This is an excerpt from Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should. It is available from Amazon and Smashwords for $4.99, Amazon UK for £1.99 or as a FREE PDF right here.
First of all, the legal stuff and a quick disclaimer. I am not a lawyer or an accountant, so none of this section, or indeed this entire book, should be considered legal advice, tax advice or anything like it. It is merely a starting point for you to conduct your own further investigations into tax and copyright laws relating to your country of residence.
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, the first thing you need to understand is that there is a difference between “publishing rights” and “copyright.” If you sell a story to a magazine, or a book to a publisher, you are not usually assigning them the copyright. Rather, you are granting them some of the rights you have under copyright for the period defined in the contract, usually meaning they can publish and sell your work under certain conditions.
Open a trade-published novel and flick to the copyright page. The book is still copyrighted in the author’s name, usually in the form you see from my copyright notice (the year is the date of first publication): Copyright © 2011 David Gaughran
As for the rest of your notice, you can choose whatever wording you like. If you want, you can copy the notice from my page. You have my permission. (Don’t forget to insert your own name rather than mine, you don’t want all those royalty cheques heading my way.)
Copyright law varies from country to country. The information included here is for the US, but there are links in the Resources section for other countries.
Your work is copyrighted as soon as it is tangible. In other words, once it makes its way out of your brain and onto the page (or even a computer screen), it is copyrighted. You might hear of writers posting a manuscript to themselves to ensure they are protected—this is known as “poor man’s copyright” and it’s a myth. It doesn’t afford you any additional protection under the law. Your work is copyrighted as soon as you commit it to paper or pixel.
You will also hear people talk about “registering” copyright, which is optional but advisable. Registering your work will grant you additional rights and allow you to, among other things, sue for greater damages if someone plagiarizes your work. It costs $35 to register your copyright online in the US (go to http://www.copyright.gov), but even if you don’t register your copyright, your work is still protected and you can still post a copyright notice at the front of your manuscript. You should note that the additional protections from registering your copyright in the US will only be afforded to US writers.
Another myth, especially among novice writers, is that they should register the copyright of their work before submitting it to an agent or editor. Let me be clear: a reputable agent or editor is not going to steal your story, and you shouldn’t be submitting to any other kind. Registering your copyright before submitting can’t hurt, but will serve only to mark you as an amateur.
Some people worry about their ideas being stolen. Let me also stop that one in its tracks. Experienced writers will all tell you the same thing: ideas are ten-a-penny. The art, and the sweat, is in the execution. To learn more about copyright law (and every writer really should), get yourself a copy of The Copyright Handbook by Stephen Fishman.
Even if you decide to give work away for free via creative commons, you should still attach a copyright notice to it that protects others profiting from your efforts.
You might want to consider a Creative Commons License, which doesn’t alter any of your rights under copyright law but is an addition to them that instructs users in how they may share, amend, or use your document. There are many different licenses, with various restrictions. The Free PDF Edition of this book, for example, is able to be copied, shared, printed, and e-mailed, but not amended or used for commercial purposes. Attaching a Creative Commons License does not preclude you from exercising commercial rights. You can learn more about all the different kinds of licenses at: http://creativecommons.org
A quick primer: ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number and is a unique code that identifies, among other things, the publisher of the book. You will recognize it as a string of 13 numbers sometimes seen on the title page of a book near the copyright notice or, more obviously, printed, along with a corresponding bar code, on the back of print versions.
Authors need to purchase an ISBN to publish a print book, but don’t necessarily need one to publish an e-book. Amazon does not require an ISBN for e-books published through KDP, as they assign their own unique tracking code. The same goes for Barnes & Noble’s digital publishing arm, PubIt.
An ISBN is required to publish with some of the other retailers, like Sony and Apple; however, Smashwords are able to assign a free one if publishing to those distribution channels through them. If you opt for the free ISBN Smashwords offers, they will be identified as the publisher of your book on these sales channels. If that’s a problem for you, they also sell individual ISBNs to US customers for $9.95. You also have the option of assigning your own ISBN (which you can also do when uploading to Amazon).
There are some self-publishers—usually those who put in all the hard yards prior to the rise of e-books—who think you aren’t a real self-publisher unless you own your ISBN. I don’t agree with that, but if you want your own ISBNs, for whatever reason, or if you are planning print versions of your book, then go ahead and purchase some.
Bowker is the only official source of ISBNs in the US and sells only to US writers (for links, and for other countries, please see Resources). A single ISBN costs $125 (although some authorized resellers charge $99), a block of 10 is $250, a block of 100 is $575, and a block of 1000 is $1000. The system is clearly tilted towards larger publishers. Obviously, most self-publishers, no matter how prolific, will not get through 1000 ISBNs.
You might be tempted to share a larger block of ISBNs with a group of other writers—don’t be. They are non-transferable, so the original purchaser will be officially registered as the publisher of your book.
I haven’t purchased any, as this is an expense that can be avoided. I don’t see the advantage of adding one to my Amazon listings and I’m happy to use the free version from Smashwords. If having Smashwords listed as your publisher bothers you, you can always spend $9.95 and get your own if you are in the US. When I expand into print versions of my work, I will purchase ISBNs, but I’m not purchasing any for digital editions. You should note that you must have separate ISBNs for hardback, paperback, and digital editions, and that your free Smashwords ISBN cannot be used for any other edition.
Setting Up Your Own Publishing Company
Establishing your own company is by no means imperative; it’s a personal decision. I publish all of my books through my company, Arriba Arriba Books. At the moment, the company doesn’t have a website and the domain redirects to my blog. In the future, I may set up a website and possibly sell my books directly through it, but for now, it’s just a name. I don’t intend to publish any other writers through this company (and authors should think very carefully before going down that road); it’s just for me.
If you decide to set up your own publishing company, there are a range of corporate structures you can use, and I can’t give blanket advice as to which is most appropriate. It will depend on your own personal circumstances. Just make yourself aware of all of the regulatory and filing requirements in your particular country/state, as well as all of the tax implications.
Of course, you don’t need to set up a company at all. You can just publish through your own name. But again, consult an accountant or tax professional about the relevant tax implications, which vary from country to country, and state to state.
Tax and International Writers
Amazon, Smashwords, and the other retailers are obliged to withhold 30% of an author’s royalties unless they are provided with a Social Security Number (which only US or US-based writers will be able to do). They will hold onto this money until an author is able to clear his or her tax status with them, but only until the end of the tax year. After that, the money will be passed to the IRS. International authors can still apply to get the money back—it just becomes more hassle, so it’s best to take care of it sooner rather than later. (Please note that you cannot file tax forms with the IRS until you have actually published.)
To claim it back, or to prevent tax withholding in the first place, the process has become streamlined and is far less hassle than it used to be. I blogged about it in detail here, and make sure to read the update at the top of the post for the latest information.