ISBNs as Opposed to ICBMs

You’ve paid for professional editing, a great cover, a stunning interior layout and who knows what else in your quest to publish. You aren’t done paying, though, because now you need an ISBN. Probably several. But don’t despair! Free options exist, and this guide will, I hope, help you determine what’s best for your book.

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number and represents a 13-digit code unique to every book, in each of its published formats, in the world. Originally introduced as a 9-digit code in 1965, the format was expanded to 10-digits in 1970 and grew to its current length in 2007. For all of the gritty technical details, check out the Wikipedia entry.

Most of the details are irrelevant, but here are the facts you need to know:

If you only plan to publish on Amazon’s Kindle eBook platform, you do not need an ISBN at all. In most other cases, you will. You’ll also need to obtain an ISBN for each individual format you plan to publish in.  Paperback and ePub versions of the same book, for example, each require a unique ISBN, and you can still choose to assign a unique ISBN to a Kindle book if you want to.

Each country that uses ISBNs has an authorized distributor. You can find the list here. Prices and fine-print will vary by country.  In the US, the distributor is R.R. Bowker, and prices range from $125 for an individual ISBN to $1 each in lots of 1,000. Yes, this is racket. A 10-pack costs $250 and may represent the best trade-off for an indie author planning to publish a series.

I hope it goes without saying that a bar code is not an ISBN and vice versa. An ISBN is only valid if issued through your country’s affiliate, and a bar code is just a machine-readable representation of that specific 13-digit number. In other words, you can’t roll your own.

Some distribution services, such as Smashwords, will issue your ISBNs for free (they buy them in huge lots, and so pay next to nothing for them). This may be all you need, but there is one important caveat to keep in mind. If your ISBNs are provided by a distributor, the distributor will be listed as the publisher in Bowker’s Books in Print. This doesn’t grant the distributor any rights to your book, but it may not be ideal for your branding and may add a complication if you decide to stop using the distributor. Still, if you want to publish quickly and cheaply, this is probably the way to go.

If you purchase your ISBNs through Bowker, you’ll be able to manage and assign them to different titles and formats via their website, which is fairly straightforward. Keep in mind, though, that your name and address will be listed as the publisher in Books in Print, and that could be a privacy concern for an indie. In most cases, you’ll want to be contacted by the types of people who will see your listing in Books in Print (agents, book stores, etc.) but if you don’t want your home address listed, consider investing in a PO Box.

Finally, if you intend to have your book’s cover professionally designed (a good idea), you’ll need to have an ISBN ready at that time so the designer can create a bar code for the back. If you’re only doing an eBook, the ISBN won’t be on the cover and you can wait until later in the process to acquire one.

TL;DR:  If you are publishing a novel, you’re going to need ISBNs if you intend to distribute widely. You may find that that the free ISBNs provided by major distributors are adequate for your needs. Otherwise, plan on paying around $25 each for ISBNs in lots of 10. One 10-pack should provide enough numbers to publish 2-3 books in several formats, and they never expire so there is no rush to use them.

Thanks for reading! If you find any problems with the information above, or would like to add to the conversation, please comment below.


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