Learning how to buy an ISBN number is an important beginning to publishing your own books. It's not difficult--and I'm going to take the guesswork out of it for you in this article. I did it for my books after reading a handful of articles. Hopefully this one article is all you'll need!
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Many readers overlook the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) on the back cover of a book, but in the world of book selling it's paramount. (Try calling a bookstore that can order your book; the first thing the salesperson will ask is, "What's the ISBN?") While many other books could have the same title as yours, none will have the same ISBN.
In the world of self-publishing, the big debate is whether you should buy your own ISBN, even if your printer, distributor, or vanity press is offering to buy it for you. Often these companies are charging low fees or offering ISBNs for free, making it tempting to do so.
But many self-publishers believe it's worth the extra effort to buy the ISBN on your own -- and they say that in some cases buying one through someone else might actually harm your chance of distribution.
Here is the ISBN for the paperback edition of my novel Come Find Me. To the far right, you can see the list price of $14.95 embedded in the numbers.
Why Do You Need an ISBN?
An ISBN is either a 10- or 13-digit identifying number. (This is different from the Amazon Standard Identification Number, or ASIN.) If you plan to sell your book through book distribution channels (e.g., online or brick-and-mortar stores), you must have one. The ISBN is used for tracking sales of your book and to catalog it. It's also the number used to report your sales back to your distributor, who will in turn pay you.
But if you're producing books for a more private or limited usage, you don't. For instance, if you're writing a corporate training manual for distribution to a company's staff, or a fundraiser cookbook for your local school.
Who Sells ISBNs?
A company called Bowker does, as well as few authorized resellers. But, they're not cheap. A single ISBN now costs $125. The best deal is to buy ten ISBNs, currently priced at $250 total. The reason is that you will need a separate ISBN for each edition of your book--in other words, one for your paperback, one for your hardback, one for your ebook, etc.
Here's an article from Bowker about why you need one.
Why Not Get A Free ISBN?
Companies offering publishing services to authors often give "free" ISBNs as part of their publishing package. If you're on a really tight budget, only to plan to publish one edition of your book, or don't want to be seen as an indie publishing company in your own right, this may be the way to go.
But if you're looking to establish yourself independently in the book publishing world, it's worth the money to get yours directly from Bowker. The ISBN includes a "publisher identifier," and if you get yours through a publishing services company, the "publisher" of record will be that company and not you.
That said, many authors do publish books using, for instance, the "free" ISBN from companies like CreateSpace. That doesn't mean that CreateSpace has any ownership rights to the books, or that it can alter the book's contents. However, keep in mind that an ISBN from a company connected to a specific bookstore could be a turn-off to competing booksellers. For instance, CreateSpace is owned by Amazon.com. Rumor has it that some booksellers won't want to carry a book if CreateSpace is listed as the publisher of record.
Another Perk of Buying Your Own ISBN
When you register your book with Bowker, you can also enter lots of information about it (metadata) into the Bowker system. The ISBN gets your book included for free in Books In Print, the world's largest book catalog, which is available not only to booksellers but libraries. Your ISBN record will also get a free online listing in the Books In Print database called Bookwire, which you can find on the Web.
How Hard Is It to Buy ISBN from Bowker?
Not hard at all -- but it does take some time and technical skill. The first time around, set aside an hour to become familiar with the web site. You can purchase your single ISBN or block of ten ISBNs, then set up the titles later.
What Do the Numbers in the ISBN Mean?
The best explanation comes from Joel Friedlander of The Book Designer web site. Here's a link to his article "How to read an ISBN."
Do you have a question about how to buy an ISBN number?
Let me know and I'll try to answer it.