Self-Publishing: To ISBN or Not to ISBN

ISBNs were a mystery to me until recently, so I thought I'd take a few moments to share what I've learned and see if anybody had any advice or tips to share. A lot of the information I could find was somewhat out of date, and I think that's because things have changed so much in recent times.

So, the basics. ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. An ISBN is a unique number assigned to a book in order to help people find it. It contains the publisher's code, and the code of the country in which the book was published, and then some unique numbers to indicate the book itself. This makes it easier for computer databases to retrieve information about your book.

However, places like Amazon and B&N don't require an ISBN; they use their own identification code to track the books through and in their systems. You can also use their numbers to find your book on sites like Goodreads.

Smashwords gives a free ISBN to any book which qualifies for its premium catalog, but this lists them as your publisher. However, they don't claim any rights to your book because of it. Also, the ISBN given by Smashwords isn't to be used at Amazon or B&N, if you publish there yourself (which is quicker and quite easy, for the most part) rather than letting Smashwords distribute to them.

You also have the option of buying an ISBN from Bowker directly, and this ISBN would list you as the publisher. However, a single ISBN runs about $125. You can buy a batch of 10 for $250, which is suspiciously deep discount, if you ask me.

It's possible to never have an ISBN attached to an ebook and still sell it through Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords, but it won't go out through Smashwords to the Apple Store or Kobo. However, each format requires a different ISBN, so if you put your book out in print later, you'll need to get an ISBN when you put the print edition out. If you want your book to be in bookstores or libraries, you must have an ISBN.

So, there's a lot to consider. Buying an ISBN directly from Bowker means that you are listed as the publisher. There's debate about how important that is, though. Some claim that books listed as published by Smashwords may be a turn off to readers, while others say that this is offset by having your title distributed in as many places as possible (such as the places Smashwords will only send it if there's an ISBN attached).

Regardless, you will need to purchase a separate ISBN if you do a print run of your book, and places like Createspace offer a similar (if I'm not mistaken?) service, allowing you to purchase an ISBN from them at a fraction of what you would pay at Bowker. The question of whether it's better to purchase from them or directly from Bowker may come down to the particular perspective of the author.



Celebcùen said…
Hi Mary :-)

Well, I know in the US things are probably different, but I’m a bookseller and I can tell you what my perspective is.

A book without an ISBN number is not a book for me. I say this because I can’t track it down. Very often, I can’t even find the book or be sure the book people is asking me is really the book I’ve found. Sometimes I’m not even sure the book they ask me is even a book (having a cover and being printed on paper doesn’t automatically do a book). If the book is not listed in a publisher’s catalogue (so it doesn’t appear as its publication) I don’t know where to order the book (which means I won’t sell it). Things are probably going to change with the use of ebook, which will probably be downloadable everywhere you can find them on the net, but as for printed book, sold by bookshop I think it will be hard to go beyond the ISBN number.

I’ve ordered books all over the world from the book shop I work in, and this would be harder without an ISBN to track the book down. Even the program I use to place my orders only recognise books by ISBN. Many publishers don’t even ask for the book’s title, they ask for the ISBN number straight away. In a way, it’s just safer.

So, in my opinion, it is worth having one, and it is worth having it linked to a publisher who can link you to the bookshops.
Just a bookseller’s opinion ;-)
Marion Sipe said…
So sorry it took me so long to reply to this! It got caught in Blogger's spam filter and I just noticed!

These are great points! So it's really important to have an ISBN for a print run. That's definitely good to know.

I think Createspace offers them, for the print books they do, but I don't know if lightning source does. Does it matter to you, as a bookseller, if the ISBN comes from a company like that instead of from Bowker? Can you even tell?

Thanks so much for the comments, sweetie!
Celebcùen said…
Hi Mary :-)
I’ve only just seen my post appeared in here. I thought it just got lost.

Well, I don’t think I could ever tell where the ISBN comes from, but doing a research, I could track down the publisher. Everything comes down to the publisher at the end.
For example, I did a research as if trying to find a book to parches for a customers on all three publishers you mentioned above. The only one I’d contact as a bookseller is Bowker. The other two, clearly don’t sell to booksellers, so, in this case, I’d advice the customer to try buy the book by him/herself on the net. If I couldn’t find an ISBN for the product, I’d say to the customer the thing he/she is looking for is not a book and I wouldn’t even do the research on the publishers.

Then, what the customer will do probably depends on the country. What I see here in Italy is that customers still prefer to buy a book from a bookseller, mostly because this way the risk of the parches falls on the bookseller and not on them.

Well, I hope this helps you a bit :-)
Marion Sipe said…
That's really interesting. It seems like Bowker is the way to go, despite the price, and that's really good to know!!

(Also, sorry it took me so long to get back to you, I plead brain-deadness. But you rock anyway!!)

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