Pub Rants

An ISBN That Could Hurt

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STATUS: Okay, still haven’t remembered the entry I had planned to do on Friday. How lame is that?

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? MANIC MONDAY by Finn Wallace

This weekend I was at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs. I consider that one and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers to be my hometown conferences and so I almost always attend.

This year was perfect. Sara popped down on Saturday to take pitches all day (and she was hugely popular!) and I just got to have fun by teaching two workshops. On Sunday morning, I sat on a panel entitled Industry Changes with Scott Hoffman from Folio and Kathleen Gilligan from Thomas Dunne Books.

Since you can’t talk about industry changes without talking about electronic books these days, that pretty much dominated the conversation (and a lively one at that!).

One participant asked a particularly interesting question. She asked what the three of us thought about a writer putting an entire novel out on the web to build an audience.

I have a feeling that some of you might be interested in our response. I can’t speak for Scott or Kathleen but I’m happy to share some of my thoughts on the topic.

1. In general, I have no problem with writers giving out material for free to build a following. I’m a little bit leery about having an entire novel out there for everybody to read but it’s not going to destroy your chances of doing traditional publishing later. In fact, if you can track the number of downloads and can prove that thousands of people have voluntarily downloaded and read your novel, well, that just might be an interesting way to catch an editor’s attention. It would probably catch my attention. However, it would have to be verifiable—as in we can’t just take your word for it.

2. Another possibility is to have the writer serialize the work (as in only give portions of the work at a time to a subscription list) if intending to pursue traditional publishing later for that same work. That way the work in its entirety isn’t easily available online.

3. Along the same line of thought, a writer might put a novel out there that will always be available for free and use it to platform a totally different second novel that the writer plans to use to explore the more traditional publishing route.

The above discussion led (as you can imagine) into what we thought about self-publishing a work to build a similar audience. As self- publishing becomes more professional, accessible, and easy to manipulate, it certainly wouldn’t surprise us if writers were to explore this as a possibility.

Here’s something to keep in mind though (besides the fact that self published books need solid marketing efforts to succeed). Self-published books (through Lulu or similar) are assigned an ISBN—a sales identifier for that work. And here’s where the ISBN could hurt you. Once a book has an ISBN, then sales of that book can be tracked on Bookscan. If the books sell thousands and thousands of copies, not a problem but if the book sells only 20 copies, this could potentially make the road to traditional publishing more difficult. Editors often check Bookscan when considering previously published writers. Book Buyers at the major chains are looking at these numbers as well.

If the sales record is strong, no big deal; if it’s not, those low sales could create a roadblock unless the writer is willing to change his/her name to start with a clean slate.

I’m putting this out there because I imagine a lot of writers contemplating this route might not have considered the potential ISBN trap.

29 Responses

  1. Wicked-Sassy said:

    The subject came up at a writing conference in Utah as well. It’s an interesting premise based on the success of people in the music industry who put free music online and leveraged that for recording contracts and/or concerts to make a living.

    It will be interesting to see how publishing shifts in the next few years. I know I’m curious…

  2. Cole Kleinschmit said:

    Very interesting advice. I was surprised by the statement that building an audience with free/limited distribution won’t affect later publishing. It’s a conflicting point of advice; some agents have posted statements to the effect that if it’s appeared anywhere else in full, it becomes somewhat radioactive. But then, with the popularity of blogs-to-books (Wil Wheaton comes to mind) I can see where exceptions are being made.

  3. Anonymous said:

    Interesting discussion. Yes, those electronics always find their way into discussions.

    A question about your comment about selling self-published books. Do you know how many books traditional publishers like to see sold before they would consider publishing that or other books by an author?

    Thank you for your response in this matter, Dennise

  4. Dawn Embers said:

    Interesting. Does this include pdf’s and podcasts? I don’t know many to give away print books for free but I have known a few people to podcast their books for free to build a fan base. These include: Mur Lafferty, Matthew Wayne Selznick, J.C. Hutchins and James Patrick Kelly.

    I believe it has worked well for some but also has drawbacks.

    sidenote: *giggles* word verification = shihzle

  5. Kristi Helvig said:

    I attended this session at the PPW Conference and was so impressed by the knowledge that you and Scott possessed regarding this subject. In fact, I’m sure I’ll be blogging about it for the next few weeks!

    Bottom line to all those about to query (like me): Find an agent who is on top of these issues – I think it can make a HUGE difference in your career.

  6. Adrian Lopez said:

    Cory Doctorow has released all of his commercially published novels for free online, even going so far as to allow others to create non-commercial derivative works from them. His latest novel was offered online in serialized form.

  7. Kristen said:

    This definitely peaks my interest! So what you’re saying is that releasing free material online is not a career breaker for writers so long as no ISBN is attached?

    Then there’s the whole question of Fanfiction… sad as it is, hundreds of people will chance their time on unknown writing of familiar characters in a heartbeat where convincing them to read original material is FAR more difficult.

    Has that ever come up in your discussions? I know there are some fanfiction success stories with Jane Austen’s works, but what about more modern–not yet public domain–stuff?

  8. Penny Sansevieri said:

    Very useful insights. I’d only add that if the sales of the book were disappointing, it’s not necessarily the end. However, the author has to be able to show that he or she has developed or grown his or her platform or “reach” since the book originally came out, or have some other means of showing a publisher that they have identified an audience for their book.

  9. Lucy said:

    @ Dennise

    The figure off the top of my head is 5,000 to 10,000 copies, with 10,000 or anything above it being a strong number. That’s my recollection from reading agents’ blogs.

  10. Kaitlyne said:

    I think it would be worth mentioning, as well, that the average self-published book fails to sell 200 copies. I imagine a lot of people think it can’t be that hard to sell a couple of thousand and don’t realize that in reality it’s an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish.

  11. kellion92 said:

    Are Bookscan numbers all that relevant to self-publishers? Don’t many self-published books get sold through channels that aren’t measured by Bookscan? Online retailers are counted, yes, but not direct sales via web or in-person events, right?

  12. Anonymous said:

    I was just talking with my husband about this topic last night. My small press publisher closed its doors just after my first novel came out, leaving me with a homeless sequel. It’s almost impossible to sell a sequel under these circumstances unless the first one was a best seller, which this one is not. But it has sold decently and has fans who are asking for the sequel. I told hubby I’m better off giving the sequel away on my web site to satisfy the fans and moving on to something else rather than self-publishing or looking for another small press that isn’t going to publish it well.

  13. JEM said:

    Having worked for a publisher before, I would also say having an ISBN with a low sales history hurts your chances, not only with editors and literary agents but with bookstores themselves. Buyers at bookstores will look up the sales history of a title on BookScan and will often make their decisions based on these numbers. I’ve recommended before to friends to copyright the book (which can also hurt if it’s an old date, but not as much as bad sales attached to an ISBN) and not get an ISBN, but rather just print them and distribute them to build a following. Just my own two cents 🙂

  14. Anonymous said:

    “Once a book has an ISBN, then sales of that book can be tracked on Bookscan.”

    It was my understanding that BookScan limits its statistics-gathering to certain specific venues. Sales at WalMart, for example, are not tracked. So I don’t understand why a small BookScan-approved number would be quite so significant if the data could be otherwise verified (maybe through a website counter attached to the download, like uses for software?)

    Thanks for clarifying ~


  15. C. Michael Fontes said:


    I am in a writers group in Fresno, CA. We are putting together an Anthology of short stories to self publish (firstly, for the experience, and secondly, to have SOMETHING out there)

    Would this same concept apply? None of the short stories are looking for traditional publication, but all of us are working on manuscripts. If the antho doesn’t sell well, would an agent think twice about the MS?


  16. ectiv said:

    Lulu doesn’t require an ISBN, although it offers it as an option; neither does CafePress. CreateSpace, however, automatically assigns one to every book published through its service.

  17. Andrea Blythe said:

    This is a really interesting topic, because posting a book in serial format online is something that I’ve considered. The reasons why I have not is that I know my skills are not there yet. Having an editor is a very good thing.

    Catherine M. Valente (though she has already published several books and numerous short stories) published The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making in serial format on her website. She published a new chapter every month or so and made it accessible to anyone. She did this as a way of supporting her writing income (those who liked the book were free to donate what they felt it was worth).

    This book has received an offer for traditional publication and has ben nominated for the Andre Norton Award, which is a first for a book published only online. All of which I thought was very interesting.

  18. Leigh D'Ansey said:

    Thanks for this helpful insight. I’ve been involved with self-publishing print books and a bi-monthly magazine. Publishing is the easy part: Marketing and selling enough copies of your product to make it a profitable enterprise can be the most challenging aspect of self-publishing.

    In our case, we self-published two books using our magazine as a platform. Subsequently my partner was contracted by a well-known publisher and has had several books published since. Perhaps self-publishing in a niche market and really promoting to that market is a better choice than self-publishing say, general fiction.

  19. Anonymous said:

    I can’t help but wonder if first-time authors will someday be encouraged–or even required–to self-pub first as a way to prove their book’s marketability to agents and editors.

  20. Anonymous said:

    I’m going to post this anonymously (although if you were to dig you might figure it out), but what if the following:

    – debut novel (dark fantasy/paranormal)
    – self-pubbed – ebook only (no print)
    – 1000 downloads free in first week (verifiable)
    – over 500 ebook sales in following 6 weeks (verifiable)
    – chosen at a popular social networking site for readers for a monthly discussion (there are over 1500 members in that particular group)
    – 4 and 5 star ratings
    – in top 5 highest rated and top 5 bestsellers at a popular ebook site
    – top 5 ebooks in a specific category at amazon

    Now what if I told you that no editor wanted it because they all thought there was no market for it or that it was “too risky” even though they really liked the writing?

    What would you do?

  21. Moses Siregar III said:

    Someone above mentioned free books on Kindle, but I don’t think you can offer a free book on Kindle as an independent author. I think that’s something that only large enough publishing houses are allowed to do, though I’m not sure how large a house has to be in order to do that. But if you really wanted to offer a book cheaply, you could list it in the Kindle store for, let’s say, $0.99.

  22. Smaranda said:

    I recently published my “book” on Kindle ( for proof, haha). I feel that because it’s not an actual novel, but rather an anthology of a few poems and stories I’ve written over the years, it’s probably something publishers are less likely to judge if it sells poorly, yet also likely to appreciate if it sells well. Maybe I’m completely off about that, but here’s hoping.

    I guess I’m just not entirely sure how publishing an e-book (especially on Kindle, where it’s free to do so) that doesn’t get many sales make publishers look at you negatively. It seems like this would be an extra way of promoting any other books that come out.

  23. Janice Campbell from NAIWE said:

    I was just updating information for some of my ISBNs on (the new ISBN management site from Bowker) and noticed there’s a spot to include a previous ISBN that the title has appeared under.

    With this information, it seems that Bookscan may be able to gather sales figures that reflect all editions of a title. That could be helpful in creating a better picture of total sales if they actually use it. Kristin, do you know Bookscan’s methodology?