Whether owning your own ISBNs is worthwhile or necessary is a subject of some debate in the indie author community. Many choose to publish without but ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors, recommends that authors should purchase their own ISBNs and use them in the manner recommended by their territory's book sales monitoring agency. In this week's Ultimate Guide, the #AskALLi team answers your questions about ISBNs for authors; we hear from Eleanor Pigg, registration services manager for Nielsen, the ISBN vendor in the UK; and US-based author Karen Myers makes a passionate case for authors owning our own ISBNs.
ISBNs are an essential component of the publishing process, acting as a unique product identifier for the benefit of distributors, wholesalers, retailers and readers. Understanding how ISBNs work, why they matter, and how to source and use them will help you distribute your self-published books efficiently and professionally. ALLi's Short Publishing Guide from the AskALLi team at the Alliance of Independent Authors offers all the key facts you need to know to make informed decisions about ISBNs when self-publishing your books. If you're an ALLi member you can download your free copy of the guide by logging into the membership site: allianceindependentauthors.org and navigating to PUBLICATIONS > SHORT GUIDES. Alternatively, you can purchase our guide from our bookstore here.
Introduction to ISBNs
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, and is a unique numeric identifier attached to a book. The purpose of the ISBN is to establish and identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher.
Each ISBN is unique to that edition of a book, enabling tracking and marketing of books by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors.
There are over 160 ISBN agencies worldwide, each appointed as the exclusive agent responsible for assigning ISBNs to publishers in their country or geographic territory. In some countries, for example Canada and France, they are issued free. In others, such as the UK and US, they are run by private companies: Neilsen and Bowker, respectively.
Amazon also runs its own book number system within its online store, the Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN). Unlike an ASIN, an ISBN can be purchased by the author and used on any retailer. Amazon also, like other retailers such as Ingram, Smashwords and BookBaby, purchase ISBNs to issue to authors.
ALLi's Policy on ISBNs for Authors
While technically you don’t need an ISBN to publish an ebook, ALLi recommends that you do purchase and use your own ISBNs and use one ISBN for each format e.g. hardback, paperback, ebook, audiobook.
Our reasoning? Owning your own ISBN makes you the publisher of record, rather than the platform you've used to distribute your book: KDP, Smashwords, Bookbaby, or anyone else. One of the biggest advantages of self-publishing is that you are the publisher, retaining all rights. Why then allow somebody else to be identified as the publisher?
Owning our own ISBNs means our books can circulate properly in the industry supply chain, and allows us to freely work with bookstores and libraries, who use ISBNs to select the format of book they want to purchase.
In these outlets, and all book distribution ecosystems, ISBNs help with discoverability, sales, and analysis.
Not owning our own ISBNs also adds to indie author invisibility. Nielsen and Bowker, the Australian ISBN Agency, the national libraries of New Zealand, Canada and many other countries, provide reports on the publishing industry each year, based on ISBN tracking. Since many indie authors do not use ISBNs for their ebooks, the indie world remains a “shadow industry” untracked on official reports. This gives rise to many misleading headlines about indie publishing and author income.
Do Authors Need An ISBN for all books?
Of course, there are exceptions and the decision to use your own ISBN, or even whether to use one at all for ebooks, is a personal decision each author must make. Below are a few situations to help you decide.
- If you plan on only producing one book, in ebook only (no paperback or audio) and budgeting is a consideration, you might consider an ISBN from a supplier like Amazon KDP or IngramSpark
- If you just want to print a book for family, friends or community, and don’t intend to sell it online or through stores, you don’t need an ISBN
- If you are planning to be an indie author for the long term, you should purchase your own ISBNs
- If you are concerned with long-term visibility and discoverability through SEO as well as customer, bookstore, and library searches— you should buy your own ISBNs
- If your strategy includes aggressive penetration into the brick-and-mortar stores and/or libraries, you definitely need your own ISBNs
Questions about ISBNs for Authors Answered
- Does the ISBN protect my copyright? No, it is an identifier, a product code, only. There is no legal requirement for an ISBN and it conveys no form of legal or copyright protection. It is simply a product identification number. Copyright automatically belongs to you as the author.
- How much does an ISBN cost? It varies from to country to country. In the US it's $295 for 10 ISBNs, £164 for UK authors and $88 for Australian authors. For other countries such as Canada and France, you can get ISBNs for free.
- Can I just use one for all the formats of my book? If you do use an ISBN, you are required to use a different ISBN for each edition of the book, meaning if your book is available in paperback and audio, you would need to use a separate ISBN for each format.
- Can I use the same ISBN for a translated book in the same format? No, each translation requires its own separate ISBN also.
- I'm reprinting a book but adding a new chapter – do I need a new ISBN? Yes. Whenever you add or remove a significant amount of material, altering the content of the book, you need a new ISBN.
- I'm republishing a book with a new cover design – should I change the ISBN? No. A change of cover design with no changes to the content of the book should not have a new ISBN.
- I'm changing the binding on the book to paperback rather than hardback (with no other changes). Do I need a new ISBN? Yes. Changes in binding always require new ISBNs.
- I want to change the trim size of my paperback but if I do will I need a new ISBN? Yes. Changes to size always require new ISBNs.e
- I'm changing the price – do I need a new ISBN? No. Price changes with no other changes do not require new ISBNs and indeed must not change the ISBN
- What do all those numbers mean? ISBNs can have 10 or 13 digits. Much like a VIN on a car, each digit has a meaning. Author-publishers don't need to know what they are but you can find out more below.
- I'm moving country. Can I take my ISBNs with me? ISBNs are country-specific and can only be issued by an appointed agency in each country. In the United States, ISBNs are purchased through Bowker. In the United Kingdom, they’re purchased through Nielsen, in the US it's through Bowker, in Australia it's through Thorpe-Bowker, in Canada through the ISBN Canada online system. Beware of any agency that is not one of those who tries to sell you an ISBN and make sure you check for your individual countries specific store.
- I am publishing a book with another author – whose ISBN should appear? In the case of a joint publication, both publishers are entitled to have an ISBN on the book. It should be made clear which number identifies which publisher. However, if only one publisher is to hold stock and distribute the publication, then it is recommended that only that publisher's ISBN should appear on the book.
- What do I do if I reprint a book with a new publishing name? The new publisher should be quoted on the title page verso with the relevant ISBN, but details of the previous edition (publisher, ISBN, date) may also be provided. A separate ISBN may be assigned if the same publication is published under a different imprint name by the same publishers. A separate ISBN should be assigned when a publication is republished under the imprint of a different publisher.
- Can I buy an ISBN on behalf of someone else? No. An ISBN makes you the publisher of record. Once an ISBN has been issued it can’t be resold, re-assigned, or transferred. An imprint can be assigned, but the original purchaser will be listed as the publisher of record.
Libraries are becoming more of a factor in eBooks, and OverDrive is the biggest supplier to libraries in the world. OverDrive requires an ISBN. If you choose not to have them for your eBooks, you’re cutting out a major distribution channel. OverDrive services more libraries and schools than anyone in the world (more than 30,000), and they also supply books to retailers around the globe, including Books-A-Million, Ciando, etc. Sales in 2013 were more than $100 million. That’s not small change.
And if you need more convincing, take a look at this news from Library Journal in a January, 2015 article.
Public and school libraries that are part of OverDrive’s global network circulated 137 million ebooks, digital audiobooks, and other digital media in 2014—a 33 percent increase compared with 2013, according to statistics released by the company. Ebook circulation rose 32 percent, to 105 million, while digital audiobook circulation grew 38 percent, to 32 million. The OverDrive network also recorded 401 million visits to public library and school library websites powered by OverDrive, a 77 percent increase.
Another thing to note is that OverDrive has an app and a presence on every major mobile device. This is not a stodgy old company living in the past. And, of course, big publishing knows that. But if you’re an indie without an ISBN assigned to your eBook, the doors to OverDrive distribution and sales will be locked. Indie authors can get into OverDrive through Smashwords, and eBookPartnership, among other distributors.
- Just because you have an ISBN number doesn’t mean your book is listed in the Books in Print database. If you want to ensure your books are listed, you need to submit your title information with Books in Print(US site), register with Neilsen (UK) or the relevant organization in your country.
Case Study — Karen Myers
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nielsen's Guide by Eleanor Pigg
The ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, goes all the way back to 1965 when WHSmith challenged Gordon Foster, Emeritus Professor of Statistics at Trinity College, Dublin to come up with an algorithm to help booksellers track books.
The privilege of running the UK ISBN Agency is licensed to Nielsen Book Services by the International ISBN Agency to supply ISBNs to publishers in the UK & Ireland, plus 14 British overseas territories.
As an ISBN Agency we allocate ISBN Publisher Prefixes to eligible publishers and as a result Nielsen Book maintains a large database of publishers (over 60,000) with their prefixes and supply UK & Ireland information to the Publishers International ISBN Directory.
We promote the importance of the ISBN for a proper listing of titles with bibliographic agencies and we also provide technical advice and assistance to the book trade on all aspects of correct ISBN usage. Above all we are required to maintain the ISO Standard.
The largest group purchasing ISBNs today are those who identify themselves as self-published authors. Unfortunately many get to the printing stage before realizing they need an ISBN, which prompts the question, “What’s an ISBN?”. The internet is the first port of call for many publishing for the first time so we aim to help point them in the right direction by advising on best practice, new imprints, changes of publishing name, title registration, etc.
How is the ISBN Used?
If you are self-publishing, a multi-national publisher or bookseller it is in your interest to use ISBN as it will help you to sell your book. Books that cannot be ordered and distributed by ISBN and that are not listed in databases such as Nielsen’s will not sell as many copies as they could. Booksellers will assume that the books do not exist, and even if they do know they exist, they may consider it is too much bother to handle them since they will need to do so using lengthy manual ordering processes. Books won’t show up on search engines or on global databases.
An ISBN contains only a small, but crucial, amount of data but it can be used as a key to unlock the data held on book databases. On the Nielsen Book database, for example, a single book record can have over 500 data elements! A single book title may have many incarnations, and it is the ISBN that differentiates the various titles, formats and editions.
For example, there are a variety of books titled ‘Great Expectations’:
The Dickens novel, a report on schooling in Rwanda, Australian politics, the tourism industry, delivery in health systems, graduate careers, the psychology of money and marriage and divorce in post-Victorian America, and the Toronto Blue Jays’ 2013 failed season.
Retailers buy data from Nielsen Book for their stock control and ordering databases. By using the ISBN they can differentiate between all incarnations of a title, in order to keep prices and availability accurate and updated.
Many author-publishers also prefer to have an ISBN because they believe it completes their book and also means they can submit a copy to the British Library, Library and Archives of Canada, Library of Congress, National Library of Spain or your country's national library, something they’re very proud to do. Of course, not all books require an ISBN. A publisher might prefer to sell their book themselves, or from their own website and not via the book supply chain. Kindles don’t necessarily need an ISBN, Amazon will assign an internal code called an ASIN, however we would always recommend to purchase your own ISBN, especially if you were producing other formats of the same book. The ISBN would allow you to monitor sales which could in turn determine whether you reprint or even the size of a print run.
The ISBN revolves around best practice. ISBNs identify unique products, the publisher and the imprint, and the location of the publisher. ISBNs are also permanent: once assigned that ISBN identifies that book and format for life!
As libraries become more digital, the ISBN is a powerful tool for locating a specific title. Traditionally it was straight forward to locate a book by author, title or subject heading using the old card catalogue system but in the age of online databases the ISBN has become a very useful field. They are used throughout the world and being totally numeric it is something that most people would be familiar with no matter which country they are from and what language they speak. So the universal nature of ISBN makes it a good access point for search and retrieval.
The Benefits of ISBNs
There are three important questions a new publisher should consider when deciding whether they need an ISBN:
- Do you want your books to be discovered?
- Do you want to sell books?
- Do you want to analyze sales?
The ISBN is a unique international identifier for monographic publications; assigning a number replaces the handling of long bibliographic descriptive records, thereby saving time and staff costs and reducing copying errors.
By obtaining an ISBN you will be able to take the necessary steps to ensure that your book is widely known and to maximize its sales potential.
Correct use of the ISBN allows different product forms and editions of a book, whether printed or digital, to be clearly differentiated, ensuring that customers receive the version that they require.
The ISBN facilitates compilation and updating of book-trade directories and bibliographic databases, such as catalogs of books-in-print. Information on available books can be found easily.
- Ordering and distribution of books is generally executed by ISBN; this is a fast and efficient method.
- The ISBN is machine-readable in the form of a 13-digit EAN-13 bar code. This is fast and avoids mistakes.
- The ISBN is required for the running of electronic point-of-sale systems in bookshops.
- Majority of publisher’s and supply chain systems are based on ISBN.
- The accumulation of sales data is done by the ISBN. This enables the varying successes of different product forms and editions of publications to be monitored, as well as enabling comparisons between different subject areas and even different publishing houses.
- The national lending right in some countries is based on the ISBN. Such schemes enable authors and illustrators to receive payments proportionate to the number of times that their books are lent out by public libraries.
How You Can Purchase ISBNs in the UK
The ISBN is geo-specific meaning that if you are based in the UK or Ireland and want to publish your book you should contact the UK ISBN Agency. However, if you are a British Citizen but living and publishing in Spain, you need to contact the Spanish agency. There is a National Agency in most countries in the World, so wherever you are publishing from you should be able to find an ISBN agency near you, and if not, the International Agency will be happy to help.
As a national Agency, we are accessible to all, so by visiting Nielsen’s Online Store (www.nielsenisbnstore.com) ISBNs can be purchased immediately 24/7. It’s the fastest and most popular way to purchase either a single ISBN or larger allocations, up to a block of 1,000, and also includes access to other Nielsen Book services. We also offer a manual application, found on our website (https://nielsenbook.co.uk/isbn-agency/). There are many reasons customers have to use this form, such as different payment preferences, an aversion to online forms or they need allocations larger than 1,000.
How is an ISBN Formulated?
The ISBN is broken into five elements.
- Bookland Prefix: shows that the product identifier is a book – it is “from” Bookland
- Registration Group: identifies a country, area or language area where the publisher is based and the ISBN is assigned
- Registrant (Publisher) identifier: identifies a particular publisher and usually indicates the exact identification of the publishing house and its address
- Title Identifier: identifies a specific edition of a publication of a specific publisher
- Check Digit: validates the full number
Here’s an ISBN in action:
Your Book in Bookstores by Debbie P. Young
- Area Code for Anglophone area (UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, USA) – 978-1
- Publisher number for Font Publications – 9135
- Title number – 8865
- Check Digit– 6
For details of Nielsen’s services for publishers, please visit www.nielsenbook.com
The #AskALLi Team Gives Some Top ISBN Tips
Situations Where You Need A New ISBN
- Any variation of the print books, for example, if you choose a 5 x 8, and a 6 x 9, you’ll need separate ISBNs for each trim size
- If you decide to produce a book with large print you’ll need a separate ISBN
- Foreign languages need separate ISBNs too
- Any significant changes to text/content needs a new ISBN
- Change in title needs a new ISBN
- Changing the binding requires a new ISBN
When You Don’t Need A New ISBN
- Changing the price
- Minor corrections to your text
- New cover (unless it changes the perception of the book)
- Changing vendor who prints books
Does the ISBN protect my copyright?
There is a widely held belief is that ISBN protects copyright. It doesn’t, it is an identifier, a product code, copyright belongs to the author. In general, publishers don’t tend to buy copyrights for books. They license the copyrights, which the self-publishing author retains.
Do I have to have an ISBN?
There is no legal requirement in the UK or Republic of Ireland for an ISBN and it conveys no form of legal or copyright protection. It is simply a product identification number.
Who is eligible for ISBNs?
Any individual/organization who is publishing a qualifying product for general sale or distribution to the market. By publishing we mean making a work available to the public.
What is a publisher?
The publisher is generally the person or organization taking the financial and other risks in making a publication available. For example, if a product went on sale and sold no copies at all, the publisher loses money. If you get paid anyway, you are likely to be a designer, printer, author or consultant of some kind.
What is an Imprint?
An imprint is a wholly-owned subsidiary of a publisher, like Puffin is to Penguin, or Sceptre is to Hodder & Stoughton.
Which products do NOT qualify for ISBNs?
Any publication that is without a defined end should not be assigned an ISBN. For example, publications that are regularly updated and to continue indefinitely (such as journals, serials, magazines, newspapers, updating loose-leafs, updating websites) are ineligible for ISBN.
Some examples of products that do not qualify for ISBN:
- Journals, periodicals, serials, newspapers in their entirety (single issues or articles, where these are made available separately, may qualify for ISBN)
- Abstract entities such as textual works and other abstract creations of intellectual or artistic content
- Ephemeral printed materials such as advertising matter and the like
- Customized print on demand publications (Publications that are available only on a limited basis, such as customized print on demand publications with content specifically tailored to a user’s request shall not be assigned an ISBN.)
- Printed music
- Art prints and art folders without title page and text
- Personal documents (such as a curriculum vitae or personal profile)
- Greetings cards
- Music sound recordings
- Software that is intended for any purpose other than educational or instructional
- Electronic bulletin boards
- E-mails and other digital correspondence
- Updating websites
ISBNs and Sales Catalogues
Point of Sale (POS) material (including catalogs) does not qualify for inclusion in the ISBN system. We do appreciate that booksellers often request ISBNs on such material however, and we would offer the following advice. A small proportion of your allocation (certainly no more than 10%) may be put aside to use and re-use on POS material. For example, an ISBN for a catalog could always be the same, presuming that the publisher will always send the customer the current catalogue. A dumpbin can be supplied empty and books invoiced separately, presuming returns are accepted against the book's ISBN anyway and then the dumpbin ISBN can be recycled for use in a future campaign.
ISBNs Versus EANs
The EAN is the European Article Number. This is a standard describing a barcode symbology and numbering system used in global trade to identify a specific retail product type, in a specific packaging configuration, from a specific manufacturer. The EAN used specifically for books is the Bookland EAN and it is represented below the barcode graphic. A Bookland barcode/EAN is derived from the ISBN. In fact it should be the exact same number as the ISBN, only without any hyphenation or spaces. So if you have an ISBN you technically have an EAN too.
ISBNS Versus ISSNs
Don't confuse an ISNs with ISSN, an International Standard Serial Number. This is the numbering system for journals, magazines, periodicals, newspapers and newsletters.
OVER TO YOU
Do you purchase ISBNs? Or have you decided to use free ones?