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Writers and Editors (RSS feed)

Here's the deal with ISBNs: A note to authors who self-publish

guest post by Maggie Lynch


ISBNs are required with print books, unless you are only selling direct (out of your car or from your website) and not distributing anywhere else. ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. ISBNs are used all over the world as a unique identifier for your printed book. Think of it like your book passport. The unique ISBN number carries a lot of information--the area where your book was created (e.g., North America), the language of your book (e.g., English), the name of the publisher name issuing the ISBN, a mathematically calculated identifier for your book that includes the title, the format, and edition number. And finally a check digit to ensure it is unique.

That last part of the identifier (title, format, and edition number) is also a cue as to what you can and can't change without getting a new ISBN. If you change your title, your format (ebook, paperback, hardback, large print, audiobook), or do a new edition you will need a new ISBN number. If you are re-issuing a book where you have received rights back from a traditional publisher, you will need a new ISBN number.


It used to be that ISBNs were required for ebooks. Amazon was the first company not to require them, coming up with their own inventory system (ASINs). Amazon assigns the ASIN once you load your book for sale. I can't remember when the other major distributors stopped requiring them, maybe six years ago or so.

So, a lot of people ask why should I buy an ISBN for an ebook? The answer for me is tracking.

Certainly, you can let each distribution entity assign an ISBN or use their own inventory control system for your books. All the major ebook distributors and aggregators (D2D, Smashwords, Publish Drive, etc.) no longer require you to have an ISBN. However, it makes it a lot harder to track your book's distribution from one distributor to another if you don't. It also makes it difficult to track how a widespread promotion is working over various distributors because they each have a different number assigned to your book. Finally, for those who are career authors building a brand for their publishing imprint, when you use the ISBN offered by Amazon or Ingram or Lulu or whoever you use for self-publishing, it is their name associated with your book on that ISBN, not yours.


On print books, IMO, it is even more important that you control your ISBN for the following reasons:

• You have complete control over what is entered in your book's metadata—that is, the descriptions and categories, the keywords and editorial 'pull quotes'. All of these help libraries, bookstores, retailers, and readers around the world discover your book and decide whether they want to purchase it. In today's digital world, your book's metadata can hugely impact its chances of being found and purchased by your target audience. When you own the ISBN you can get in and change this metadata whenever you want. (For ebooks, this is not as a big a deal because when loading to ebook retailers you are already filling out all that metadata information online.)

• As you are the publisher of record, your ISBN will remain unchanged even if you change your publishing service company or publish with multiple companies. If you decide to do a second edition (something often done with nonfiction books) you again have complete control over taking the first edition off sale or leaving it, and tying the two books together.

• Any individual bookstore or organization with larger orders or inquiries about your book will approach you as the publisher of record rather than a publishing service company (e.g., Amazon,, Ingram, Book Baby, LuLu, Books Fluent, etc.) that may not have your sense of urgency or care about how to respond to these requests. For me, I'd rather be approached directly instead of through a publishing service company.


Since shifting from traditional publishing to becoming a publisher myself, I have always purchased my own ISBNs because I've always looked at the long game for my career. However, for those who are only publishing a single book or perhaps plan two or three in their lifetime, using the free ISBN provided by a distributor or publishing services company is perfectly fine with very little downside.


You can purchase ISBNs at any time and then use them as you need them. The key is to complete the information needed once the book is released.


For example, I purchase 100 ISBNs at a time for my imprint. Because purchasing ISBNs can be expensive (i.e., $125 to purchase one or $275 to purchase ten) it is best to purchase more instead of one at a time. Some years, we have enough authors publishing that I use all 100 in a year. Other times it has taken two to three years to use all 100 before I make my next purchase.


On the other hand, if you are only writing one book, it may be beneficial to use the free ISBN provided by most distributors  (Ingram Spark, Amazon, D2D and many other print and ebook distributors will provide a free ISBN under their name.)


What's your experience?


Maggie Lynch




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