Do I need an ISBN?

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What is an ISBN, and do you need one? If you plan to self-publish your books, maybe. They’re an extra cost for doing business in the publishing landscape, and I’ll explore the pro’s and con’s of having your own ISBN for your book in this article. I do recommend having your own registered to you, but we’ll get into that in a moment.

What is an ISBN?

An ISBN is an International Standard Book Number, and they are issued by the assigned ISBN agency in your locality. For the United States, the ISBN agency is called R.R. Bowker.

ISBNs are a unique numerical identifier assigned to your book which separates it from all the other titles available. This is important because books can have similar (or identical) titles, amongst other things. The primary use of an ISBN is to insure a retailer is getting exactly what they are ordering and giving the customer the exact book they want.

Methods of Acquiring an ISBN

There are numerous methods of acquiring an ISBN, and it depends upon your distribution model. Some distribution firms can assign your book an ISBN out of their pool of numbers for free or at a charge. There are advantages and disadvantages to every method, and I’ll go over the major (popular) methods commonly used in self-publishing today.

Straight to the Source: Registering with the ISBN Agency Yourself

  • Pro’s:
    You have full control of the listing of the title.
    You can print with the same ISBN at numerous printers/distributors.
    You (your company) are listed as the publisher.
    You control all listing details with the ISBN agency.
  • Con’s:
    Cost – it is more expensive (by far).
    Additional time to setup your title.
    Additional time for the information to propagate throughout the marketplace.

You can go straight to the ISBN agency for full control over the ISBN. Doing this, you can use the same ISBN with any printer you use so long as the book remains identical in every way. If you decide to change distributors/printers later, you don’t have to change the ISBN of the title and issue a new edition. On the contrary it costs more to get started, takes a little more time, and it can take your title longer to be updated with retailers.

As a part of commentary, I do this for all my print editions, but not for my eBook editions. We’ll go over that in the Free ISBN section below.

Using a Free ISBN

Different services, such as CreateSpace, Lulu, and Smashwords, can and will provide you with a free ISBN for your titles. This can save you some money on the front end, but it does have its drawbacks.

  • Pro’s:
    Free to use.
    Easy to assign the number, and the system automatically fills in the background details.
    Quicker to market (CreateSpace is faster to list on Amazon, for instance.)
    You don’t have to spend money on a “throwaway” ISBN
  • Con’s:
    Less control.
    You are not listed as the publisher.
    You are not in control of the ISBN.
    You must register a new one (and change editions) if you change distributors/printers.
    Less uniformity across the marketplace.

Putting it All Together

I use the free ISBNs on my eBook editions when required, but I pay for my ISBNs for my print editions. The reasons for this are simple: on eBooks, if I change distributors, I would likely just use the free ISBN assigned by the new distributor.

But, why would I pay for the print edition and not for the eBook? The idea of assigning an ISBN to an eBook is a controversial and relatively new concept. The ISBN agency wants publishers to assign an ISBN for every type of book published – they want you to get an ISBN for the hardcover, paperback, ePub version, Amazon Kindle version, audiobook version… the list goes on and on.

Technically, they’re right, but it is applying an old rule to a new technology. It’s similar to saying that all books must be issued in a physical format in some way – if an eBook, you have to put it on a CD in order to sell it because “that’s how we’ve always done it”. Something could be said about the ISBN agency (being a private company with a license from the U.S. government to sell numbers in a database and all) using such a rule for financial gain, but, being astute as you are, you likely can already see such implications.

Until it becomes required by all distributors, I’ll likely continue to use the free ones for eBooks. I use the paid ISBN for print editions because I might change printers at a moment’s notice and want to use someone else with the same ISBN. That keeps everything uniform in the print process, and all my pain and suffering of changing to a new printer/distributor is seamless and invisible to the reader. If you don’t use your own ISBNs, you can’t print with it at multiple places, and the marketplace and ISBN agency discourage multiple ISBNs on the same book (and for good reason).

It also allows me to print in more than one place if I so choose with the same ISBN. I could upload my book to CreateSpace and Lulu, utilizing their marketplaces and exposure, while keeping the ISBN under my control. The royalty rates might be lower, but a sale is a sale is a sale, as the old adage goes.

These are the basics, and you can email me (the link at the top right) for any questions you have, or comment here!


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