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Why Indie Authors & Publishers Should Buy Their Own ISBNs

“I would no more omit my ISBN from a book I’ve written than I would take away my name,” asserts indie author and publisher Karen Myers. Here’s why she believes depending on retailers’ own identifiers (ASINs, etc) is a false econony, long term.

The author Karen Myers

(Photo by Joe Padula)

Independent publishers and author/publishers aren’t supporting corporate boardrooms, expense accounts, or Manhattan addresses (by and large), and frugality is a common theme. Avoiding the purchase and use of an ISBN number for their published work (if they are US-based) seems to many to be another opportunity to cut cost.

But let’s step back a minute. I write for many reasons but one of them is to communicate with someone else. I’m sure that resonates with many writers. Right behind that is the sense that I am joining that long river of communication that is the world of books, a stream that has flowed for hundreds of years, and I want my little drops to join in and make that stream just a little larger. Maybe I will communicate with someone who finds my work decades after my own death.

If you want your work to survive and be part of that river, you have to treat what you’re making as an honest-to-god book that could live forever, not just a document that gets thrown up in digital form somewhere and makes you a little money.

Using ISBNs to Future-proof Your Books

My name is my brand. My books belong to me, and my stamp upon them is an ISBN number, a unique and universal identifier that will bring them out of darkness to anyone’s search, years from now and in databases I cannot envision. It doesn’t matter whether the book is printed or in digital form – that’s just a detail. I would no more omit my ISBN from a book I’ve written than I would take away my name.

I’ve heard people comment, well, you don’t need an ISBN to publish an ebook at this site or that, and that’s a true statement. But when you’re caught up in the here and now of the latest development in the explosion that is new indie publishing, it’s easy to lose perspective.

Consider the following situation:

  • I publish a book, digital only. I don’t bother with an ISBN number.
  • I distribute it on Amazon, which assigns it an ASIN number, an Amazon product code.
  • I distribute it on Barnes & Noble, which assigns it a B&N product code.
  • I distribute it on Kobo, which assigns it an ISBN number owned by Kobo, so my book will appear to be published by Kobo, not me.
  • I distribute it on Smashwords, which assigns it an ISBN number owned by Smashwords, so my book will appear to be published by Smashwords, not me.

With the exception of Smashwords, none of these identifiers appear within the eBook itself.

And now, let twenty years go by… Barnes & Noble & Smashwords are out of business. Amazon changes its product code conventions and no longer uses ASIN numbers. There is no searchable database made available by Amazon for the old ASIN numbers. Kobo, which owns the ISBN it provided, controls what the Bowker Books In Print or successor database contains and updates the information about your book in ways you would not approve of, and since you have no ISBN number of your own that’s the only record of your book in Books In Print. Someone who chanced across a reference to your book based on an old copy from Barnes & Noble can’t find it because the B&N identifier is no longer alive, and may or may not connect it with a Kobo record in Books In Print which has a completely different identifier.

Does this seem like a good thing to you?

Image of Karen Myers' novel "To Carry The Horn"

One of Karen Myers’ novels, future-proofed via her own ISBN

Old Standards Die Hard

We forget how shallow the history of digital technology is and if we’re not in the information technology industry (I am) we have a natural human tendency to think that whatever’s available today will always be available. But the real world is limited by money and time, and databases, formats, and standards evolve or die on a daily basis. The older standards are the most stable, and the standards for books, embodied by ISBNs, are as stable as anything we have, because books have been around longer as cultural and commercial objects than any other medium.

When I publish a book, and it’s usually in both print and digital form, I always use my own ISBN and control all the Books In Print data about the book. I use a different ISBN (as required) for the print and digital editions. I have my doubts that the current practical divide of the digital format between MOBI and EPUB will last, and so I use a single ISBN for both of my digital format editions, since the standards haven’t quite settled in this area and Bowker permits it. (I probably should pony up and do that right).

Think in the long term. Buy a batch of ISBNs (much cheaper in bulk), use them, and help your books speak to other generations for as long as they have anything to say.

Addendum: How big a block of ISBNs should you buy?

Here’s how I think about it…

Bowker offers the following blocks:

  • $125 – 1 ISBN
  • $250 – 10 ISBNs
  • $575 – 100 ISBNs
  • $1000 – 1000 ISBNs

I thought the no-brainer should be 100 ISBNs, but then I started doing some calculations. I’m nearing the end of my first series (it could go on, and I might return to it, but I’m planning to start the next one soon, so let’s call it a full set.) Here’s the ISBN count needed, if I do everything by the rules.

  • 4 novels, 1 omnibus story collection: Print, MOBI, EPUB
  • 10 short stories, 2 mini-story collections (no print): MOBI, EPUB

That works out to (5 x 3) + (12 x 2) = 39 ISBNs. It will likely be more as I create bundles, but let’s ignore that.

This represents a bit less than two years of work (darn those day jobs). Let’s call it two years and 40 ISBNs to keep the numbers easy to handle.

Right now, I’m coasting on a 10 ISBN block I bought 20 years ago of which I used one at the time, but I’m also not following the rules. I don’t have ISBNs for the ebook-onlies, for example. That will change as soon as I get my next chunk of change in hand, and I will retro-add the missing ISBNs. Amazon doesn’t care if you do that, and I bet B&N and Kobo won’t either. Kobo’s the only one that substitutes its own ISBN and, if necessary, I’ll just republish them – I have so few sales on Kobo at the moment that it won’t make any difference.

So, why not just buy that block of 100 ISBNs? Because that represents only about five years’ worth of output for me. Do I expect to still be writing in three to five years? Why, yes, I do. If I buy a block of 100, then when I need the 101st ISBN, I will have to buy another block of 100, and then I will have spent $575+$575 = $1150 for the privilege. If I buy 1000 ISBNs for $1000 now, then it’s much cheaper. I don’t need to ever use 1000 ISBNs, I just have to use 101 for this argument to make sense, and I’ll use that in three more years at this rate. This also gives me the freedom to experiment with all sorts of bundling, etc., without worrying about ISBN costs, at $1/unit.

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35 Responses to Why Indie Authors & Publishers Should Buy Their Own ISBNs

  1. Alex Iheaka October 13, 2016 at 4:22 am #

    Hi Karen,

    Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I am a bit confused though. I will soon be publishing my ebook and from what I have read I will need an ISBN number for each company I use ie 1 ISBN for Kindle, 1 ISBN for Nook, 1 ISBN for Smashwords etc. Is this correct?

    There is a company that I found named Ingramspark http://www.ingramspark.com/plan-your-book/ebooks/online-retail-partners and they distribute the books for you on a multitude of online partners. Over 50. Does this mean an ISBN will be needed for each online store so over 50 ISBN’s?

    I also came across this article that talks about the need to not have an ISBN. What are your thoughts?

    Thanks in advance,

    Alex Iheaka

    • Debbie Young October 13, 2016 at 8:37 am #

      No, you only need one ISBN per format – so one for the paperback, one for the ebook. We have other articles on the blog about ISBNs which will help you – put “ISBN” into the search box and you will find them.

      • Alex iheaka October 14, 2016 at 4:37 am #

        Thank you very much for your response.

  2. Tara October 9, 2016 at 12:05 am #

    I have a question. I’m currently looking into publishing on my own after I finish my book, I’m just trying too inform myself so I know what I’m getting into.

    This may seem like a stupid question, but I want to make sure I am understanding this correctly.

    When you buy the bundles of ISBNs they are all different from the other so you can use each one for each different book and/or different format type of book? For example, I publish one book and that one gets 1 ISBN, then when I publish another book I use another ISBN from the bundle?

  3. Michelle August 22, 2016 at 2:35 am #

    Great article, but your logic “may” be flawed. In 1996 I bought my first domain name for $120. Crazy now that you can get them for $0.99.

    Buying more than 100 may be a waste of money as the price may drop in a few years. People are upset at the monopoly and costs involved when Canada and other countries have free ISBNs. In a few years, I fully expect the price to drop drastically.

    • Karen Myers September 12, 2016 at 10:24 pm #

      ISBNs in the USA have only gone up over the years, especially in quantities of 1000. I will soon cross the “100 ISBNs” point, since I wrote this article, so I’m happy to have my 1000 ISBNs already in hand.

      Since I wrote this, the price of 1000 had gone up, and now you would need more than 200 (2 x 100) sets to make the 1000 set a bargain. But since I socked in my 1000 at $1000, it made no difference to me.

  4. John Shaw August 22, 2016 at 12:41 am #

    Karen, thanks for thoughtful post! I must be somewhat old-fashioned, and having my own ISBN just makes me feel more comfortable. I will be publishing my first novel in a few months (as an e-book and as a POD), and I’m likely to purchase an ISBN for both versions if for no other reason than books are supposed to have an ISBN. And i would rather have my own ISBN than have Create Space or Smashwords buy one for me.

  5. Carol Rickard July 29, 2016 at 1:09 am #

    My very first workbook I did taught me the importance of WHO owns the ISBN! I bought a package many years ago before the resources for POD were like they are today. They held the ISBN and were noted as the publishers.

    Imagine my surprise several years later when I saw a PDF digital version of my workbook for sale on-line! I wrote the person and asked how they were doing that since I hadn’t authorized it…… The company who held the ISBN was able to do that – legally!

    After that, I bought a block of 10!

    Another way to look at it – think of music. A musician works for a label. The musician gets the royalties but the label owns the rights! Same with that ISBN – You get the royalty but amazon owns the rights to the work! They are amassing the largest collection of written works there will ever exist!

  6. Greg July 22, 2016 at 2:57 am #

    To me, an ISBN is just a primary key used to store in the database of the vendor who is distributing your work. This antiquated concept of buying a primary key from some broker to sync between a distributed set of vendors reeks of ancient tactics.

    Unless someone can show me that now and today, you will be hampered at securing future contracts, agents, movie deals, etc., then the argument appears moot. If the only discussion is whether or not search engines will work 30 years from now, then that’s not enough justification to spend $1000.

    • Karen Myers September 12, 2016 at 10:28 pm #

      First of all, ISBNs are not about discoverability — they’re about commerce.

      Secondly, when that movie agent wants to know who to approach for the rights to your book, after he read an old print edition without an ISBN that points to a press name or street address that has changed, he may have trouble finding you.

      Thirdly, most distributors will not carry your print or ebooks without an ISBN (there’s that “commerce” thing again).

      No need to pay $1000. Make your own decisions. I recommend buying a 10-pack until you decide whether or not to keep in the writing business.

  7. Sally R Stone August 15, 2015 at 1:00 am #

    I’ll be self-publishing my first book in late fall, with many others planned, so I thought your article was quite helpful. Thank you!

  8. Senja Houvinen May 21, 2015 at 1:26 pm #

    I agree with Karen. Every merchandise has it’s own serial number for a purpose. You should protect your work with official document or ISBN. http://lookup-isbn.com/isbn-number/ After that, it is much more easy to find.

  9. Cathi Poole September 16, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

    The other, fairly important thing that hasn’t been mentioned, is the ancillary rights issue. The holder of the ISBN IS the publisher of any book. The AUTHOR, no matter who owns the ISBN, will always have copyright. However, it is the PUBLISHER who holds the ancillary rights – electronic rights, translation rights, foreign rights, film rights, serialisation rights etc. I cannot understand why any author would want someone else holding those rights to their books. Surely that is the whole point of independent publishing – to publish your own work?

  10. Roz Morris @ByRozMorris September 7, 2013 at 7:48 am #

    Interesting arguments, Karen – especially about the stability of a long-established system. But a number is a number. If your personally monogrammed ISBNs will survived, so will the Smashwords and CreateSpace ones. Yes, we might share those imprint names with millions of others, but so do authors published by the Big Six. There is, as I see it, very little difference.

    And some technology developments are here to stay. Readers won’t search by ISBNs. They’ll search by author name, title, cover recognition, the radio show where they heard the book discussed. They will probably never again search by ISBN now we have these far more intuitive ways to find books.

    Might our books vanish if we have left our ISBNs in the hands of CreateSpace or Smashwords? Of course not. We either use those numbers to publish somewhere else or we publish with different numbers or according to whatever new convention comes along. Readers won’t have any problem understanding it’s the same book.

    Michael makes an interesting point above about ownership. You do not have to establish ownership of a book. You already have ownership of your book. Even if you sign a publishing deal you have ownership of your book, you have merely given permission to publish in certain forms. ISBNs make no difference to that, legally.

    I believe there are certain good reasons why the industry wants ISBNs to continue, but I don’t think it’s anything to do with establishing ownership or discoverability. I think they are missing a lot because Kindle books aren’t going on their databases, and this means they don’t have a true picture of how publishing is changing, where readers are buying their books and whose books they are buying. But do authors need the data that is gathered from ISBNs? I don’t think so, but I’d be interested to know if we do.

    The book industry, on the other hand, can learn a lot from ISBNs. They can collate the data into reports, which they can charge a lot for, and present it at conferences etc. Data is big business – more now than ever. Who’s paying for that data base? Authors and publishers. What benefit do we get from it, particularly indies? I can’t see what we’d use it for.

    It seems to me that the charges for ISBNs are far too high. I find the outlay for a bulk order is far too much; even if the cost per unit is small, it’s a lot of money. Since I get no benefit from spending that money, I would rather divert the funds to improving the reader’s experience and my book’s discoverability. Or its longevity.
    – See more at: http://selfpublishingadvice.org/why-indie-authors-publishers-should-buy-their-own-isbns/#sthash.P65WyDdY.dpuf

    • Karen Myers September 7, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

      ISBNs don’t exist because of some conspiracy to collect money in the book trade. They exist for exactly the same reasons that all businesses which trade in products require identifiable SKUs (stock-keeping units). Pick up any product from any store and you will likely find such a product number, and a bar code to go with it.

      In most cases, an SKU is private to a particular vendor. A manufacturer puts an SKU on a component part he ships to an assembler. That company puts its own SKU on the assembled product, and the wholesaler who buys assembled products from all over the world puts his own SKUs on his inventory items. The retailer who buys from the wholesaler ultimately adds his own SKU, and when you buy that flashlight from RadioShack, that’s the number you see.

      What makes the book trade different is that they were able to organize an SKU standard that travels with the product from the manufacturer all the way through the retail system, worldwide. That is a very remarkable achievement, unique to media. Because of that, all the players in the book trade, from manufacturers to wholesalers to bundlers to retail outlets are able to use the same SKU for the product along the way. That doesn’t mean that a retailer might not also assign a private SKU to an item (e.g., Amazon’s ASIN) for its own use (Amazon sells a lot of things besides books and they all have an ASIN number). But retailers who only sell books can use the item’s inherent SKU, its ISBN, as the product number, and many of them do.

      Think of a small retail store, perhaps online only, somewhere in Poland. It sells ebooks and a few book-related items (readers, perhaps). All it needs for SKUs are the ISBNs the ebooks come with and a few assigned SKU numbers for its other goods, like readers, which it will assign using the EAN-13 standards, which have the same format as ISBNs. Its accounting system can use the ISBN as the SKU for each item it sells. it can order ebooks from aggregators and wholesalers and distributers using the universal SKU system they all understand: the ISBN.

      There are hundreds of such small online ebook retailers today, and soon there will be thousands. All it takes is a website design and a little start up cost. They don’t need capital for inventory. The barriers to entry are very low. You will never be able to deal with them directly, and they will get their ebooks from aggregators and distributers, not directly from publishers. In many countries, online ebooks retailers will grow like mushrooms where print retailers won’t. Think of Africa or parts of South America where modernization skipped landlines and went straight to cellphones, where everyone has a cellphone and that’s how they read books.

      Today Amazon might be, oh, 80% of the worldwide ebook marketplace. They’re in a dozen countries. Apple is in 50 countries. In a few years, Amazon will be 60% of the marketplace and declining. How can I say that? Because no single retailer, no matter how effective, no matter how much first mover advantage they have, can hold a completely dominant position in the marketplace if the barriers to entry by competitors are low and the competitive marketplace is broad. It will certainly happen, and the only imponderable is how quickly. And at the direct competitor level, some of the world’s giants are only just getting started, like Sony and Samsung. As a commenter said on some recent article I read, in Africa, no one’s heard of Amazon. But they all know Sony and Samsung.

      A lot of indie authors say: all I need to do is ebooks, and all I need to reach is Amazon and maybe a couple of other retailers, and I’m done. And you don’t need ISBNs for that because you’re only dealing with a couple of companies, all of whom are willing to either use their own SKU for the purpose or supply an industry SKU (ISBN). Ebooks are a fraction of the full ebook & print industry (20-30%), and Amazon/B&N/Kobo are a (large) fraction of the ebook retail market operating in a fraction of the world.

      That’s a good place to start, but personally I’d rather have it both ways. I want to be in the full ebook & print industry by having both formats (and audio, too), and I want to be in the full worldwide market. To play in the full market, I need ISBNs. It’s what the book trade operates on.

      In this country (USA), ISBNs costs money (free (subsidized) in Canada). Tough. It’s a cost of doing business. Start small until you’re sure you’re going to keep writing, then suck it up. Otherwise you’re playing with one hand tied behind your back.

      Amazon won’t be around forever. How many retailers are? How’s Sears doing, these days? The book trade, however, will never go away. The key to longevity is aligning with best practices in the book trade.

      Search engines have nothing to do with it. The strength of the ISBN is commerce, not discoverability.

      • CC Hogan July 7, 2016 at 2:27 pm #

        I am sympathetic to your arguments, though when you look at the ridiculous form you have to complete to buy in the UK, you might roll your eyes.

        However, when it comes to Amazon not being around forever, the brand, and it’s associated product numbers will far outlive you and I. The company is now the same size and bigger than companies that have been around for more than a century. I suspect it will last at least that long – probably a lot longer.

        Down our high street here we have a little hardware store that has been owned by the same family since 1750. If they can manage it, I am sure Amazon can.

  11. Matthew Wayne Selznick September 7, 2013 at 12:42 am #

    An interesting perspective, but a premise that has a few holes in it., especially when dealing with electronic publishing.

    First, the assertion that the ISBN number assigned by Kobo means your book appears to be published by them falls apart when you look at the numbers they actually assign.

    For example, I don’t purchase ISBNs for my short stories. Here are Kobo ISBNs for several of my short stories on that site:

    1230000147826
    1230000157496
    1230000154652

    They look like ISBN-13s, right? Except that ISBN-13s, (for example, 9780061981043) follow a very specific formula:

    The first three digits is the International Article Number. They are always 977, 978, or 979.
    The next three digits represent the country of origin or, if it’s a conversion of a 10 digit ISBN, the publisher.

    So you can see straight away that Kobo ISBNs are placeholders Kobo uses strictly for their own use.

    I was even told by Kobo (back when they were just getting going) that they needed “some kind” of ISBN number on each title in order to sell the ebooks in the international market. But it’s not an actual Bowker-registered ISBN.

    The fear that Kobo “controls what the Bowker Books In Print or successor database contains” is unfounded. I cannot speak for Smashwords or Createspace… does anyone know if they register unique, legitimate ISBN numbers, or simply use 13 digit placeholders?

    Second, the primary purpose of the ISBN (as a subset, if you will, of the EAN barcode standard), is to enable sales of tangible media in any market. The secondary purpose is to track sales and make ordering (in some markets / formats) easier.

    But when you’re talking about electronic media, things like Bowker’s “Books In Print” just don’t matter as much.

    Finally, in your example of time passing and markets coming and going, you’re ignoring the fact that human beings don’t search for books by ISBN. They search for books by title, by author, by subject, and by keyword… and those things will be very easy to track so long as we utilize electronic search methods (search engines.) When the day comes that the Internet disappears, well, we’ll probably have bigger problems than whether or not someone can find our books. 🙂

    I still support purchasing ISBNs for tangible books (paperback / hardcover) because, for now, it’s Bowker’s world in that particular vertical. But for the thousands of indie authors who only publish electronically, it’s something you can safely bypass.

    • Karen Myers September 7, 2013 at 1:34 am #

      Kobo would not allow me to replace the “123” field that they call an ISBN with my ISBN. If that were simply a Kobo product code that wouldn’t be the case.

      Looking at the EAN-13 product codes http://www.makebarcode.com/specs/ean_cc.html I see that “12” is possibly just the Canada international product code. ISBN’s are a special case of the EAN-13 standard.

      Books which are supplied from Createspace to Ingram appear, in some cases, at the other end of the supply chain as Publisher: Createspace. I can not, in fact, publish my own books using my own ISBN at Lightning source until I remove them from Createspace Extended Distribution. My ISBN is not really my own while Createspace is using it.

      Books at Sony via Smashwords using my own ISBN show up as Publisher: Smashwords, not Perkunas Press. https://ebookstore.sony.com/ebook/karen-myers/king-of-the-may/_/R-400000000000001107009 .

      The point of the above list is that even with your own ISBNs you don’t necessarily control your own metadata. You want to have the fewest input sources for metadata that you can. I’m aiming for Bowker, Ingram (Lightning Source), an ebook distributor (ebookpartnership), Createspace (Amazon only), direct to Amazon/B&N/Kobo to make discounted brief sales easier, and a limited use of Smashwords. Of that list, only Amazon and B&N can do without an ISBN (Kobo supplies whatever it is that is ISBN-like, and Smashwords requires an ISBN from someone).

      That’s only 8 sources and it feels like a lot. Remember all the marketing advice you see about updating your book descriptions, modifying your subjects, changing your pricing, adding subtitles, and so forth? Until recently, I was supporting 13 sources, and there are more retailers coming along all the time. How can I do meaningful marketing experiments with metadata if the list gets longer and longer?

      Same for the actual content of the ebook. Ignoring the (hopefully) temporary issue of errata, still I like to update the Also By This Author page every time a new work comes out, if I can. The longer the list of primary places I have to upload to, the harder that is to do. That’s not directly ISBN-related, but adds to the desire for a shorter list that’s still worldwide, and distributors want ISBNs.

      In any case, institutionalizing an end-run around the effective international standard may be possible for a while in the present chaos, but it is not a safe long-term strategy. Aggregators are going to become ever more crucial as worldwide outlets multiply, and they’re going to be all about product codes — they can’t run without that. It would be shocking if the existing ISBN isn’t used for this purpose.

  12. Karen Myers September 6, 2013 at 10:15 pm #

    Since I wrote this article a few weeks ago, here’s what has happened.

    I did buy that block of 1000 ISBNs and have used a hunk of them for every ebook version so far. Now every single version of my work has my own ISBN.

    The process for changing things at the retailers, if you’ve been using their identifiers:

    AMAZON, B&N – just fill out the ISBN field and re-upload the file. Trivial.

    KOBO – Publish as new works and delete old versions. Can’t keep reviews. Took about 2 weeks for the old ones to be removed from customer view — meanwhile they were duplicated.

    SMASHWORDS – Requires its own unique unused ISBN. Publish as new works and delete old versions. Can’t keep reviews. Old versions are immediately archived where they remain available to anyone who bought them, but they vanish from new works for sale. Takes the usual week or two to propagate to their downstream retailers.

    CREATESPACE – They require a CS ISBN for library distribution. I am migrating all but my Amazon channel from CS to Lightning Source, and have shut down the extended distribution options for that, so that issue goes away automatically.

    • Lissa Johnston March 11, 2016 at 3:28 pm #

      “AMAZON, B&N – just fill out the ISBN field and re-upload the file. Trivial.”

      Thanks Karen for a great article and especially for this little nugget that has saved me a ton of Googling. Will be retroactively adding an ISBN to my first self-pubbed ebook shortly.

  13. Mary Maddox September 6, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    When I decided to publish my novel, I quickly realized that using an ISBN from CreateSpace would make that entity the official publisher of my book, so I bought 10 ISBNs and created my own publishing company. It turned out to be a good decision. When I later agreed to publish an anthology, I had to incorporate my tiny publishing company. At that point I needed that block of 10.

  14. Sarah Kolb-Williams (@skolbwilliams) September 6, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

    Love this post — so timely for me. I have a block of 10 ISBNs and I’m very excited to finally use the first on my upcoming ebook (though now, after reading your example, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have gone for a bigger package!). I agree that while authors don’t strictly *need* an ISBN in order to get a book on the market, Bowker’s ISBN database is so much larger in scope than each individual storefront’s, and from everything I’ve read, I want to be included in that. (Not to mention the fact that I know I’m not as easily searchable as Dickens or Twain — every little bit helps!) And I do plan to do print books eventually. I may not know all the ins and outs of exactly how ISBNs will benefit me down the line, but I gather from this article that it’s an important safeguard, and you’ve renewed my confidence in my decision. Thanks for a great post!

    Incidentally, do you know if you can change ISBN data after you assign it? I wouldn’t swap a number from title to title, of course, but could I change, say, the publication date or the subtitle if things don’t pan out the way I anticipated…? I suppose I could just wait until the book is ready to publish, but It seems like the sooner I have the ISBN, the sooner I’ll be able to set up various author profiles around the web. (I recall hitting a roadblock there with Goodreads, since I haven’t published any books yet.) Any thoughts on the best time during publication to assign the ISBN?

    Thanks again!

    • Karen Myers September 6, 2013 at 5:38 pm #

      You can change lots of the ISBN information after you post it, including the title! Traditional publishers create an ISBN record after committing to buying a book to edit & publish, and draft titles, planned publication dates, and everything else is constantly updated until release, and afterwards as descriptions, author bios, etc. continue to change.

      As soon as you know there WILL be a book in a particular format, you can register the ISBN. Just be sure to leave fields for AVAILABILITY and PUBLICATION or SHIP DATE appropriately filled out. That is, it isn’t available yet, and publication date is tentative and out in the future,

  15. Dan Holloway September 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

    For me it is not a question of economy. I absolutely agree with the reasons you give for purchasing your own ISBNs rather than using those provided by a third party. For me, not having ISBNs is a way of controlling my books’ distribution, in particular so that I can deal with the small independent retailers who share my ethos and whom I want to support.

  16. Roz Morris @ByRozMorris September 6, 2013 at 10:12 am #

    Interesting arguments, Karen – especially about the stability of a long-established system. But a number is a number. If your personally monogrammed ISBNs will survived, so will the Smashwords and CreateSpace ones. Yes, we might share those imprint names with millions of others, but so do authors published by the Big Six. There is, as I see it, very little difference.

    And some technology developments are here to stay. Readers won’t search by ISBNs. They’ll search by author name, title, cover recognition, the radio show where they heard the book discussed. They will probably never again search by ISBN now we have these far more intuitive ways to find books.

    Might our books vanish if we have left our ISBNs in the hands of CreateSpace or Smashwords? Of course not. We either use those numbers to publish somewhere else or we publish with different numbers or according to whatever new convention comes along. Readers won’t have any problem understanding it’s the same book.

    Michael makes an interesting point above about ownership. You do not have to establish ownership of a book. You already have ownership of your book. Even if you sign a publishing deal you have ownership of your book, you have merely given permission to publish in certain forms. ISBNs make no difference to that, legally.

    I believe there are certain good reasons why the industry wants ISBNs to continue, but I don’t think it’s anything to do with establishing ownership or discoverability. I think they are missing a lot because Kindle books aren’t going on their databases, and this means they don’t have a true picture of how publishing is changing, where readers are buying their books and whose books they are buying. But do authors need the data that is gathered from ISBNs? I don’t think so, but I’d be interested to know if we do.

    The book industry, on the other hand, can learn a lot from ISBNs. They can collate the data into reports, which they can charge a lot for, and present it at conferences etc. Data is big business – more now than ever. Who’s paying for that data base? Authors and publishers. What benefit do we get from it, particularly indies? I can’t see what we’d use it for.

    It seems to me that the charges for ISBNs are far too high. I find the outlay for a bulk order is far too much; even if the cost per unit is small, it’s a lot of money. Since I get no benefit from spending that money, I would rather divert the funds to improving the reader’s experience and my book’s discoverability. Or its longevity.

  17. Michael N. Marcus September 6, 2013 at 9:41 am #

    I see no reason for an independent author to get involved with ISBNs. Authors’ names and book titles will survive and be searchable if the author republishes with a second or tenth company. It’s not difficult to find books by Dickens or Twain without knowing the ISBNs or the names of the first publishers.

    OTOH, it’s critical for an independent publisher to establish ‘ownership’ of a book. Since I am both author and publisher, I own my numbers.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  4. Indie Publishing for Academics – Ten Top Tips | Helen Kara - September 30, 2015

    […] Buy ISBNs, aka International Standard Book Numbers. These are the 10 or 13 digit numbers used by cataloguing systems to identify each unique book. You can only buy them from one organisation in each country, they’re not cheap (though the more you buy, the cheaper each number becomes), and you can’t transfer them between publishers or even leave them in your will. Also they take ten days to issue, so don’t leave this until the last minute, or you’ll have to postpone your book launch (like I did, ahem). You can get free identifiers such as ASINs from distributors such as Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble (Nook), but these are distribution codes, not unique book identifiers – or if they are actual ISBNs, they are owned and assigned by the distributor, not by you. This effectively means you are giving away part of the control you have over your work, and having control of your own work is a big part of the rationale for publishing independently in the first place. There’s a more detailed explanation of this on the Alliance of Independent Authors’ blog. […]

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    […] If such things don’t matter to you, I understand. And that’s fine. But they matter big-time to me. As long as I can continue to use my own ISBN numbers I will do so, even if it means taking longer to get my hands on the needed cash. To my way of thinking it’s well worth the wait! Again, here’s that link to the article. […]

  7. Indie Authors Are to Blame for Lack of Meaningful e-Book Data - February 24, 2015

    […] And now, let twenty years go by… Barnes & Noble & Smashwords are out of business. Amazon changes its product code conventions and no longer uses ASIN numbers. There is no searchable database made available by Amazon for the old ASIN numbers. Kobo, which owns the ISBN it provided, controls what the Bowker Books In Print or successor database contains and updates the information about your book in ways you would not approve of, and since you have no ISBN number of your own that’s the only record of your book in Books In Print. Someone who chanced across a reference to your book based on an old copy from Barnes & Noble can’t find it because the B&N identifier is no longer alive, and may or may not connect it with a Kobo record in Books In Print which has a completely different identifier. Does this seem like a good thing to you? […]

  8. Indie Authors Are to Blame for Lack of Meaningful e-Book Data - February 24, 2015

    […] And now, let twenty years go by… Barnes & Noble & Smashwords are out of business. Amazon changes its product code conventions and no longer uses ASIN numbers. There is no searchable database made available by Amazon for the old ASIN numbers. Kobo, which owns the ISBN it provided, controls what the Bowker Books In Print or successor database contains and updates the information about your book in ways you would not approve of, and since you have no ISBN number of your own that’s the only record of your book in Books In Print. Someone who chanced across a reference to your book based on an old copy from Barnes & Noble can’t find it because the B&N identifier is no longer alive, and may or may not connect it with a Kobo record in Books In Print which has a completely different identifier. Does this seem like a good thing to you? […]

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