ISBN is for International Standard Book Number, issued by a select agency in the nation where the publisher resides. You’re probably familiar with 10 or 13 digit ISBNs appearing on the copyright page or above the barcode on the back of a print version book. The barcode just identifies the ISBN and may or may not include a price.
Even though ISBN is a number corresponding to a book, it has more to do with the publisher and edition than the title and author. For example, the same ebook could have several ISBNs for different retailers selling it, and it would need another ISBN for a paperback version and yet another for a hardcover or audio book. A separate version is needed for the ePub file compared to the mobi file. Or if you change the trim size of a paperback, like from 5 x 8 inches to 6 x 9 inches, it will need a new ISBN.
The main exceptions are for reprintings or minor updates, which do not need new ISBNs. In most cases you don’t need a new ISBN for title, metadata, cover or price changes. Since it’s an international designation there are varying aspects from nation to nation, so your situation may differ from an author in another country. In a nutshell, if your book is to be sold through a retailer, it needs an ISBN to identify the publisher and edition.
However, many retailers don’t require you to provide an ISBN. Amazon, for instance, assigns its own version called an ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number). Amazon currently doesn’t list an ISBN on the product page even if you provide one, though you can find specific titles there by searching for the ISBN number. If you provide an ISBN to Barnes & Noble, you’ll be required to make it specifically for NOOK. Barnes & Noble support said this when asked about ISBNs: NOOK Press does not check the Bowker status or title assignment of an ISBN that is submitted to a NOOK Press Project. If you choose to enter an ISBN for a Project in your NOOK Press account, that ISBN will be displayed in your sales report, and is not used for any other purpose. Kobo says: You will still be able to publish your book on Kobo without an ISBN and sell in over 190 countries worldwide as we will issue our own identifier number when it goes on our site.
Since most retailers don’t require you to provide an ISBN for ebooks, they’ll assign a unique one at no charge. The main catch is, depending on the retailer, you may not be listed as the publisher. In the cases of Smashwords and CreateSpace, accepting their free ISBNs will list them as the publisher, not you. You’ll still be listed as the author of course, but if you wanted your name or publishing imprint to be listed as publisher, you’ll usually need to purchase and provide your own. A few retailers, like Kobo, have certain distribution partners that may not receive your book without a provided ISBN.
This decision divides authors based on specifics, goals and finances. Some authors insist on providing ISBNs while others have never paid for one. Another author might purchase an ISBN for one title (or retailer) but not for another. It’s up to you as there are several ways to manage this. Fortunately your book can be successful regardless of how you handle ISBNs.
If you decide to buy one or a pack of ISBNs, check with your nation for the agency that distributes them. You can get more info at the International ISBN Agency: https://www.isbn-international.org/. In the United States and Australia, R.R. Bowker is the exclusive ISBN agency. Prices start at $125 for a single ISBN, $295 for a 10-pack, $575 for a 100-pack and $1,000 for 1,000. As you can imagine, an author with several titles existing in a few formats uploaded to multiple retailers might need more than 10 ISBNs, so going this route can get expensive. Even if you only have one book but plan to sell at multiple retailers and make print or audio versions, then you may want several ISBNs.
Whether or not to purchase ISBNs has been debated since free was an option. The main benefit to purchasing an ISBN is to have your name or publishing imprint listed as the publisher instead of Smashwords or CreateSpace or whichever company supplies your book with a free ISBN. Your book will also have some additional distribution and search-ability factors, though these things are changing rapidly.
In my opinion ISBNs will be most useful to authors who plan to aggressively market print versions (paperback or hardcover) to large bookstores. Ebooks really don’t need an ISBN assigned by you because the retailers each have their own way of handling it and will additionally assign their own numbers. If you decide to purchase ISBNs for ebooks, you may need or decide to use a unique one for Amazon and Barnes & Noble while clustering Apple, Google and many other retailers under one ISBN.
Smashwords, the world’s largest ebook distributor, sends your book to multiple channels. Smashwords allows you to use your own ISBN or to use one of theirs for free. Vendors like Smashwords and CreateSpace purchase enormous amounts of ISBNs from Bowker at $1 apiece. That’s why these companies can offer you an ISBN for free.
Should you buy ISBNs?
If you plan to aggressively market print versions (paperback or hardcover) to large bookstores, then yes. Consider buying ISBNs.
If you are seriously promoting your brand, name, or publishing company or publishing imprint, then yes. Consider buying ISBNs. (A single publishing company may have multiple imprints, with the different imprints used by the publisher to market works to various demographic consumer segments.)
If you believe the initial costs of ISBNs will be offset by additional sales resulting from select distribution partners and search-ability via ISBN, then consider buying ISBNs.
For most other authors, especially those on a tight budget, the freely assigned ISBNs are a great choice. (I have never paid for an ISBN, but that’s just one author’s choice.)
What about Print Books?
If you get to the point of making print versions, either paperbacks or hardcovers, then ISBNs will be more important to consider. For those on a budget there are still free ISBN solutions from companies like CreateSpace, Amazon’s print-on-demand publisher. CreateSpace gives you 4 options of ISBNs, from free to $10 to $99, or you can provide your own. Each option has slightly different features, but with any of them your paperback can be available for purchase in many parts of the world.
There’s a myth that says you need to buy an ISBN and list yourself or publishing imprint as the publisher to be successful. Not true. Many incredibly successful indie authors have published with free ISBNs including Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath.
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