What indie writers need to know about ISBNs


The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is that 13 digit number on the back of a book, usually with the barcode. You’ll find it again, printed on the copyright page. But do you know what it means, and why owning that number is an important aspect of being a self-published author? If you don’t, then please keep reading.

What it identifies

The ISBN is your book’s unique identifying number. The ISBN tells booksellers and distributors around the world:

  • The publisher of the book
  • What format it is (paperback, hardback, ebook)
  • What size it is (for example a 6×9 paperback)
  • Which language it’s written in

If you publish a book as a hardcover, a paperback and an ebook, you will have three separate ISBNs. One for each format.  ISBNs are not transferrable, nor are they reusable. The same ISBN can be used on a reprint of a book if there are no significant changes to the content. If there is substantial change to the content, that would be considered a second edition and would require a new ISBN.

Where do ISBNs come from?

Each country has an ISBN registration agency responsible for assigning ISBNs. In the United States that agency is Bowker and in Canada it’s Library and Archives Canada. You can use google to find out the issuing bodies in other countries.

Who are they issued to?

They are issued to the publisher of the book.

How much do they cost?

In the U.S. a single ISBN costs (as of this post) $125. But if you will be publishing multiple formats, or multiple titles over time, you can save money by purchasing in blocks. You can currently purchase 10 ISBNs for $295. on the Bowker website.

In Canada there is no charge for ISBN numbers.

What does all this mean to self-published authors?

Self-publishers often use self-publishing companies to create their covers, design their interiors, and to upload their print ready files to publishing sites like Amazon and Ingram Spark. Often one of the “benefits” offered by a self-publishing company is the assignment of an ISBN number.

That sounds like a benefit, doesn’t it? Especially to American authors who are happy to have someone else pay the ISBN fees. But that means that this self-publishing company will be the publisher indicated in the ISBN. So every time your book sells, the publisher’s cut of the profit goes back to that company, not to you. They take an agreed upon cut, and pay you the rest, as a royalty.

Traditional publishing has always worked with royalties. The publisher incurs all the costs to produce the book, and then recoups those costs through book sales, paying a percentage to writers after their advance pays out. But self-publishers pay for all the work that goes into publishing their books, why shouldn’t they reap the entire publisher’s share?

They can if the ISBNs are assigned to them.

When choosing a self-publishing company, choose one that will allow you to use your own ISBNs. It’s a no brainer way to increase your profits, and almost more importantly, to retain control over your publishing career. Owning your ISBN means you and only you, own the published version of your manuscript. You and only you will decide where and how it is distributed.

Please feel free to ask questions about this post in the comments area.

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