ISBN: Every Novel Needs One

BowkerWhen you are in the process of independently publishing your novel, you need to make a decision if you are going to own the ISBN of your book, becoming the novel’s official publisher, or if you are going to use a “free” ISBN from the Print-on-Demand company. There are reasons for going free or for starting your own imprint.

What is an ISBN?

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is an identification system that was developed in the 1970s for paper bound books. It can be used for inventory control, sales tracking and order processing by booksellers, wholesalers, libraries and universities. Originally it was a 10 digit code that helped to distinguish between books with the same title or different editions of the same book, be it fiction or non-fiction. Each edition of every book was given its own ISBN number to aid in this process. In 2007, the ISBN number expanded to 13 digits that are divided by hyphens creating five different identifying parts.

Prefix – A three digit number that identifies the book industry.
Country – These next set of numbers indicates which country the book was published in.
Publisher – Every publishing company bears its own unique code.
Title – Every book and edition of a particular title has its own code.
Check Digit – This solitary digit at the end of the ISBN validates the number. Usually it is the letter X, the roman numeral for 10.

When you look at any book that is for sale commercially, on the back cover you see not only the ISBN, but a barcode and the book’s suggested price. Today, not only paper bound books have ISBNs, but ebooks do as well. Each distributor that sells your ebook will require a new ISBN number for your novel. You will need different one for Amazon, Smashwords, iTunes, Kobo and any other commercial venue you wish to sell your ebook. Think of each of these sales points as a “new edition” for your ebook.

There are 160 companies that handle the assigning of ISBNs worldwide. Their jurisdiction is based on the country the book is being published in. In the United States, that company is Bowker. The process to apply is done online with delivery in around 15 days. There is a $20 processing fee in addition to purchasing the ISBN. ISBN starts at $125 for the first one, or you can purchase a block of ten for $250. Bowker will also create a barcode of your ISBN for an additional fee, although there are programs that can do that for you if you end up buying a large number of ISBNs that will be used in print books.

Once you have created your imprint within Bowker and have assigned ISBNs to your upcoming books, each edition should be listed with Bowker’s Books In Print, a database and directory of all current and upcoming books. This is the main directory used by libraries, schools, booksellers and other institutions to search for and pre-order books.

Why Purchase Your Novel’s ISBN?

Many independent authors are on a tight budget and decide that because the various ebook distributors offer “free” ISBN numbers for their books and short stories, that is the best way for them to publish their book. After all, who cares what name is in the “publishers” section of the book when purchasing an ISBN is a hundred dollars or more? In the short term, this statement is correct. If you are looking to publish one book and then move on to something else, creating your own publishing imprint is probably not for you. This would also apply if you are creating in-house manuals for your business, a cookbook collection for your small club, or perhaps a genealogy book for your family. ISBN is an additional expense that will give you little short term benefit.

If you are an author who plans to have a stable of books under your name and to gain income from them for the next few decades, then there are additional aspects to consider.

Let us say you have a finished writing a novel and you don’t want to take on the expense of purchasing your ISBNs for the various online distribution points.

To save upfront money, you publish your book as an ebook instead of also creating a printed version. You proceed to distribute your ebook on Amazon which assigns it an ASIN (Amazon Product Code). Next, you distribute your ebook on Barnes & Noble, which gives it a B&N product code. Kobo will give your ebook a “free” ISBN, but Kobo will be listed as the book’s publisher. Finally, you distribute on Smashwords and once more the ebook is assigned a new ISBN, but the ebook will now list Smashwords as the publisher instead of yourself. With the exception of Smashwords, which does put the ISBN into the actual ebook, none of these distribution companies identifiers will be in your book.

Twenty years pass by. Let us suppose that Barnes and Noble and Smashwords have gone out of business. Amazon decides to change their in-house product codes and no longer uses ASIN numbers. Perhaps Amazon decides to not provide a searchable database for their discontinued ASIN products. Kobo, which owns the ISBN on your ebook, updates the information about your book in a way that is not to your liking. However, because they own the ISBN number, it is the only record of your book “in print”.

As you can see, owning your novel’s ISBNs can be critical in the long haul. By purchasing your ISBNs and creating your own small imprint, you can retain control over the information of your books in the long term.

Final Word

There are ways to gain the advantages of using “free” ISBNs and also purchasing ISBNs. When you are first starting out as a new imprint, you might want to consider juggling your novels and short stories imprint status to keep your initial ISBN block purchase only for your larger works. It is possible to use the free ISBNs that the companies offer you at first to save on startup costs and then “republish” your novel later with your own ISBN. Perhaps you are planning on doing a cover change after your book has been out a time, that would be a good time to pull out a new ISBN and assign it to your book. Another example is with short stories. Perhaps you decide to publish a few of your short stories as singles on Amazon, but later want to put a group of them into a book collection. You can use the free ISBNs from Amazon for the singles and then use your own ISBN for the collection at a later time. You’ll be covered both in the short term and in the long that way.

Using the ISBN system takes time and patience. Give yourself time to learn about the database and what it has to offer. It is my view that the ISBN system is here to stay. Having your books listed in the Bowker Books In Print database under your own imprint is well worth the time and money in the long view.

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7 thoughts on “ISBN: Every Novel Needs One”

  1. Good advice. I think people are in such a rush to get their books out there that they don’t take the time to consider the long-term ramifications of using the free identification numbers.

  2. Thank you for this, It is so helpful. I have been researching about self publishing my book, I want to be well informed before. I rush into anything. This is the first helpful post I have read about ISBNs so thank you again. I will defenintly share.

  3. Wow, thank you for this advice. I did not realize how important it is to purchase the ISBN and I never considered the “what-if” scenarios associated with it. I will take and apply your advice.

    1. I’m glad to have been of help. ISBN is confusing and takes much research. But as Douglas Adams said: “Don’t Panic.” Even if you don’t purchase the ISBN at first, you can go back and correct it later if you feel it is beneficial to you. Good luck with your books. :)

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