Like a lot of aspiring authors out there, I started off thinking that when you’re finished writing your book, you’re done. Woo Hoo! Let those royalties roll on in!

Problem is, it doesn’t work that way.

Authors that are lucky enough to have proper representation with an agency don’t have to worry about the production of their books. Their agents pitch the book to a publisher, likely one of the Big 5 or one of their subsidiaries, and that’s who puts together the bricks and mortar. Copyright, editing, cover art, ISBN assignment and the physical production of the books are all taken care of by the publisher. If you’re one of those, rock on!

But if you’re a self-publishing, indie author like me, you have to figure all that stuff out yourself. You find your own editor and hope you’ve got one that’s worth the money you’re paying for their services. You have to find your own printer. And you need to know about the ISBN. Like so many things in the publishing world, the ISBN can be a confusing, intimidating part of the publishing process.

I’ll do my best to help you figure it all out.

First of all, what is an ISBN?

An ISBN is an International Standard Book Number. ISBNs were 10 digits in length up to the end of December 2006, but since 1 January 2007 they now always consist of 13 digits. *

Simply put, an ISBN is a number that’s assigned to your book that identifies it to every agency on the planet that deals with books. Publishers, book distributers, libraries, and stores that sell books, both online and off. An ISBN is like a fingerprint. There’s only one like it in the world, and it belongs to your book.

It also bears pointing out that each version of your book needs its own ISBN.
There’s even some argument that each different version of an ebook needs its own ISBN number whether it’s for Nook, Kindle, a .PDF, HTML (or other digital) version of your book that’s available for sale.

That’s important. You cannot obtain one ISBN number and use it for everything. It doesn’t work that way. Each physical or digital version needs its own, individual ISBN.

So, where do you get an ISBN?

Bowker is the official source for all ISBN numbers in the United States. Any ISBN you get ultimately comes from Bowker. But there are so many sites and services that claim to be able to provide you with an ISBN for a myriad of prices, including free, that it can make a person’s head swim. Differtent sites offer different prices, and tend to tag on other services that emerging authors might think they need, like new author services, barcodes, publisher services, a whole host of things they think they can get you to pay for because (they think) you don’t know any better.

Don’t get sidetracked into buying some other service thinking you need it in association with your ISBN, your book, or your journey in the publishing process. Right now, at this point, you’re looking for one thing and one thing only. The ISBN number. Focus on that.

When choosing where to get an ISBN for your book, there are several factors to consider.

First, there’s price. It’s possible to obtain an ISBN for your book for anywhere from $0 to at least $125.00 usd per number.

Secondly, it’s important to note what information is contained within the ISBN number. These aren’t random numbers you slap on your book so the scanner can identify it. There’s information coded into the ISBN that’s crucial to you as the author and publisher of your book.

Finally, there’s distribution. Where and how you get your ISBN will determine how and where you can sell your book using that number.

What I’m going to do is go from the cheapest options to the most expensive, and try to describe the advantages and disadvantages of each, including the information and distribution considerations for each.

First, there’s the free option. Createspace, Smashwords, and other online publishing services offer a free ISBN number for your book if you publish through them. ISBN numbers aren’t free to get from Bowker. Indivicually, those things can cost up to $125.00 usd. Yikes!

So how can these publishing services offer ISBN numbers for free? Because Bowker offers huge discounts for ISBN numbers bought in bulk. for $5000, usd, they sell 5000 ISBN numbers. Basically, a dollar for each. For that small amount per number, those publishing services can afford to give away an ISBN, because they’re going to be making money on each book you sell anyway.

Sounds like a win-win, right? Well, on the surface, yes. They get money off your book, and you get to publish your book for free. And, depending on the service you use, your book can appear on bookseller sites around the world.

Not so fast, though. There’s a down-side to publishing your book with a free ISBN through online publishing services. The ISBN number given to you by a publishing service like that can only be used by them. You don’t own the ISBN outright. You can’t take the ISBN number assigned to your book through Createspace (for example) and use it to publish your book on Lightning Source. You can’t take it anywhere else. That could be limiting if you plan to distribute your books to diverse markets that your publishing service doesn’t offer.

However, if you only plan to publish a few of your own books, free worldwide distribution through websites and e-channels is probably going to suffice just fine. You can probably skip the rest, and best of luck to you.

Createspace used to offer a $10 usd option that allowed you to name your own imprint as the publisher of your book, even though you were using their free service. But that option is gone. So you’re left with 2 choices: go free and have your free publisher listed as the publisher of record for your book, or pay for an ISBN.

There are any number of sites online that offer to sell you a real ISBN for prices as low as $12 to 20-something usd. Looks great on paper, but there’s something very important to consider about ISBN numbers: The information they contain.

Coded into the ISBN number is the publisher of record. If you buy a discounted ISBN from a discount site, THEY are listed as the publisher of record. Just like Createspace is the publisher of record if you use one of their free numbers. These sites promise that you get to keep %100 of your rights, and so forth, but make no mistake. They are forever encoded into your book as being the publisher of your book.

Don’t be blinded by the price. They aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

The only way to establish yourself as the publisher of record in the information contained within your ISBN is to buy it directly from Bowker.

I won’t lie. These things can get expensive. To buy one ISBN from Bowker, it costs $125 usd. Just one.
For a block of 10 ISBN numbers, Bowker charges $295.00 usd.
For 1000 ISBN numbers, Bowker charches $575.00 usd.
That’s a lot of money.

And none of that includes the barcodes.

Are barcodes important? In a word, yes.
The barcode is the physical representation of your book’s 13 number ISBN that can be read with a scanner by distributors and book stores. Distributers are the companies that send your books out to retail outlets (stores).

Most ISBN/EAN numbers are followed by a 5-digit price indicator, which is also physically represented as a barcode. Barnes & Noble, for example, won’t touch a book unless it has the 5-digit price indicator.
EAN5BarcodeThe 5 in the 5-digit code indicates that the book is being sold for American dollars. The other digits indicate the price itself. The book in that sample is being sold for $18.95 usd.

But don’t worry about buying a barcode when you’re shopping for your ISBN. Sites that sell barcodes want you to think that the only way to get the right, official barcode for your ISBN is to buy one from them.

That’s just not true. The web is full of free barcode generators, including the 5-digit price code. So don’t waste your money buying a barcode. Just concentrate on what you need right now: the ISBN.

The important thing to know about an ISBN obtained from Bowker is that once you buy it, it’s yours. Forever. And you can use it wherever you want. If you buy an ISBN from Bowker for your paperback, you can use it anywhere. You can use your own ISBN on any paperback copy of your book through any printing service in the world. Including Createspace. If you choose to use Createspace services to publish your book, you can take your own ISBN with you and list yourself as the publisher of record. You can use the same ISBN to create paperback print versions of your book on Ingram’s Lightningsource, Lulu or any other print service you can think of. It’s yours.

Just remember. That ISBN is good for your paperback. You can’t use it for your hardback book or any digital version of your book. Those need their own numbers. But the same thing applies to those, too. If you buy an ISBN for your hardback, you can use it with any printer you want. If you buy an ISBN for your .pdf, html, epub or other digital version of your book, that ISBN belongs to that version of that book forever.

Note: you might see sites offering an eISBN or e-ISBN to assign to a digital version of your book. Don’t be confused by that. No matter what you put in front of it, it’s still just an ISBN, obtained from the same source: Bowker.

Take some time and think about what you want to get from your publishing experience. Weigh the options and make the best choices for yourself and your book.

Good luck!

3 thoughts on “ISBN

  1. Pingback: Welcome | Lepplady

  2. ingram spark is really good for this as it also gives you better levels of distribution and puts you in a magazine that top publishers and book sellers see. Most people in the top book stores have been picked from that magazine. Recommended that all jump on that. While createspace is free or available use of your own the distribution is quite limited but still quite effective.I recommend ingramspark. It might cost a lot for what you are after but well worth it. I agree with @Lepplady never limit yourself. The sky is the limit.

    • Exactly so. Thanks!

      It also bears noting that an author publishing through Ingram Spark can get an official ISBN at the discounted price of $85.00 usd instead of the customary $125.00 usd. And You are listed as the author of record, just like if you bought it from Bowker directly.

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