Friday, December 31, 2010

Do I Need An ISBN?

With the number of self-published books exceeding the number of traditionally published books, it behooves us to discuss ISBNs. As you know, an ISBN is a unique identifier for books. That sounds simple enough, but not all books need an ISBN and some books have multiple ISBNs. As an author considering self-publishing, you may have the choice of using your own ISBN or using someone else’s. There isn’t a simple answer that applies to all people, so let’s look at it.

The Opinion of Enthusiasts

When I first considered self-publishing, I did my research. In other words, I went online and I read some web pages. I found several people who were of the opinion that you really couldn’t call yourself a publisher until you have your own ISBN. In fact, they were very adamant about it. So, before we go any farther, I’m going to say that if you are a self-publishing enthusiast you wants the full experience of self-publishing, by all means, go purchase your block of ISBNs. But for the rest of you, being the registrant of your own ISBNs is not cheap and it requires more effort. You should really give it some thought.

ISBNs for Free

If you’ve chosen to use a vanity press, the ISBN is part of the package, though I should point out that some vanity presses offer a very cheap package that may not include an ISBN because they have no intention of selling the books to stores. Even companies like CreateSpace which has some packages that are printing only packages have ISBNs available. In fact, by default, CreateSpace will add an ISBN/barcode to the back of your book if you do not use your own. That is true even of their no cost options. So, there is really no reason for authors who want their books published to worry about ISBNs, other than they want to make sure that whatever company they go with assigns an ISBN to their books. If they don’t, the book will not appear on or any other major bookstore.

The Cost of ISBNs

As I said before, ISBNs are not cheap. Granted, ISBNs can cost you as little as $1 each or even less, but that’s only if you buy at least 1,000. The problem is that you cannot register for an ISBN without paying at least $125. $125 per ISBN seems like a lot of money. Well, you can buy a block of 10 for $250, bringing the cost to $25 per ISBN. If that still seems high, you can purchase 100 for $575 or $5.75 per ISBN. If all you want is to get your book in print, $125 seems like a lot to pay for a number you could get free from someone else.

The Benefits

But having your own ISBN is not without its benefits. As the publisher of record, you have the option of moving your book to a different printer. Have it with CreateSpace and want to move to LightningSource? You can do that. Is your POD book suddenly selling like hotcakes? Maybe you want to send it out to an offset printer so you can make more money from the sales. And there is also the issue of association. One of the big arguments for the self-publisher having his own ISBNs is that he or the company he has set up is listed as the publisher rather than a company known to be a self-publishing company. His book will be listed right alongside some other books that he would otherwise not be associated with. For example, a Christian novel could be listed right next to novel that falls within the much more erotic gay fiction category.

Suppose an author has decided that he wants to have his own ISBN. By doing so, he has not only cost himself more money, but he has increased his paperwork. If you go to CreateSpace with your print ready PDFs and upload it into their system, ISBN assignment takes place behind the scenes. But if you are the publisher of record, you are responsible for informing Bowker or whoever your country’s registration company is about the book with the ISBN. It’s the kind of stuff self-publishing enthusiasts love doing, but I think most authors would just as soon not have to mess with it.

How Many ISBNs Do I Need?

If you’ve decided you need your own ISBNs, there is the question of how many you need. Some books don’t need ISBNs at all. Minute books for an association, for example, don’t need an ISBN. You can assign one if you like, but since they aren’t usually sold in stores, all the association needs is a way to identify the book internally. That may be as simple as the year on the front. Books that you know will not be sold individually through stores do not require an ISBN. If the book is packaged with a product or if the only place they will be sold is at the back of the room when you speak, no ISBN is required. Only books that will be sold through brick-and-mortar and online stores need an ISBN.

Some books require more than one ISBN. In the world of ISBNs, every version of a book is treated as a different book. You can use multiple printers to print the same version and use the same ISBN, but if you have a paperback and a hardback version of the book, you will need a new ISBN. If you published your book before and have decided you want to publish a new edition, such as updating a chart with the latest figures, you will need a separate ISBN. You won’t necessarily make both versions available at the same time, but they need different ISBNs so there is no confusion about which one people are buying.


Do you need an ISBN? Being the publisher of record has some advantages, but it comes at a price that some books will never recover. Most authors who are considering self-publishing don’t need to have their own ISBNs, even though they need ISBNs on their books. If all you want is to have your book in print and available for sale, by all means, use the ISBN provided by your self-publishing company of choice. But if you are a self-publishing enthusiast or have a need for more control over your book, you may find that the benefits of having your own ISBN outweigh the costs.