Wednesday, March 5, 2014

ISBNs and the Self Publisher

by Janis Patterson
I have never been good with decisions. To see me at one of those 50-flavor ice cream places is downright painful.

So what do 50 flavors of ice cream have to do with writing? A lot of us are self-pubbing now. I am bringing out my backlist and, quite frankly, it is a lot more overwhelming than I had expected. Not impossible, not even particularly difficult – it’s just that there are so many little details and so many decisions.

Print? Electronic? Audio? Type faces, content of front and back matter, covers… all these and a gazillion other things require decisions, not the least of which is the ISBN question.

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. ISBNs are the global standard for identifying and tracking titles, both for potential sales and sales reports. They can be used for both electronic and paper books. You can publish a book without an ISBN. Amazon, Barnes and Noble and some others both use their own identification numbers rather than ISBNs. On the other hand, you must have an ISBN to be listed in major distribution catalogs such as Ingram’s. It seems each distributor/seller has its own rules, but all allow you to have your own ISBN, whether they choose to use it or not.

Canadians (lucky stiffs!) get their ISBNs free. In the States we have to get ours through Bowker’s and Bowker’s only – yes, it is a monopoly. We also have pay for them, pay being the operative word. One ISBN purchased singly costs $125.00. Yikes! On the other hand, you can get 10 for $250.00, which brings the price down to $25.00 each – a much more reasonable price. Or you can get 100 for $575.00, which makes each number $5.75 each – even better – if you can stand the initial bite. And be honest – how many self-pubbers will put out 100 books? Yes, I know there are some – I know some personally – but most of us won’t. However, there’s no penalty for buying more than you ever use, and $5.75 each is a great price. Of course, the more you buy (up into the thousands) brings the price even lower, I think down to less than $1 each, but let’s keep this real, huh?

I bought 10 the first time, but I’m almost out of numbers already, so the next time I think it’s going to be the 100 package. Hopefully. If I can afford it.

So – on to practicalities. Why should you pay money for an ISBN? (If you live in the States – you Canadians can rest for a while.) As stated, the two major electronic retailers don’t require an ISBN and don’t even use them on their sites. If you intend to publish only electronically, you can do it without an ISBN. Whether you should or not is another matter.

Electronic or print, Smashwords (and I think some others) will give you a free ISBN if you publish through them. Their ISBNs come from Bowkers and will get your printed book into the major catalogues. The only drawback to a ‘free’ Smashwords ISBN is that if you use one, Smashwords will be listed as publisher. Forever, or at least as long as that edition is active. It will also show in that books’s publishing history. Remember – forever. Also, I’ve heard some chatter – third hand gossip, so take it for what it’s worth – that some distribution places don’t like/won’t handle book with a Smashwords ISBN.

Quite frankly. I am a control freak. If I am going to go through the time and trouble and expense of writing and self-publishing a book, I don’t want any name on it but mine. With no disrespect to Smashwords or any other company/consortium/whatever that will give you a free ISBN, we don’t know what the laws will be in fifteen or twenty years. This is my book and I want it that way in perpetuity.

Now – how many ISBNs should each work have? Bowker’s recommends that each edition have a separate number. That means one for .epub, one for .mobi, one for .pdf, one for whatever other format there is. Remember, Bowker’s sells ISBNs, so they want you to use a lot of them.

General wisdom now says one ISBN per delivery system is fine – that is, one for electronic formats, one for each edition of print format (hardback, paperback, large print, etc) and one for audio format. There is logic for having different ones for each print different format – if you do your first release in mass market paperback, for example, and then decide to bring out a new edition in trade or in large print, that newer edition would require another ISBN. Remember, ISBNs are both trackers and identifiers, so you’d want to know the difference in how your print books are selling in each format.

Buying and registering your ISBNs is easy – just a matter of going to Bowker’s My Identifiers page ( ), ordering and giving them money with a credit card. Just remember to be very very careful when recording and using your new numbers – one little typo can foul things up royally!

Self-publishing is a brave new world, one where the author is pretty much on equal footing with all the big boys. I think we should act like it and be professional by using our own ISBNs.


Morgan Mandel said...

When I first self-published through Lightning Source, I purchased ISBNs through Bowker, and still have some I haven't used.

Now that I'm retired, and also since it's easier, I use the ones provided by Amazon and Smashwords. I like easy and free.

Victoria Adams said...

Thank you for explaining this.