A terrific and comprehensive post on the topic of ISBNs, the unique international identifier given to every book, from ALLi Watchdog Giacomo Giammatteo. His advice will equip you to make the right decisions for your own self-published books.
Everything You Need To Know About ISBNs
Be warned—this is a long post, but it covers a lot of ground, so bear with me. The first section deals with everything you need to know about ISBNs, or close to it. And the second section is devoted to a question I get asked all the time: Do you need an ISBN for eBooks?
To begin, we’re going to dig a little deeper into the details of those crazy numbers.
Do You Need an ISBN?
#Let’s Take a Closer Look at ISBNs
It seems as if a lot of confusion is tangled up in a string of numbers. And they’re not just numbers—they’re identifiers and they’re damn expensive.
In many countries ISBNs are free, provided by the government through the library system or another administrative branch. In the US and the UK, ISBNs are controlled by Bowker and Nielsen. I’m going to refer to Bowker most of the time since I’m more familiar with them, being based in the US. With the exception of pricing, the rest of the information should be similar.
First let’s take a look at exactly what an ISBN is and what it does.
From Bowker’s Website
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. The purpose of an ISBN is to give your book a universal ID, which makes it easy for bookstores, libraries, readers, publishers, or anybody to find or refer to your book.
Every ISBN consists of thirteen digits (since 2007) and whenever it is printed it is preceded by the letters ISBN. The thirteen-digit number is divided into parts of variable length, each part separated by a hyphen.
The five parts of an ISBN (13) are as follows:
- The current ISBN–13 is prefixed by “978” or “979”.
- Group or country identifier which identifies a national or geographic grouping of publishers.
- Publisher identifier which identifies a particular publisher within a group.
- Title identifier which identifies a particular title or edition of a title.
- Check digit is the single digit at the end of the ISBN which validates the ISBN.
That all sounds confusing, I’m sure. Let’s see if we can clarify some of this with an image.
The Parts of An ISBN
ISBN for Murder Takes Patience
- Look at the top. The first three digits 978 identify that the numbers that follow constitute an ISBN for a book.
- The next single digit –1- indicates the book is part of the English language group of territories: US, UK, CA, AU, NZ. Those countries might also be represented by a 0.
- The third group of numerals –940313- is the publisher identifier. In this case, it is my company, Inferno Publishing Company. This group also indicates how many ISBNs were purchased. Anyone who knows how to read an ISBN will realize this was bought as a part of a block of 100 ISBNs. If it had been seven digits instead of six, it would have told us the publisher purchased a block of 10, while five digits would indicate a block of 1,000.
- The next two numerals –09- specify the title, edition, and format as designated by the publisher upon registration.
- The final digit –2- is the check digit. It is determined by a mathematical formula and I have no damn idea how they arrive at it.
What this means is that any bookstore, agent, publisher, library—anyone who is familiar with how ISBNs work—can readily identify your publisher number and determine how many ISBNs were purchased in that block. If you purchased one or even ten, they know you’re likely a self-published author. If you purchased 100, there is a good chance you’re a small publisher, and if you opted for 1,000 or more, it seems pretty obvious you’re a larger publisher, or a distributor, or someone who deals heavily in ISBNs. If you purchase only one ISBN the numerals following the country code are always “692” which identifies that ISBN as a single purchase. This applies even if you purchased it from CS using their $99 option.
But I’ve Seen ISBNs That Don’t Look Like That
I know what you mean. If you go to Amazon or almost anywhere, you might see an ISBN that looks like this: 9781940313061, with no hyphens. How do you decipher it then?
If I go to Bowker’s ISBN converter, I can convert my 13-digit ISBN ( 9781940313061) for A Bullet From Dominic, to a readable 10-digit one, like this: 1–940313–06–6.
What does that tell them?
As discussed earlier, the first digit tells them the book is in English. The next group of six numerals identifies “Inferno Publishing Company” as the publisher. And the two numerals following that, “06” indicate that this is from a block of 100 ISNBs. (If it had been from a block of ten, it would have been a single digit.)
On the other hand, if you were to use CreateSpace to purchase your ISBN, this is what the numbers would look like: 978–1–4839–4649–5. Notice that the publisher grouping is only four numbers, which tells us it was purchased as a block of 10,000.
Joanna Penn was kind enough to let me use her great book, Crypt of Bone from the Arkane series, as an example.
After converting the number using Bowker’s tool, I get this: 1–4839–4649–5, and if we plugged her old information into a Google™ search, this is what we saw.
As you can see from the snippet included with the Google search results, it identified CreateSpace as the publisher of the book.
So what? See below for comparison.
If anyone wants to know more about who published this book, all they have to do is analyze the number and/or do an Internet search. Let’s plug this number (978–1–940313–09–2) into Google and see what happens.
Notice that two of the search results show Inferno Publishing Company as the publisher.
In order to do a proper comparison, I felt it necessary to go into a little detail on the various options CS offers for ISBNs. I took this from CreateSpace’s website.
What Are My ISBN Options?
You have four ISBN options:
- A CreateSpace-Assigned ISBN.
- A Custom ISBN.
- A Custom Universal ISBN.
- Your own ISBN.
|CreateSpace-Assigned ISBN||Free||CS Publishing Platform||CreateSpace|
|Custom Universal ISBN||$99||You choose||You choose|
|Provide Your Own ISBN||Existing ISBN Required||You choose||You choose|
Details Of Each Option
Free CreateSpace-Assigned ISBN
- CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform is your book’s imprint of record. If you select Amazon.com or Amazon’s European websites as distribution channels, this imprint will be reflected on your book’s detail page.
- You can sell your book through Amazon.com, Amazon’s European websites, a CreateSpace eStore, and all Expanded Distribution channels.
- This ISBN can only be used with the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
- Your book’s ISBN information will be registered with BooksInPrint.com®
CreateSpace used to offer a custom $10 ISBN. They no longer do.
Custom Universal ISBN ($99)
- You can use this ISBN with any publisher.
- You choose your book’s imprint of record. If you select Amazon.com or Amazon’s European websites as distribution channels, this imprint will be reflected on your book’s detail page.
- You can sell your book through Amazon.com, Amazon’s European websites, a CreateSpace eStore, and some† Expanded Distribution channels.
- Your book’s ISBN information will be registered with BooksInPrint.com®
Provide Your Own ISBN
- You can purchase your own ISBN from Bowker or through your local ISBN agency.
- If you are reprinting your book, the title, author name, and binding type must remain the same. A new edition requires a new ISBN.
- Your book’s imprint must match what’s on file with your ISBN.
- You can sell your book through Amazon.com, Amazon’s European websites, an eStore, and some Expanded Distribution channels.
With option one and two, you can only use the ISBN with CreateSpace. That means if you want to use Ingram also, you’re out of luck unless you purchase a new ISBN. And if you have to purchase an ISBN anyway, why not do it to begin with.
With the Custom Universal option ($99), you can also use Ingram but only if you do not opt into CreateSpace’s expanded distribution.
If you’re thinking—I don’t want to use Ingram—you might check the post I did on that. If you sell many print books at all, you’ll make more money using both CreateSpace and Ingram.
What About CreateSpace Being Listed As Publisher?
The question is—does it matter who shows up as the publisher? Readers won’t care, but some bookstores might.
It has long been rumored that independent stores don’t like to carry books published by CreateSpace. I wondered how much of that was true so I got on the phone and called some. This was by no means a scientific study; I simply spoke to about a dozen stores and asked them if it mattered. I expected them to say no, it didn’t matter. But to several stores it did.
Out of 13 stores that I asked, 7 of them said they would not carry a book by CreateSpace as the publisher.
If your strategy depends on selling through brick-and-mortar stores, you might consider buying your ISBN through Bowker or Nielsen.
Now to answer some other questions.
Where Does The ISBN Go On A Book Cover?
Here are the front and back covers of my book, Murder Takes Patience. Note the ISBN and barcode on the back. (And yes, that was a shameless plug for my book.)
Where To Buy ISBNs
As stated before, if you’re in the US, there is only one place to purchase an ISBN in your name, as a publisher—Bowker. Here is the link to My Identifiers. Even if you buy the ISBN from Ingram or CreateSpace you have to agree to Bowker’s terms, as the other companies are simply acting as agents for Bowker.
How Many ISBNs Should I Buy & What Do They Cost?
As to how many should you buy…that is a question only you can answer. It depends on how many works you intend to produce, what your philosophy is about using ISBNs, and what your cash flow is. Here are a few facts to help with the decision. Remember, this is for dealing with books only, not music or any other product.
|Product||ISBN required||ISBN recommended|
|ePub digital book||X||✓|
|Kindle digital book (mobi)||X||?|
In addition to the products listed above, you will also need ISBNs for the following:
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.
- If you decide to produce a book with large print you’ll need a separate ISBN.
- Foreign languages need separate ISBNs.
- 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
- Change of price.
- Minor corrections to text.
- New cover.
- Changing vendor who prints books.
So, To Answer The Question—Do You Need An ISBN For eBooks
The decision to use your own ISBN or even whether to use one at all for digital books, is a decision you’ll have to make. Below are a few suggestions that you might consider.
- If you plan on only producing one book and budgeting is a consideration, you might consider an ISBN from a supplier like CreateSpace or IngramSpark.
- If you just want to print a book and don’t intend to sell it online or through stores, then you don’t need an ISBN.
- If you plan on a long-term strategy of branding your publishing company, you probably want to 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 should have your own block of ISBNs.
Remember, 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.
- Just because you have an ISBN number doesn’t mean it 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.)
Back To The Original Question—How Many ISBNs Should I Buy?
This all depends on your cash flow and long-term strategy. I’ll give you an example from my experience.
A few years ago, I bought 10, thinking that would be good for a long while. But now I have 10 books out in both digital and print. That has taken up 20 ISBNs. I plan on doing audio books, which will take 10 more. I am working on getting them translated into at least two languages. If successful that will require 20 more. That brings me up to 50. And I plan on launching 5 books next year. If they all follow the same path, it will add 25 more ISBNs, bringing the total to 75 ISBNs.
When I started I hadn’t thought of all this. If I had I would have purchased 100 to begin with instead of 10, and then 100. It would have saved me about $200.
Cost of ISBNs
In the chart below, I’ve listed the standard sources—Bowker and Nielsen—but also listed CreateSpace and IngramSpark for those who aren’t concerned with being the publisher of record.
Please note, there are no discounts for quantity with CreateSpace or IngramSpark.
If you have really big plans—like building your own publishing company—you can purchase 1,000 from Bowker for $1,500, bringing the price down to $1.50 each. (Gives you an idea of how much CreateSpace and IngramSpark make, doesn’t it?)
Speaking of money, it was only about one year ago that Bowker would sell 1,000 ISBNs for $1,000—now it's $1,500—a 50% increase. Not bad.
Let’s Review a Few Facts:
- An ISBN is required for print books. You don’t have an option.
- If you use the free one or the $10 one from CS, you cannot use it elsewhere, which means if you decide you want to take advantage of Ingram’s distribution later on you’ll have to buy another one.
- If you use the $99 ISBN from CS, you can use it elsewhere, but only if you don’t opt for expanded distribution.
I don’t see the benefit of using a CS $99 ISBN, especially when you can buy one from Ingram for $85 or even better, 10 from Bowker for $275.
Now back to what we mentioned at the beginning of this post…
Do You Need an ISBN for eBooks?
Proponents for using ISBNs with eBooks cite a number of reasons:
- They make you look professional.
- They make your books easier to find (more discoverable).
- They get your books into more places.
Opponents of using ISBNs with eBooks cite these reasons:
- ISBNs cost money.
- They have not been proven to increase sales.
- It’s an antiquated practice that isn’t needed for eBooks.
The Truth About eBooks and ISBNs
Let’s analyze the pros and cons.
- No question that to do ISBNs the right way, they cost money. But it’s not much if you invest in at least 10 at a time.
- I don’t think there’s any doubt that they make you look professional, but some would question whether that helps sales.
- I would like to think they make your books easier to find, but that might be a minor point only true for a very small percentage of people.
- The primary plus for me is that using an ISBN for eBooks will get you into more places, which means potentially more sales. And one of those places are libraries.
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.
Besides OverDrive, there are other channels that require ISBNs. Take a look at this from Draft2Digital’s website:
You may choose to disable the free ISBNs, but this will block your book from distribution to some sales channels unless you provide your own ISBNs.
And this is what Smashwords has to say about it:
We require ISBNS for iBooks, OverDrive, Kobo, PageFoundry, and ’txtr.
I know what some of you are thinking…that you can get a free ISBN from Draft2Digital, and that will solve your problem. You’re right. But what happens if you decide you want access to the retail channels Smashwords distributes to that Draft2Digital doesn’t?
No problem, you simply get the free ISBN from Smashwords.
And the list goes on and on and on. Pretty soon, you end up with four different ISBNs for the same book, and a few of them you might have had to pay $15 or $19 for.
Now let’s throw another wrench in the mix.
Suppose you sign up for Bookbaby or Draft2Digital and use their ISBNs, and six months later you decide you don’t want to use them to distribute your books anymore; you want to use Smashwords. No problem, right?
Now you’ve got books with Bookbaby-assigned ISBNs or Draft2Digital-assigned ISBNs, and guess what—you can’t use them anywhere else. If multiple vendors supply retailers that require ISBNs, you could end up with a mess on your hands.
Wouldn’t it have made a lot more sense to just buy an ISBN yourself? Not only would you have access to all channels and retailers, but you’d look more professional, too.
Whether to use ISBNs on ebooks is a personal decision. You have no choice if print books is part of your distribution strategy. Some authors take the least expensive route and, in many cases, it hasn’t affected sales a bit. Other authors buy blocks of ISBNs and adhere to the same practices that traditional publishers have used for years.
I don’t have a lot of personal proof that using ISBNs for ebooks will drive tons of sales, but I have no doubt that it will. The book business is continually changing, and the ways that people read books change with it. Add up the numbers with OverDrive, Scribd, Oyster, and others. A lot of books are being read and bought on these platforms.
The question you have to ask yourself is—Will you be one of them?
As for me, I’m one of those authors who tries to keep everything in sync, so I use ISBNs for all my books—print and ebook and soon to be audio.
Will it help with discoverability?
I don’t know, but I hope so.
One Final Thought
We indies are competing with traditional publishing on all fronts, and that means not just with storytelling, but with editing, book covers, layout, distribution, etc. We have to come across in all ways as professionals. To me, that means having ISBNs on all of my books, with my company listed as the publisher of record—not CreateSpace, or Smashwords, or Bookbaby, or anyone else.
As I said, I don’t know if it will help me sell books, but it definitely can’t hurt. I’m willing to invest that much to find out.
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- The number on the bottom is the 10-digit ISBN and the “51799” tells the price. “5” tells the scanner it is in US currency, and the next 4 numbers tell the price. So this book costs $17.99. ↩
- Both custom ISBN options are offered through an agreement with Bowker®. ↩
- I have to wonder if part of this was because they presumed that a book by CreateSpace meant “indie author”, and they don’t carry indies. I didn’t have time to dig into this angle further. ↩
- Bowker and Nielsen recommend separate numbers for mobi and epub, but not many people do that. ↩
- As long as it doesn’t change the complete perception of the book. ↩
- Ingram used to require ISBNs for any printing order, now they don’t. They even sell them for universal use. ↩
- Includes a one-time set-up fee of $46. ↩
- plus VAT ↩
- If you plan on selling them online or through brick-and-mortar stores. ↩
- This also means you’ll have different versions of your print book showing up. ↩
- See this post for details on using a CS ISBN with Ingram. ↩