Should You Buy Your Own ISBN When You Self-Publish?

As I get ready to self-publish my own material both as print-on-demand (POD) and e-books, I have found myself confused about a number of things I thought I knew a lot about. One subject in particular keeps surfacing: ISBNs, or International Standard Book Numbers.

Most subsidy presses or publishing services companies offer to provide authors with an ISBN; however, I know taking them up on their offer does not necessarily represent the best option. That said, publishing with a publishing services company seems an easier route to take than buying my own ISBN and finding a printer. Yet, I want my publishing company’s name on the spine of the book, something I won’t get if I go with a publishing services company that purchases an ISBN for me.

I wanted to know what to do.

So, I approached Sue Collier, who I knew to be an authority on the subject of self-publishing and a person always willing to share her wealth of information. Sue is the coauthor of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition, and has been working with authors and small presses for nearly two decades, providing writing, editing, production, and promotions work for hundreds of book projects. She knows her stuff. Here’s what she has to say on this subject.

ISBNs—Should You Buy Your Own ISBN
or Allow Your Publishing Services Company to Assign One of Theirs?
by Sue Collier

Does it really matter?

Yes it does.

Here’s the bottom line: If you don’t purchase your own ISBN under your own publishing company name, then you are not the publisher. If you use a publishing services company and let them assign your book an ISBN, they are the publisher, not you.

Let’s backtrack a bit and talk about just what an ISBN is. An ISBN (which stands for International Standard Book Number) is to a book what your Social Security number is to you. An ISBN is your ID in the book world.

This thirteen-digit numeral unmistakably identifies the title, edition, binding, and publisher of a given work. The ISBN is a mandatory sales tool if you intend to make your book available in bookstores, as it provides the basis for identifying books in all industry-wide systems. Bookstores, wholesalers, and distributors keep track of books solely by their ISBNs.

So how do you go about getting this little goody? Go to Bowker’s site at www.myidentifiers.com. New publishers must first create an account by establishing a username and password to take them through both the ISBN and the Books In Print (BIP) processes. You can buy a single ISBN for $125 or a block of ten for $250 (the best option if you are going to publish more than one book).

The POD publisher services companies will try to tell you that it doesn’t matter whether you use their assigned ISBN or obtain your own. But it does because using their ISBN will ensure they are listed as the publisher of record in BIP as well as with any distributor (Hmmm…sounds a lot like a vanity press, doesn’t it?).  Consequently, all orders and inquiries will go to them.

Why would this matter? Let’s take a few hypothetical situations: What if a book club discovers your book, loves it, and wants to adopt it for an alternate selection? The club will contact your Internet publisher who can’t handle the deep discounts needed and thus has no financial stake in such a transaction. What do you think will happen? Zip. Zero. Nada. Suppose a corporation is interested in purchasing one thousand copies of your book, contacts the Internet publisher but you never hear about it. What if a distributor wants to take it on but finds the economics aren’t feasible? Tough luck. Any of these scenarios can cost you thousands of dollars.

In addition, if a POD publishing services company is listed on your book as the publisher, your book may immediately be disregarded by bookstores and potential reviewers as a poorly done vanity press project. Consider too the fact that your book may be associated with others done by this company; for instance, a book on raising children could be listed right alongside erotic fiction.

Another thing to keep in mind is that many of the POD publisher services companies do their printing at Lightning Source. As an indie publisher with your own ISBN, you can go directly to Lightning Source, open your own account, and opt for national trade distribution with Ingram. Why bring the POD publisher services company into the equation? You can create your own team of publishing experts. Plus, if you decide later to sever ties with this company, you’ll have to obtain a new ISBN for your book anyway; why not simply own the number in the first place?

As the publisher of record, you have another advantage: You can move your book to a different printer if you need to. If you started with CreateSpace but decide to move it to Lightning Source, you can do that. Are sales of your POD book starting to take off? Maybe you’ll want to print an offset run so you can reduce your per-unit cost and make more money from sales.

If you are serious about self-publishing and selling books, the advantages of owning your ISBN far outweigh any disadvantages.

To read Part II of this blog post, Do You Need an ISBN for Your Ebook?, click here.

About the Author

Self-publishing expert Sue Collier is coauthor of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing,5th Edition (Writer’s Digest Books, 2010) and the forthcoming Jump Start Your Books Sales, 2nd Edition (Communication Creativity, 2011). She has been working with authors and small presses for nearly two decades, providing writing, editing, production, and promotions work for hundreds of book projects. Visit her website and blog at Self-Publishing Resources.

About Nina Amir

Nina Amir, the Inspiration to Creation Coach, inspires writers to create published products and careers as authors as well as to achieve their goals and fulfill their purpose and potential. She is the author of How to Blog a Book and The Author Training Manual, both published by Writer’s Digest Books. A developmental editor, proposal consultant, author and book and blog-to-book coach, some of her clients have sold 230,000+ copies of their books and been published by major publishing houses. A popular speaker and workshop leader, she writes four blogs, has self-published 12 books and is the founder of National Nonfiction Writing Month, also known as the Write Nonfiction in November Challenge.

Comments

  1. I have written 4 complete books on making paper hats and 1 travel book of a series of travel books for children.Not sure which steps to imbark on next. Chinese verses American publishers / printers. ISBN on my own or via a publisher. To hire an agent or editor, or both.Not as clear cut as I had imagined.Looking diperately for answers and assistance.

    • Bruce,
      Making these choices depends upon a lot of things, and I usually recommend aspiring authors think about them prior to writing their books. For instance, a publisher will demand that you have a platform in place; you need one to create a successful self-published book, but you can build it as you go if you feel the need to get a book out quickly–or simply don’t want to wait. I always recommend you purchase your own ISBN, but that’s just me. You might prefer the hand holding of an author services company that provides one for you. Always hire an editor–a professional book editor, that is. These are just a few short answers to the many questions with which you are struggling. I suggest you hire a consultant or do some deep soul searching and ask yourself what type of author you want to be–traditionally published, self-published (as in an actual publisher) or something in between. This will help you figure out the best route.
      Nina

  2. I am looking to purchase a block of ISBN #s and then I see that ontop of the $250 for ten they want another $25 each for bar codes. This seems to be gauging the writer. I need a barcode for self-publishing through Creative Suites. They offe their ISBN # free as you know. Now, if I am to follow your advise, Bowkers wants to hit me up for $250 plus another $250 for the barcode????

    • The question is whether the free barcode you get through Creative Suites, which I’ve never used, has then means their imprint goes on your book rather than your own. Personally, I only want my own imprint on my books. So, I purchased a block of ISBNs from Bowkers and coughed up the $250. I did not buy barcodes from them, however. I purchased them elsewhere. You can get them for $10-25 from a variety of companies. I found this info in Sue Collier’s book, so I want to give her credit for saving me in the nick of time when I needed one quickly. I was able to download one for $10 instantly! I think I used http://www.createbarcodes.com. You can also check out http://www.ggbarcodes.com and Fotel.com. I really suggest you bet her book, though; it has info on designing them with your ISBN: The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing.

    • You don’t need to buy barcodes. Any cover designer will include the barcode in his fee to create your cover, front and back. I’m about to publish my third book and haven’t bought a barcode yet. I did buy ten ISBNs to start with. You will need one for your paperback and one for your e-book version (and yes, you should convert your paper book to in e-book after you publish).

  3. Nina: Thanks – that was a big help.

  4. Christina says:

    My question is this: when purchasing an ISBN, you need one for each “unique” book. Does unique exclude identical copies? Would I use the same ISBN for, say, fifty copies of the same exact book?

    • The ISBN is for the edition of the book, not for every copy.

    • “Unique” is a term vanity publishers like to use. You need one ISBN for a paperback (no matter how many copies), one for a hardback, another for your e-book if you do one. There is nothing unique about an ISBN. It either belongs to you, the author, or it belongs to a publisher. You are the publisher if you own the ISBN.

  5. Thank you for this helpful information – just starting out and needed guidance on what to do about ISBN numbers – I feel comfortable with your recommendations.

  6. Thanks for this Nina, solid advice that I’m going to use.

  7. Thanks for this and the next blog on ISBNs. It answered a lot of questions. I’m the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating and didn’t have to deal with the ISBN issue with each of those three editions. (The third edition hits the book shelves in March 2013.) But I’m about to launch an e-book, “5 Things You Must Know About the Man You’re Dating” and I’m going through the process myself. I found your blog to be of great help. Thanks.

  8. Mary Ann Parks says:

    I am about to have a small run of three books printed. they are specialized resources for a specialized ministry. they will be sold at cost to non-profits. should I get an ISBN before I print?

    • You won’t be selling them in stores, so you don’t really need one, but it is always a good idea to have an isbn in case… It’s a record of a book in print. I would.
      Nina

  9. Harriet says:

    I’m about to publish the sequel to my first novel. The first doesn’t have an ISBN on Amazon , but has assigned ones on Smashwords and Createspace. I’m considering purchasing a block of 10 for my new book.
    Can I use the same ISBN for Amazon, B&N and Apple or must each have its own number?
    Since the ISBN is used to track sales for various bestseller lists (I’m an optimist) if different ones are used for the same book on different e-bookseller sites, how can the book’s sales be tracked. Confusing!
    I would appreciate any guidance. Thanks!

  10. Great post…thanks for sharing your knowledge with the rest of us. I am confused on something though. When you go to buy your 10 or only 1 ISBN, it says to please type in your company name. What am I suppose to put here? As the author am I the company? thanks in advance for your help!

    • Well, that’s when you decide on your imprint! What will you call your publishing company (your imprint)?? This will appear on the spine of your books. :~) Have fun with it.

  11. Thanks for publishing this very-informative article, Nina! I have a question about ISBN applicability to limited-edition art portfolios. These would be sold both directly by myself and potentially through distributors as well. These are not technically ‘books’ but they are a combination of images and printed word. What guidance would you offer here? Thanks, Craig

    • Craig,
      I can’t imagine it’s any different than any other book. The limited edition would get one ISBN all it’s own. That is used wherever it is distributed. Hope that helps.

  12. Stephen SPICEHANDLER says:

    I’m confused about something Sue Collier says in your blog. She says that if a book club wanted to include your book on their alternates list, or if someone wants 1,000 copies or if a distributor wants to get involved, they would end up getting involved with your publishing services company instead of you and things could fall apart. Even if they got in touch with you directly, wouldn’t you have to deal with your publishing services company if you are publishing through them? And wouldn’t that still mean you have less options in terms of pricing and the amount of books that could be turned out at once, etc.? For those of us for whom traditional publishers is not an option, how else would these situations be handled, except through the publishing services company?

  13. Hi Stephen–My reference to “publishing services companies” refers to vanity/subsidy publishers. Basically where you are paying a company to publish for you rather than publishing yourself. When you go with a publishing services company’s ISBN, THEY are the publisher not you. This is really not self-publishing. Only when you provide your own ISBN are you actually self-publishing. That’s really my whole point; don’t put a middleman in the way…be the publisher of record so here is never any confusion. You can still pay a company to provide publishing services while maintaining your own imprint/publishing company. That’s what my company does; you simply pay us for a service and that’s end of it. We don’t pay your royalties; you don’t need to buy books from us at an inflated cost. You are decision maker for price and everything else. The investment to publish this way is similar and often less than going with a “publishing services company.” Does that clarify things? Thanks so much for posting!

    • Stephen SPICEHANDLER says:

      I understand some of the issues about getting or not getting your own IBSN and that’s why I looked at this website for some guidance. But the above-mentioned points that I responded to in my posting still confuse me, since these points were made as part of an argument against letting the publishing service company (or “vanity” publisher) give you an ISBN in their name, but they actually seem neutral to the argument. They did alarm me a bit though, so I was hoping to understand how they were relevant.

      • I think we need to separate some overlapping issues here.

        Whoever registers the ISBN is the publisher of record; they enter the metadata (subject, publication date, author, etc) into the ISBN log and they are listed as your publisher. On its own, this has no bearing on who owns the copyrights to the text, who can print the book, or who should be contacted with inquiries. The ISBN does not have any legal force, it is simply a directory.

        However, an unscrupulous vanity press might try to exert control over you by demanding that you print with them at an inflated cost, demanding that you include their contact information in your book and exclude your own, or by demanding a percentage of any future business deals (movie options, merchandising, etc).

        (Remember that historically, vanity presses existed for people who failed to pass through the gatekeeping of a traditional publisher; this meant that many of them preyed on desparation. With the advent of e-publishing and the removal of gatekeeping, I think it’s appropriate to differentiate between a publishing services company vs. a “vanity press”.)

        So the potential risks have nothing to do with who registers the ISBN, and everything to do with the contract terms you agree to.

        Any time you sign a contract, ESPECIALLY a contract that deals with a creative work over which you have copyrights, you should be going over that contract with a fine-toothed comb to make sure that your rights are being protected.

        If you find a publishing services company that is willing to give you favourable contract terms and guarantee their prices, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t issue your ISBN and be your publisher of record.

      • Saul makes some good distinctions. But I think one point that should be made is that if you are not the publisher of record, you haven’t actually self-published. Furthermore, listing a publisher services company as the publisher may be an added stigma to your book you don’t need–and certainly don’t desire. Often these companies are looked at as putting out low-quality works so reviewers won’t even look at them. I just don’t see a need to NOT get your own publisher ISBN prefix if you are self-publishing.

        • With respect, I’m not convinced that this “stigma” actually exists in the minds of the book-buying public.

          Guess who the ISBN publisher of record is for the paperbacks of Hugh Howey’s WOOL series? “CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform”.

          That hasn’t stopped him from cracking the top 100 authors on Amazon and optioning film rights to Ridley Scott.

          Howey isn’t the only example. If people like a book, they will buy it regardless of who’s listed as the publisher.

          I would suggest that cover art, book description, reviews, and samples play a much bigger role in convincing people of a book’s quality.

          Meanwhile, to answer your implied question, the reason to NOT get your own ISBNs would if you live in the United States and don’t feel like paying Bowker $250 for 10 ISBNs, when you can get them 3 for $20 through a service provider.

          For a first-time self-publishing author, that money can be spent on other services that will have a greater impact on the success of their book.

          • The stigma does exist among reviewers, and that is where my concern lies. And sure there have been authors who have been successful getting their ISBNs from reputable companies like CreateSpace; and even with another company’s identifier, authors still have complete control and copyright over their works. However, most of the self-publishers I work with are setting up their own publishing companies—and expecting to make a profit from these. These publisher/authors should buy their own ISBNs from Bowker not only because of the “publisher identifier” within the ISBN, but owning your own ISBN enables you to control the bibliographic record for your book. This is important for the book’s metadata as well as for online searches by attracting search engine traffic to your title. Not only that, but distribution options offered by print and digital publishing service providers often require that the author/imprint be the registered owner of the ISBN.

            When you have your own ISBN, you also get free inclusion in Books in Print, which is the world’s largest catalog of books—and which is licensed to all major search engines and thousands of bookstores and libraries. And you’ll get a free online listing at the online Books in Print bibliographic database.

  14. Hi Stephen–Can you clarify bit as to what you are confused about? The main point I was trying to make is to ensure you are the publisher of record rather than a publishing services company. Thanks, Sue.

  15. Hi: I just have a question regarding ISBNs. Thank you so much for this information by the way.

    I will be publishing my first book and desire independence and control over where the book goes, where it ends up, etc. However, if I buy a block of 10 ISBN’s are the numbers different or are they the same? For example, if I have an ISBN for my first book, will the block of 10 ISBN’s be the same as the ISBN used for my first book or will they all be different? I want to ensure that I can use the 10 ISBN’s for different books I might write down the road.

    I hope I’m making sense!
    Thank you once again

  16. shenita mccrimager says:

    i would like to own my own isbn number
    do i order one every time i want to publish my books

    • Shenita,

      You can buy a block of 10 ISBN numbers, which is cheaper, from Bowker. Then use one each time you publish a book. Create a name for your publishing company–your imprint, and that is how you start your publishing company. Good luck!

  17. This information is so helpful. Thank you! There are two areas I’d like to ask about:

    When you are the publisher of your book, using your own ISBN, are you considered a “business” when it comes to tax time? And can other people use you as a “publisher” for their books as well?

    Also, I want to be sure I am correctly understanding that I do not need to purchase a bar code, only the ISBNs. And when my cover is designed, the designer will automatically add a bar code to the back of the book, next to the ISBN. Is that right?

    Again, thank you so much.

    • You become the publisher or your book. As such, you are a business.
      You can opt to publish other people’s books if you like under your imprint–the name of your publishing company.
      Your book designer will probably expect you to purchase your own bar code for the back of your book. They are easy to purchase. You can get them emailed to you in seconds.

    • Actually, many designers will now generate a barcode for you, which you can use for the back cover. We purchased a program that creates the barcodes, so we offer them for free as part of the cover design service.

  18. How can i sell a book for $10 and pay $25 for ISBN number

    • You will hopefully sell many copies and earn back way more than that.

    • Manny, just to clarify, you only need one ISBN for each *edition* of the book (paperback, hardcover, EPUB, etc), regardless of how many copies you sell. So as Nina says, you will make back the initial cost of the ISBN through your sales.

  19. Hi. I am currently published through Create Space. Is it possible to close my titles through them and publish them with my own ISBN’s? I am seriously thinking about truly becoming my own publisher. If anyone has any more helpful hints, I would really appreciate it. Thank you.

    • I’m not sure about that, Jodi, but you can read my other post about ISBNs and it might help. I’ll ask Carla King and come back and comment again…

    • Jodi,
      You can republish with your own ISBN.Though if it was sold through Amazon then some people may have it and sell it as used. Thanks to Carla King for confirming this for me!

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