Is it because we is not got ISBNs?

Why do eight cuts gallery press books not have ISBNs?

It’s an odd, and simple, question, and one it’s one of those things that I sometimes find myself walking down the street and asking, “yes, why DON’T we use ISBNs?” Sometimes I have to face the question from someone else. And it can feel as though any answer I give is really really petty, or “ooh, yeah, look at us.”

And part of it IS “look at us” – I mean, we get talked about, we get grilled, people get curious and come and look at what we do. And, in terms of “marketing” if we have to use the word, that’s all we ask – that people come and have a look. Once they get to us, we’re pretty sure a whole fistful of them will fall in love with what we do. Our work speaks for itself. Our community speaks for itself.

And that’s the  thing, see? “Look at us” for “look at us”’s sake would be pretty vacuous. Pretty Brett Easton Ellis. It’s got to be “look at us because”. And we have a fairly big “because”. An amazing community of some of the most talented people on the planet, and their incredible work.

But still. There are questions. And in the minor skirmish that ensued from my accidentally jumping the gun asking for nominations at Not the Booker Prize, I’ve been confronted with the usual ones. Isn’t this hoops for hoops’ sake, making anyone who’s curious sign up to a Lulu account rather than just buying from Amazon? Isn’t it doing our authors a disservice?

Being asked those questions made me take stock and crystallise my reasons.

This is the “business case” tangent

A brief aside with my business head on – if we *were* to get ISBNs for our work, how many more books would we sell? Realistically? Given our marketing budget and the fact that the more recalcitrant a person is about only ordering on Amazon the less likely they are to enjoy our books? And the genre we write? And the fact that anyone with a PC or smartphone can buy them with the Kindle app? With a prevailing wind and a full-on Frenchy from the Blarney stone, maybe a hundred. From which the retailer/Amazon would take a big whack. AND people who DID buy would no longer have that sense of being part of something special, a place and a community that’s theirs.

There are some wonderful small publishers setting up, and putting out some amazing books. But with the best will in the world some of them are publishing books that, even if they slam dunk the prize scene, will never sell more than two or three thousand copies, and will probably sell considerably fewer. And yet they’re launching them with series of massive events each one of which probably costs several hundred pounds and the only way they are ever going to keep afloat doing that is with private money or Arts Council funding, which isn’t a business plan. I feel that if we were to start using ISBNs we’d be sucked into that wide distribution model that can lead to marketing costs getting out of all proportion in relation to their effect on sales.

And back to the fluffy stuff

I did wonder, “Maybe I’m getting it wrong. Maybe I should get the ISBNs in and bring out new editions.” I get “maybe I got it wrong” syndrome a lot at eight cuts, partly because some of the things we do are different, and people always question different. And I’ve had the wobbles a few times. I compromised over a couple of our live shows because our venue were wary of some of our material, for example. I shouldn’t have done.

I should say from the off that one reason – that we want our books to be available only through the outlets we choose to work with – has never caused us any wobbles. We believe in some amazing bookstores, and they are delighted to work with us because they are the only place people can go “in real life” for our books except our gigs (and the gig-based buying audience we have shouldn’t be underestimated), and we have enough of a following that we *will*send people there. We will also blog about them and promote them in other ways.

The questions, and the wobbles, all come from the same place – “why aren’t you more like how it’s usually done?” It’s a powerful question. A hard one to answer without sounding like a bit of a dick. Or deliberately awkward. Only, well, take a look at our manifesto (  – the first thing I wrote, the thing that everyone who’s onboard is on board because they believed in. Here’s a bit of it:

we live in our own space, build our own communities, societies, foundation myths and bodies of work.

we share some of your doorways, and sometimes you will see the traces we leave behind. traces like this. often they are strange, unfamiliar, and consequently seem frightening, but they are doorways onto a whole world that exists, fully formed, in parallel with yours.

for too long we have been expected to push at these doors, and gaze around them in wonder and admiration, dreaming, cap in hand, of one day entering the world beyond them. we think maybe it’s time for us to offer an invitation the other way.

And that’s the thing. “How it’s usually done” implies a power centre, a lodestone, a normativeness that just isn’t there. It’s not how WE usually do things. Most of us have spent our lives being spat out by “usual” and trying to conform but failing and trying harder and failing harder – because it’s not who we are. And at some stage we realised that we had our own way of doing things, and that didn’t spit us out. Instead we felt rather at home. We thrived. We produced some exceptional work, even.

When you’ve spent your life being told to be something that you’re not because it’s “normal”, you tend to read seven strips of passive aggression into questions about “being more normal”. We do what we do, and we will tell the world all about it (which is why we do things like Not the Booker, and, with The Zoom Zoom, the Guardian First Book Award). But as an invitation. And that’s not bloody-mindedness, and it’s not making people jump through hoops (and it’s certainly not doing our authors a disservice – aside from the fact they came on board because they liked what we do, we are perfectly happy for them to self-publish a book with an ISBN alongside our edition if they want, and more than happy if they want to leave for another publisher).

It’s simply that this is how we do things here. The way that makes most sense to us. And there are plenty enough tasters of our work out there for people to know if they like what we do enough to buy one of our books. We’re really NOT about making money. We’d never be able to make enough from what we do to ditch our day jobs so why try? We are about getting read, but most of all we’re about finding our readers, the people we wrote for. That’s another reason we don’t just stay an introverted community of 10 or 20 people all hanging out growing rancid. There are enough people out there trying to be normal and failing and not knowing why for it to matter that we keep reaching out to them. And anyone for that matter. We’re not being exclusive, clubby, or cliquey. We will have anyone, and we will leave enough traces of our work for them to make up our minds whether they want to come and take a closer look. All we ask, with respect and sincerity, is that they come to us. And the people who won’t, well, fair enough – but why’s that a reason for us to move?

We are about getting our authors’ voices heard – but on their terms. And for us that’s something that really matters. More important than making money. Is that really so hard to understand?

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1 Response to Is it because we is not got ISBNs?

  1. Chila Woychik says:

    Good stuff, Dan. How can I get ahold of you for an interview for my blog? I’m the owner over at Port Yonder Press.

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