Unwrapping ISBNs

Why pay for an ISBN for your next self-published book, when some platforms will freely gift one to you? All businesses want lower costs to maximise profits, and that goes for our writing businesses too. Going for the free ISBN option seems good business sense. But is it a false economy? 

An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is unique. In fact, it’s unique for each edition and format of the book. So if a reader wants a paperback edition of your book, having the ISBN will ensure they find it. 

Unwrapping ISBNs – Writing Magazine – December 2020

Having an ISBN on your book is not a legal requirement. However, some retailers only stock books that have one. So, from a business perspective, obtaining an ISBN not only makes it easier for readers to find your book, but it may also increase the potential outlets where your book can be bought. 

ISBNs were first used in the late 1960s and began life as 9-digit codes. Since January 2007, all ISBNs are 13-digits. Each country has its own ISBN agency and it is their responsibility to issue ISBNs and record your book’s information against that unique number. That ISBN is valid wherever in the world your book is sold. 

ISBN Agencies

UK-based publishers (including self-published authors) can only buy their ISBNs from the Nielsen UK ISBN Store. Currently, one ISBN costs £89, ten are priced at £164, one hundred will set you back £369, while most large-scale publishers buy them in blocks of a thousand for £949. The more you buy, the cheaper they are.

It’s worth considering how many ISBNs you may need. Each edition or format of your book will need a different ISBN. So, if you plan to self-publish your novel in paperback, hardback, ebook, and audiobook versions, you will need four different ISBNs for that one novel. If you’re only self-publishing one book in one format (such as a paperback) then you will only need one ISBN. 

Buying one ISBN at a time is extremely expensive, so if you might produce your book in different formats, or write more books in the future, it’s cheaper buying a block of ISBNs.

Buy Now, Use Later

When you buy a block, those ISBNs are issued to you. You do not have to use them straight away. They are yours to use as and when you need. 

Buying the ISBN is only part of the process, though. To use an ISBN you’ll need to register it with Nielsen’s Title Register Service. This is where you update Nielsen’s database with the book title and the ISBN you’ve allocated to it, the format or edition of that title, along with some extra information, such as the book’s description, its front cover and publication date. 

This information is then disseminated to bookshops, distributors, other retailers and libraries, including Amazon. That’s why a reader can go to most book retailers around the world and find your book, if they know the ISBN.

Publisher Particulars

ISBNs are issued to publishers. If you are self-publishing your book, you are the publisher as well as the author. It’s perfectly acceptable to be listed as both the publisher and the author. 

When purchasing ISBNs, Nielsen asks for the publishing name you want those ISBNs allocated to. A self-published author can use their real name here. You will only be registered as the author when you’re ready to publish something and add your book’s details to Nielsen’s Title Register Service. 

Some authors prefer to use an imprint name as their publisher name. I could set up Whaley’s Wise Words as an imprint. It’s worth remembering that the whole block of ISBNs purchased at that time will be allocated to that particular publishing/imprint name. Writers who publish in different genres may wish to think about having a different publishing/imprint name for each genre. That would mean purchasing separate blocks of ISBNs for each imprint.

Nielsen recommends you check before purchasing ISBNs to ensure your preferred publishing/imprint name does not already exist.

Free Gift

For some writers, an ISBN is a substantial expense. Publishing platforms like Smashwords, Draft2Digital, IngramSpark and Amazon all offer free ISBNs. Smashwords and Draft2Digital currently only deal with ebooks (although Draft2Digital is currently rolling out a print book distribution service). Amazon does not need an ISBN for ebooks on its store, so doesn’t offer ebook ISBNs, but it will record an ebook ISBN if you’ve bought one of your own. Amazon KDP offers free ISBNs for authors publishing print books via their platform. 

So, with all these free ISBN gifts, why should even consider buying our own?

If you use a free ISBN then the distributor’s name goes down on the book register as the publishing/imprint name. Technically, you are still the publisher, and you retain all your publishing rights, but it’s the distributor’s name that is recorded as the publisher. Authors who use a free Amazon KDP ISBN for their paperback book will see their title’s publisher listed as Independently Published. IngramSpark uses the imprint name Indy Pub.

Whereas, if you buy an ISBN, then it’s the publishing/imprint name you used when purchasing that ISBN that is recorded as the publisher record. The decision, therefore, depends upon how important it is to you to have your own publishing/imprint name listed against your book title.

Using free ISBNs can make things more complicated. For example, if you self-publish a paperback novel via Amazon’s KDP service, you could use one of their free KDP ISBNs. However, publishing a print book via Amazon means other retailers and libraries are unlikely to purchase it from Amazon. While Amazon’s Expanded Distribution scheme means your print book can be made available to other retailers (if you opt-in for this service), many are reluctant to buy stock from what is their largest online competitor. 

To get round this, some authors self-publish their paperback through Amazon (so Amazon’s customers can buy a copy), and also through IngramSpark, who distribute books to other retailers and libraries at a discount. (It’s necessary for you to determine what that discount is, which ultimately affects the royalty you get from these sales.) Using these two services broadens the availability and reach of your book.

However, the free Amazon KDP ISBN can only be used on the paperback on sale via Amazon’s site. An IngramSpark free ISBN can be used for the paperback version distributed via their system, which would then mean your one paperback novel has two different ISBNs: one for Amazon and one for IngramSpark.

It’s possible for books published via IngramSpark to be distributed via Amazon. Some authors do this, using the free IngramSpark ISBN, which means their paperback edition only has one ISBN and appears for sale via Amazon and other retailers libraries. 

However, with Amazon being a major player in the book retail sector, publishing directly via Amazon gives authors much greater control over price on that particular platform. Publishing directly through Amazon’s KDP service also gives you access to their advertising tools, which many self-published authors use.

Essentially, you can’t use a free ISBN on any other distribution channel. Whereas, if you buy your own ISBNs, not only will your publisher/imprint name be used, but you can use that same ISBN on all the platforms you make each format of your book available.

Content Change

Each format of your book (paperback, large-print, hardback, etc) needs its own ISBN, but a new ISBN is also needed if the content of a book changes. I’ve recently updated my book Photography for Writers, which was first published in 2014. Photography has changed a lot in the intervening years, so I’ve rewritten several sections and included photographs in this edition. Because the content has changed, it needed new ISBNs (one each for the print and ebook version).

You don’t need a new ISBN if you’re only correcting spelling or typographical errors in your text, nor is one necessary if you change the book’s cover or the price.

Boxing Clever

Authors who write a series of books often create box sets containing several books from within that series. A box set also requires its own ISBN, in addition to the ISBNs needed for each individual book within that box set. In a trilogy, books 1, 2 and 3 will each have a different ISBN because they are three different products. Packaging them together as a trilogy boxset creates a new product, which requires its own ISBN.

PLR Payments

ISBNs also enable us to access extra income streams. The UK Public Lending Right scheme pays authors for every time one of our books is borrowed from a public library. Authors have to register their titles with the PLR system, and we can only do so if our book has an ISBN. (It doesn’t matter whether the ISBN was a free one, or one you paid for.) Since 1st July 2018 ebooks have been eligible for PLR payments. But again, only ebooks with an ISBN can be registered.

Likewise, the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) distributes income received from foreign PLR sources and also for photocopying. You can only register your books with ALCS if they have an ISBN.

From a business perspective, ISBNs are important. If you’re only planning on self-publishing one book, in perhaps print and ebook format, then making use of the free ISBN offered by the publishing platform you’re using may meet all of your needs.

But if you have plans to self-publish more books, and broaden the formats in which you publish those books, then buying your own ISBNs may be a better business decision in the long run.

Business Directory — ISBN Further Information

The International ISBN Agency: https://www.isbn-international.org/agencies

Nielsen UK ISBN Store: https://www.nielsenisbnstore.com/Home/Isbn

Nielsen’s Title Register Service: https://www.nielsentitleeditor.com/titleeditor/

IngramSpark ISBNs: https://www.ingramspark.com/blog/isbn-facts-for-self-publishers

Smashwords ISBNs: https://www.smashwords.com/about/supportfaq#isbn

Amazon KDP ISBNs: https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/G201834170