Six Facts about ISBNs for Self-Publishers

When a company has a monopoly, they don’t have to worry about providing good service. Anybody who wants or needs what they provide will go to them, there is no competition. Over the past week, I’ve found out how that relates to publishing as I’ve dealt directly, for the first time, with Bowker, the one source of ISBNs in the United States. (Other “sources” such as CreateSpace and Smashwords just provide a different way to get ISBNs from Bowker.)

I’ll detail my experiences with Bowker below, but I want this to be an informative blog post more than a complaining one, so I will share with you some important information that you should know if you are interested in self-publishing your work. Read on to learn these six important facts about ISBNs.

  1. You don’t need an ISBN for e-books, but it might be a good idea if you serve multiple platforms. The whole point of an ISBN is to provide a consistent identity for a book that readers might find at different vendors. If you only plan to sell through one vendor, such as if you plan to keep your e-book exclusive to the Kindle platform, there is no value in having an ISBN. Actually, this is true for print books too: If you only sell through one vendor (which could mean you as the vendor selling directly to readers) and you never plan to have your book in a library or bookstore, there’s no need to have an ISBN.

    Even if you do plan to distribute your book through multiple vendors, it’s not technically necessary to get an ISBN (although a vendor may require it), but having a consistent identity for your book may help you sell more copies by ensuring that readers can reliably refer your book to others without ambiguity. There are book titles that apply to more than one book, but the same should not be true for ISBNs if the ISBN “promise” holds true.

  2. You can get a free ISBN for your print edition from CreateSpace, but it might not be a good idea. Not all self-publishers produce a print edition, but those who do often use CreateSpace to provide the print edition on a print-on-demand (POD) basis. When setting up a title with CreateSpace you will need to assign an ISBN, and one option is to have CreateSpace assign one for free. This is an easy way to get started with self-publishing in print, but it’s not as good for building a foundation for long-term success. The free CreateSpace ISBN cannot be used outside of CreateSpace and it attaches the CreateSpace name to your book. That might seem OK now, and maybe you won’t ever need more than that, but you should understand the limitations imposed by using this option.

  3. You must deal with a geographically-assigned ISBN agency if you want to buy your own ISBN(s). In the United States, that means Bowker. If you’re not in the US, you can’t buy ISBNs from Bowker and must use the agency assigned to your location. There are no choices, just look up the agency that serves your location and get started. Good luck; this can be a challenging process because, as mentioned, they have no competition and have no real incentive to make it easy or affordable.

  4. If you’re in the US and want to buy an ISBN for your book, you should give yourself plenty of time to get the results you want with Bowker. As I’ll explain below, I was delayed quite awhile, entirely unnecessarily. If you don’t have time or patience you may want to look into an alternative service that serves as a layer between you and Bowker. For example, CreateSpace can assign an ISBN essentially immediately, but as mentioned above you should understand the limitations on whichever option you choose.

  5. You may not have to pay full price, even if you do buy from Bowker. They do have special offers that can reduce your cost; for example, I was able to reduce the cost of my order by over $40 by using a Presidents Day offer code. If you don't see anything on their site, be sure to search around a bit on the Web before you pay full price, in case there is a less-obvious deal available.

  6. You can buy one at a time, but it’s vastly more expensive that way, at least in the US. Different agencies may have different offerings for bundles of ISBNs, but you will hopefully have the option to buy one at a time. Whether you use that option is another matter; with the pricing that Bowker offers, buying one ISBN makes little sense unless you are absolutely, positively, 100% certain that you’ll never need more than one. If there’s any chance that you’ll want more than one, even if that’s to assign one to different editions of the same title, you can reduce your per-ISBN cost substantially by purchasing them in blocks.

Hopefully this information will be useful to you as you move forward with self-publishing. At first the ISBN question may seem like esoteric administrivia, but your choice can affect how and where you sell your book in the future, and you won't want a seemingly-arbitrary string of numbers to limit your sales.

Now, a bit about my experience buying a set of 10 ISBNs from Bowker. The process gave me flashbacks to when you could only get Internet domain names from one agency, before there was competition in domain registration. Service was slow, inconvenient, and expensive—just like ordering ISBNs now! The Web interface is poorly designed and finding authoritative, consistent information is difficult. In fact, finding something you saw before can be difficult! In one place I saw that Bowker was advertising that ISBNs would be assigned “instantly” whereas in a different document I saw a reference to waiting five business days. As I write this, I can't find either statement—a sign of a disorganized site.

When I finally submitted my order, I was told in the order process that I would receive two emails: One would confirm the transaction, and one would let me know my ISBNs were ready. I never received either, and I was left in the dark for days. It’s a good thing I finally went to look at my account, where I saw my ISBNs waiting for me, or I’d still be waiting. Who knows why they claimed they would send two emails? Maybe that is old information they never bothered to remove from their ordering process.

Much of the site is oriented toward squeezing out as much money from your bank account as they can. For example, they’ll happily sell you a barcode of your ISBN for $25 a pop, but you can get those for free. On the same page that talked about waiting five days for ISBN assignment, they also mentioned being able to pay extra for faster service (two days, if I remember right). These are numbers that can probably be assigned automatically and immediately, so why even mention paying for "faster" service that is unreasonably slow? Once again this might be old information they never bothered to remove from their info-cluttered site.

My impression of Bowker is that they lean toward providing convenient-for-them, costly-for-us service that underscores how their monopoly position makes good customer service unnecessary. Overall the ISBN system is an outdated tool from pre-Web days and I believe we are long past the point where the system should be scrapped and replaced with something that reduces or eliminates the cost and removes the notion of central control. (Indeed, I have a fairly well-developed idea for just such a replacement!)