Are ISBNs A Necessary Evil?

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Updated: 1/2/2021

In this post, I want to talk about ISBNs, what they are, and why you may need one. To begin, ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number which is a 13 digit number that is assigned to a book which identifies its bibliographic data (title, edition, publisher, etc) to booksellers and lenders.

Whether indie authors even need an ISBN is a contentious argument that has many indie authors on a shoestring budget wondering if this is just another unnecessary expense?  So let’s cut through the hoopla and find out why you may, or may not need an ISBN for your book.

Myths About ISBNs

Myth #1: Indie authors who are only publishing ebooks need not worry about ISBNs.

Fact: Not true, libraries won’t consider ebooks without ISBNs.

Myth #2: You can purchase ISBNs from anywhere.

Fact: There is only one place in every country where the owner/publisher of a book can purchase an ISBN. Places that offer packages or discounts on an ISBN are usually buying in bulk and probably not reporting the book’s bibliographic data properly. It would be wise to purchase an ISBN on your own. It could mean the difference between a reader buying your book, or accidentally purchasing another copy of Harry Potter. Seriously, J.K. Rowling doesn’t need any more money!

Myth #3: You can’t buy an ISBN after a book’s been published.

Fact: You can indeed purchase an ISBN after a book’s been published.

Myth #4: You don’t have to buy separate ISBNs for a book translated into multiple languages.

Fact: Sorry, you do need different ISBNs for each translated version.

Myth #5: Barcodes and ISBNs are the same.

Fact: Barcodes identify either price, size, or even color of a product, ISBNs identify publisher, editions, etc.

More Need to Know Info:

Amazon’s KDP assigns books an Amazon Standard International Number  or ASIN number, for the sake of their database. You can capture the ASIN number of any given book in the URL Amazon assigns to each book.

If you only plan on publishing on Amazon then this is all you need. Apple, Google Play, and Kobo all have their own special numbers as well so you’re covered.      

As I said before, it’s important to consider before you spend any money, just how far you want to go with your book? Do you want to sell your books only at your website or at conferences? If so, then an ISBN is an unnecessary expense.  

Nonetheless, if you do want to sell your books far and wide, you’ll need to purchase an ISBN.

Here are the official sources for ISBNs: 

In the U.S., you purchase your ISBN through Bowker’s Identifiers Service and the price for one ISBN is $125.

In Canada: ISBNs in Canada are free and are distributed at the government website: CISS (Canadian ISBN Service System). First, you’ll have to sign up and fill out a form. 

In the UK: Things are a bit more complicated, the ISBN system is run by Nielson Books and you must buy ISBNs in blocks of ten. The price for ten blocks of ISBNs is ₤92. 

I hope I cleared up the confusion about ISBNs, there’s nothing worse than spending money when you don’t have to. Indie authors have enough to worry about and unnecessary expenses shouldn’t be one of them.

5 comments

  1. If you publish a digital version of your book through Smashwords, they will obtain an ISBN for you free and distribute your book to other retailers such as B&N, Kobo, and Sony. They do not, however, distribute to Amazon. (That’s because of Amazon, not them.)
    This is not an endorsement for Smashwords, although I have found them very easy to work with. If you want your digital editions available from Amazon, you can still publish through KDP (at no up front monetary cost to you), but those will not carry the same ISBN of the others and will only be available from Amazon, although except for the applicable note in the front matter, the two editions may be identical.

    • That’s the problem, if you want your book in a library or brick and mortar store then your book needs an ISBN with the complete metadata otherwise, they’ll have a problem cataloging your book in their database. These services that offer ISBNs are often buying them in bulk and not assigning your book with the proper metadata. Also, companies are over charging authors which I find absurd.

      Having an ISBN is a business decision that most authors don’t really care about but if they want to expand their book’s distribution, purchasing an ISBN is a necessity.

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