Navigating ISBNs, Copyrights, and the Library of Congress

Sunny does not like sharing once he finds an article of black clothing he can cover with white hair.

Yes, this post is out of order. In my defense, the first time I published, I did everything through IngramSpark, so when I decided to branch out on my second book, I hit some obstacles that I would like to share. So let’s get started with ISBNs!

What is an ISBN?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. In a nutshell, it’s the number assigned to your book, and it’s important to remember that each variation of your book (hardback, paperback, large print, audiobook, every language adaptation, ebook, etc). has to have an individual number. This is used by bookstores, retailers, and libraries to identify the formats of your book. Every country has an agency responsible for issuing ISBNs; in the US, it’s Bowker.

If you want to sell your book through retailers or distributors, you have to have an ISBN number for the physical versions of your book. As of now, most of the major retailers don’t require them for ebooks. Personally I got them anyway because if that changes, I would rather be prepared; it also makes my ebooks more discoverable. If you want your ebooks in libraries, then OverDrive, the largest ebook supplier used by libraries, requires it.

How Do I Get One?

You can simply apply for one online, but you have to be careful who you use. There are scam “agencies” out there who claim to sell ISBNs at lower rates, but the numbers are not valid. In order to sell ISBN numbers, the agency first has to purchase and register them through Bowker, and each agency’s site should have some kind of Bowker partner identifier. A huge red flag is any agency who claims to sell individual numbers (not in bulk) at a significant discount.

There is an exception to the discount rule, and that’s when an agency sells an ISBN at a significantly discounted rate in exchange for being listed as the publisher. Typically this is offered by agencies who also provide printing and distribution services. What this means is that whatever agency you use will be named on the imprint for your work, and you essentially lose the ability to list yourself as the publisher. It can also limit your distribution channels depending on the terms of the sale, so read the fine print very carefully and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re just starting out and are more concerned with getting your book out there while working on a limited budget, this isn’t a bad option. Once you gain some recognition, you can republish the book with a new ISBN number under your own publishing name. In this article, there is a great section on the pros and cons of getting a publisher held ISBN instead of your own.

I bought my ISBNs through IngramSpark for $85 as part of the book set ups. It was easy, but one of the advantages of buying from Bowker is that you can buy in bulk for substantially better rates. It’s $295 for 10, $575 for 100, and $1500 for 1000. They never expire, so when you consider that you probably need at least two numbers per book, you can really save a lot in the long run.

This article helped me a lot when I started researching ISBN information for my first book, especially when it came down to whether or not to purchase an ebook ISBN and who to use.

Registering a Copyright

This doesn’t have to be a huge hurdle, but it really depends on how comfortable you are with bureaucratic paperwork. But first, let’s get into why you want to register your work with the copyright office (note: this is for the US– laws vary country by country, so if you’re uncertain, look up your country’s agency and laws or seek out legal aid).

Why Should I Register?

Technically, copyright protection starts when you begin to write and lasts for your lifetime plus seventy years, but filing the registration gives you a public claim to its ownership. Without that claim, it’s harder to pursue copyright infringement litigation if your work is plagiarized. It’s important to file within three months of publication to legally protect yourself.

Something I wish I had not paid for was having a third party agency register my first book’s copyright when I bought my first ebook ISBN numbers. I thought that everything would be taken care of, but all they did was create my account and complete the form. You still have to review the form, submit the application, and pay the $65 fee yourself on top of whatever fees you paid the agency. I don’t know if paying for that service did anything really valuable because I couldn’t find anything online that backed it up, so all I can say is spend that money at your own risk. I personally didn’t have any problems filling out the form on my second go round, but if you have trouble with that sort of thing, then maybe paying for a third party to handle all of that for you is for the best. If anyone knows another reason to actually get that service, reply in the comments!

Library of Congress

The last thing I want to cover is registration with the Library of Congress. The LOC is the largest source of literary works in the country and one of the largest in the world. While the copyright agency is part of the Library, copyrighting your work does not guarantee that it will be catalogued. It will be entered for consideration, but if you want to make sure it’s really in the Library, you have to fill out a PrePub Book application to get the LOC control number. Relax, it’s not that hard. Just make sure you have everything you need, including your ISBNs.

Also here’s a fun fact: you can’t copy and paste your book description or it will be flagged for invalid characters. You have to type it out in the description field.

Why Do I Want to Do This?

Because the LOC assigns consistent cataloguing data for your book that is used by libraries across the country. If you’re writing a series, it can also make sure libraries are notified in a timely manner when the next installment is released. The one caveat is that you can’t register a published work, although you can ask your local library for assistance getting your work catalogued. You have to make this part of your prepublication checklist, but it’s free as long as you don’t mind donating a copy of your work to the Library. For more information, I recommend their FAQ page.

In one of my upcoming posts, I plan to recreate my personal prepublishing checklist, but all of this is on it as part of covering my bases and protecting my work. Happy writing, and good luck out there!