One of the parts of book publishing that seems to confound newcomers to the field is the purpose and use of the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Usually the ISBN appears to be the same thing as the ubiquitous Bookland EAN scannable barcode that graces the back covers of almost all books printed today.
Not only that, but since the rise of companies that perform publishing services for authors, there has been even more confusion about whether you need to own your own ISBN, whether free ISBNs from these companies are “just as good” as getting your own ISBN, and if it’s a good idea to buy ISBNs from re-sellers who offer lower prices for a single number.
Let’s review the basics of this unique identifier and explain what is so important about it, how it benefits self-publishers, and when you can safely forget about it.
Created to Solve Real-World Problems
ISBN was created as a stock-keeping identifier. Originating in the United Kingdom, the concept of a unique identifier for each version of a published book became an international standard in the 1970s.
It was created to solve a real-world problem, and it worked well. The problem was that in the pre-internet age, it was often very difficult to identify a particular book, and more so when a searcher did not have the full title, author and edition information at hand. That’s usually the case when I go searching for a book.
How would you know whether the book you are looking for is the right one? Book titles are not exclusive or protected by copyright, and it’s not unusual for several different books to have the same title. And similar titles will quickly expand the number of possibilities. Add to this the necessity of knowing which edition you are looking for—hardcover, paperback, second edition—and it’s easy to see how identification mistakes are easy to make.
With the use of the unique identifier, one that is attached to each physical format of a book, this problem is basically solved. Every title, and every different edition or format has its own unique number for tracking and search purposes.
Coincidentally the ISBN came into use at the same time that computers were becoming common, and the two were meant for each other. It’s now possible to simply enter an ISBN into a Google search bar to get all the information you need on a particular title.
Who Doesn’t Need an ISBN?
Because the ISBN is used as a basic identifier throughout the book distribution system, any book that is intended to be sold through retail channels will need to have this identifier.
There’s no absolute need for books printed for private use, or for a closed distribution to have ISBN assigned. These might include:
- Workbooks distributed at seminars
- Company training manuals for internal use
- Family histories, recipe collections or other “personal” publishing projects
- Books that will be used only as premiums, incentives or giveaways
However even publishers of these types of books might make use of this identifier if they plan to someday convert their publication to a commercial use.
Self-Publishing Hits the Scene
You may not realize this, but for many years Bowker issued ISBNs to book publishers for a nominal administrative fee.
But once the self-publishing field began to expand in response to new digital printing technology, Bowker made the process of acquiring ISBNs easier, and a lot more expensive. Now ISBNs are sold like any other commodity by Bowker and a few authorized re-sellers. And to accommodate the needs of these self-publishers, they made individual numbers available for the first time.
However, the price Bowker set for individual identifiers (currently $125) has shocked many new publishers. (You can read an explanation of why the cost is so high in the interview I did with Andy Weissberg).
But keep in mind that it’s rarely a good idea to buy just one ISBN. If you intend to issue your book as both a printed book and an ebook, you will need two ISBNs right from the start, and the cost of buying two individual numbers is the same as purchasing ten numbers (currently $250).
In addition, Bowker is actually registering your publishing company when they issue you your numbers, not your individual books. This is a key step for many self-publishers and that’s a pretty good reason to get an ISBN as well.
The Problem of the “Free” ISBN
In order to mitigate the cost and the bother of registering your company yourself, author services companies started offering “free” identifiers to clients. How were they able to do this?
Bowker’s pricing for these numbers has huge volume discounts, that’s how. For $5,000 you can acquire 5,000 ISBNs. That’s only $1 each, a price at which it’s easy to give them away, saving individual authors quite a heap of money.
And many authors have made use of this savings. You are a good candidate for a free number if:
- You intend to publish only one book
- You have no interest in starting a “publishing company”
- You’re on a very tight budget
But it’s not the right solution for everyone, because ISBN performs many functions for self-publishers.
Know Your Retailers
People who help authors get started in publishing often remind them that this is a business, and should be approached as such. You are manufacturing a product intended for retail sales. In this scenario it’s important for you to know the policies of the retailers who will be selling your book.
For instance, here’s what Smashwords, the big distributor of ebooks, says about ISBN usage:
Smashwords retailers such as Apple and Sony will not accept your Smashwords book unless you have a unique e-ISBN. It is the primary digital identification number that many major online retailers use to track and catalog your books, and to report your sales back to Smashwords.
(Editor’s note: Everything at Smashwords is an e-book, but there really isn’t such a thing as an “e-ISBN”. They are all just plain old ISBNs.)
The Many Roles of a 13-Digit Number
Smashwords also points out one of the other uses of this handy number. In fact there are three main ways these numbers can be of use:
- Stock keeping, for inventory purposes
- item identification to differentiate similar editions
It’s this last benefit of ISBN you should think about when deciding whether to use them, and whether you want to go to the expense of buying your own numbers, or to accept the “free” version.