To ISBN or Not To ISBN – That Is the Question

by Janis Patterson

There is an evergreen discussion that flowers repeatedly on most writers’ loops, especially on those that have more non-professional writers. Do you need an ISBN? Should you buy your own ISBN? Why should you want an ISBN?

The answer to all the questions above is … it depends.

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, a number of either 10 or 13 digits that is unique to a certain book/edition/format. Almost every book has one.

I say almost, because there are mitigating factors. You can release a book without an ISBN, but then especially with paper it would be difficult to downright impossible for anyone to order or stock it. Neither would you be able to track any sales you might have.

If you are publishing an ebook with Amazon, or some other online retailers only, you do not have to have an ISBN because almost every retailer has their own internal identifying numbers. Amazon’s (the biggest ebook retailer) numbers are called ASIN.

Let’s be honest – ISBNs are expensive. Prices for one – just one! – start at $125. While much more economical, a hundred still go for close to $600. That’s big money in almost anyone’s wallet, but especially for self-publishing writers, many of whom are just starting out.

There are several ways to get ISBNs. First, and the one I like best, is to buy your own directly from Bowker/MyIdentifiers. Bowker is the only company licensed to sell ISBNs in the United States. (If you are from another country, you will have to check on where and what ISBN prices and availabilities are. I don’t know. I do know that the citizens of Canada get theirs free – if they meet certain criteria – lucky stiffs!) If you buy your own ISBNs you are shown as the publisher.

Second, there are those who will be happy to sell you a couple of single ISBNs for a lot less than Bowker. I advise you not to do that, even though it saves you a couple of bucks. These people are called re-sellers, because they buy large amounts of ISBNs from Bowker, where they are much cheaper per number, and then sell one or two or three to you for a profit.

Now I am a big believer in profit, but this particular ploy comes at a price – namely that you are not listed as the official publisher. When someone buys an ISBN from Bowker, they automatically become the publisher of record. If you buy (or get a free) an ISBN from JoeBlow, Inc., since JoeBlow, Inc. bought the ISBN from Bowker, he/it is now the publisher of record.

At the moment this particular little quirk doesn’t mean much, just a bit of legalese – but my concern is that we don’t know what the publishing laws will be down the road. I wrote the book, so I want to be on record as the publisher of record and be able to control my book throughout its life. More simply, my book is my book.

This same principle applies when some company and/or retailer offers to give you a ‘free’ ISBN if you publish with them. No adult today should believe that anything is ever truly ‘free’ – someone somewhere somehow sometime has to pay for it, and in this circumstance it might be you by losing control of your book. The entity giving you the ‘free’ ISBN is on record as the publisher of record – not you.

So should you pay for ISBNs? If you are writing short little books that you intend to sell as ebooks on Amazon (for example) and on Amazon only – you certainly don’t have to. If, though, you decide to take those ebooks to print or start your publishing career in print, yes, most definitely you need an ISBN.

You should have an ISBN for every version of your book – one for ebook (which should cover all ebook retailers, no matter what Bowker says – remember, they sell ISBNs!), one for print, one for large print, one for audio. Remember, one of the main purposes of ISBNs is to track sales and you don’t want the data on your sales tracks muddied. (And a little hint – if you are doing a paper copy Bowker will try to sell you bar codes for a fair chunk of change. You don’t need to. The publisher – Amazon, Draft2Digital, Ingram, whoever – will put one on for you without charge – just be sure to leave a space for it in your cover design.)

As there are brick-and-mortar stores who refuse to do business with Amazon (a complicated set of affairs I’m not going to go deeper into now) many authors give their print editions two ISBNs. These authors do one print edition through Amazon print and give it a discrete ISBN with limited distribution, which means that book is sold only on Amazon only. Then they go through another publishing venue such as Ingram’s or Draft2Digital for another print version and give it another separate ISBN. Whatever you think of the practice, remember more brick-and-mortar stores will order from Ingram’s (which has the all-encompassing industry standard catalogue) and Draft2Digital and all the others where they will not from Amazon.

Now I am going to talk about pure personal opinion. When you self-publish in any format, you are a publisher. Everyone admits – or they should! – that editing, covers and publicity are legitimate business expenses; you should regard ISBNs as the same thing. If you are going to compete against the biggest traditional publishers you need to play by the same rules. You are a publisher; act like one.

4 thoughts on “To ISBN or Not To ISBN – That Is the Question

  1. Well said! I belong to an author co-op – Windtree Press – which purchases the ISBNs in bulk and then we purchase them from the co-op so our books have the Windtree Press logo and information, but we self-publish the books. I also purchase an ISBN for each format of the book. Having that 13 digit number on my books and publishing through Ingrams has sold more of my print books than when I first started and had the print books at Amazon. That was back before I knew all the ins and outs. Great post!

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  2. My understanding is that Bowker invented the ISBN, and hence produces and sells them at will. No one else has tried inventing a competing ID for books, but could. I put an ISBN on every book, every version, for the reasons you cite, and I recommend others do the same. Good post reminding people of how this all works.

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