Use Your Own ISBN

If you are preparing to self publish, you need to make a decision about the ISBN that you will assign to your book. Will you use an ISBN provided by your self publisher or will you supply your own?

About ISBNs

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number and is unique to each format of each title published. It’s permanent, once assigned it cannot change, and it cannot identify multiple formats or editions of a title.

ISBNs are assigned at the country level by an administrative body, sometimes governmental, sometimes private entities. In the United States ISBNs are managed by Bowker

Your Own ISBN

An ISBN is property. Once you buy it, it’s yours and you are free to attach it to your book (provided your book doesn’t already have a number). Since the number is yours, you get to choose the publisher of record. This is a major benefit to the self published author; with your own ISBN you can list yourself or your publishing company as the publisher of record, helping you shed the (obsolete) stigma of self publishing. If assigned by a self publishing company, that company will be the publisher of record.

There is always a ‘but’, and it’s often the same: cost. Obtaining ISBNs in the United States isn’t free, in fact it’s probably the single most costly part of preparing your book. ISBNs in the US are sold by Bowker individually or in blocks of ten, 100, and 1000. The price per ISBN drops substantially as you buy larger blocks, but for most self publishers just starting out, a block of ten is the preferred option. Ten ISBNs cost (currently) $250, or $25/number, whereas an individual ISBN (again, currently) costs $125 (you may be able to obtain through your publisher at a discount). The economy of the ten block comes when you decide to publish two titles, or one title as a Create Space trade paperback, Kindle version, epub, and mobi formats (again, each must have a distinct ISBN).

Publisher Supplied ISBN

There’s nothing wrong in using a publisher (such as Create Space) supplied ISBN. It’s free to do, and easy. However, the publisher of record will be the self publishing company you use; because the self publishing firm owns the ISBN, they are not obligated to cede it to you should you decide to publish the title elsewhere.


  • Each title, edition, and format must have its own ISBN.
  • Self published authors have the choice of whether to use an ISBN supplied by their self publishing firm or that they procure. 
  • Self published authors are usually better served using their own ISBNs, and should strongly consider buying a block of ten. 
  • Oh, and one more thing, there’s no need to buy a barcode from Bowker, your cover designer can produce it based on the ISBN, or you can use web based software to do so.

What’s Your Elevator Pitch?

You need an elevator pitch. No matter what you write, you must be able to explain it.

The elevator pitch concept originated in the business world. The thinking goes that when pitching an idea, such as to an investor, you have as much time as you would riding an elevator a few floors before the listener’s attention fades, thus you need a succinct description of your product or service. Such is the case when speaking with a literary agent, publisher, a curious seatmate on an flight, or any other situation where you want to pique one’s interest with a single tidbit. Here are a few hints.

Picture of old hotel elevator
An elevator pitch should last only as long as it would take to ride an elevator a few floors.

Consider Your Time

Movie previews and TV commercials have something in common. Attention spans are short so they are, too. Elevator pitches are typically aimed at people with limited, valuable time, but regardless of the audience, the key to leaving them wanting more is to not overstay your welcome. Elevator pitches should not exceed 60 seconds; I like a 30 second cap. Keep it short and leave them wanting more.

Problem and Solution

Present a problem and immediately offer the solution. In you were an entrepreneur seeking funding, you’d describe the problem your customer has and then your brilliant solution. When you give an elevator pitch for your book it isn’t much different, you need to tell the problem faced by a character (and in there case of nonfiction, that character is a real person) and the story is the solution.

Be a Tease

Make your pitch memorable by throwing in some irresistible detail. Sprinkling in a tad of detail will surely draw in the listener. But, be sure not to give too much away. An effective elevator pitch leaves the listener hungry for more.

Plan Your Exit

Your elevator pitch should be something of a story in three acts. Act I is the problem, Act II is the story, and Act III is the call to action. Instead of telling the listener how the book concludes, use your listener’s interest as an opportunity to all then to engage further.

End with an Ask

Your ask or call to action varies depending on your audience. Some will be quite apparent. When you deliver your pitch to an agent, your ask will be that he or she read your proposal or manuscript. But what about when you are talking with someone at a cocktail party? Here is where you need to do some homework. Figure out in advance what action would help you most. You might be in need of an email list, or maybe you know that your best sales material is your backlist. Make that your ask.

My Try

Imagine that I’m writing a book about a new cancer drug (a topic in familiar with because if my grad school research) and that I’m pitching to someone I just met at a reception. It would go something like this:

“I write about cancer treatments. Did you know that 15% of people will die of cancer? Cancer can be treated in many cases, but the drugs are very toxic and can only be used in limited doses. I am chronicling a new therapeutic approach that is targeted specifically to cancer cells. If you want to learn more about it, check out my author webpage, and be sure to sign up for periodic updates.”

Do you see where I wove in the problem, solution, and call to action? I teased by mentioning a new treatment strategy but didn’t give it away. Then I made a quick exit with my ask, right when they wanted more detail.

Use this approach in conversation and you’ll see resounding interest in your work.

The Organizational Tool You Need to Use

Experiencing a story emerging from the page as if coming from nowhere is magical. Writing, though, is also chaotic. Ideas swirl through the mind and notes pile up. Creating a book fact sheet is immensely useful in organizing writing efforts. Not the facts in the book, but the facts about the book. The reporter’s five W’s are a great starting point. Read to the bottom to find a linked template and example.

Photo of book planning tool
Planning and organization tools facilitate writing your best work on schedule.

Begin a fact sheet with your working title and mission or vision for the book. The book’s mission is the why of writing. Knowing your purpose, maybe to teach or delight the reader, is the guiding light for the rest of your endeavor. Once you know your purpose, you can (probably) articulate the message, the what of your writing. Often the mission contains both why you are writing and what you will express.

Write down your audience profile. Your book cannot speak to everyone; trying to write a book for everyone will invariably lead to a dull, uninspired piece. (Phone books are written for everyone; don’t write another phone book.) Instead focus on a narrowly defined slice of readers, describing them and their interests. After you describe your audience, describe yourself in relationship to them and the book. Put in writing your credentials, interests, and experiences that position you to communicate your message to your readers. These descriptions of your audience and yourself are the who of your book. 

Use your fact sheet to describe the look and feel of your book. Describe your anticipated word and page count. Whether it will contain illustrations, figures, or tables is important as you will need to describe those in your manuscript. Write down the medium (or media) you will use for distribution. These attributes are the where of your book.

Another logistical issue you must address is the schedule, the when, for writing, editing, and submitting your manuscript. Plan how much and how often you will write, when you will consult an editor, and your target date for submission (to a publisher or to an agent) or for publication (if self-publishing).

If you need, you may finish your fact sheet with a notes section for anything essential that doesn’t fit into the above categories. Resist the temptation to write an essay here, these notes should be restricted to a few critical points.

Once you have completed this exercise, and don’t spend more than an hour on it, you will have a guide to refer back to periodically to keep your writing on track, headed in the right direction, and on schedule. The fact sheet is a great starting point for your proposal and should inform your ‘elevator pitch’. If you submit to M Publishing House, we invite you to include it in your package. Check out the example and use the template.

Science Paper Trends You Need to Watch

With so much innovative and fascinating research, sometimes deciding which science headlines to keep an eye on can be overwhelming. Here are two trends in science articles that offer some insight into future successful papers.

When to Publish

It stands to reason that authors of scientific papers, those published in peer reviewed journals, are more likely to publish a pivotal piece as their career progresses. After all, it is reasonable to think that their research questions would be refined as time passes and experience would lead to better experiment concepts, design, and execution. This reasoning, it turns out, is not supported empirically. Philip Ball, in Scientists Can Publish Their Best Work at Any Age, published in the journal Nature (Nov 3, 2016), reports this hypothesis unsubstantiated. Albert-László Barabási and colleagues tested the hypothesis that subsequent papers had a greater likelihood of becoming breakthroughs. “‘We scientists are random,’ Barabási says. ‘Every time we publish a paper, we have the same chance of publishing our biggest hit as we do with any other paper.'” Not only was publication success unrelated to career phase, it was related to an innate (maybe) and unchanging “Q factor”.  Success “depends on only two factors, they argue: an element of luck, and a certain quality, or Q factor, that measures an individual scientist’s ability to boost the impact of any project.” Q factor seems to reflect scientist education and communication skills.

Take away: when looking for upcoming influential papers, focus on upcoming papers from well educated, persuasive authors rather than those with greater seniority.

Informed Estimates

The human microbiome may just be our overlooked organ, variable in composition, touching virtually every physiological function. For nearly 4 decades, science widely held that for each of the some 3 trillion human cells in the standard human there are 10 times as many bacterial cells (more accurately microbial cells, to include fungi, protist, and archaea in addition to bacteria). Sender and colleagues used a method of analysis popularly called Fermi problems to test this. The importance of the paper published in PLoS Biology (Aug 19, 2016), although the estimate of the human:microbial cells is important, is the method they used to reach their estimate. A Fermi problem holds that an unknown value can be estimated by drawing upon knowledge of underlying properties of the unknown value. For example, the estimated weight of an apple might be ascertained through a Fermi problem: while the weight might not be known, the weight of other common objects are known. A box (four sticks) of butter weighs one pound, and is probably on the order of magnitude of an apple, maybe twice the size, although butter might be slightly less dense than an apple, some ‘wiggle room’ will be added into the estimate. Since one apple is thought to be half the size of a box of butter, the starting estimate is one half pound; to estimate the range of possible weights, one estimates the minimum plausible uncertainty of the estimate. I’ll use 50% as the uncertainty because the butter’s density is likely to be greater than half that of the apple, and the apple’s actual size is not likely twice that of the perceived size. This yields an estimated range of 1/4 pound to 1 pound. A typical medium apple weighs just over six ounces, or squarely within the uncertainty range. Sender et al used a similar approach to estimating the human:microbial cells in the body.

Take away: estimates provide an essential reference point in drawing predictions from hypothesis and in designing experiments. Look for innovative, and increasingly accurate estimation techniques in scientific papers as a sign of those with high Q factor and likely to have more accurate, results.

3 Rules You Need to Write About Science

For many, myself included, science is a passion we’re knee deep in. 

Picture of scientist working in lab
Scientist working in lab.

For many, many more however, science is a mysterious land left in highschool with bubbling beakers and dissections of strange species. For those authors trying to tell amazing stories from the world of science, here are three rules.

Kill of Jargon

Science is it’s own (incredible) world where we speak our own languages. Science languages, plural as each discipline needs its own, are complex and nuanced to express very percise ideas. While it serves fellow scientists well to speak the same language, it is a disservice to the general public to write for them in our languages. Indeed, it’s even a disservice to science to use our languages in communicating our work to the outside world; needlessly throwing around jargon only creates a barrier between scientists and the public. Where language is intended to unite people using ideas, misuse can throw up barriers to communication. 

When communicating science to the public, throw jargon out the window. Instead, know your audience and explain complex ideas in ways that will put them at ease and help them feel smart. For example: in the context of cellular biology, ‘pathway’ can be rephrased as ‘a set of chemical reactions within a cell’.

Set the Stage

Science research is carried out to answer very specific questions. Alone these questions, and the experiments that probe them, may seem esoteric. It is essential that we explain our hypotheses and the logic behind our experiments.

The goal of science writing is to boost scientific literacy. To that end, it is far better to explain why an experiment was carried out than to go into the details of the experiment; we want the reader to understand how scientists look for clues to a puzzle, not to be able to recite the specifics of an experimental design. For example: again in the context of cellular biology, ‘we assayed transcript level by qPCR’ becomes ‘we looked at an indicator of how active a gene is in the cell to determine whether it is a good drug target’, thereby telling the reader what the question was and why, rather than how it was addressed.

Who Cares?

We already discussed how science may appear merely academic. To combat this, scientist must explain the ‘so what’ of their work. This goes hand in hand with setting the stage. It’s tempting to articulate an existing body of knowledge and state the results of our experiments, expecting the implications to be obvious to the reader. Science education typically teaches this; in scientific training programs, scientists are expected not to ‘frame’ their work. While this leaves the academic reader free to weigh the merits of the findings in light of the existing corpus of data, it is an unreasonable ask of the general reader.

With the goal of scientific writing being too boost scientific literacy, modeling how to interpret new data in the context of existing facts and what conclusions can be drawn is essential. Put another way, a popular review of a scientific study or studies goes beyond the individual experiments at hand, it is about explaining how to understand and interpret observations in general.

Abandon the idea that the general reader will identify the salient points in new observations based on command of existing work because they cannot be expected to have that familiarity, even if prior research is described in the piece. For example: instead of writing ‘in light of prior findings, our results are remarkable’ write ‘because this gene is not active in healthy tissue, but is very active in this type of cancer, and our research shows that this drug can target the gene specifically, it is a promising candidate treatment because it appears to kill cancer cells only’. This style tells the reader what facts to consider together to draw an inference, rather than telling the reader that the researchers did so.

Wrap Up

When writing a piece for the general reader, do so in a way that invites them to participate in the intellectual process actively. 

  • Use plain language, avoiding obscure scientific terms as these may be unclear to the reader, and may even push the reader away.
  • Tell readers the what and why of your research questions. Just writing about how you designed your experiment is usually of little use to the general reader.
  • Explain why your findings matter. Instead of assuming the reader is an expert on your area of research or is well versed in interpreting experimental data, seize the opportunity to explain scientific reasoning in the context of your research.
  • Bonus: Let your passion for your study area shine through. Think of the most exciting part of your research and tell the reader about it! Remember that for the general reader, glimpsing there goings on of the lab is a chance to peer into a marvelous world, so be sure to let this come through in your writing.