Open letter to sellers of eBooks

Dear sellers of eBooks,

You may have seen my script that automatically links to 9 print book e-tailers, given one ISBN (you can see it in action on my books page, here, or on the sidebar of my blog). The reason I can do that so simply is that all of those e-tailers, from Amazon to Barnes and Noble to Indiebound, all make it easy to link to an individual item by ISBN.  That is, you can access the page for my Christmas anthology by clicking on a link that looks like this:

Want a different book? Just change the ISBN.  Having (mostly) conquered my online print book script, this last weekend I devoted some time to creating a similar thing for ebooks.  It made sense.  I like ebooks; I would like to make it easy for other people to buy ebooks from my website.  But I discovered there was no way to set up anything similar.  Why?

Here is how Books on Board lists its product page:

See that “BOOK=513519” at the end? If I wanted to automate a link to Books on Board, I would have to figure out where that last number, 513519, comes from.  The ISBN for the digital edition is: 9781426840616.  And that appears to be related to the book by . . . absolutely nothing.  I love Books on Board.  They have a fantastic selection and great prices (also, full disclosure: at the Rogue Digital Conference, I won $200 in free books from them).  But because they link to books using an entirely inscrutable number, it is hard for me to automate links. (I can’t even automate a search to BoB, because searching on ISBN yields no results.)

Here is another store I wish I could automate: eHarlequin.  I love eHarlequin as a site.  They have great deals, including free books, and hello, vintage eHarlequin releases this October? Yes, please.  Also, Harlequin is my publisher.  I would love to be able to automate a link to an eHarlequin eBook.  This is the eHarlequin link to the eBook version of Gena Showalter’s The Darkest Whisper:

If you snoop around a bit, you find that the first inscrutable number (and yes, a mixture of arabic numerals and letters from A-F is a number–just a hexadecimal one) is some sort of a web-tracking device.  You can replace it with anything, and the website will continue to return a result.  But that does leave us with the second inscrutable number, A19D6AFC-916A-4BB9-A9CE-B56411DB4427.

What is that thing?  How can I generate it, without going to their website and looking it up?  The Sony eBook store uses another inscrutable number, usually in the form of R-400000000000000169063.

Barnes and Noble gets this right.  If you want to link to an eBook on B&N’s website, it’s simple.  You just link to this:

See how easy that is?  The only inscrutable number they use is the actual inscrutable number that is attached to the electronic format.

Now, what does this mean, oh sellers of eBooks?  Well, it means when I write my eBook script, I grumble. A lot.  I have to choose a small number of eBook retailers to link to–there are more e-tailers out there than there is space to gracefully link to.  So who am I going to choose? I’m going to link to eHarlequin, because they’re my publisher and they’re awesome.  I’m going to link to Books on Board, because I like them. I’m going to link to the Sony store, because I think they have a beautiful eReader. I’m going to link to the Kindle version. I’m going to link to each of these places, even though it means I will have to go and search out an inscrutable number for every single one. I’m going to do all those things for my own books, because, well, I want people to buy my books from whatever outlet they buy books from.

But I’m also going to link to Barnes and Noble and Powell’s, an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, because they made it really easy for me to do so.

On a more than occasional basis, I link to other books. And it is far too much work for me to go in and look up five inscrutable numbers every time I link to another book.  I am too lazy, and it takes too much time.  So I wish you would make it easy for me to try and sell people your eBooks.  If someone points me in the direction of an eBook store that allows me to easily link by ISBN, I will add them to my script.  It takes almost zero work for me to do that.  For those other books, I won’t link to Books on Board.  I wish I could, but it takes too much work.

So, booksellers, if you implemented a simple redirect–given an ISBN as input, it spits out the single-item page as output, just like Barnes and Noble and Powells–I could automate my links to your site, and that means you would get more incoming links.

I want to link to you.  You want me to link to you.  Make it easy for me to do so, and I will link to you forever, with every book I mention on my website.  And if I’m wrong–if you have made it easy to link to your site via ISBN, and all my snooping around hasn’t uncovered it–please shoot me an e-mail, and I’ll be happy to add you to my general script.

P.S. I do share my scripts–and in my copious spare time (namely, when I need a break from writing), I am actually working on a WordPress plugin to do the same.  I value inclusiveness.  I want to include you.  Make it easy for me to do so.

5 thoughts on “Open letter to sellers of eBooks

  1. I think Powell’s has the easiest link language out there. Plus it’s an awesome store. If you’re ever in the Portland area, it is worth a stop at the main downtown store. It’s an entire city block of books. New, used, out of print, signed–their selection is amazing.

    And no, I don’t work for them. I’m just an Oregonian who loves books. Powell’s was one of my first destinations in Portland when I was old enough to drive myself the 100 miles from my hometown.

    I hope the booksellers read this post and take it into consideration as they find new ways to reach consumers and leverage authors’ audiences.

  2. Expect life to become even more complicated, as the ISBN organization still insists every format of an ebook should have an individual ISBN. They’re actually considering the ramifications of that, but in the meantime, don’t be surprised if you link to a vendor and discover there’s in number for LIT and another for EPUB and another for…well, you get the idea.

    One of the reasons some vendors use SKU numbers instead of ISBNs is that they accept files from people who don’t have ISBNs. Many self-publishing authors see no reason to spend the money to obtain them, so the vendor assigns their own product number–at Amazon, it’s the ASIN.

    One of the ways the ISBN folks are suggesting for cases where publishers won’t provide individual numbers for each format is for vendors to purchase a block of them and do it for them. So, you’re looking at having two or ten or twenty different ISBNs for the same book, depending on number of vendors and formats offered.

    Good luck with that script. 😉

  3. I completely agree with the assessment! I lived in Portland for a brief period of time, and Powell’s was just awesome–I think I spent every ounce of available salary there. It was incredible enough that every subsequent trip to Portland just about requires that I make a stop in the store. There’s something about entering a building that contains so many books, from floor to ceiling, chosen by people who adore books, that just makes every bone in my body melt into a pile of book-buying goo.

  4. Elizabeth, I know there’s mass ISBN confusion out there, which certainly doesn’t help.

    The most important thing, though, is that there be ONE ISBN that can be used to access the sell page for a particular item. Because even though there are separate ISBNs for some of these products, if you will shunt them to the right product page given ONE of those ISBNs, my work is done. 🙂

    Of course, if one seller only sells Adobe and the other one only sells LIT, there’s nothing to be done and I throw up my hands in disgust.

  5. Thanks for an informative post, Courtney. Every time I read your blog, I realize how little I know about this industry, even though I’ve “been around” forever. I’m going to bookmark this page so that my book finally comes out, I’ll know what to do.


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