I started this post 2 years ago and never wrote a word until now. Why? Because it took me that long to figure out the answer to the question I used as the title for this post. Now, I don’t consider myself a slow learner by any means, but there are a lot of things to weigh out when you make decisions as a self-publisher. You have to simultaneously be a creative as well as a project planner, and at times you get lost in the quagmire of endless possibilities. It is my hope that this post, along with others I share along the way, gives you some insight into the decisions you will need to make, and ultimately helps you navigate your own process.
So, to the question I posed in the title, do I need a copyright as an author, the correct response for me was yes. However, I didn’t know that was the answer until I had made some mistakes along the way. It seems to be my pattern… but perhaps that is a post for another day. Ultimately, my journey is my own and may not be for everyone, so I will give you a bit of background for each of my expectations when I first self-published in an effort to help you make the best decision for your own publishing path.
The three expectations/assumptions that brought my decision home were: I wanted to be in bookstores and libraries, I thought “free” ISBN’s were okay, and I wanted to protect my IP (intellectual property) legacy.
I wanted to be in bookstores and libraries
If this is a goal you have in mind, you are reading the right post because I can definitely tell you what I did wrong here. As a self-publisher you have a lot of options to obtain print copies of your books. This allows for you to order author copies of your own books so you can sell them directly to your readers, pass them out as ARC (Advanced Reader Copies) or set up a table at a local craft show or book event. What is amazing is that you can pay for them as you go with “print-on-demand” services through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, even Ingram Spark. If you are interested in checking them out, I have linked to their sites below. Ingram Spark is especially interesting if you like the idea of having one platform handle all of the access to the retail sites for you, also known as aggregators.
When the Traditional Publishers do print runs, they order thousands at a time, and they are sent on to the brick and mortar store where they are sold. There is a whole system in place for books and their placements, which I am woefully unqualified to speak about, but I will tell you that the books aren’t there for long before they are replaced with the latest new release. What happens to the older releases from there is a whole rabbit hole you can examine on your own. After reading about the fate of the older releases, you will understand why print-on-demand is so beneficial to authors.
What the print-on-demand system allows is for an independent author to not get stuck with 10,000 copies of our debut novel. No one has room for that, I don’t care how big of a house you live in! And what I didn’t realize at the time was that there would be no way in heck that I would be able to take my books into the store and have them sell them for me, since they have to make a profit also. What that means is that they want to purchase books for as close to cost as possible so they can mark up to retail and make their cut. Bookstores also have the ability to return the books they don’t sell and get a refund, which is a service a self-publisher has to decide if they will provide.
My last point leads into my next topic, and was the most important piece of the publishing puzzle. In reading some of the information provided by independent bookstores, it became clear pretty quickly that they expected your barcodes (ISBN) to include a retail price for your book, which you would sell to them at a lower price. What I found out quickly is that the “free” barcodes placed on my books by my print-on-demand services weren’t anything I could control or update. This leads us to the next topic…
I thought “free” ISBN’s were okay
But they weren’t in my case, because I wanted to be in physical bookstores. So, I will say that if you are concentrating on ebooks for now, there may not be a strong enough need for you to purchase ISBNs unless you want to copyright which I will go into next. The free ISBNs provided are adequate and can get you published and selling books pretty quickly. What I will tell you is that each platform will assign their own, so you won’t be able to take the numbers assigned by one vendor and log them in as ISBNs for another. The same will go for the print versions of your book, and you will want to keep in mind that when the vendors “place” your barcode, it will be put where they want it, so you will need to make sure that your cover design supports the placement by paying close attention to their template guidelines and ordering proof copies as a double check.
Because you can’t request changes to the free barcodes, you aren’t able to put your retail price on them, which I found is one of the requirements for submitting your book for consideration by an independent book store. By the time I figured this all out I was drafting my final book, and realizing that my debut wasn’t pulling its weight for read-through. Because I wanted to be able to do book-signings at stores, and because I had to make changes to my books anyway, I decided on a relaunch. You can read about the sorted details in this post linked to here, but suffice it to say the decision was way easier than the execution.
I decided if I was going to go through all the effort of relaunching, that I would do it “right” this time and get my own ISBNs. In doing so, I had all of the control I needed to make my books adequate for bookstore distribution, and they were now registered to me which allowed me to take the steps necessary to protect my intellectual property.
Protecting my IP legacy
Writing a book and putting it out in the world takes time and effort. For those who protect their IP, their legacy can extend up to 70 years after their death. I wanted to be sure that my work could continue to be a legacy my family could benefit from, in essence keeping their options open. In order to do that, and because I went through all of the trouble to relaunch, I decided to file for copyright.
I have read, in more than one place, that the copyright is established when the work is created by the artist. There have been those who have dismissed the need of a “poor man’s copyright” which is you shipping yourself your work and not opening it. It is said that it isn’t necessary, since the act of writing and rewriting is its own proof that the author created something. Also, with the ability to date and timestamp digital file creation, it would be easy to prove that you started work on something back in 2014 and printed the first version of it in 2016. But where the copyright becomes important, is in the court of law.
For those who would want to take their grievances to a court of law for stolen or plagiarized novels, it is recommended that you file your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office within 90 days of your publication. The some of the benefits are listed below, which are copied from Circular 1 – Copyright Basics, as distributed by the U.S. Copyright Office. It is possible to file after 90 days, but it limits your rights in a court process if you do.
In addition to establishing a public record of a copyright claim, registration offers several other statutory advantages:Circular 1 – Copyright Basics, as distributed by the U.S. Copyright Office.
• Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration (or refusal) is necessary for U.S. works.
• Registration establishes prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright and facts stated in the certificate when registration is made before or within five years of publication.
• When registration is made prior to infringement or within three months after publication of a work, a copyright owner is eligible for statutory damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs.
• Registration permits a copyright owner to establish a record with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for protection against the importation of infringing copies.
Choosing to copyright is something that should be thought of as you are deciding the path for your project moving forward. It isn’t an expense everyone will want to pay, but there are benefits to having the security of a filed copyright, so it is best to educate yourself on the whys and decide from there. It was important for me to know that I have done everything I could to protect my assets, and I believe this step has helped me to do that.
I hope that this post shed some light on things to think about early on in your journey. There are so many things I wished I had known sooner, but struggling and failing are a sure fire way to learn don’t you think? What are some of the things you have learned the hard way in your writing journey? Let me know in the comments below, and in the meantime, happy writing! XO
List of Resources you may find helpful:
U.S. Copyright Office : https://www.copyright.gov/
Bowker (ISBNs): http://www.bowker.com/authors
Ingram Spark: https://www.ingramspark.com/
Barnes & Noble: https://press.barnesandnoble.com/