ISBN: Do I Need One to Self-publish?

By | October 26, 2014

I think I'll buy 1ooo ISBNs. One for for facebook...

If you’ve already dipped your toes into the pool of publishing, you’ve come across the option of whether or not to purchase an ISBN or whether to let a distributor such as CreateSpace or Smashwords assign an ISBN to your book.

An International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, is a unique identifier for every book published. ISBNs were originally used by publishers and distributors to identify and track book orders. Today ISBNs are also used to track sales across multiple distributors. Most purchasers of print books require an ISBN, but ebook distributors are more forgiving. Some require that your ebook have an ISBN, some don’t.

So should you purchase an ISBN or not? That depends on your publishing goals. Let’s look at the various options and advantages of purchasing an ISBN.

Beware of Free and Cheap ISBN Sellers

Bowker is the international wholesaler of ISBNs. When you purchase an ISBN through Bowker, you list details and metadata about your book and you own the ISBN. You–or your publishing company–is listed as the publisher of said ISBN. Most bookstores, brick-and-mortar and online, purchase books by ISBN. When you purchase an ISBN through Bowker, you can buy one ISBN or purchase in bulk for a discount.

Some distributors, such as Createspace, will assign an ISBN or allow you to buy one through them for cheap. Sounds like a good deal, right? Well, be aware of what you are purchasing. When you purchase an ISBN through any distributor or any site other than Bowker or one of its authorized re-sellers, that seller becomes the identified publisher of your book in databases. That doesn’t mean they have any publication rights, but in the grand list of Books in Print published by Bowker and referenced by most organizations related to publishing, your book will be listed as published by that seller. If that’s okay with you, go for the cheap. But if you want to publish like a pro, buy your own ISBN.

Own Your ISBN

I’ll say it again: Buy your own ISBN. It’s a wise investment that will set you apart as a professional publisher. Buy an ISBN for each format of your book: print and ebook. In fact, buy a separate ISBN for each print format and each ebook format. You’ll need one for the .mobi format for Kindle, one for EPUB, used by almost every other distributor and e-reader, and one for PDF, if you publish in PDF format. You’ll also need a separate ISBN for your hardback and softcover books. And if you publisher multiple editions of your book, you’ll need a new ISBN for each edition and each format published in the new edition. And don’t forget one for your audiobook.

If your book, in each format, does not have the same ISBN, reported sales across all distributors will be divided. For example, if your print version sold through Amazon via CreateSpace has one ISBN and you distribute the rest of your print through Ingram with different one, your books sales for each will be reported separately. This division will make it much more difficult to hit the New York Times Bestsellers list, which uses ISBNs to determine books sales. You want to make sure that everyone who is buying your book is buying books with the same ISBN.

Increase Discoverability

When you purchase your ISBN through Bowker, you fill out certain information about your book, such as the title, author, book description and BISAC category. This information is used globally by bookstores, libraries and online retailers such as Google Books and Apple iBooks. Buying your ISBN through Bowker increases discoverability and gives you control over the information presented. Retailers may see your book listed in Books in Print and decide to offer it for sale to their customers. In fact, some retailers require an ISBN listed by the actual author or publisher.

Buy in Bulk and Save Bucks

When you purchase your ISBN through Bowker, you have the opportunity to get a discount for buying more than one. The more you buy, the less expensive each ISBN becomes. Plan ahead. If you plan to publish several books in one year, you will quickly run out of ISBNs. Technically, one book will require a minimum of three ISBNs: one for print, one for Kindle, and one for EPUB. While purchasing 100 ISBNs may cost you more in the short term, in the long run you’ll save money. Think of your ISBN purchase as an investment in your business. Publishing is, after all, a business.

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