Everything You Need to Know about ISBN for Your Independently Published Book (or E-book)

July 28, 2015

Some of the questions that I receive the most in regards to writing and publishing are about ISBNs for independently published books (and e-books). I get asked if it is important, why someone should purchase one, what are the pros and cons to this important decision, and everything in between! I hope today's post will help those of y'all that are at this stage of writing!

What is an ISBN?
An ISBN, or International Standard Book Number is an assigned "ID" book number in the book world. This 13 numeral digit clearly identifies not only the title, but the edition, binding, and publisher of the work that it is assigned to. 

ISBN originated in the United Kingdom but is now used world-wide. In the "pre-internet age" it was incredibly difficult to find any particular book and the ISBN helped answer this problem. Because book titles are not copyrighted ISBN makes it easy and accessible to not only find the correct edition of a book, but the exact format of a particular book.

Do I need an ISBN if I want my Independently Published Book in Bookstores?
Yes. If you plan to try to market your book to any bookstore that you will need to have an ISBN. In "book world" distributors, libraries, bookstores, and even wholesalers keep track of books simply by an ISBN.

Do I need an ISBN if I want my Independently Published Book to sell online (like Amazon)?
Yes. For the exact same reasons as the previous question you will need an ISBN if you plan to sell your book on Amazon.

Do I need to have a Publisher to have an ISBN?
If you are independently (or self-publishing) your book or E-book then technically "you" are the publisher so you would want to have an ISBN.

My POD (print on demand) Publisher Services company states that it doesn't matter if I use their assigned ISBN or obtain my own. Is this true?
Unfortunately no. The POD will try to tell you that it really doesn't matter whether or not you use their ISBN or if you go and purchase one of your own. (In fact some POD's will make it very enticing to not spend the money on purchasing your own ISBN. Unfortunately though this can cause a lot of issues. Whoever owns the ISBN will be the publisher of the book. Why does that matter? In essence you will have little rights over your own work. If in the future you ever want to move your book to a different publishing company then you will need to own the ISBN. If you are seriously wanting to be known as a published author, develop a reputation for writing, etc. then you will want to purchase your own ISBN instead of using your POD Publisher Services company. 

Does everyone really need an ISBN? Are there any situations that an ISBN is not needed?
If you plan to sell your book through any retail channel than you will need to purchase an ISBN. At the same time though there are certain situations where an ISBN is not needed. For example, my uncle who is a family counselor self-published a small book solely for his private practice and his clients. He wrote this book solely as a help for his clients and has no desire to put this out into "mainstream". Other examples of books that would not need an ISBN would be:

*company training manuals
*family history (for a family reunion)
*books used as an incentive or for a giveaway
*recipe collections (or church recipe collections)
*books for private use
*workbooks for seminars/conferences

** Another area of debate is if you need an ISBN for kindle publishing services only. I would strongly encourage you to do research in this area! At this point in time you technically do not need an ISBN number for kindle only. You will have an ASIN instead. The debate though is regarding the thought that in the future this might change.**

BUT if you have any thoughts of possibly converting your publication into commercial use then you might even consider an ISBN for these type of projects!

How do I purchase an ISBN?
To purchase an ISBN I recommend going to the website www.myidentifiers.com which is run by Bowker, which is the only legitimate company authorized to administer the ISBN program in the US. Be careful about a whole lot of scams out there and simply use this website! 

How many ISBN's can I purchase?
When you go to www.myindentifiers.com you will see that when you click on "ISBN identifiers" you have the option to purchase 1, 10, 100, or even 1000 ISBNs. 

How much does an ISBN cost?
A single ISBN costs $125. When you purchase 10 ISBNs the cost is $295. If you choose to purchase 100 ISBNs then the cost raises to $575. If you choose to purchase 1000 ISBNs then the cost is $1000. As it states on the website above you will note that the price then per ISBN drops from $125 to $29.50 to $5.75 to $1. 

This is important to note, especially because as I shared in last weeks post, 20 Tips for Successfully Self-Publishing Your Book or E-Book, "success" for independently published books is often a margin of 100-150 books sold. So lets look at the math on this. If you self-publish your book for $5.99 you will see royalties of approximately $1.14. If you sell 150 books at this price then you will have made $171. But if you purchase the ISBN for $125 you really only have profited $46. 

I state all of that to say that it is important to really think through the investment that you are wanting to make and the investment that you can make. Maybe you only desire to self-publish one book in your lifetime. Then purchasing only one ISBN would be the best choice for you. But if you desire to continue to self-publish throughout your life maybe you want to look at purchasing a higher number of ISBNs.

The Price of the ISBN is extremely expensive. Can I "re-use" the ISBN in the future?
I receive this question a lot and it sometimes makes me giggle because I feel ya! I wish that this was a possibility but it is simply not. Once an ISBN is assigned to a book you can't ever re-use it. The best way that I think of this is that an ISBN for a book is like a social security number for a person. They are each unique and can only be used once. 

One suggestion that I have to help with financial costs is to share my post 10 Ways to Support Your Friends who have Independently Published Books. In this post I list several ways that your friends and family can support you, including giving the gift of an ISBN.

How long does it take to receive an ISBN?
You can receive your ISBN immediately after your purchase from www.myindentifiers.com

Do I need a different ISBN if the book is translated into a different language?
Yes. You will need to have a different ISBN if you decide to translate your book into a different language. As I mentioned in last weeks post, 20 Tips for Successfully Self-Publishing Your Book or E-Book you should decide your goals with each of your books. For example, I decided to just give the rights and allow a doctor and pastor in Poland to translate my book, "Praying through Lyme Disease" as my goal is to encourage Lyme Disease patients around the world. My goal is not to make money as much as it is to be an encouragement and support during a difficult time. If you have a different goal of your book and want to see your book translated into different languages then you will need to consider that you will need different ISBNs for each language.