ISBN Options for the Self-Publisher

Part of the publisher's responsibility (that's you!) is understanding the role of the ISBN(s) for your book. 

Part of the publisher’s responsibility (that’s you!) is understanding the role of the ISBN(s) for your book.

The majority of the clients I work with choose to release

  • a print version,
  • a Kindle version (Amazon only),
  • an ePub version (non-Amazon), and
  • as the world of audiobooks continues to expand, more and more clients are pursuing this too.

Pro Tip: You can now upload your epub directly to Amazon’s KDP system. It will convert it over to Amazon Kindle’s proprietary .mobi file for you. As long as the epub is configured correctly, there will be no issues doing it this way.

What Gets an ISBN?

  • If the epub will be used to upload to non-Amazon platforms or sites, it will require its own ISBN.
  • You CAN choose to assign one of your purchased ISBNs to your Kindle version, but it’s not necessary. Your Kindle book will only be distributed through Amazon, and they will assign your Kindle version an internal number called an ASIN.
  • Digital Audiobooks do not require ISBNs. Those sold through Audible, Amazon and iTunes get a number assigned by Amazon. Physical CDs are required to have an ISBN. (Thanks to professional audiobook narrator Jim Seybert for this info.)
  • For physical books, each size, each binding style, or any combination of the two gets its own ISBN.
    • Example 1: If you do a 6×9 paperback and an 8×10 paperback, then each size will get its own ISBN.
    • Example 2: If you do a paperback and a hardback, then each binding style will get its own ISBN.
    • Example 3: A spiral-bound 6×9 will get its own ISBN and a 6×9 perfect bound (traditional glued spine) will get its own ISBN.

Copyright showing ISBNs based on format.

The Trouble with Free ISBNs for Print Books

You are self-publishing because you want to stay in control of your book.

However, it is so tempting to just use the free ISBN option. I mean, it is going to save you at least $125 for a single ISBN, and that’s no small amount of money. (Packs of 10 are $295, and packs of 100 are $595.) But hopefully your parents taught you the old adage of “nothing in life is free”. That saying exists for a reason–because it’s TRUE!

IMPORTANT: Do not choose the free ISBN for your print book that KDP and other companies will offer you unless you want them to own distribution rights to that version of your book.

This doesn’t mean that the holder of your ISBN will own your content. Whoever holds the copyright owns the content. But ISBNs are not transferrable, and they will forever own that ISBN.

Also, look at the five parts of an ISBN below to learn another reason.

Parts of an ISBN

Books published before 2007 were given 10-digit ISBNs. From 2007 on, they have been given 13-digit identifiers.

The thirteen-digit number is divided into five parts of variable length, each part separated by a hyphen.

The five parts of an ISBN are as follows:

Example: 978-0-9989222-0-1

  • The current ISBN–13 is prefixed by “978” or “979”.
  • Group or country identifier which identifies a national or geographic grouping of publishers. A 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.
  • Publisher identifier which identifies a particular publisher within a group. [This is a reason not to purchase a free one. It will not have your publisher code. Some bookstores don’t want to support the giants that hurt the independent bookstore industry.]
  • 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.

Purchasing ISBNs

Your best option is to buy 10 ISBNs for the $295 (if you’re fixing to blow up the world with books, then get the 100 for $575). You can use these ISBNs on future books.

Remember that you can not transfer ISBNs. If you allow someone to publish a book using one of your ISBNs, then you will be shown as the publisher. You would also be held responsible should any legal issues arise from the publication of this book, especially if you did not have a contract in place with the author. If you are not in the “publishing for others” business, do not allow your ISBNs to be used on other authors’ projects. Read Business Tips and Taxes for Writers to learn more about putting legal protection in place for your author-centric business.

If you want to purchase ISBNs through the United States, you will have to go through Bowker. Even if you’re not a US resident, you can still purchase US ISBNs.

Check this site to see which agency to use depending on your location.

Setting up your Bowker account and purchasing your ISBNs is not difficult, but it is an “If you give a pig a pancake” scenario for sure. Read “How to Set Up Your Self-Publishing Company on Bowker” to learn more about this process:

  • what is Bowker and who needs it,
  • setting up your Bowker account,
  • choosing a name for your publishing company,
  • creating imprints,
  • purchasing ISBNs, (the article you just read is the expanded edition)
  • what to do about barcodes,
  • and choosing a logo for your new publishing company.
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