Okay, so I have never actually asked myself that question, or asked anyone else. I have always known what an ISBN is since I was old enough to understand that every book had one. It is that long number that every printed book has, somewhere on the book cover and on the page inside the front cover listing the copyrights.
Yes, there is more to it than that, but that is all I knew and all I needed to know as a lover of reading books that I had always only picked up off the shelf of a library or used bookstore, at a charity run used book sale, or at a garage sale. That’s how book lovers feed their reading addiction when they don’t have any money. I spent years playing at writing before ever becoming seriously involved in actually considering publication as a goal. There was a lot I did not know, and there is still a lot I need to learn. Being an author, and a published one, is a never-ending journey of learning. Just when you think you are getting there, the landscape of publishing changes and you have new things to learn.
For today, the focus is on ISBNs.
All books have them, but why? What are those ISBN numbers on the copyright page and book jacket of every book for?
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number.
We should get one thing clear first. Getting an ISBN is not copyrighting your work. The ISBN has nothing to do with copyrights and does not guarantee your copyright rights.
The ISBN serves one purpose only – it is a marketing tool. The ISBN is a catalogue number.
Is an ISBN necessary? By my research, absolutely not. At least, not if your publishing intentions are very limited. You can even epublish on some sites without an ISBN; however it limits your markets.
If you are just going to get a few dozen or a hundred copies of your book printed at a printing company (note I say “printing company”, not “vanity press”. They are two very different kinds of businesses, and for this purpose I would recommend using a printing service that promises only to create a printed product and nothing else) to give to family and friends, or share them in ebook form through emails or on your blog, then the ISBN is unnecessary.
If you plan to publish through a publishing company or self-publish, in print or ebook, and sell your book in the hope of selling many copies, then you will probably need an ISBN.
If a publisher picks up your book they’ll look after the ISBN.
If you decide to self-publish you’ll need to get one yourself.
Some Ebook sites and self-publishing print services, including Amazon, won’t let you put your book up on their site without an ISBN number. And that goes whether you are charging $6.99 for your book, $0.99, or offering it for free.
Smashwords will allow you to put your book on their site without an ISBN, but they recommend having one. Sony and Apple require ISBN’s. I recommend reading Smashwords’ information on ISBNs before deciding whether to use their free one or get your own. Note: Smashwords’ free ISBN has Smashwords as the registered publisher and should not be used anywhere else. In other words, you would need a separate ISBN number for Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc, rather than to use the free one provided by Smashwords for those sites. Some of those sites may required their own ISBN number anyway, listing them as the publisher.
Special note: being listed on the ISBN records as the publisher does NOT make them the publisher. It just means they are the entity who paid for and registered the ISBN number.
If you are using any kind of a self-publishing printing service or vanity press, they will likely have an option to include the ISBN as part of their services. But before you go ahead and take their ISBN number you need to answer one question. Who do you want listed as the publisher? The printing service or vanity press will most likely be listed as the publisher for the ISBN they provide you. If you want yourself to be listed as the publisher you have to get the ISBN yourself.
What is an ISBN?
ISBN – International Standard Book Number
This basically is just assigning a catalogue number to a book.
The ISBN is broken down into parts.
EAN – Bookland country code. Apparently books live in a world of their own separate from ours called “Bookland”. In the land of books, this identifies what country the book comes from. Luckily for us non-book beings, the numbers also coincide with the countries of our own world.
Group – identifies the language the book is written in
Publisher – identifies the publisher of the book (aka the person or business who filed the ISBN number for the book)
* oddly enough, it seems that when a publisher exhausts its block of ISBNs, instead of receiving an additional block with the same publisher identifying number, they are given a new identifying number for the new block of ISBNs. I don’t know why this is.
Title – identifies the book title
Check Digit – this is akin to a spell check for the people assigning ISBNs. If this number is not what they are looking for, then an error was made.
What the ISBN does is it simplifies a retailer’s search for a particular book. Making it easier to find your book instead of, say, the same title by another author will make the difference on getting that sale.
You will also need a separate ISBN number for each edition of a book: one for hardcover, one for paperback, and one for ebook.
If you do minor typographical corrections it is considered a reprint and new ISBNs are not necessary.
If there are major changes, additions, or deletions, then you are publishing a new edition of the book and need a whole new set of ISBNs.
Obtaining the ISBN
Of course, how you obtain your ISBN and what it costs depends entirely on where you are located.
In the United States, ISBN’s are sold by a commercial company. Naturally, they charge accordingly. After all, they aren’t doing it simply to be kind. After getting your ISBN, it is up to you to have it registered with RR Bowker, the database for the ISBN agency. www.bowkerlink.com
If you plan to publish a lot, it’s much cheaper per ISBN to get a block of them instead of just one. Once you have them, you can use them as your books are published, registering the book information at that time.
In Canada, the Canadian government offers the ISBN for free. Isn’t this just a wonderful country to live in? Okay, it’s a perk that Canadians enjoy, but it doesn’t make the rest of publishing easier.
Typically, publishers will obtain blocks of ISBNs at a time because of the cost. This includes small presses and indy publishers, self publishing services, and vanity presses. In most cases, you can get that ISBN included when you have your book published with them. It may even be a requirement.
Come and Get Your Free ISBNs!
Some organizations may offer “free” ISBNs or an ISBN as part of a printing package. One source said that even Bowker, the company in the U.S. where publishers get their ISBN numbers from, offers free individual ISBNs. However, I haven’t found the Bowker link to confirm this.
AUTHOR BE WARNED: While it might not cost you a dime for that free ISBN, you are in fact giving up having your own name listed as the publisher.
It sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it? That is exactly the tone I got from some articles I read on ISBNs. But it is a tone I disagree with.
You will still be listed on the book as the author. You are the author and nobody can take that away. If someone listed themselves as the author of your book, that makes you either a paid ghostwriter by choice, or a victim of plagiarism. But that is a topic for another day. You just won’t be listed as the publisher in the records for the ISBN number. This is a distinction that may be completely unimportant to you since very few people will actually look up your ISBN number to find out who the publisher on record is. It’s much easier to just read the publisher name on the copyright page at the beginning of the book.
Not being listed as the publisher is entirely to be expected when dealing with an actual paying publisher. After all, they are the publisher while you are the author, and nowhere in the ISBN is there a number specific to the author of the book.
Publishers are buying the publishing rights to your book, paying you royalties, and will list themselves as the publisher of note.
However, if you are self publishing or publishing through a vanity press (best to be avoided), or through a self-publishing service (different from a vanity press), and are trying to brand yourself as such, then you will probably want to be listed as the publisher. However, when it comes down to it and nobody except the ISBN people ever see that, it probably really doesn’t matter.
When an organization or individual obtains a block of ISBNs, the publisher digits will be assigned to that organization or individual and are non-transferable. As I said before, however, being listed in the ISBN records as the publisher really just identifies the company or person who has filed the ISBN, regardless whether they are the actual publishing house, self-published individual, or a publishing provider like Amazon filing on behalf of a publisher or self-published author.
That means, even though you are self-publishing, it will forever be noted in the annals of history within the offices of the ISBN people, aka the records likely no one else will ever see, that for that particular ISBN number XYZ Publisher is the publisher of that book and not you. Chances are you may end up with multiple ISBN numbers listing various companies as the ‘publisher’ if you a publishing on multiple platforms like Smashwords, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.
On the bright side, you can go through the entire process to get a new ISBN for your book any time you want.
So, while some may argue that you should never to let your self-published book be listed as published by anyone but you on the ISBN records, it really doesn’t matter beyond a personal preference. All your readers will see is an ISBN number like this, and will never see the information on the paperwork filed away in some dusty filing cabinet:
(This particular ISBN happens to be for
Where the Bodies Are print edition
published by Second Wind Publishing, LLC.
But you would never know that from just the number)
ISSN – International Standard Serial Number
This is the same thing as the ISBN, but is for periodical publications (ongoing series), such as magazines or a book series.
Sources for this article include: