Should You Buy Your Own ISBN Numbers?

Your book’s ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is the 10 or 13 digit number assigned to every published book, and identifies things like edition, publisher and physical properties. Each particular edition of any published book has to have its own unique number, so you can’t use the same number if you choose to republish an already published book. The new book must have its own new number. I have seen writers on various forums claim that they’ve used the same ISBN number for both their paperback and their eBook versions, but if they did indeed get away with that they shouldn’t have. A quick squiz at Bowker’s rules (internationally applicable) will show quite clearly that a separate ISBN number is required for each format as well. eBook, audiobook, paperback and hardback. Getting even more picky, you could have MOBI and ePub versions published on different platforms. You could end up needing a whole pile of ISBN numbers for the same book. They aren’t cheap unless bought in bulk though, and many self-published authors would rather spend that money on other aspects of publishing and marketing. So how important is purchasing ISBN numbers for the Indie writer?

CreateSpace will supply a free ISBN number to each edition of any paper book that you publish with them. The only “drawback” to this is that they are listed as the book’s publisher on its landing page. CreateSpace isn’t named as publisher in the actual paperback – all you’ll see there is Made in the USA, Charleston, SC, and the date of publication. Very few purchasers will take note of this, or have any sort of clue what it signifies. You are not allowed to list any publishing imprint if you use a free ISBN from CreateSpace. You can if you buy one through them for $99, or you can purchase and supply your own. You can purchase ISBNs from Bowker in the USA or Nielsen in the UK.

Amazon doesn’t care at all whether or not you buy and supply your own ISBN number. They use the ASIN numbers that they assign anyway. The good thing about that is that you can assign your own publisher name both in your eBook and also on its landing page while still using only an Amazon ASIN number.

It is much nicer to have your own ISBN numbers, and to be able to list your publishing imprint on CreateSpace books, but absolutely not necessary if you can’t afford it, or are just starting out in the industry. At a later date you can publish a new edition with your own number if you choose to. CreateSpace and Amazon being listed as the publishers of the book has absolutely no effect on your copyright. Copyright only has to be legally registered in too few countries around the world to mention. The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works has us covered anyway. Unless you intentionally sign a contract handing over your copyright it is owned by you.

If you want to try and sell your books in bookstores and go for a printer like Lightning Source then you must have your own ISBN, but be aware also that books sold this way must be heavily discounted and you must make provision for returned books too, so unless you’re pretty sure of knockout sales this way, think twice.

So, the final breakdown as far as I can see is that if you can comfortably afford to buy your own ISBNs then do, but if you can’t then don’t worry about it at all. CreateSpace free issues and Amazon’s ASINs are perfectly respectable and the sort of thing that most readers won’t notice.

Books
Image Courtesy Pixabay

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42 thoughts on “Should You Buy Your Own ISBN Numbers?”

  1. Thanks, Jo. In some countries it seems bookshops won’t accept books unless they have “proper” ISBNs but although I buy my own (I bought in bulk quite a few) I haven’t noticed a particular advantage to it. In theory you appear in their catalogues and numbers and your book might get more exposure. In some places they are free it seems…

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    1. Some people are still adamant that Indie is second class. It’s interesting to see how different people react when you have a publisher – even if it’s a tiny home run imprint with two authors on its books. Do you buy the bulk lots using your own imprint or name Olga?

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  2. Two things here I would consider not accurate. If you use your own ISBN, you do not necessarily have to offer big wholesale discounts and you do not have to accept returns. Both are preferred by bricks-and-mortar stores, but do not necessarily bar the books from purchase. Physical stores generally won’t stock any but heavy-demand books from indie publishers and authors, so if customers are going to order them through in-store kiosks anyway, discount and returnability aren’t relevant. Our experience at Fresh Ink Group is that bigger discounts and accepting returns do not increase shelf-stocking anywhere near enough to justify that investment. When we have a hit seller, they order it to satisfy demand no matter what. When we have slow sellers, they do better with the lower pricing small discounts and no-return status support. Thanks for an interesting post.

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    1. Thank you Stephen. What I said was that if you use a distributor like Lightning Source to print your books you need to purchase your own ISBN’s. You’re right about the brick and mortar stores mainly going for the in-demand books, but it is important to be aware that if you do get one of them to stock any of your books on their shelves you are going to have to be prepared for them to be returned if they don’t sell. It does happen, although mostly as you say – the problem never comes up because they order the already selling books instead. 🙂

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      1. Right on. When we stopped accepting returns, we saw no difference in ordering. I had a frank talk with the buyers at a couple of big chain stores and a couple of big indie stores. All more or less told me the numbers of new releases coming out now would require warehouse-sized facilities just to try stocking a single copy of everything, so the days of ordering a few of nearly everything in the catalogs are gone–no room to display them and no staff time to inventory and return them. So, for indies and other smaller publishers, we have to create the demand from customers ordering them online, at kiosks, or in person by asking. Then the bookstores order. Then returnability is not a factor like it used to be, certainly not an absolute barrier. The only time it’s been even a discussion is when we do book signings in a book store. Non-returnability has caused them to be careful about predicting the amount of books expected to sell, which we have solved by suggesting conservative ordering with the author having a few boxfuls handy in case of higher demand. Then the store replaces the overage supplied by author, or buys from author, or goes off the ledger and lets the author retain all profit from that portion of sales (surprisingly, this more often) as they happily pocket the profit from their own order and appreciate the traffic. I just wanted to point out that returnability is not only not a requirement, but lately has become not so much a barrier at all for us. Note, too: Lightning Source has a returns program for a couple of dollars a book, but then they destroy the book. So, that option is available, but certainly not desirable. Thanks for the great discussion, Jo. Your posts are valuable!

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        1. Sounds like you’re doing fabulous work for your authors Stephen! That’s really good to know too, about how brick and mortar can work for Indies in this day and age. I suppose, as you say, with the sheer volume of books available things have to change. Thanks to you Stephen – great chat, and always great to learn more.

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  3. Here in New Zealand, ISBN’s are issued by the National Library, free on request to New Zealanders – although authors do have to indicate the reasons. That need to have a different ISBN for each edition isn’t often realised. When setting up a publisher to reissue older books of mine that Penguin had declined to keep in print, I asked for a substantial block of them – and got them – because I figured I might need three or four for each title, depending on how they were issued.

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    1. Thank you Matthew. That’s great. do they issue the blocks without the book titles over there? They’re free here to, but there’s quite a bit of postage expense because copies have to be sent to a couple of National Libraries depositories.

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  4. National Library of Australia (NLA) – “An ISBN is not mandatory, and does not provide copyright on a work. It used internationally across the book trade and library sector.” https://www.nla.gov.au/the-australian-isbn-agency
    NLA refers to Thorpe-Bowker Identifier Services (T-BIS)
    https://www.myidentifiers.com.au/ “[T-BIS] is the only official ISBN Agency in Australia.” Sgl ISBN = $44; 10 ISBN + 1 barcode = $133.
    Barcode for print book.

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  5. Some excellent advice. However, I believe Createspace offers an option for a $10 Custom ISBN, which will enable you to list whichever publisher you wish as the publisher of record. These are purchased through Bowkers. You might check with Createspace on that.

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    1. Just checked, and unfortunately they are NOT offering the $10 custom ISBN any longer. So that pretty much leaves tou with only two choices, if you wish to avoid listing Createspace as the publisher of record. I guess nothing lasts forever except “Old Fords and a natural stone,” with thanks to Willie Nelson.

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  6. In my cartoon book I listed createspace as my publisher by my instructions to them. Was going to have local printer manufacture my books too and they give free ISBN # listing me as self published. I would rather go with print on demand so I don’t have to warehouse copies and sell on my own.

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