This posting of my experience with CreateSpace and problems with ISBN numbers and their effect on foreign distribution is an addendum to April Hamilton’s posting on April 14, 2009 on the truth about CS’s ISBN numbers. On the whole, Ms. Hamilton, who favors CS, is reasuring about accepted CS’s free ISBN numbers. But she does have some caveats concerning foreign distribution of CS books, "which aren’t visible to book buyers outside the U.S." As she writes, "When you publish through CS, an Amazon listing is automatically included as part of the publishing process for free. . . . Listings on Amazon’s international sites are not included. In order to get your book listed on any of those sites, you must register your book with the Nielsen’s catalog (it’s free), and in order to register with Nielsen’s you must be the registered owner of your book’s ISBN." It is not clear from Ms. Hamilton’s posting whether an author can publish with CS, buy his/her own ISBN number, and still get the Amazon.com listing and the CS account. Ms. Hamilton may not make that explicit because, by her own admission, she never sought international sales. But as a CS author who does need and want attention in the U.K., I am staggered by my own errors and incorrect assumptions. I am posting my experience for two reasons. It may alert future authors to clarify their positions before entering publishing contracts with CS so that they make informed choices. And, I am still trying to sort out my position and my options and seek more feedback.
To backtrack, I am a retired professor of English literature with four academic press books to my credit, all of which are listed on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.ca. On the first two sites, I have an author’s page. My books received critical acclaim if not much in the way of royalties, but they took me safely through academia’s publish or perish system, and resulted in promotions to full professor. But literary criticism was an end as well as a means, and there was pleasure and excitement in my work. I taught crime fiction courses for fun (mine and the students’) late in my career. When, after retiring, I decided to write a critical study of a popular novelist, known primarily for her mysteries, Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine), I began to face many problems, intellectual and economic. When my completed ms. of The Fiction of Ruth Rendell: Ancient Tragedy and the Modern Family was circulated by my agent to commercial and academic presses, the book was praised highly but the inclination to publish the book was nil. Then, when a reader’s report called the book "impressive" but not marketable, and added he doubted readers of a mystery writer would care to read about her books, I decided to self-publish.
I had already raised some colleagues’ intellectual eyebrows when I announced the subject of my new book. Plato banished poetry from his Republic, and Edmund Wilson banished mystery writers to a very low link on the literary chain of being. I was laboring under genre assumptions that Wilson had established. Even worse, I was self-publishing my book. Didn’t that mean it was not worthy of being accepted by a commercial publisher? Assuming my subject was worthy of pursuing in the first place?
I admit it, I was defensive. When I did a little research and came across complaints from other self-publishing companies that Amazon favored the authors who published with its own self-publishing division (then BookSurge, now CS), I decided I had solved my problem. An Amazon listing of this book among my others, complete with cover images, would validate my abilities as a critic and author. Also, when someone entered the name Ruth Rendell in Amazon to buy one of her novels, my study of her fiction would show up as well. And it has, beautiful cover and all, with a reader’s report (ironically, from the U.K.) that gives it five stars, and glimpses of the interior content.
Self-publishing this book was expensive but also exciting if often frustrating (I am not very computer literate). Eager to see the book exist, I pushed off thinking about sales although CS informed me I would have that responsibility. To date, the book has sold very slowly, to say the least, but I do have plans to move it along. When I inquired about it being listed on Amazon.co.uk, I was informed by CS that only if the book sold very well here would that happen. Well, what some call lit crit is rarely a big seller. But occasionally I would look at Amazon.co.uk and a few weeks ago I discovered that through it some other English booksellers were offering two new and two used copies of my book, each at about double the price (depending on the exchange rate) it commanded on Amazon.com. I had always known that the U.K. was my natural market for this book, because Ruth Rendell is virtually a household name in the U.K. whereas she never has received in the U.S. the acclaim she deserves–not only as a mystery writer but as a major novelist. It was time to think about foreign distribution.
Back to research, I discovered to my joy (which has since abated) that the route to go is Lightning Source which prints on demand all over the world. It has a U.K. office. Well! LS would be handling distribution of my book to U.S. booksellers through the Expanded Distribution Channels that I bought with my CS publishing contract. I would just ask CS to extend the reach of LS to the U.K. Right! Wrong. The sense I have had from e-mails back and forth is not so much that CS could not extend the distribution but that it chooses not to. "Elects" not to, to use Ms. Hamilton’s word on the subject. And since CS owns the ISBN number, which I accepted as a free offer, I cannot act on my own unless I get a new one. This brings with it a number of potential problems described in Ms. Hamilton’s posting, problems that Walt Shiel describes quite forcefully as a response to my inquiry to him about my options. Our exchange has been posted on his View from the Publishing Trenches.
This is now my situation as I understand it. And frankly, I don’t completely understand it and feel a bit like Alice behind the looking glass. CS owns not only my ISBN number but the digital files that print the book on demand and that will allow LS to make my book available in the U.S. to booksellers looking for a wholesaler and wholesale prices. I specifically have in mind a number of small, surviving mystery bookstores, one of which recently ordered several copies directly from me at a discount I offered the owner. If I want LS to distribute my book in the U.K., I could, since I own the copyright on the book’s contents, start from scratch and pay for a new cover design as well as a new format and print set-up. Just how that would affect my account with CS is not clear to me. Right now I do not want to assume any more unanticipated problems. I do not want the book as it exists now to be listed as out of print, which I understand might happen if it is listed under a second ISBN number. It is the most physically beautiful of my five books. I am still hoping to promote more sales of the book here, but realistically, it will never be a best seller. So this is how my situation seems to me now: CS elects not to be involved in distribution of my book in the U.K. Its representative has suggested in e-mails and phone conversations that I get a new ISBN number and enter into my own agreement with LS, but he has not offered to explain what the consequences of that move might be with regard to my account with CS. I have asked that this be spelled out, but as of this posting, have not heard back. On my own, I cannot do anything unless I start from scratch and scrap what I have achieved and paid CS for so far. And just how that would play out, assuming I wanted to go to that expense, is–again–not clear to me.
But mea culpa. I didn’t do my homework!
Barbara Fass Leavy