ISBNs: It’s Your Job

Today I waited at the auto repair shop while my car was being smogged. I’m in California; we do this a lot. Two of the Parts technicians were helping a man who wanted a leashed gas cap for his wife’s car. There was some confusion about which one would fit, several databases were consulted, and finally one of the technicians called the dealer and received the final word. Yes, this particular leashed gas cap with this part number would fit; one database had faulty information while the other was correct.

There’s a great deal to praise about the transaction (customer service, persistence, attention to detail, general niceness) but what particularly struck me was their interest. Both the parts technicians were interested in the numbers, what they showed, why they didn’t agree, and not only did they find a solution, they were able to explain all this to the customer so he became engaged also. 

Of course, this is their job. It was a pleasure to listen to them doing it well.

Right now, I’m a writer. Before I was a writer, I was a librarian. There are many number systems in the library world and I learned quite a few. It was my job and I enjoyed it. When I stopped being a librarian and became a writer, a few of those number systems remained relevant to me. They are part of my job, whether I get paid by a publisher or publish independently. Some numbers are so ubiquitous, so necessary to writers that I am always stunned when I find writers with multiple books to their credit who have no idea what the hell the numbers are. They have never heard of them.

I’m talking, of course, about ISBNs

It is a truism among writers that all writers are readers first. Now ebooks may be common but I don’t think there is a writer in the world who has never picked up a printed book and held it in their hand. All books printed in the U.S., the U.K., and Europe have ISBNs in two places: the back cover and the verso of the title page. How can a writer not want to know what these numbers signify, where they come from, and most importantly what they do for the book? IT’S PART OF YOUR JOB. Google it, for heaven’s sake. Figure it out. Ask questions.

Now Amazon, famously, doesn’t care about ISBNs, particularly for ebooks. You can add them or not, they’re indifferent. News flash: Amazon is not the universe nor the defining word on book publishing. They are one option. (Okay, a big, fat option.) And if the writer takes one step out of Amazon’s enclosed world of ebooks, if they want to use Createspace or Ingram or Lulu or Smashwords or any one of the plethora of independent publishing choices, they must have an ISBN. If the service provides it or the writer does themselves, it makes a difference. So the writer is making choices and the more they know the smarter choice they can make.

With first-time authors, there is some excuse for ignorance. Some, not much. It does tell me a great deal about would-be authors when someone tells me they have a completed book ready to go—and no clue what an ISBN is. They don’t read very much, to start with, and I have no time for writers who don’t read. With an author who has multiple books published and who STILL has no clue about an ISBN, I don’t even want to start a conversation. If a plumber came to my house and asked me how to shut off the water, I’d get another plumber. I expect the car mechanic to be able to open the hood.

Because it’s their job.


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Mary Holland

Mary Holland writes alternative-world fantasy for grown-ups. Her books include Matcher Rules, The Bone Road, and The Dog of Pel. She lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with three cats and an ever-changing assortment of wildlife.

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