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Who gets the ISBN for your self-published book and why? (updated)

November 30, 2013

Tags: ISBN, ISBN barcodes, EAN, GTIN

Novices in self-publishing tend to get stuck on practical details such as how an ISBN is different from a copyright, and whether and why you should have both (and how many to purchase, from whom). Copyright has to do with who owns the right to copy (reproduce) various versions of a book (or another creative product). The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is important if you want to sell your book to the public. The ISBN is a product identifier, which helps booksellers (in stores or online) identify the product they want to order or sell, and also identifies the publisher of record. It may distinguish not only one book from another but various versions of the book from each other (e.g., hardcover, paperback, e-book--even by e-book format: ePub from mobi).

Authors about to self-publish for the first time often ask if they need an ISBN--and they do if they want to sell in the public marketplace. The question is: who gets the ISBN. Answer: The unit processing sales (typically the publisher or self-publisher). I'm a personal historian helping others tell their life stories; if a client of mine wants to sell his book, I have him get the ISBNs in his name, so he can process the orders (and find a place to store the books).

For self-publishers who use CreateSpace to publish a print-on-demand edition of a book, if you use CreateSpace's free ISBN, you are making CreateSpace the publisher of record. If you later issue a POD edition through Lightning Source, you will need a new ISBN for that edition, which could confuse readers (and you will want to unpublish the CreateSpace edition). Certainly if you want to sell books to bookstores you need your own ISBN--they're unlikely to buy books through Amazon, which offers no bookseller's discount and competes fiercely with booksellers. You will also want to purchase bar codes, so bookstores can scan the bar code when someone buys a copy of the book, and get a Library of Congress catalog card number.

I've put together these links to good explanations so those not in the know can work their way toward a fuller understanding of what to do and why, how, and when to do it.
ISBN FAQ (frequently asked questions)
International ISBN Agency
A concise guide to book industry product identifiers (more…)