Indie Endeavors, Part 5 – What the Heck is an ISBN?

So you’re thinking of self-publishing?  Jump into my how-to series…

Next week we can begin diving into some of the publishing sites on the web, but before I do, a short discussion of ISBNs may be in order.  One of the first questions you will be asked before you begin publication is if you want to provide your own ISBN or not.  That begs the question, what the heck is an ISBN, anyway?

An International Standard Book Number is a unique 13-digit number given to every newly-published book and used for identification and cataloguing purposes around the world.  (Books dated before 2007 will have 9- or 10-digit numbers.)  Each country has its own distributor.  In America, that distributor is the Bowker Agency.  Anyone can purchase and register an ISBN through the Bowker website; however, if you purchase only one, it isn’t cheap.  Prices drop considerably when you buy additional numbers.  If you are interested in purchasing your own ISBN and you plan to write more than one book, you may want to consider purchasing ten numbers instead of just one, because it won’t cost much more, and the numbers are good forever.

Most digital publishers, however, purchase ISBNs in bulk and offer them freely to authors who publish through them.  AND they take care of any paperwork.  Is there a catch?  Yes, a small one.  The number issued by a company will point to that company.  In short, that means in within the cataloguing details, it will be easily deduced that you are a self-published author.

Last spring, I didn’t really understand how this all worked, so I undertook the expense and hassle of purchasing a set of three ISBNs.  And to make matters worse, I purchased through a reseller.  I did get a fair price, which included digital bar codes, but I have since come to regret my decision.  First, registering the numbers through this particular reseller was a pain, and my first attempt didn’t even go through.  Second, I found out that most publishers will generate a bar code anyway, so that part of my purchase was unnecessary.  Third, I found out that every edition of a book (hardcover, softcover and every ebook format) requires a separate ISBN, which gets expensive in a hurry!  And finally, I came to realize that the only ones who really look through the numbers are mostly bookstore people and librarians – not my primary market.  Joe Schmo who purchases my book off Amazon couldn’t care less what my ISBN is, let alone who issued it.

So I was out a hundred and forty buck with little to show for it.  I never even used the third number.  Since my early blunder, I happily accept whatever free ISBN is offered.  It’s made absolutely no difference, and it’s MUCH cheaper and easier.  If you want to pursue the placement of your book in libraries and bookstores, you may want to research this further, but it’s pretty tough for an indie to get inside brick-and-mortar.  So my advice would be, go for the freebie.

Part 6: Publishing ebooks on Kindle

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6 thoughts on “Indie Endeavors, Part 5 – What the Heck is an ISBN?

  1. Paul D. Dail

    Hey Michelle, I’ve been meaning to get over and read these posts. Finally got the time and read through all five of them. Good stuff. Tried to put some comments in the individual posts where applicable.

    I purchased a $10 ISBN for Smashwords for The Imaginings because I wanted to register the publisher as my S-corp for tax purposes. But that can get pricey for every little short story, and I think ultimately you are right that it doesn’t matter at this point in the game.

    Great posts. I’m going to tweet these out.

    Hope all is well.

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    1. Michelle Isenhoff Post author

      I still think it’s so cool that we can enjoy each other’s blogs when we write such vastly different material. I usually do “group reads” every 3 or 4 weeks on yours too, lol.

      Thanks for the tweets!

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