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.


Teeny Tiny Genres

If you call yourself a writer, the first  question everyone asks is What Do You Write? I started answering this by saying ‘Genre Fiction’, meaning I was writing science fiction or fantasy or mysteries, not books about gardening or how I found love in a villa in Italy.

It’s a pity this answer isn’t acceptable. People want to know which genre, because most only read in one or perhaps two categories. (“Oh, I only read mysteries.” Why? Are you afraid you might find a non-mystery you like?)

Genre fiction is now divided into small categories, which are subdivided again and again, so it is possible to send an agent a story defined as ‘mid-range urban fantasy romance’ or ‘steampunk space opera with zombies’ and not have the recipient blink. These divisions persist all the way to the bookstore’s display tables and to amazon’s website, so I wonder how many readers there are who ONLY read steampunk and absolutely nothing else. Surely, they sneak in a cozy or two when no one is looking?

I read (and purchase in hardback, ha!) science fiction from space opera to sociological, fantasy of all sorts, mystery stories both hard-boiled to cozy, thrillers, autobiographies, gardening, critical essays, poetry, and a book on how to play competitive Scrabble. That’s a selection from the closest bookshelf and only what I can see without craning my neck.

So it seems a shame to categorize what I write, because that’s the last thing that happens. I have an idea, I see a character dealing with a problem, I build a world around the idea and the character, and then I write the story. The only criteria for me is I must be interested enough in the story to stick around to tell it. With a novel, that’s a minimum of a year, and a maximum of who knows? So when I’m finally done, that’s when I say, oh, this one is a fantasy. And that’s what I try to sell it as. But to me, it’s a story, not a genre.