ISBNs: A Big Deal About A Small Matter (Self-Publishing Roundtable (5/6))

(As a reminder, this is part five of the series discussed here.  This series was originally concieved to be part of a roundtable discussion, so don’t be afraid to comment, disagree, offer new suggestions, etc.)


Ah, yes.  ISBNs.

A topic that comes up all the time on blogs, in Facebook groups, in forums, and even at conventions, whenever self-publishing is discussed.  One that has voices crying out with opinions, loud and strong.  It is an argument that has people spouting facts — often incorrect facts — about what an ISBN is useful for or what it can do.  It is a raging conflict that, really, matters so very little that it’s hilarious there’s this much debate about it.

Do you even need an ISBN?  And if not, why not?  And if so, what’s the best way to get one?  Well, I can’t claim to be the most authoritative voice on the subject, and I’ve been taken in by some misinformation in the past, but I do like to think I’ve become fairly well researched, now, and know what I’m talking about.

You can have a successful publishing career and never spend a single dime on ISBNs.  On the other hand, I do think there are reasons for purchasing them, albeit reasons that others might not find so important.  There are real problems with the system, and a lot of things to watch out for.  I’ve been burned, myself, but I think — between some experience and a lot of research — I’ve finally figured it out.

So, with all that in mind, let’s start with the most unsavory bit of dealing with ISBNs.


Let’s start, right away, by re-iterating:  You do not need to buy an ISBN.  It can be a nice thing to have, but it isn’t a requirement.  We’ll get into the “whys” of buying one in a moment, but first let’s discuss the “wheres.”  As in, “where should I get one?”

Well, in some countries, the answer is, “the government gives them away for free.”  I don’t live in one of those countries —  I live in the U.S.  If you live outside of the U.S., you might as well skip this section.

There is officially only one place to buy ISBNs in the U.S. — it’s a legal monopoly — but there are other places from which you can acquire one.

Many self-publishing outfits (Createspace, Smashwords, and a few others) offer you a “free” ISBN.  For the purposes of this blog, the benefits and drawbacks for all “free” ISBNs are largely the same (whichever outfit is giving them to you), but since they’ve enumerated them so well we’ll go with the descriptions given by Createspace.

Using Createspace’s “free” ISBN leaves Createspace as the imprint-of-record.  The ISBN can only be used with Createspace (so you probably do not want to use it if you’re using a print strategy of Createspace for Amazon and another printer for Expanded Distribution, as that can cause confusion).

For some reason unique to Createspace, this is the only ISBN option which also gives you access to another method of distribution, which they call “Libraries and Academic Institutions.”  But this does not mean you cannot get your book into Libraries and Academic Institutions without going through this channel.

Createspace’s Expanded Distribution program goes through one of three distribution channels.  Createspace Direct is one (I don’t know who uses Createspace Direct to buy their wholesale books, but I have to assume someone does).  The other two channels, however, are listed not by name but by description.

“Bookstores and Online Retailers” refers to Ingram… and just about every bookstore, academic institution, and library buys books from Ingram in addition to other channels.  “Libraries and Academic Institutions,” as I mentioned in my blog on Printing, is a euphemism for Baker and Taylor.  Just about every bookstore and online retailer that Ingram covers is also covered by Baker and Taylor.  The differences between the two, as far as you are concerned, are slight (yes, there are a few exceptions which are exclusive to one or the other, but thay are minor).  Now, why Baker and Taylor insists that Createspace be your publisher-of-record (this does NOT mean they are your publisher; it’s a technical term purely used for indexing) I don’t know, but that appears to be what the distribution deal between Createspace and Baker and Taylor requires.

Now, if you don’t want Createspace (or wherever else that isn’t your publishing house name) as your Publisher-of-Record (at least one reason why this might be preferable was in my last post, on print editions — namely, that there are a (very) few bookstores out there who, anecdotally, will refuse to buy your books if Createspace is their publisher of record), there are other options.  Createspace gives you a $10 option that allows you to name your own imprint-of-record, but which you can only use within Createspace; if you want to use Createspace for your Amazon books and another printer (usually Ingram) for their expanded distribution service — a strategy that several self-publishers have employed for a variety of reasons — this option will not work; you will still need to buy (or otherwise acquire) another ISBN for the other printer.  As a final option, Createspace also offers a $99 option that bypasses this requirement, though I do not recommend it — there are better options once you get to that price point.

If you plan to put more than two or three books into print, you probably are better off buying ISBNs in bulk from, but this only saves you money in the long-term.  ISBNs purchased from Bowker can be used with any printer or distributor.  Buying them in a batch of 100, you can cut the per-unit price of ISBN to $5.75 (at current prices).  Unless you are using them very quickly, that many should last you for a long time — possibly a decade or two, possibly your entire career.

“Best practice” is somewhat disputed (Bowker, of course, favors any option that makes you use ISBNs more frequently), but in general you want one for every different edition.  Initially I took that to mean (and Bowker encouraged this belief) that you needed one ISBN for your audiobook edition, one for your .mobi (Amazon) edition, one for your .epub (most other ebook stores), one for your .pdf edition (almost never used in self-publishing for fiction), one for your .lit edition (format defunct, but in the early days of eBooks this was Microsoft’s proprietary version), one for each print edition (one each for paperback and — if you have it — hardcover, and after significant enough edits (fixing a few typos is minor; the number I’ve seen is “10% of the text has changed”) or cover changes (if you change your cover design imagery, that’s generally considered a new edition; fixing a minor flaw, like a slightly misaligned spine, probably wouldn’t be)), etc., etc.

Bowker’s advice seems a little… overagressive, but they have been the authority on ISBNs since before 1967 (when the standard was formally adopted).  Their word seems like it should be the authoritative one… but the end-users of ISBNs (basically, printers, bookstores, libraries, and anyone who creates book catalogs) have gone against them, for once.  The end-users seem to want different ISBNs for each Print edition (as described above), one for any audiobook edition, and one for ALL ebook types (so .mobi and .epub are the same).  Unfortunately, if you’ve already assigned an ISBN to multiple electronic formats of a book unnecessarily, you can’t reclaim it.

(EDITED TO ADD:  This article on technical debt has me thinking that Bowker’s advice in terms of having seperate ISBNs for each ebook type might have some merit… but I still wouldn’t bother distinguishing between ePub and .mobi, as the formatting standards for these two file types are reasonably identical.  If you sell a .pdf version, however, I’d strongly consider it for the purposes of future-proofing)

And speaking of Bowker, you should never buy anything from Bowker other than your ISBN as a self-publisher.  Do not buy barcodes from them, even though they like to include them in (frankly, overpriced) “package deals” — there are dozens of ways to create a barcode from your isbn number for free (such as this one).  That’s assuming you even need one — Createspace puts a barcode on your print covers for free, regardless of what ISBN option you use, and they are useless with eBooks.

Bowker also offers the following services:  Ebook creation, cover design, editing, rights management, QR Codes, a “look inside the book” widget, book publicity, SAN numbers, and ISNI numbers.  Few of these are worth the money, and none of them are worth the money for a self-publisher.  Even ISBNs are just barely worth it, in my view.  Assigning your book to a particular ISBN will list it in Books Into Print, which is the only other thing of marginal worth Bowker does, and that’s free with purchase.


So, what good are ISBNs, anyway?  Ask two different people, you’ll get two different answers.  The amount of misinformation on ISBNs — both from ISBN advocates and anti-ISBN advocates — is horrific.  Half of the rumors are things someone, at some point in some author’s career, told as a lie in order to exploit that author, and the author fell for it.  It’s led to a lot of self-publishers wanting nothing to do with ISBNs, and admittedly the value of an ISBN is very… insubstantial, and rarely does much directly for the author.

I once sat in a convention listening in on a “self-publishing workshop” where the “expert” giving the workshop said that the free ISBN number gave Createspace “exclusive publishing rights” to his print books.


For the record, an ISBN number is an indexing tool.  It has nothing to do with “publishing rights” of any type.  All that Createspace owning your ISBN does is say you cannot use that same ISBN with another printer; you can still apply a different ISBN to the same book and publish it elsewhere.  Even the “publisher of record” bit is insignificant, as that is merely an indexing tool… (though some people who use those indexing tools view a listing of “Createspace” as a signal that the book is self-published, even though some small presses use it as well.  If you’re trying to sneak your book into a bookstore that won’t normally deal with self-published authors, like Hudson’s, you’d better not have Createspace listed as your publisher of record).

Now there might be a few distributors and niche bookstores who require ISBNs on your eBooks.  I think just about any significant print distributor requires one, as well, as does Barnes and Noble (at least if you want to be shelved).  But most eBook retailers do not require ISBNs — Kindle doesn’t, Nook Press doesn’t, Apple iBooks used to but doesn’t any more.  Libiro doesn’t….

Who does?  Well…

  • Kobo doesn’t require it, but warns that you will not get full international distribution without one.
  • Smashwords wants them for their “Premium Catalog” (distribution service), but they will give you a free one.
  • Xinxii requires one for some of their channels (but will apparently offer you a German-based ISBN if you don’t have one, according to their FAQ; I’m not sure how to apply for it).
  • Narcissus.Me doesn’t say, but offers you a free one.
  • Omnilit\All Romance Ebooks does, and they also will give you a free one as well (though the process is more complicated).
  • Google Play doesn’t, but appears to require it if you get to them through a third-party distributor like Xinxii.
  • It appears as if Overdrive does, though I can only guess what would happen if you managed to go to them direct instead of through a 3rd party distributor such as Smashwords.
  • I’m not even going to guess about the international bookstores that  can only be accessed through one of those third party distributors I’ve already covered.
  • Ingram requires one, as do most legitimate printers with any significant distribution.  Ingram does not assign you a free ISBN, so if you want to skip out on paying for ISBNs you should probably go through Createspace.

The point is, despite the assertion of some anti-ISBN advocates, there really are a few bookstores which require it, though you can usually get a free ISBN (typically with the same conditions as Createspace’s free one) if you need to.  And there are a few self-published authors willing to sacrifice those bookstores if it means getting out of having to use an ISBN, as well.

But what good is the ISBN?  Beyond gaining entry to a few obscure online bookstores and some printers, ISBN is useful for cataloging.

Okay, but surely there’s more to it than that, right?  It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t.

Well… not on the publisher’s end.  Even for marketing, the effect of an ISBN is insubstantial — some people used to say that having an ISBN made your book look more “professional” and therefore would encourage readers to buy it, but most readers never even notice if a book has one or not when making purchasing decisions.

ISBN is for the benefit of the end-user.  I phrase it that way (instead of “reader”) because the person most likely to care about it are the people who shelve the book; the bookstore workers and the librarians.  Even book collectors might desire an ISBN — trust me, I know from experience that when you have a personal library of thousands of books, having an app that will catalog your book for you by scanning the ISBN is very handy (but only so long as your collection has ISBN numbers.  If less than 10% of your collection has ISBNs, those apps can only help you so far)

So the question becomes:  Do you want to make the lives of the bookseller, the librarian, and the book collector easier?  Or, let’s put it another way — do you want to do something nice for the person who sells your book, who helps market your book, and\or who buys your book?  If the answer to that is “yes,” then you might just want to use the ISBN system.

And yes, I would recommend buying (in bulk) from Bowker over going with a free one, but that’s my personal opinion — since I’m going to use them anyway, I like the idea of owning them myself instead of sub-licensing them.  But this is definitely one of those “your mileage may vary” issues.


This is just a quick mention of copyrights; it’s not related to ISBNs (got that?  Copyright and ISBN have nothing to do with each other), but it doesn’t really fit anywhere else, and it isn’t a big enough topic to justify a section of its own.

Your book is under copyright from the moment it is completed.  So, why do you need to register, and when should you do it?

Well, the biggest reason for registering your copyright is that you effectively cannot file a lawsuit to enforce your copyright until it is registered (well, you can, but your options in doing so are limited).  “Timely” registration (within three months of publication, or before any infingement has taken place) will increase your chance of success in such a lawsuit.  You also set the damages for a violation to $150,000 and, in many cases, you can force the violator to pay your legal bill.  (I’m not sure what damages you can cover if such registration isn’t timely, but it’s considerably less.  If you don’t even register, well, you might be able to “enforce” your copyright with DMCA-Takedown notices and the like, but you’ll get no financial compensation even in a lawsuit).

As far as “when” to do it, this is one of the most confusing things for new authors to grasp.  The U.S. Copyright Office may now have a mechanism in place for you to pre-register your copyright, but they prefer that you hold off on registering your copyright until after you publish.  Now, it’s best to register in a timely manner (within three months… or as soon as possible), but don’t bother even trying until you’re done.

Also, be smart — register on-line.  It isn’t really any faster (it takes them months to review your application), but it’s a lot cheaper (I think around $50 cheaper, now; it used to be an even greater difference), and only requires an electronic version of your book to get your copyright registered (note:  There is some confusion about this; your copyright should be registered with just the electronic copies.  To file it with the Library of Congress, however, you must mail in a “best edition,” which is usually your print edition.  But if you don’t have a print edition at the time you file (when you submit the forms, not when they complete the registration) — and I usually don’t release a print edition until a month or so after my eBook edition has been published, and you can’t mail them what doesn’t exist — they do take electronic editions).

Oh, and one last warning:  The Copyright Office is extremely slow (though I understand there might be ways of speeding it up, if you need the certificate in a hurry).  In Treachery Forged went nine months between my registering and the certificate arriving; the certificate for The Kitsune Stratagem — which I registered in August of 2014 — arrived on earlier this month (I’m writing these blogs a week or two in advance; at the time I’m writing this, it showed up today, on July 9th, 2015).  And that was with no issues; if they had asked for any clarifications (which they might, especially if you’re filing for copyright registration on something complicated such as an anthology or collection) who knows how long it would have taken.

And that is copyright in a nutshell.  It has absolutely nothing to do with ISBN, and ISBN has absolutely nothing to do with it.


For some reason, ISBN numbers seem to spark a lot of passion in the self-publishing community.   I have sat back and watch self-publishing bigwigs get into knockdown, drag-out fights on Facebook over the issue of ISBNs.  I know people who evangelize on the importance of including them, and others on the horribly waste of money that they are.

Why?  This whole argument just seems silly.  ISBNs are a thing.  They are worth… well, something, at least.  They are not, however, worth getting into fights over.

I am the son of a librarian.  I am sure my late father would roll over in his grave if I ever put a book out there without an ISBN number, so I certainly will include them on all of my books… but they are conveniences, not requirements, for the publishing process.  It costs a little money, but it isn’t horribly expensive spread across several books, and its a nice thing to include for your end-users.

But some people seem to think if you advocate paying anything to add a convenience to your books, you are somehow damaging the self-publishing cause, and so you should bitterly fight against them.


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