A Quick Author Guide to ISBNs
Hands down, ISBNs is the most confusing element for self-publishing authors. And the single most common question is this: “Should I purchase my own ISBN? Or should I use the one provided by a publishing services company?”
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of owning your own ISBN. This way, you can make the best decision for you and your book.
But first, here are a few basics.
What is an ISBN?
ISBN is short for “international standard book number.” It’s a 13-digit number that you can find on the back cover of a book, above a bar code. That bar code is a simply a translation of your ISBN into a format that is compatible with scanners in bookstores.
What is the purpose of an ISBN?
It uniquely identifies every book that is published worldwide. An ISBN holds important information such as your title, publisher, and geographic location. This number helps simplify the distribution of your book to publishers, booksellers, libraries, internet retailers and other supply chain participants around the world.
One thing the ISBN does not do is establish copyright. You as the author are the rightful owner of your intellectual property under copyright laws. An ISBN does not change this.
Do I need an ISBN?
You need an ISBN if you want to sell your book in bookstores, to libraries, or through online retailers like Amazon.com. Otherwise, you do not need an ISBN.
Where do I purchase an ISBN?
The only official source of ISBNs in the United States is Bowker Agency.
Who should purchase the ISBN?
The individual or company that will be listed as the publisher of the book should apply for the ISBN. The publisher can be you as the author, a publishing services company, or a traditional publisher.
(If you’re still uncertain which kind of publishing option is best for you, check out our previous blog post called, “Choose Your Own Adventure in Book Publishing.” In it, we explain your three basic paths to publishing. You’ll see that a traditional publisher will expect you to use its ISBNs. So this question is really only for self-publishing authors.)
So now that you understand the basics, let’s get back to your question . . .
Should I purchase my own ISBN? Or should I use the one provided by a publishing services company?
Well, it depends. There are pros and cons to either option. The right answer for you depends on your publishing goals. Here are some of the factors you want to consider before you make a decision.
If you purchase your own ISBN, you’ll discover that the cost is surprisingly high. One ISBN through Bowker Agency is $125. And you need a different ISBN for each format of your book. That means you’ll need three ISBNs if you plan to publish your book as a paperback, hardcover, and e-book. Also, you’ll probably want guidance in knowing where and how to purchase your own ISBNs, which may also increase the cost of your publishing plan.
One bit of good news here is that you can purchase ISBNs in blocks that are discounted. For example, a block of 10 ISBNs costs $295. You can save a lot of money if you purchase a block.
In contrast, if you use an ISBN provided by a publisher, the cost is likely less expensive because your publisher purchases ISBNs from Bowker Agency in large blocks. The savings can be passed to you.
If you purchase your own ISBN, you’ll need to complete two extra steps in the publishing process. First, you’ll establish yourself as a publisher and set up your publishing account. Second, you’ll need to establish an account with Bowker Agency and set up your ISBNs.
If you rely on a publishing services company for your ISBN, these tasks are handled for you.
If you establish yourself as a publisher, Amazon says it may take up to 6 weeks to be recognized by retailers. That means it could take another 6 weeks before your book is available online. The way to get around this is to be sure to establish your accounts early in the process. This way, you’ll avoid any delays with the release of your book.
If you use the ISBN of a publishing services company, there is no delay in releasing your book because that company is already recognized by retailers as a publisher.
One potential downside to using your own ISBN is that it clearly identifies you as the publisher. This means that readers will know that you are a self-published author. For some authors, this is not desirable because they’re concerned that their work will not be taken as seriously.
The benefit of using an ISBN from a publishing services company is that it presents a more professional image. It communicates that you’re not a “one-man band” – you have the backing of a company, and your work was refined through a professional process. Readers will not be able to tell if you are a self-published author or a traditionally published author. Ultimately, it adds credibility.
If you purchase your own ISBN, one benefit is that you retain 100% of royalties from online sales. Plus, you also do not have to wait for royalties. The money is deposited directly into your bank account. And you can check royalty reports any time you want.
In contrast, if you use the ISBN of a publishing services company, you may be expected to share some of the royalties. Be sure you ask about this policy so that you feel comfortable with the percentage of royalties that you may be sharing. You will also likely have to wait. Royalty reports and payments are usually sent annually or semiannually.
If you purchase your own ISBN, you have the freedom to make any changes when it comes to the future of your book. For example, you may decide to change to a new publisher or to stop publishing your book entirely. You can make these changes without having to wait on your publishing services company to make them happen.
If you use the ISBN of a publishing services company, you will need to follow its procedures to make changes to your account. Be sure you read your contract and feel comfortable with the company policies. Even then, your book may be impacted in the worst-case scenario that the company goes out of business. You may want to ask if there are any precautions in place to protect you and your book in this scenario.
You need to consider how much support you want with your book after it is published.
If you purchase your own ISBNs, then you manage your own publishing account. This means that you place your own book orders, read your own royalty reports, and receive your money directly. You decide if and when your book is distributed. In other words, once your book is published, there is no publishing services company between you and your book. You’ll retain control of every aspect of your book moving forward.
If you rely on a publishing services company, these administrative tasks are handled for you. You’ll call the company when you want to place a book order, and they will handle invoicing, ordering, tracking the order, issuing royalty reports, and mailing royalty payments. They’ll also be there to make updates to your account or to answer any questions long after your book is published. Some authors prefer this hassle-free experience and want to make sure someone is around to help them.
The Ultimate Factor
All of these factors will help you make the right decision. Ultimately, the choice to purchase your own ISBN or to use one provided by a publishing services company depends on what brings you greater peace of mind.
Do you value the security of knowing that no one and nothing can come between you and your book, even if it means more cost and hassle? Then publishing your own ISBNs is the way to go.
Or do you value the security of knowing you’ll have a seamless publishing process and professional image as well as help in the years after your book is published, even if it means relying on a company? Then choose a publishing services company that you can trust.
Whatever you decide, you’ll make an informed decision and enjoy a more peaceful process.
Ella Ritchie is the founder of Stellar Communications Houston, a business communications and book publishing team that brings clarity, quality, and integrity to nonfiction authors, business leaders, nonprofit organizations, and federal government agencies. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Facebook, or check out the website for more information.