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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 (ISBN-13 Task Force of the Book Industry Study Group, Inc., IBPA), on EAN, ISBN, GTIN)
U.S. ISBN Agency (Bowker) and helpful links (ISBN user manual, how to convert 10-digit ISBNs to 13-digit ISBNs, etc.)
FAQs for British ISBNs (Nielsen, the British counterpart of Bowker, for ISBNs)
The Canadian ISBN Service (for books for the Canadian market) issues free ISBNs.
ISBN Converter (Library of Congress)
Bowker EAN Bookland Barcodes ($25 gets you a barcode for your print books)
Placing an ISBN barcode block on your book cover (Yaquin Press)
Summary of study of ISBNs and e-books and SPAN's blog responseWhat does the study mean? (posted 1-6-11 -- read these before getting an ISBN for your e-books)
Barcoding Guidelines for the United States (Book Industry Study Group, BISC)
ISBN history
Things You Need to Know About ISBN Numbers (Miral Sitar interviews Laura Dawson of Bowker, BiblioCrunch, 12-10-12) Did you know that having an ISBN number ups your rank in Google? That you do need a separate ISBN for an epublication?
Getting an ISBN and Companies that will submit certain ISBN applications to the US ISBN Agency (Bowker's list)
How to get your Book Added to Bowkers Books In Print
Authors: How to Get Your LCCN (Library of Congress Number) (Judith Briles, AuthorU). You can get an LCCN if you are self-publishing under your own publishing name, but not if you are publishing through a vanity press. You need an LCCN if you want libraries to buy your book.

As publishers and online sellers compete, they've had to work through how specialized an ISBN should get -- should a Nook version of a book have a different ISBN from a Kindle version, for example? What about American and British editions, and so on.
E-book ISBN Mess Needs Sorting Out, Say UK Publishers (Liz Bury, Publishing Perspectives, 3-11-10)
Here some Goodreads Librarians discuss problems that arise because publishers don't necessarily distinguish between various British and American etc. editions
ISBNs (International Book Number System) for Books, Software, Mixed Media etc (Self-Publishing and Print on Demand page,Writers and Editors)

Global Indie Author series on ISBNs and the Self-Publisher
(Michelle A. Demers)
1. The ISBN System
2. How to Purchase an ISBN
3. What's in a Number (what the numbers in an ISBN mean)
4. The Hidden Cost of Free ISBNs
5. The Advantages (and a Few Disadvantages) of Owning Your ISBN 7-20-11
6. ISTC and ONIX for Books 7-24-11


Originally published July 16, 2013. Updated Nov. 30, 2013.