Ether for Authors: Can We See You?

In News by Porter Anderson

Table of Contents

  1. Can We See You?
  2. Best-Selling E-books: The Lists Are Back
  3. Self-Publishing: An Exper­i­ment in ‘Free’
  4. Pub­lish­ing Advice: Gaug­ing the Gurus
  5. Inter­view: Her Mem­o­ries of a Ghostly Life
  6. iBook­store in 50 Coun­tries: A Step-by-Step List­ing Guide
  7. Ama­zo­nia: Water­stones’ Part of the Jungle
  8. Books: Read­ing on the Ether
  9. Last Gas: Who We Are, or Aren’t

Can We See You?

Just how many e-books are there?

Care to take a guess? Because that’s the best we can do: a guess. Nobody knows. Because it’s impossible to “see” so many of them.

Did you know that? Neither did a group of editors I spoke with recently. They had asked me for an article about e-books vs. print books, and were shocked when I had to explain to them that we don’t know how many e-books have been published.

We don’t know how many e-books are being published today or tomorrow, either.


Print books? — we have a pretty good count.

E-books? — we really don’t know.

Laura Dawson

Laura Dawson is product manager in the “identifiers” division of Bowker, one of the key companies we look to in publishing for major market research. In fact, it’s thanks to Dawson and Bowker that we know these daunting numbers:

  • In 1998, there were 900,000 titles counted as active;
  • In 2012, Bowker “sees” 32.8 million titles.

This past summer, when Dawson began circulating those numbers about the increase in active titles (they show a jump of more than 6,000 percent in 14 years), she built in some caveats immediately about their limitations. Here she is, for example, in a blog post in July, A matter of scale:

I keep citing this massive growth that Books in Print has experienced over the last 14 years. As insane as that is, it’s worth noting also that there are many, many books which never get listed in Books in Print – Kindle originals, for example, or self-published books. Or documentation that’s written for a specific purpose but which becomes useful to many people. That sort of thing almost never gets an ISBN.


What’s more, writes Dawson, there’s a US emphasis on those numbers:

It’s also worth noting that this is just in the US. It’s not a question of whether or not publication rates worldwide have experienced exponential growth; it’s merely a question of by what factor. We could be looking at nearly a billion books.

But those “titles,” captured by Bowker’s Books in Print survey, are primarily what the title suggests — “in print.” To include e-books in them — and thus make those numbers represent something like, say, “Books Published in All Formats,” we’d first have to be able to “see” all those books published in all formats — we’d have to be able to track them.

And we can’t. We can’t see them. We may not be able to see your book. You may not be counted. Dawson:

If anyone is giving you numbers, I guarantee they are incomplete…We have ZERO idea of the total pool of e-books out there. We only know the % of e-books vs print within the set of ISBN assignments.

An ISBN code / Wikipedia

Dawson’s comments there are from her latest “#ISBNhour” on Twitter Friday. Once a week on Friday at noon Eastern time (1700 GMT), she likes to take a topic that relates to her specialty in publishing metadata and field questions from anyone who’d like to follow along.

I’ve created an Epilogger record of Friday’s #ISBNhour you can go over, if you like: E-books, Like Print Books, Need ISBNs.

Authors are always welcome to look in on #ISBNhour on Fridays, and I encourage this because the more entrepreneurial our writers become, the better served they are by such experts in the field as Dawson. She’s probably the key speaker on issues of metadata at publishing conferences and the kind of soul who doesn’t mind a rather basic question from someone trying to learn more about this fundamental element of publishing in the digital age — the metadata by which a book is tracked by professionals and discovered in searches by potential readers.


Which brings me back to our titular question today: Can we see you?

One of Dawson’s points on Friday in #ISBNhour was that many authors, particularly self-publishing authors, don’t realize how important it is to have their work identified by ISBN, which stands for International Standard Book Number.

Your publishing platform may not require or even encourage you to to obtain an ISBN. But if you don’t, then the tracking services — Bowker in the States, for example, Nielsen in the UK, and so on — won’t be able to “see” your book and count it in the great, growing tally of published material. I did ask Dawson, journalist that I am, whether there is a platform she knows of anywhere that might actually discourage the use of ISBNs.

No, there’s no platform that discourages them. The book supply chain, in all its complexity, loves ISBNs. Amazon’s delighted when a book has one.

The reason you see “our friends in Seattle” come up in her comment there is that Amazon does not require a self-publisher who uses its platform to produce a book to obtain an ISBN for it. Dawson is quite rightly making the point that we cannot say Amazon is anti-ISBN. It just may not chase you down the street reminding you to get one. I’ve asked Dawson to give us some added perspective beyond what she can offer 140 characters at a time in #ISBNhour on the issue. And I’d like to point out that while I urge every author to obtain an ISBN for every format of every book she or he publishes, this is not a commercial appeal on behalf of Bowker, which simply is the official ISBN agency in the U.S.

In fact, let me offer you this link to the International ISBN Agency. There, you’ll find your national agency — or one of several — and be able to obtain your ISBNs. If you’re outside the US, in fact, you may not have to buy your ISBNs, as American authors do. In some countries, Dawson tells us, ISBNs are paid for as a government service.

“ISBN agencies don’t compete” from nation to nation, Dawson tells me. And, the ISBN is the same everywhere, as far as an author’s or publisher’s use of it. There are distinctions, though, in how the ISBN is configured, so it supplies specified information to the amazing Dawsons of the world, who can keep such details as these in their heads:

There is a country prefix. (Or, in some cases, language prefix.) So US/UK/Canadian ISBNs begin with 9780/9781/9790/9791. The 978 or 979 designates it as a product for the book supply chain. The 0 or 1 designates it as being from the US/UK/Canada. (I believe the Russian prefix is 4. But don’t hold me to that.) This is all followed by the publisher prefix, and then the ID for the item itself.

I know, and I apologize. I had to take an aspirin after that bit of info, too. And to think, she was an English major in college, don’t ask me how she manages to thrive as she does in a 13-digit world, what a trooper.

And here are some specific points for authors I’d like to share, courtesy of Dawson. I hope these might get ahead of some of the natural questions you may have if you’re wondering about getting ISBNs applied to your books.

From Laura Dawson’s NISO Conference presentation – one ISBN per format.

How many ISBNs do I need? 
You want an ISBN for each format of your book. So if you publish your new novel in mobi, ePUB, PDF, audio, and print, you need five ISBNs. In the States, in fact, Bowker’s rates strongly favor your buying a pack of 10 ISBNs at a time, not one, and not because they expect you to write 10 books but because you need each format to have its own.

But won’t my formats be tracked as multiple books if I have an ISBN for each format?
No, you will report as you assign your ISBNs which of your titles each one pertains to. Tracking services will link them up as all being part of one “work” for proper counting. In the US, for example, ISBN owners use a dashboard to indicate how their formats match up as one “work.”

What if I’ve already published and didn’t know to get ISBNs?
No problem. You can assign them after the fact.

Are all the major publishers properly using ISBNs? 
Dawson: “Most major publishers are good about this, yes. That wasn’t the case even a year ago, but it has gotten much much better thanks to the realities of the supply chain. Apple requires a separate ISBN, for example. And the bigger publishers (have begun) to realize that it’s actually harder to juggle their workflows if each edition doesn’t have an ISBN.”

So my appeal to authors is that you please consider ISBNs on each format of your published work a necessity. As our writers become more deeply empowered in the digital dynamic, this is a responsibility they need to take for their work, not least because we need to be able to get a better look than we have now at “what’s out there.”

And yes, to be honest, a lot of material has been published in the busy self-publishing sector now without ISBNs, a good bit of which might never be counted. Dawson is sanguine on the matter, noting that in any transition there’s material that gets lost. She’s right, but I regret that we won’t be able to picture just how sharply this production spiked during these years of right-angle disruption.

Still, Dawson notes, work that’s important can be “retrofitted” with ISBNs: “That leaves work for grad students.”

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Best-Selling E-books: The Lists Are Back

After a three-week hiatus due to Hurricane Sandy, the DBW E-book Best-Seller List is back — and with a very different complexion than before. For one thing, a publisher not named Random House or Penguin has taken the top spot: Simon & Schuster, with its title The Last Man: A Novel by Vince Flynn.

Jeremy Greenfield at Digital Book World (DBW) re-introduces the still-young brace of DBW E-book Best-Sellers.

Its Top-25 ranking this week shows no self-published books at all. (A few have reached that level of the list since it launched something over three months ago.)

A key value of these weekly lists, you might remember, is the price-banding that breaks out Top-10 results between $0 and $2.99, between $3.00 and $7.99, between $8.00 and $9.99, and $10 and above — as well as the Top 25 overall.

The Top 25 always holds some interesting bits of information.

For example, the lowest-priced e-book on that breakout is priced at $2.99 this week; the highest $14.99.

The lists appear — barring weather nightmares — on Mondays.

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Self-Publishing: An Exper­i­ment in ‘Free’

As unbelievable as this sounds, I heard from two different people that I’d worked with, two different summers while I was in college.  I hadn’t heard from these coworkers in twenty years…and they both happened to find me through the free book promo.

Elizabeth Spann Craig

On the subject of managing your published work, Elizabeth Spann Craig, who writes cozy mysteries with a Deeply Southern wink, has fresh Observations from Running a Free Book Sale.

One of the interesting elements of this is that she isn’t publishing through Amazon’s KDP Select program (which allows authors to exploit a limited number of days’ “free” promotions). Instead, she publishes through Smashwords and triggers free promotions from there.

She sets her price at zero there, and — in the case of Amazon, for example — uses the “Tell us about a lower price” spot under her listing for the same book on Amazon to alert it to the change.

Amazon and other retailers carrying her books then adjust their prices down to meet her promotional price at Smashwords. Drawbacks?

You may not have as much control over how long your book is free as you’d like. Maybe you know something that I don’t, but the length of the sale might be somewhat out of your hands.

While one experiment in this technique went quite expeditiously, she reports, with other retailers following her return to normal pricing within about 48 hours:

This time…the book is still free.  I’ve raised the price on Smashwords (it’s been over a week now), and Amazon has not reflected the change.  I’m guessing that somebody out there…Kobo, Apple, etc….hasn’t raised the price up yet and Amazon is still matching the free listing.

Craig, who also publishes under the pseudonym Riley Adams, has updated her post to say that full price is back in place everywhere now, but there’s still no understanding of why it took a while for them to all realign.

The use of “free” has become a point of some debate recently in the author community.

Many feel that it was used so much initially by so many authors for so many books that the market for inexpensive books simply became saturated with it. (Think of Kindles heavy with free, maybe unread, e-books.)

Still, Craig writes that she was surprised in this last foray not to run into an expected problem:

Others have noted that they saw particularly harsh reviews during free promotions — a common conclusion is that readers have little respect for a product they receive for free. I haven’t seen this. Yes, I’ve gotten some harsh reviews during the free promos, but I’ve gotten some harsh reviews on a $6.99 Penguin e-book, too!  I can’t say that I’ve noticed a difference.  Either way…just build up your thick skin.  I take anything helpful from a bad review that I can.

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Pub­lish­ing Advice: Gaug­ing the Gurus

This article makes me feel a little weird because it runs counter to a longstanding peeve I’ve had with internet writing information. Namely the widespread impression that anybody with a keyboard is equally qualified to tell other people about how to write and publish, whether or not their degree of knowledge on that subject is greater than or equal to the average ass of the average rat.

Lin Robinson

Writing from Latin America, this is Lin Robinson in a post headlined Ex-pertise. We’ve all encountered the issue he’s targeting, of course. As he puts it:

I know of two blogs in which 13 year old writers give advice on how to write novels.

Mick Rooney, a seasoned writer, himself, picks up on Robinson’s post. His own write is The Rise of the Self-Publishing Experts. He starts by vouching for his fellow writer’s value in the community:

Robinson is a journalist, author and screenwriter, and as long as I have engaged with the self-publishing community and written on many aspects of the publishing industry, Lin Robinson has never been too far from its heartbeat.

And then Rooney points out “the reluctance in Robinson’s words.” Both writers are restrained on what can be a sensitive subject in the authors corps.

Nobody wants to knock or criticise a community they engage with day to day and Robinson is careful deliver his words without ever allowing them to descend into a rant, or that of a testy publishing curmudgeon.

Mick Rooney

In backing up Robinson on the need for authors to beware the scams that surround them, however, Rooney gets at a point we hear more frequently these days, something worth as much thought as the problem of faux experts.

The modern self-publishing industry is built–to a vast degree–on the finances and support of author communities, authors (as) business and marketing entrepreneurs, and not readers. That’s a hard truth many within the community, and many are still not willing to accept it. Remove the author community as readers and buyers from self-publishing and you may find a less than vibrant independent movement.

You’ll hear a bit of this echoed in our next section, in comments from author Roz Morris, as well, on her own experience in bringing out her novel.

So large and engaged is the international community of writers today that it can be mistaken for the readers — the real audience needed to buy, read, and support the books.

Rooney puts his usual graceful turn on the point this way:

Readers are readers, and most often, nothing more. Authors are authors, but almost all are readers and buyers of books. If the label of vanity has migrated from the minds of self-published authors, it still exists as part of the collective psyche of their community.

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Inter­view: Her Mem­o­ries of a Ghostly Life

Once I was in a room where an ‘author’ was giving a presentation about a book I’d ghosted. He was telling stories about the events that inspired it. I stood at the back, the ghost at the banquet.

Roz Morris

London-based Author Roz Morris has this particularly engaging exchange — Roz Morris Interview — with Vancouver writer Lorna Suzuki (Imago Chronicles: A Warrior’s Tale) on going from being a best-selling ghostwriter to a novelist under her own name.

Some of my books were teen novels and I stumbled across a forum where readers were discussing how much they love the characters and stories. I’d had no idea people did that. For a while it didn’t matter that someone else’s byline was on them – the bigger reward was these kids saying they treasured my work and had reread the books, sometimes many times.

Morris went on, however, to publish My Memories of a Future Life, and her comments to Suzuki form a wide-ranging survey of experiences by a teaching author — Morris is also the author of the instructional (and luxuriantly subtitled) Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.

I read reviews obsessively. And with trepidation, hoping the reviewer liked it! I pay special attention when a reviewer says what worked for them and why (and what didn’t). I look at negative reviews carefully to see if there’s something I should learn or whether the reader simply didn’t click with the material.

She also has two agents in an interesting cooperative arrangement that came about because neither agent wanted to carry both her works of fiction.

Finding my first agent took longest because My Memories of a Future Life was so hard to categorise…I got the second agent because my own one didn’t connect with my second novel, Life Form 3. She gave her blessing for me to find a different agent for it, which I did. I made sure the contracts with each agent stated expressly that they only get a percentage of books they personally represent and have made deals for.

And Morris gets at a point about planning for publication that may trip up many writers as it did her — even if some of your work is aimed at the writing community (as her Nail Your Novel is), you can’t expect the publishing community to double as the actual audience for your other work, in her case fiction.

Have a plan for reaching an audience. I didn’t actually give much thought to this, I hoped some of my blog readers and fans of Nail Your Novel might be curious about it. Fortunately they were, but it’s not exactly a strategy because writing-blog readers don’t always translate into fiction readers. I should have given more thought to marketing.


And in related material, Sue Cook at BBC Oxford had Morris as one of three author-guests on her podcast, The Write Lines. In an edition of the show titled e-Book publishing and getting a traditional book deal, Morris was joined there by Mark Edwards and by Mel Sherratt. Listen for Edwards to advise other writers, “Don’t keep checking your sales figures (online)…you’ll go completely mad.”

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iBook­store in 50 Coun­tries: A Step-by-Step List­ing Guide

First, add the new territories to your books.

Liz Castro

Normally, I like to use material shortly after it publishes. But the excellent Liz Castro’s post,  New Contract Needed for New iBookstores, came out right at the end of October, before our new Ether for Authors had launched. And the news is great — iBookstore now is in some 50 countries, an additional 18 having come online as Castro was publishing her post. The trick here is that there are contract addendums to be downloaded and accepted as you place a book for sale in a national iBookstore that’s new to you. Illustrating each step for you,  Castro shows you just what to do here.

Illustration: Liz Castro

And she runs across an additional note of particular interest to most authors:

Reviews are posted only in the iBookstore that belongs to the country of the person who wrote the review. So, there is a lovely review of the Monarch Butterfly book by Laura Brady which I can only see if I connect to the Canada iBookstore…and folks who connect from countries besides the US cannot see the five five-star ratings that the book has in the US iBookstore.

I have to agree with Castro:

I think it would be nice if Apple made those out-of-country reviews available…If it’s the same book, this is information that would be useful to all. At any rate, keep in mind that if you want to see reviews of your books in other iBookstores, you’ll have to go to each store individually.

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Ama­zo­nia: Water­stones’ Part of the Jungle


Depending on who you ask, (James) Daunt is either half-way there, or nowhere near. But if there was too much optimism at the beginning, there is now too much pessimism.

Philip Jones

We’re seeing shots from the UK these days of the in-store Kindle kiosks at Waterstones, part of the controversial alliance with Amazon made by the High Street chain’s still-new chief, James Daunt. It’s hard to find a more interesting intersection, in fact, of brick-and-mortar relations with the huge online retailer. The Bookseller’s editor, Philip Jones’ blog post, The special one, is instructive. It accompanies the site’s special focus on Daunt’s first 18 months. The speed with which the digital dynamic can hand us surprises can lead us to draw conclusions too readily. Jones wisely counsels care:

The 18-month report card is mixed. Daunt’s vision is emerging and early results from refurbished stores back him. But the adjustment has not been without pain: publishers have had to take a leap over terms, with many now fretting over orders. Staff have had to absorb changes unfiltered by the usual corporate soft-soaping.

And as booksellers everywhere — yes, even in Seattle — brace for the arrival of the holiday bean-counters in elves’ clothing, it’s good to be reminded by Jones that successes are better for all of us than failures.


Holding out for happy endings, as long as we keep a grip on reality, is still an option, as Daunt’s and Waterstones’ case demonstrates.

There has been a temptation to over-complicate Daunt, to imagine that there is a cunning plan lurking beneath the obvious one, but the reality is that he likes bookshops and believes they are important. He relishes the theatre of the shopfloor, and he thinks customers do too — enough to want to buy in that environment. If he is right, we all win.

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And in related reading, Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader put together a few points from five years ago, when the Kindle was introduced. The reader’s arrival in 2007 is widely credited (or blamed) as the event that triggered the eventual success of e-books. His post is The Amazon Kindle Turns Five Today. And in one of his then-and-now contrast points, Hoffelder refers to the rising globalization of the e-book market:

On the 19th of November 2007, 98% of e-books sold were in English and the vast majority of e-book sales went to US publishers simply because the US had the only even marginally developed digital publishing industry. Now there are native e-book markets in dozens of countries selling e-books in dozens of languages.

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Books: Read­ing on the Ether

The books you see here have been referenced recently in Ether columns or in tweets. I’m bringing them together in one spot each week, to help you recall and locate them, not as an endorsement.

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Last Gas: Who We Are, or Aren’t


Oh, dear descendent, I’m trying to remember this every day: There’s a time to bang on strangers’ doors, and there’s a time to just stop for a while and let yourself be claimed.

Jennifer Niesslein

Author Jennifer Niesslein, in Notes on Selling One’s Identity at Virginia Quarterly Review was for 13 years the co-editor of Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, which she helped found. In this impressionistic essay — observations and commentary drifting down the page’s scroll — she touches, not too roughly but firmly, on the sort of unease that often accompanies a writer’s dedication of his or her identity to the work, the words, the publications. The editor’s identity so deeply has integrated itself with the mother’s:

I’m trying, as the T-shirt says, to choose wisely. I am at mid-career, and part of me is terrified that I only get so many missteps before my legacy ends with Caleb’s childhood.

She writes of dreams in which she tries to reclaim a former home from current occupants:

I don’t know why I have these dreams in which I lay claim to something that I used to have and didn’t want any longer. I suppose it’s my version of Having It All, the persistent media bugaboo of women. I want the past me, the present me, the future me all at once. I want the palimpsest of me.

And she writes of a syndrome many authors understand, that experience of backing into a lifestyle, a career model that seems not of one’s own making.

It was only after we were all entrenched in the rhythm of our lives—the routine of domesticity, the steady ebbs and flows of quarterly magazine production, the nightly marital meet-up and reconnect—that I realized that I’d created a serious overlap between my professional and personal identities.

With fleet finality, Niesslein gets to the heart of her matter as any good author might hope to do — early in her thoughts, with cushions of calm consideration to follow. This is postpartum prose of the careerist kind. You don’t have to be a woman, by any means, to get what she’s facing:

I had an inkling it might be problematic down the line, this all-mother-all-the-time, both in practice and as an intellectual preoccupation. The end seemed a lifetime away. But it’s here now. In August, Stephanie and I sold Brain, Child.

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and networks of CNN, and a former producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Writing on the Ether is read Thursdays at

Main image by iStockphoto / cesco19

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.