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Everything to Know About ISBNs if You're Self-Publishing

Updated: Aug 30, 2020

When you decide to self-publish, there are many decisions you must make. One of the most difficult parts about self-publishing is not having someone to tell you what the best choice is every step of the way. I read Joanna Penn’s book Successful Self-Publishing, read dozens of articles written by self-published authors, and watched a multitude of YouTube videos created by AuthorTubers to learn as much as possible about the self-publishing process. One of the things I learned is that buying your own ISBNs is an important part of self-publishing. However, if you’re self-publishing as a hobby and don’t care about earning money from your novel or earning a living, then buying ISBNs probably isn’t necessary.

First of all, what is an ISBN? According to IngramSpark, “ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, meaning it’s an internationally recognized identification number, similar to any product number you would find on other products you buy, like a box of cereal or a pair of shoes.”

If you’re in the US, you can buy ISBNs from Bowker. The cost is $125 for 1 ISBN or $295 for 10 ISBNs. You can also buy 100 or 1,000 at a time, but these are quite expensive and probably out of budget for most self-publishing authors. I think these are meant more for publishing companies or anyone willing to spend $575+.

The reason you would buy more than 1 ISBN at a time is if you plan on publishing your book in more than one format. For example, if you plan on publishing your book as an eBook, paperback, and hardcover, then you would need one ISBN for the eBook, one for the paperback, and one for the hardcover. If you publish a second edition later, then you would also need a new ISBN. This is necessary because ISBNs are unique numbers that identify your novel. Therefore, if you’re self-publishing and plan on publishing your novel in more than one format, I would recommend buying 10 ISBNs to save money in the long run.

If you decide to self-publish through Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP, then you have the option of using one of their provided ISBNs for free. If you’re self-publishing as a hobby, then using the free ISBN shouldn’t be an issue. But, if you’re self-publishing to earn money, then I would recommend at least considering buying and owning ISBNs. When you use Amazon KDP’s ISBNs, their company name is used as the publishing company. In addition, if you plan on pulling your novel from KDP in the future or want to switch to another self-publishing platform, then you would have to buy ISBNs. Barnes and Noble Press also has the option of a free ISBN, as well as several other self-publishing companies.

As IngramSpark points out, “Not purchasing your ISBN yourself may also limit where you can print and distribute your own title.” You may not be able to stock your books in libraries or sell it in bookstores. In addition, if you publish on multiple platforms, i.e. Amazon KDP, Barnes & Noble Press, etc. and use the free ISBN on each platform, then your book will have a different ISBN for every platform. This could get confusing and complicated if someone was trying to purchase your book or look up information about it based on the ISBN.

A few more reasons you may want to purchase ISBNs provided by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) include “if you plan on a long-term strategy of branding your publishing company” or “if you are concerned with long-term visibility and discoverability through SEO as well as customer, bookstore, and library searches.”

Essentially, if you want full control of being able to publish your novel in any format on any platform you choose, you have plans of becoming a full-time author and/or starting your own publishing company, you would like your book to be available in libraries and bookstores, or you would like your publishing company or imprint name listed on your books, then you should buy ISBNs and not use the free ones provided by companies such as KDP or Barnes and Noble Press.


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