Category Archives: Commentary

ISBN: Every Novel Needs One

BowkerWhen you are in the process of independently publishing your novel, you need to make a decision if you are going to own the ISBN of your book, becoming the novel’s official publisher, or if you are going to use a “free” ISBN from the Print-on-Demand company. There are reasons for going free or for starting your own imprint.

What is an ISBN?

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is an identification system that was developed in the 1970s for paper bound books. It can be used for inventory control, sales tracking and order processing by booksellers, wholesalers, libraries and universities. Originally it was a 10 digit code that helped to distinguish between books with the same title or different editions of the same book, be it fiction or non-fiction. Each edition of every book was given its own ISBN number to aid in this process. In 2007, the ISBN number expanded to 13 digits that are divided by hyphens creating five different identifying parts.

Prefix – A three digit number that identifies the book industry.
Country – These next set of numbers indicates which country the book was published in.
Publisher – Every publishing company bears its own unique code.
Title – Every book and edition of a particular title has its own code.
Check Digit – This solitary digit at the end of the ISBN validates the number. Usually it is the letter X, the roman numeral for 10.

When you look at any book that is for sale commercially, on the back cover you see not only the ISBN, but a barcode and the book’s suggested price. Today, not only paper bound books have ISBNs, but ebooks do as well. Each distributor that sells your ebook will require a new ISBN number for your novel. You will need different one for Amazon, Smashwords, iTunes, Kobo and any other commercial venue you wish to sell your ebook. Think of each of these sales points as a “new edition” for your ebook.

There are 160 companies that handle the assigning of ISBNs worldwide. Their jurisdiction is based on the country the book is being published in. In the United States, that company is Bowker. The process to apply is done online with delivery in around 15 days. There is a $20 processing fee in addition to purchasing the ISBN. ISBN starts at $125 for the first one, or you can purchase a block of ten for $250. Bowker will also create a barcode of your ISBN for an additional fee, although there are programs that can do that for you if you end up buying a large number of ISBNs that will be used in print books.

Once you have created your imprint within Bowker and have assigned ISBNs to your upcoming books, each edition should be listed with Bowker’s Books In Print, a database and directory of all current and upcoming books. This is the main directory used by libraries, schools, booksellers and other institutions to search for and pre-order books.

Why Purchase Your Novel’s ISBN?

Many independent authors are on a tight budget and decide that because the various ebook distributors offer “free” ISBN numbers for their books and short stories, that is the best way for them to publish their book. After all, who cares what name is in the “publishers” section of the book when purchasing an ISBN is a hundred dollars or more? In the short term, this statement is correct. If you are looking to publish one book and then move on to something else, creating your own publishing imprint is probably not for you. This would also apply if you are creating in-house manuals for your business, a cookbook collection for your small club, or perhaps a genealogy book for your family. ISBN is an additional expense that will give you little short term benefit.

If you are an author who plans to have a stable of books under your name and to gain income from them for the next few decades, then there are additional aspects to consider.

Let us say you have a finished writing a novel and you don’t want to take on the expense of purchasing your ISBNs for the various online distribution points.

To save upfront money, you publish your book as an ebook instead of also creating a printed version. You proceed to distribute your ebook on Amazon which assigns it an ASIN (Amazon Product Code). Next, you distribute your ebook on Barnes & Noble, which gives it a B&N product code. Kobo will give your ebook a “free” ISBN, but Kobo will be listed as the book’s publisher. Finally, you distribute on Smashwords and once more the ebook is assigned a new ISBN, but the ebook will now list Smashwords as the publisher instead of yourself. With the exception of Smashwords, which does put the ISBN into the actual ebook, none of these distribution companies identifiers will be in your book.

Twenty years pass by. Let us suppose that Barnes and Noble and Smashwords have gone out of business. Amazon decides to change their in-house product codes and no longer uses ASIN numbers. Perhaps Amazon decides to not provide a searchable database for their discontinued ASIN products. Kobo, which owns the ISBN on your ebook, updates the information about your book in a way that is not to your liking. However, because they own the ISBN number, it is the only record of your book “in print”.

As you can see, owning your novel’s ISBNs can be critical in the long haul. By purchasing your ISBNs and creating your own small imprint, you can retain control over the information of your books in the long term.

Final Word

There are ways to gain the advantages of using “free” ISBNs and also purchasing ISBNs. When you are first starting out as a new imprint, you might want to consider juggling your novels and short stories imprint status to keep your initial ISBN block purchase only for your larger works. It is possible to use the free ISBNs that the companies offer you at first to save on startup costs and then “republish” your novel later with your own ISBN. Perhaps you are planning on doing a cover change after your book has been out a time, that would be a good time to pull out a new ISBN and assign it to your book. Another example is with short stories. Perhaps you decide to publish a few of your short stories as singles on Amazon, but later want to put a group of them into a book collection. You can use the free ISBNs from Amazon for the singles and then use your own ISBN for the collection at a later time. You’ll be covered both in the short term and in the long that way.

Using the ISBN system takes time and patience. Give yourself time to learn about the database and what it has to offer. It is my view that the ISBN system is here to stay. Having your books listed in the Bowker Books In Print database under your own imprint is well worth the time and money in the long view.

Methods of Conducting Writing Research

stacks of booksWriting research is the cornerstones of good story telling. As a writer of science fiction, fantasy and creative non-fiction, research is important to the story writing process. I create entire worlds, often with technology that is not commonplace to the everyday reader, but which needs to be understandable to them in order to enjoy the story from a myriad of researched details from many sources. I tend to not research my stories before I begin writing. I like to let my characters to shape the way the plot will go. Once my rough draft is completed, it is at that point that I fill in the necessary details that embellish my stories and allow it to conform to historical events, customs, and locations. As I write my rough draft, I leave document notes in Scrivener to make sure that I double check historical details, research technology or cultural viewpoints. When I am in the revision stage, I will fill in those details to the story, enriching it and gaining word count in the process.


The first way that I research a topic is to use wikipedia. I do not use the information that I find there as confirmed facts, but it is a good way to see how the information in question is viewed by the public. Because what is found in wikipedia is written in by anyone who wishes, it is usually not the best place to find facts. However, at the bottom of the page in wikipedia are the sources where this author had gained their information. It is these websites which are the ones I use to research my facts. Often times, these sites will be from universities, libraries or societies that are experts on the subject matter.

What you want to find are primary sources of information. People that know the information first hand and then write about it. Biographies, archeology texts, scientific studies and reports are all good primary sources. A secondary source would be a paper about a historical figure written hundreds of years after the man or woman in question was dead and all information taken from other sources to compile into the text.


After wikipedia, I research topics by buying a book on the subject, preferably a primary source book, but secondary is acceptable depending on the topic or availability of the subject. For each container universe in a story series, I tend to purchase at minimum a dozen books to support my research. I go through each of these books and write notes from them that I feel are useful. It is the notebook of notes that I use while writing, but I like to keep the original book handy on a nearby shelf or in my kindle library in case I want to double check a small detail.


Another way I research is to take a class on the subject. This method takes longer and time dedication, but often times an instructor can shave off days or weeks of search by providing you with an overview of the subject. The included list of further reading or links on the web to accelerate your research. For me, the savings of time and to have someone to ask questions of is often worth the price of the class.


One of the more powerful ways to research is to experience the activities of your characters in a personal manner. For instance, I took a semester course in fencing in order to get a feel for handling a sword. I am not by any stretch of imagination a good swordswoman, but by taking the course I learned what muscles I would use in match, the basic moves of fencing, what it is like to be in a modern fencing tournament, and most importantly, what it feels like to be a person who is fencing. I have taken courses in sailing, horseback riding, dancing, metalsmithing and other activities that all combine to give me a feeling of what skills a person in a fantasy setting might feel on a day to day basis.

I also take trips to locations that are similar to ones that I’m writing and take photos and notes of the places, trying to take in the feel of the place more than the facts. These sensations are easily applied to characters that I am writing about. Google can always tell me the facts, but it can’t always provide the little details that the experience itself does. Whenever it is possible, I recommend that you experience the activities your characters would, or at least a safe close approximation.

Google Earth

Hand in hand with travel is Google Earth. Using this application you can zero in on most places on the planet, you can check street names, landmarks, and develop walking, driving and public transit routes. This can be helpful when writing about a place you have never been and discovering travel times between locations or the appearance of buildings in the area. While it is always preferable to visit the location and gain the sights, sounds and smells of the place, Google Earth is a handy substitute that lurks inside your computer, always at hand.


Writing research is a necessary part of creating a novel. Some genres take more research than others, but ultimately, every story needs facts to help flesh it out and ground it in a semblance of reality. How much is too much? Only you the author can decide. I believe that the key to keeping your research in control and not overwhelming your story process is to do most of it after the rough draft is completed. Do not allow the small details of history to swamp your original plot. If you keep this in mind, you should have an effective course of research using the above tools.

Guidelines to Great Writing Critiques

Writing Critique TemplateAll writers need beta-readers to critique their work. You as the writer will not catch all the errors in grammar or missed content as a fresh pair of eyes will. While there are software programs that will do the job of a copy editor and help you iron out typos and other grammatical errors, nothing replaces the human mind when it comes to content and readability.

The first time I experienced a writing critique group, my work was torn apart in a mean spirited, angry fashion. Women looked me in the eye and said that women characters did not act in the way that I portrayed them. That they were offended by the circumstances that I placed my characters into and what I wrote about made them uncomfortable. My writing seemed to evoke strong, negative emotions and I was crushed by the face to face, personal attacks of my work. I almost gave up writing altogether after this experience. Then I moved on to a new community of writers where the reviewers came from all over the world and offered up opinions based on many different cultural experiences and viewpoints. I was astonished to learn that my work, while still bringing up strong emotions, was acceptable to the readers and they wanted to see more. The same reasons that the first group hated my work were the reasons that this larger group of readers liked it and they explained to me WHY they liked it. This made all the difference to me.

Finding the right critique group for you as a writer is very important. Not only should you seek to find writers of an informed skill level who write in your own genre, but you should find writers that have experience in writing critiques. These writers will give you useful information about your work allowing you to improve it. In turn, you need to learn how to write constructive critiques that offers the same level of usefulness to others. It can be a fine line to walk, but if you follow these guidelines, you should be able to become a good critique writer and an asset to your writing group.

Four Guidelines to Great Critiques

Be Honest
Be Encouraging
Be Well-Rounded
Be Respectful

Being honest with your fellow writers is important. By not telling your group member that something doesn’t ring true to you as a reader, you may be sparing their feelings, but you are not helping them hone their craft. You need to let your group member know your true thoughts and to explain the reasons behind your opinions. This ties in with being encouraging. When I do a review of a story, I always try and find at least one positive thing to say before I cover any negative aspects. I don’t want to be someone that crushes the emotions of another so that they stop writing, as was done to me in that first writer’s group. By incorporating both positive and negative points in my critiques, I give a more well-rounded opinion of the work. When I make a point about something that I feel may need to be corrected, I make sure that I state it in a way that shows that I respect the other person. We are all here to grow as writers and no matter what your level, there is always someone better and more accomplished than you in the world. It is good to remember that and to be humble.

When I write critiques, I first read the story or chapter without taking any notes. I experience the story as any reader would. Then I go back through it a second time, using a template of topics that I use as an outline for my critique. My template covers the following topics:


For each of these bullet points, I try and write my opinion as related to the story. What I write for each section can be either negative or positive. For instance, if I feel that a writer has a gift for dialog, I will note that in the proper section of my critique and then explain WHY I feel it is superior. If the author has used an abundance of adverbs, I will note it in the Grammar/Mechanics section and explain that most of them need to be removed and why this should be done. Sometimes, a story will not have dialog or characters, such as in an essay. In that case, I remove that section from the review and go on to the next one that applies to that particular work. Grammar and typos I write onto the story itself, making sure that it is clearly marked in a bright color of ink that will not be missed.

A critique is all opinion. It is important to let the author know how you felt about the piece. What questions you have about the characters and how they make you feel. Did the plot interest you? Does the dialog flow naturally? What did you like best about the story and what you liked the least. Is the story memorable? Is there anything that you would change within the content of the story? As you write your critique, try and keep ideas like this in your mind. You don’t want your critique to merely be about typos and grammar mistakes. You want it to be about the content of the story, its pacing, and what it invokes inside you as a reader.

I hope that this has given you a starting point for writing better critiques in your writing group. Remember, critiques are more an art than a science. Allow yourself time to gain a good understanding of how to write a good critique. By helping other authors improve their stories, you will gain new analytical skills with your own writing. It may seem like a great deal of busy work to critique others, but in the end, it will help you master the skill of writing. Go and find a critique group, or start one of your own. You will be glad you did.

Reviews of Writing #Podcasts

microphoneI love podcasts. They are free of charge, come in a wide variety of talk and music formats and I always keep my trusty iPod Touch loaded with the latest of my subscriptions. I listen to podcasts about the craft of writing when I’m out walking my dog, or on a long commute to work. I thought that I’d take a moment to share a few of the ones that I listen to. None of these podcasts approached me to review them, they are ones that I found either by word of mouth among my writer friends or stumbled upon on my own. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

I Should Be Writing

This one is one of the first podcasts that I ever subscribed to. It is a long one, but it showcases the personality of writer and podcaster Mur Lafferty. The podcast gets into the nitty gritty of what it takes to be a successful writer. If you have the time to listen, it is one worth popping into your iPod.

The Creative Pen Podcast

I have been a fan of JoAnne Penn for many years. I follow her written blog regularly and I occasionally listen to her podcast when I find the time. This is a podcast that is full of helpful advice for writers that goes beyond the basics. If you are new to writing genre podcasts, this is one of the ones you should try first.

Reading and Writing Podcast

This is a author interview podcast by Jeff Rutherford is chock full of interviews by many recognizable authors. The podcasts tend to be short, only around 15 minutes, but you hear plenty of information during that time. This is a good one for readers since it helps to introduce new authors to you that you may not heard of before.

Helping Writers Become Authors

The podcasts are very short, less than 10 minutes each. If you are a writer on the go, this short format might appeal to you. The topics covered are story arcs, finding inspiration for your stories, and other craft issues that all writers face.

The Dead Robot’s Society

This is an all purpose podcast about the craft of writing, interviews with authors, and book reviews. It tends to be one of the longer podcasts in the writing genre, averaging between an hour to 90 minutes. Still, there is plenty of information packed into the podcasts and it is worth playing on your long commute if you have time to fill.

Writing Excuses

I’ve become a fan of this writing podcast featuring Brandon Sanderson and his co-hosts Mary Robinette Kowel, Howard Tayler, and Daniel Wells. It is a short 15 minutes and covers writing craft techniques of a slightly more advanced nature and plenty of science fiction related story ideas to play with. There is also a writing prompt at the end. Give it a try. I think you’ll be pleased.

Vroman’s Bookstore: A Filofax Extravaganza

Vroman Doorway 2014Vroman’s Bookstore is a Pasadena institution, a literary landmark, and a wonderful old-fashioned bookstore tucked away behind a huge Office Depot. Once you find your parking, you descend a staircase decorated with colorful tiles past buskers who play their instruments. This day, a spry elderly man in jeans and a coat that was in fashion two decades ago played classical music on his oboe, much to the delight of a little girl and her parents that stood enraptured before him. He had a twinkle in his eye as he finished his tune, an expression that turned into a delighted smile when the little girl asked for another song. That smile had more to do with their shared love of music than any dollars that landed in his open instrument case. At the ground floor, a trio of young music students were practicing their violins. They were not busking, but instead taking advantage of the excellent acoustics of the outdoor courtyard. The discordant sound of their practice was a distinct counterpoint to the lovely strains of the oboe on the steps above them.

When you first enter via the double doors of the bookstore, your first impression is one of surprise. Vroman’s Bookstore seems far larger on the inside than what you might guess from the unbroken stucco walls on the outside. The sensation I felt reminded me of how Dr. Who’s companions might feel when they enter the TARDIS for the first time. There are two floors in the bookstore and several departments on each level. On the first floor, there is an area where stationary, fountain pens, ink and other writer’s delights are temptingly displayed. A full case of Filofax binders for sale, along with all the fountain pen friendly paper you might wish for. There is a full gift shop upstairs featuring stickers, scrap booking supplies and artisan styled bags. The rest of the store was filled with paper bound books on stately wooden shelving. However, I was not there to shop, much as I was tempted to do so, I had come to be a guest speaker at the Filofax Extravaganza put together by my friend, Jennifer Reyes. The event was held on January 11, 2014.

Filofax Display 2014

In the center of the second floor of the bookstore, there is a large open area that serves as an amphitheater and community center. Many rows of chairs were set up facing a lectern and a table filled with Filofax binders. At the rear of the area was food, bottles of water, and a raffle sponsored by the Filofax Corporation. Several pocket sized Filofax binders were the prizes of the raffle, along with agenda stamps and a few scrap booking items donated by Jennifer.

After checking in with Jennifer in the back, I found my way to a seat to wait for the event to begin. A few people introduced themselves, recognizing me from my blog, No Wasted Ink. As I shook their hands and took the offered business cards, I was rather astounded. It was the first time that I have been recognized as a writer in public and to hear so many positive comments about my blog was heartwarming.

Jennifer Reyes 2014The presentation was moderated by Jennifer Reyes. She spoke about Filofax the company and the history of the binders through the past several decades. Filofax was very popular in the 1980s. I remember that most of my friends had them in college and I was urged to “fit in” by purchasing one myself. This was before electronic PDAs and then later phone apps became popular as agendas. In the last few years, Filofax has been gaining popularity once again as many people are turning off their phones and returning back to paper when it comes to scheduling their lives. She also gave an extensive demo on how she uses washi tape, stamps, and other scrap booking techniques to decorate her Filofax planners.

Rebecca Moore BoverThe first guest speaker was Rebecca Moore Bover. She spoke about her role as an admin for a Filofax group on Facebook called FiloRAKs. As an admin, she has far more duties than simply adding and booting people from the group, she also needs to schedule events. Her Filofax is instrumental in helping her track all of the extra duties she does for the group. Being an admin to a Facebook group is hard work and is often unrewarded. I hope Rebecca knows that her volunteer work is much appreciated.

Karen Massie

Next was Karen Massie, a collector of rare and limited edition Filofax binders. She brought her snake Filofax and an A5 purple Malden that she has filled with her personal, teaching and doctoral studies paperwork. Karen’s collection is truly a marvel to see. Many of the rare Filofaxes are more luxurious in person than how they appear on catalog screens via your home computer. Many of the nuances of the leather are simply not captured and it takes seeing the Filofax in your hands before you can appreciate its finer points. Some of Karen’s binders are worth hundreds of dollars. She has much to be proud of in her extensive collection and I hope she can be persuaded to bring them to future Filofax events in the area.

Wendy Van CampI was the third speaker on deck. Before driving to Vroman’s, I had stuffed my Crimson Personal Malden into a bag and I always carry my Brown Slimline Holborn with me as a wallet. This gave me a few items to display as I spoke. The Malden is what I use to track all the posts and marketing I do on my writing blog, No Wasted Ink. I explained my tracking system and how I interface what I have written in my Filofax with the various online systems I use. The main online systems are: Hootsuite, Twitter, Facebook and Google+. I also pulled out my wallet and explained why I like using the slimline Filofax as apposed to using a pocket size.

Karine TovmassianThe final guest speaker was Karine Tovmassian. Karine is spreading the word about how analogue planners such as a Filofax can be superior and more accessable for planning purposes, yet can also interface with the digital parts of our lives. Her company ThinkerExtraordinaire, is helping people all over the nation learn to use their time and energy more efficiently.

After the event, I felt the need for a hot cup of coffee and took the elevator downstairs where a small, somewhat posh coffeehouse is located just off the main street and tucked into a corner of the bookstore. The pastries looked divine and the coffee was smooth. I was lucky enough to find a chair by the window and was able to relax and people watch. There was a foursome playing a game of cards with what appeared to be an aged and weather antique deck along with the usual assortment of laptop and iPad users scattered about.

Visiting Vroman’s Bookstore is a unique experience, even without the Filofax Extravaganza to attend. If you are in the Los Angeles area, it is a literary landmark worth paying a visit. The bookstore is mere blocks away from the freeway and there is plenty of parking in the back. You owe it to yourself to take in the atmosphere of this book lover’s destination.

Filofax Extravaganza Attendees