ISBN 101 For Self-Publishers

by Joel Friedlander on November 19, 2010 · 170 comments

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One of the parts of book publishing that seems to confound newcomers to the field is the purpose and use of the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Usually the ISBN appears to be the same thing as the ubiquitous Bookland EAN scannable barcode that graces the back covers of almost all books printed today.

Not only that, but since the rise of companies that perform publishing services for authors, there has been even more confusion about whether you need to own your own ISBN, whether free ISBNs from these companies are “just as good” as getting your own ISBN, and if it’s a good idea to buy ISBNs from re-sellers who offer lower prices for a single number.

Let’s review the basics of this unique identifier and explain what is so important about it, how it benefits self-publishers, and when you can safely forget about it.

Created to Solve Real-World Problems

ISBN was created as a stock-keeping identifier. Originating in the United Kingdom, the concept of a unique identifier for each version of a published book became an international standard in the 1970s.

It was created to solve a real-world problem, and it worked well. The problem was that in the pre-internet age, it was often very difficult to identify a particular book, and more so when a searcher did not have the full title, author and edition information at hand. That’s usually the case when I go searching for a book.

How would you know whether the book you are looking for is the right one? Book titles are not exclusive or protected by copyright, and it’s not unusual for several different books to have the same title. And similar titles will quickly expand the number of possibilities. Add to this the necessity of knowing which edition you are looking for—hardcover, paperback, second edition—and it’s easy to see how identification mistakes are easy to make.

With the use of the unique identifier, one that is attached to each physical format of a book, this problem is basically solved. Every title, and every different edition or format has its own unique number for tracking and search purposes.

Coincidentally the ISBN came into use at the same time that computers were becoming common, and the two were meant for each other. It’s now possible to simply enter an ISBN into a Google search bar to get all the information you need on a particular title.

Who Doesn’t Need an ISBN?

Because the ISBN is used as a basic identifier throughout the book distribution system, any book that is intended to be sold through retail channels will need to have this identifier.

There’s no absolute need for books printed for private use, or for a closed distribution to have ISBN assigned. These might include:

  • Workbooks distributed at seminars
  • Company training manuals for internal use
  • Family histories, recipe collections or other “personal” publishing projects
  • Books that will be used only as premiums, incentives or giveaways

However even publishers of these types of books might make use of this identifier if they plan to someday convert their publication to a commercial use.

Self-Publishing Hits the Scene

You may not realize this, but for many years Bowker issued ISBNs to book publishers for a nominal administrative fee.

But once the self-publishing field began to expand in response to new digital printing technology, Bowker made the process of acquiring ISBNs easier, and a lot more expensive. Now ISBNs are sold like any other commodity by Bowker and a few authorized re-sellers. And to accommodate the needs of these self-publishers, they made individual numbers available for the first time.

However, the price Bowker set for individual identifiers (currently $125) has shocked many new publishers. (You can read an explanation of why the cost is so high in the interview I did with Andy Weissberg).

But keep in mind that it’s rarely a good idea to buy just one ISBN. If you intend to issue your book as both a printed book and an ebook, you will need two ISBNs right from the start, and the cost of buying two individual numbers is the same as purchasing ten numbers (currently $250).

In addition, Bowker is actually registering your publishing company when they issue you your numbers, not your individual books. This is a key step for many self-publishers and that’s a pretty good reason to get an ISBN as well.

The Problem of the “Free” ISBN

In order to mitigate the cost and the bother of registering your company yourself, author services companies started offering “free” identifiers to clients. How were they able to do this?

Bowker’s pricing for these numbers has huge volume discounts, that’s how. For $5,000 you can acquire 5,000 ISBNs. That’s only $1 each, a price at which it’s easy to give them away, saving individual authors quite a heap of money.

And many authors have made use of this savings. You are a good candidate for a free number if:

  • You intend to publish only one book
  • You have no interest in starting a “publishing company”
  • You’re on a very tight budget

But it’s not the right solution for everyone, because ISBN performs many functions for self-publishers.

Know Your Retailers

People who help authors get started in publishing often remind them that this is a business, and should be approached as such. You are manufacturing a product intended for retail sales. In this scenario it’s important for you to know the policies of the retailers who will be selling your book.

For instance, here’s what Smashwords, the big distributor of ebooks, says about ISBN usage:

Smashwords retailers such as Apple and Sony will not accept your Smashwords book unless you have a unique e-ISBN. It is the primary digital identification number that many major online retailers use to track and catalog your books, and to report your sales back to Smashwords.

(Editor’s note: Everything at Smashwords is an e-book, but there really isn’t such a thing as an “e-ISBN”. They are all just plain old ISBNs.)

The Many Roles of a 13-Digit Number

Smashwords also points out one of the other uses of this handy number. In fact there are three main ways these numbers can be of use:

  1. Stock keeping, for inventory purposes
  2. item identification to differentiate similar editions
  3. Metadata

It’s this last benefit of ISBN you should think about when deciding whether to use them, and whether you want to go to the expense of buying your own numbers, or to accept the “free” version.

SEO Title Card - Metadata for self publishers

2 Reasons to Own Your Own ISBNs

Most of the self-publishers I’ve worked with are setting up their own publishing companies and funding their project in the expectation of becoming profitable. In every case I’ve advised them to buy their own ISBNs. Here’s why:

  1. The ISBN contains within it a “publisher identifier.” This enables anyone to locate the pubisher of any particular book or edition. If you use a “free” ISBN from an author services company or a subsidy publisher, that company will be identified in bibliographic databases as the publisher.
  2. Owning your own ISBNs gives you the ability to control the bibligraphic record for your book. This is an important part of your book’s metadata, and is a key component in your book being discoverable by online searchers. This has a powerful influence on your efforts to attract search engine traffic to your title.

Now there’s no reason you can’t publish your books with a “free” ISBN from a reputable company, like CreateSpace. Having their identifier on your book doesn’t have anything to do with the ownership or copyright on your work, you still have complete control over your own content.

And you can be very successful this way, too. April Hamilton originally published Indie Author and several other books that way, and enjoyed great success. But like others who have committed to making publishing their business, she has said she would now buy her own ISBNs.

Part of the reason, as Hamilton explains, is the changing marketplace:

Distribution options offered by print and digital publishing service providers increasingly require that the author/imprint be the registered owner of the ISBN.

Echoing this is this explanation from the Smashwords ISBN guide:

An ISBN helps make your book more discoverable to readers and other book buyers. The ISBN gains you free inclusion in Books in Print, the world’s largest catalog of books, which is licensed to all major search engines and thousands of bookstores and libraries. Your ISBN record will also receive a free online listing at the online Books in Print bibliographic database that’s available on the open Web at http://seo.bowker.com.

Takeaway: If you plan to sell retail you’ll need to use ISBN. For strictly private publications, you may not need it at all. And if you plan to continue in publishing, buy your own ISBN block from the start.

If you have questions about ISBNs or how to use them, please leave a note in the comments.

Resources

Bowker U.S. ISBN Agency site
Wikipedia entry on the International Standard Book Number
ISBNs Don’t Matter as Much as You Thought by Indie Author April Hamilton
About ISBNs from Smashwords
Twitter #ISBNhour discussion group link (moderated by @LJNDawson)
UK ISBN Information

TheBookDesigner Articles on ISBN
ISBNs for Self-Publishers: Answers to 20 of Your Questions
How to Create, Register and List Your New Publishing Company
Self-Publishing Basics: How to Read an ISBN

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    { 144 comments… read them below or add one }

    Judy Griffin September 23, 2014 at 8:42 pm

    Great article but I am still confused about buying my own ISBN # or getting the custom one from Create Space where I can have my own imprint.

    Also, if I get the ISBN # from Create Space do I need additional numbers for Kindle & PDF version?

    Thank you, Judy

    Reply

    Ran September 23, 2014 at 8:42 am

    Excellent ISBN primer, Joel. I am trying to get a translated version of my book printed in my native country. From my research, each country has a different agency that gives out ISBNs. Do I need to get a local ISBN or can I use a US ISBN for printing in-country?

    Reply

    Leslie September 23, 2014 at 2:11 am

    Joel, I have an usual situation. I had contacted a woman who had a subsidy press. She provided the cover and book layout for a set fee, as well as the contact with Lightning Source printing. She provided the ISBN. Mid-publication she died and my book did come out. The new owners now want a huge 50% royalty on all sales, even though I paid market value for all those services plus I paid other contractors for editing and promotional materials. They have not paid anything. I have not signed a contract and asked them for my final PDF so I could have a Kindle format done by someone I have used before. Instead, they gave me a PDF for my kindle designer with a new assigned ISBN (different from my paperback of course). My dilemma is that I do not want to enter into a contract with them, and I want to receive all the royalties from the kindle version.

    My questions are 1. If I go forward and use the PDF they gave me, convert it to a kindle format and upload it to Amazon and Smashwords, do they get a cut of the royalties from these sites because its their ISBN?

    and 2. If #1 means the publisher gets a cut, can I remove their already assigned ISBN and insert a new one. Thanks. I feel in a real bind here.

    Reply

    Meredith August 18, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    Hi Joel,
    Great article! I am helping a Canadian author friend become self-published. He has registered for an ISBN and he has a consulting company that relates to the content of his book. Can his consulting company be the publisher or does he need to establish a separate LLC to serve as the publisher? I saw where you stated earlier that “leaving you as a self-published author without a publishing company, (is) a bit of an oddity.” I’ve heard that self-published authors do just publish under their own names, but I am having difficulty verifying this. What would the pros and cons be?

    Many thanks!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander August 18, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    Meredith, it’s preferable if you plan to continue publishing to have an imprint or publishing company name, and there’s no reason not to use his existing business structure to do that.

    Reply

    Dana Woodard July 22, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    If you’re in Canada, you can get your own ISBN for free. Just apply at http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/ciss-ssci/

    …I love my country!

    Reply

    Dear Joel July 14, 2014 at 6:16 am

    Great, clear article, Joel!

    So tell me if I got you right. If someone wants to write and self-publish an anonymous book and sell it anonymously on the Internet, then she should not get herself an ISBN, because that would identify her as the publisher and also the country where she lives. Right?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 25, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Each separate book within the series will need its own ISBN. The only exception would be if you will only ever sell the entire set together, as one item, but even then I don’t think it’s a good idea because the books will get separated from the set eventually.

    Reply

    Pretty May 5, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    I am still in the process of working through my book and finalizing the printing press to print my book. I will be marketing my book by myself , So I will be using my name as Publisher when purchasing ISBN?

    Reply

    Dean April 29, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    I’m doing POD through LS, and have my own ISBNs. My book was written in American English, because that’s where I live. But I am also doing a version for UK/Australian/NZ markets, with “correct” spelling and punctuation. Do you think I need different ISBNs?

    Reply

    Alex April 13, 2014 at 11:02 pm

    Hello, thanks for the article, i’ve asked specific question in another thread, but here i want to clarify: for me as the author, it doesn’t matter if my book is printed by a “publisher” company or “self-publisher” company, because it’s still will be shown as a company that published my book with my name and title on it? And the only difference is in the listings that the book was published by a company?

    Reply

    Wendy Anderson April 11, 2014 at 12:55 am

    Thank you for the info; I am real new like, just; I have a manuscript with First Editing currently to be made “Perfect” and am trying to sort out my steps from here! Appreciate any comments thanks. 1. There’s BoobkBaby for an e book and maybe print book option? Then Maybe Smiths publicity deal for Book/fair/Trade 29th May New York; a book as physical presence and a listing in the catalogue. I am doing it cheap so I guess I accept an Isbn from BookBaby? What I don’t know is can you then sell your book elsewhere if they are your publisher’s and I am finding it difficult to get info and are now wondering if to consider Create Space for print book/ self publishing and or Smashwords for e book, as these guys are on the good list of publisher’s I found? Help would be appreciated please; it’s a mine field out there for the uninitiated. My true story fits in the inspirational/religious niche, full of drama and funnies and miracles and I am intending to write another true story too. I am not a writer/ maybe one day! Wendy Anderson

    Reply

    Bill March 30, 2014 at 10:40 am

    I just went to Bowkers, last time I looked it was $250 for ten, which I think was not very long ago, today it is $295 for ten. Nice business model. Now $29.50 per book.
    Is there any disadvantage of starting out with a free IBSN on Creative Space and when you are ready to launch your second book, buying your ISBNs and assigning them to your original book as well as your new book?
    My intention is to continue to pursue a traditional publisher. My first book A Signal Waves is on Kindle/Amazon and I have finally gotten the cover work done for the paper copy, LOL, so now I am sitting her thinking whether I should hold off on the IBSNs until both books are on Kindle and my second one ready for print. Five months out on the second one. I want to write a little article on a couple of writers blogs that I participate on as well as my own author’s web site about this experience, so I have read through these comments and everything here seems to point to just holding your nose and paying the increasing tariff, $29.50 per book…
    Can you summarize any down side to that?
    Thanks, great discussion, Bill

    Reply

    Danielle Bernock March 17, 2014 at 10:54 am

    I am working on the final things for my book to be published. Have you heard of http://www.isbnservices.com/ ?
    They have ISBN’s for less ($18.99 and $99.99) but that makes me suspicious. Can you advise on this company?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 17, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Yes, the cheap ISBNs will show their company as the publisher of your book. The $99 version is a regular ISBN, but the company will do all the data entry at Bowker on your behalf. To take control of your own ISBNs and the metadata being entered about your publishing company and your books, (and if you plan to keep publishing) I advise you go to http://www.myidentifiers.com and open an account for your publishing company and buy the 10-pack of ISBNs for $250, dropping the price for individual, owned-by-you ISBNs to $25 each.

    Reply

    AVS March 15, 2014 at 9:35 am

    I am ready to self-publish a book and think it’s wise to buy my on ISBN. Does this require that I officially register and create my own publishing company? I’m ready to promote and market this book for the long haul but I’m not sure I will self-publish again( I will try the traditional route for subsequent works) and do not plan on publishing for other authors.

    Reply

    John March 27, 2014 at 11:14 pm

    Good articles are hard to find. At least until now. Yours is a uiqnue article with a lot of original thought and well-researched information. Thank you for your vast insight.

    Reply

    Ronald Walker January 23, 2014 at 10:56 am

    I have several novels ready to publish in Word format but need help with cover .. Do you have recommendations for new authors?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 23, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    Ronald, check out the dozens of cover designers and their work featured in our monthly ebook cover design awards

    Reply

    Jake Fratkin January 7, 2014 at 11:46 am

    Joel – thank you for your information. I registered for an ISBN 12 years ago, and received a bunch of numbers to I could publish subsequent books under my main ISBN group-number. How can I find out what those other numbers are? Thanks.

    Jake

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 7, 2014 at 12:07 pm
    Jeremy November 25, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    Hi Joel. I have a question about registering my ISBNs. I’ve established an LLC in home state as well as registered an assumed name under which my publishing company will operate. But at http://www.bowkerlink.com/, to register the ISBNs I will purchase for my book, I have to create an account, and to create an account, you have to search for and click your publishing company name. But my company name not surprisingly doesn’t appear! How do I get Bowkerlink to index my company name so I can create an account to register my ISBNs?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 7, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    Jeremy, when you set up your account originally you enter your publisher name at that point. Then, when you go to register the ISBNs the company name you registered with Bowker (not with your local agency) should be on their list.

    Reply

    Jeremy January 8, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    Thanks, Joel! I figured that was how it worked, but it’s comforting to get confirmation before going through the payment process and shelling out the $250. Much appreciated! Now onward with my publishing adventure…

    Reply

    Azlan March 27, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    I enjoyed renidag your very informative article content. It seems we think a lot alike. I am very impressed with your well-written content. You must truly enjoy being a writer.

    Reply

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