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Want an ISBN number? Grab a pen and paper…

Applying online is a no-brainer right?  “Apply online” means you do the application bit for something on the internet (obviously)… so if you apply online for an ISBN number for your ebook, you’d be forgiven for expecting the process of application to be online.  However, in the world of book publishing, nothing is that simple.  

Our story begins with writing a a book.  Which is something I’ve done – it’s what got this whole Man Vs Brain thing started.  I wrote a book, an ebook called Screwproof  the first book from Man Vs Brain.  The process of writing a book hasn’t changed much since the 1400’s in many respects.  You still need an idea, a story or whatever and you still need to work (harder than you expect) to actually write it, edit it, proof it etc.

But the process is a lot easier now because producing the book is a lot simpler.  In my case, I wrote it using Scrivener (which I bought & downloaded).

I compiled it into different formats (.mobi / .epub / PDF ) using Calibre which I bought and downloaded.

I authored the XML coded version (to get better control of the visual layout) using TextMate, which I also bought and downloaded… and with help of the excellent guidance notes of Guido Henkel which I found online.

I’m publishing it via Kindle KDP, Smashwords and Scrib.d all of which are online services, and (of course) using this website to promote it and publish more content, all of which was set-up, authored and designed using online tools like Dreamhost and Adobe CC.

You can see where this is headed right?  All you need to write and publish an ebook is online.  You can do it without ever leaving your desk… although given the time it takes you’ll have to take a piss, eat and sleep at your desk at least once whilst you’re doing it.

Then to get advice and research the finer points of the publishing process, I went online, to places like LinkedIn and Goodreads to get tips and ask questions etc.  Which is where I realised I needed an ISBN number – the international system of book identification, which isn’t essential for an ebook but if you want to get it listed in publishing databases, sell it on Apple, get it into as many ebook stores as possible, it a basic requirement.

So obviously, I went online to get my ISBN numbers, to the UK ISBN agency distributor, Nielsen.

And I followed the link to apply online, which is here.  And guess what?  Applying online means printing out the PDF, filling it in with a pen, then scanning it and emailing it back to them.  Which isn’t applying online, really, is it?  It’s applying offline, and submitting your application via email which isn’t online, it’s email – you have to be online to send it and they have to be online to receive it, but not at the same time.

It’s not an end to end online process like online shopping, or chatting, or surfing the web, or signing-up for a service online, it’s filling in a form with a pen.  Like we used to back in the day.  It is, commercially speaking, the equivalent of posting printed photographs to Instagram, or getting Spotify music sent to you as a cassette tape.

This explains why, as I’ve trawled the online world looking for information about publishing I’ve encountered a lot of people who’ll say things like “you should join Twitter and talk about your book” or “you should have a website for your book” as though they’re handing out pearls of wisdom as opposed to stating the obvious. It’s because people from the world of publishing have been, commercially at least, living in 1992 until Kindle launched.

Publishing isn’t transitioning well into the connection economy.  It reminded me of when I first started making websites back in the day (mid-90’s).  Back then, you’d meet TV people and print designers, music labels, journalists, businessmen and all sorts who would raise an eyebrow and snigger at what I did.  I can clearly recall a senior exec from Channel 4 asking me if I was “one of those anoraks who spent all day in his bedroom masturbating?” when I was doing a bit of consulting for their new E4 channel.  Happy days.

Of course, today, all those dinosaur industries have either gone to the wall or got behind the technology and the kids jacking off in their bedrooms have become business gurus and highly sought after execs.  Except in publishing.  In publishing, they’re still scratching their heads and wondering if this internet thingy will catch on.

People love books.  I love books.  But I don’t think books are defined by paper and bookshops any more.  If my experience of working in the online world has taught me anything, it’s that content is an unstoppable force that can’t be contained by delivery mechanisms.  It will break free sooner or later.  We still need news, we just don’t want newspapers.  We still love music, we just don’t buy records.  We still watch TV, but on demand when it suits us… and fast forward through the ad breaks.

Better to change your delivery business than wait and see what happens, because, with the exception perhaps of box office movie releases, every form of consumable commercial content from TV and music to newspapers and sewing patterns, the old, restrictive delivery mechanism lost business, but the content kept on going strong regardless.

If you can’t do it online, you’re more likely to stop doing it than keep going offline.  That means, sooner or later, ISBN numbers will go online too.  Not least because in the multi-device, mobile world of today, printers and scanners are becoming less and less pervasive – with data and documents in the cloud and wireless/mobile connectivity almost everywhere, they seem like an afterthought for most people’s home technology shopping list, same as CD-Rom burners or removable storage cartridges.

No wonder Kindle got so big so fast.  It wasn’t because everyone thought they’d start writing ebooks, it was content, backing-up without an outlet, unpublishable for reasons of niche or scope or anticipated commercial success.  But what the digital world has proven is, if there’s a market for it, content will find a way to publish and monetise itself.

And if they don’t upgrade their application systems, very possibly without an ISBN number.