who gets to be up for a prize, so the fault there (if it is a fault) lies with the prize committees who set up their own rules. And any prize outfit has to have one criterion or another for what they’ll consider to mean “published.”

    I find it troubling how many angry people seem to see evil in so many places in this industry. There’s a lot of pure ineptitude, short-sightedness, retrograde resistance and mad clinging to kaput “wisdom” of the past, but very little real evil going on, nothing so interesting as that.

    Don’t let any gatekeepers bite your neck, you’re doing it all right.
    -p.
    @Porter_Anderson

  7. Jamie
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    70 quid for 10 ISBNs doesn’t really seem too unattainable and gatekeepery for most self-pub authors, surely?

  8. Posted March 22, 2013 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Hi, Jamie,

    Thanks for your input. I tend to agree with you, when the 10-pack works out to 7 quid each, that’s really not prohibitive in my mind, although, as in so many things during the digital transition, I’d get a quick run for such money from some, I’m sure. :)

    Appreciate you reading and commenting!
    -p.
    @Porter_Anderson

  9. Posted March 22, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Hey Porter, thanks for the mention here. It’s been a stellar week or so over at WU (in no small part due to your efforts as well). Although I was one of those applauding my zen-master mentor (hashtag unto herself, Ms. F.) for ther sentiments about platform, I also appreciate Dan Blank’s qualifier that our online communication should be about building our communication skills and a level of trust with those who read us. For me that boils down to enjoying what I do online, which I think shows. So while I haven’t abandoned my online activities, I have changed my mindset about platform. I think for the better. Thanks again!

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