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Landmines for an author

Who Owns It?

"I do.” This is a typical response from many authors when I ask, “Who owns your book?”  In the strictest sense, they are right. An author owns the copyright to the content. Unfortunately, ‘own’ does not always apply to the finished product: the published book. Two other components can be a significant game-changer for an independent author: the ISBN and cover.



The ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is what I term the social security number of the publishing world. It is a unique identifier for each version of a book: paperback, hardback, audiobook, and eBook. ISBNs are required for print books that are distributed in retail bookstores, libraries, and wholesale companies.


The one exception is a Kindle eBook. Amazon assigns an identifier, AISN, and does not require an ISBN. However, for an author who plans to distribute the eBook through a distributor such as Smashwords, Draft2Digital (D2D), or IngramSpark, an ISBN is required.


Bowker is the U.S. agency that sells and administers the use of ISBNs. The price for one ISBN is $125 or ten for $295.


Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) offers a free ISBN for the paperback version. This can represent a significant saving to an author. Selecting the free number sets up KDP as the publisher of record. The book can only be sold through Amazon and distributed by KDP to other retail outlets through the Extended Distribution Channel. The author cannot use the free ISBN to publish the book through another distributor such as IngramSpark.


Smashwords and D2D also offer free ISBN’s. The same limitation applies. The author cannot use the free ISBN to publish the book through any other distributor.


Publishing companies who charge a fee to publish an author’s book provide a free ISBN as part of their service. There is also an added restriction. Along with controlling the distribution, they also control the price of the book. I discovered this when I published my first book, a non-fiction about the death of a witness to the Kennedy Assassination, through a subsidy publishing company. I cannot change the price of the book or even put it on sale.


The bottom line is that whoever owns the ISBN owns the distribution rights.  


Which option to select for an ISBN is dependent on the author’s goals. I know several authors who are very satisfied to stay within the realm of Amazon and choose the free option. It's not always a wrong decision as the author has only one account to manage. If, however, an author wants to expand their book distribution beyond Amazon, which does have limitations, it is essential to understand the role of the ISBN before selecting the free option and that the author does not own the distribution rights.


Book Cover

The other ‘gotcha’ is the cover. Book cover templates provide an easy method to design a cover. The use of the template, however, can cost the author the copyright to the cover.


KDP’s Cover Creation is an example. KDP owns the copyright to any cover created on one of their templates, even if the author has uploaded the images. The cover can only be used on the paperback or the eBook that is sold through Amazon. If an author intends to use IngramSpark or an eBook distributor such as Smashwords or Draft2Digital (D2D), a new cover is required.


The second concern is images used by the a book cover designer. Images are subject to copyright. If the designer does not have the legal right to use the image, the book may be subjected to litigation. When a copyright complaint over an image in a cover is filed with Amazon, the book is removed from Amazon sites and cannot be sold until the issue is resolved.  


The author should also ascertain whether the designer’s right to use the image includes full rights or is there a limitation. This can affect how and where the cover can be displayed.


Whether it is the use of a template, purchase of a pre-made, or a custom-designed cover, the author should ascertain who owns the copyright before electing to use the service. If the designer or company agrees to release the copyright, the author should request written confirmation along with the print-ready PDF file and JPG. The transfer agreement should stipulate the author has full rights that include unlimited use of any images.


The publishing environment is in a constant state of flux. Companies, individuals, and websites have a way of disappearing or going out of business. Knowing your options for the ISBN and cover design can eliminate a ton of grief down the line.

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