The Self-Publishing Insider

Learn what ISBN numbers are and why authors needs them from the self-publishing experts at Publish Pros

Understanding ISBNs for Authors

Confused about ISBNs, what they are, why you need them, and how they help you as an independent author? Let’s dive into the world of ISBNs and learn how important they are in helping you reach your audience.

What Is an ISBN?

ISBN, which stands for International Standard Book Number, is a 13-digit code that serves as a unique identifier for books. The ISBN identifies the book’s publisher, title, language, edition and version.

Why Are ISBNs Necessary?

Libraries, bookstores, online retailers, distributors and wholesalers depend on ISBNs to identify and track sales of each separate version of your book (i.e., hardcover, paperback, audiobook, ebook, etc.). In other words, if you intend to sell your work in any sort of format – from print-on-demand (POD) to digital – it’s necessary to have an ISBN for each specific format you’re going to offer.

While ISBNs don’t expire or get re-used, you do need to apply for a new ISBN if you:

  • Make substantial text changes (i.e., create a new edition or version)
  • Change publishers (i.e., you are not listed as the original publisher – see more on that below)
  • Change your book title
  • Translate your book into a different language

Should I Get My Own ISBNs?

If you are self-publishing, you have two options – use a “free” ISBN assigned by your publishing service company or apply for your own ISBN.

When publishers offer you an ISBN, they’ve already purchased it from Bowker, the official ISBN agency for the U.S. Therefore, the company is listed as the publisher of record, meaning they own the property assigned to it. As the author, you lose the ability to produce or even distribute versions of your book anywhere else.

While it may be tempting to use a publisher’s ISBN, especially if you are a new author and/or looking to save some cash for other publishing services, there are several advantages to getting your own:

  • You’ll be listed as the publisher of record – meaning your ISBNs will live on forever under your name, even if you change publishers or publish with multiple companies.
  • Any specific book orders or inquiries will come to you directly.
  • You have complete control over your book’s metadata – the descriptions and categories that help libraries, bookstores and readers decide whether they want to purchase your book. This can be a huge advantage in how you market and promote your books and increase your chances of getting your book into your target audience’s hands.
  • You’ll have a way to collect and analyze book sales data, which further helps you understand how your audience is finding you and which versions are selling better than others.

How Much Do ISBNs Cost?

Since you’ll need one ISBN for each edition and format of your book, buying a block of 10 may make more sense in the long run. So, you should consider how many book titles you’re planning to publish, how many different formats you’re going to offer for each, and whether you’ll be publishing revised versions in the future.

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