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Why you should buy ISBNs for your books

Posted in Just for Writers

An earlier version of this article was published September 6, 2013.BowkerISBN

Avoiding costs

Independent publishers and author/publishers aren’t supporting corporate boardrooms, expense accounts, or Manhattan addresses (by and large), and frugality is a common theme. Avoiding the purchase and use of an ISBN number for their published work (if they are US-based) seems to many to be another opportunity to cut cost.

But let’s step back a minute. I write for many reasons but one of them is to communicate with someone else. I’m sure that resonates with many writers. Right behind that is the sense that I am joining that long river of communication that is the world of books, a stream that has flowed for hundreds of years, and I want my little drops to join in and make that stream just a little larger. Maybe I will communicate with someone who finds my work decades after my own death.

If you want your work to survive and be part of that river, you have to treat what you’re making as an honest-to-god book that could live forever, not just a document that gets thrown up in digital form somewhere and makes you a little money.

Using ISBNs to Future-proof Your Books

My name is my brand. My books belong to me, and my stamp upon them is an ISBN number, a unique and universal identifier that will bring them out of darkness to anyone’s search, years from now and in databases I cannot envision. It doesn’t matter whether the book is printed or in digital form – that’s just a detail. I would no more omit my ISBN from a book I’ve written than I would take away my name.

I’ve heard people comment, well, you don’t need an ISBN to publish an ebook at this site or that, and that’s a true statement. But when you’re caught up in the here and now of the latest development in the explosion that is new indie publishing, it’s easy to lose perspective.

Consider the following situation:

  • I publish a book, digital only. I don’t bother with an ISBN number.
  • I distribute it on Amazon, which assigns it an ASIN number, an Amazon product code.
  • I distribute it on Barnes & Noble, which assigns it an EAN number, a B&N product code.
  • I distribute it on Kobo, which assigns it an ISBN number owned by Kobo, so my book will appear to be published by Kobo, not me.
  • I distribute it on Smashwords, which assigns it an ISBN number owned by Smashwords, so my book will appear to be published by Smashwords, not me.

With the exception of Smashwords, none of these identifiers appear within the eBook itself.

And now, let twenty years go by… Barnes & Noble and Smashwords are out of business. Amazon changes its product code conventions and no longer uses ASIN numbers. There is no searchable database made available by Amazon for the old ASIN numbers. Kobo, which owns the ISBN it provided, controls what the Bowker Books In Print or successor database contains and updates the information about your book in ways you would not approve of, and since you have no ISBN number of your own that’s the only record of your book in Books In Print. Someone who chanced across a reference to your book based on an old copy from Barnes & Noble can’t find it because the B&N identifier is no longer alive, and may or may not connect it with a Kobo record in Books In Print which has a completely different identifier.

Does this seem like a good thing to you?

Old Standards Die Harder

We forget how shallow the history of digital technology is and if we’re not in the information technology industry (I am) we have a natural human tendency to think that whatever’s available today will always be available. But the real world is limited by money and time, and databases, formats, and standards evolve or die on a daily basis. The older standards are the most stable, and the standards for books, embodied by ISBNs, are as stable as anything we have, because books have been around longer as cultural and commercial objects than any other medium.

When I publish a book, and it’s usually in both print and digital form, I always use my own ISBN and control all the Books In Print data about the book. I use a different ISBN (as required) for the print and digital editions, and for each format of print (paper, hardcover) and digital (ebook, mobi).

Think in the long term. Buy a batch of ISBNs (much cheaper in bulk), use them, and help your books speak to other generations for as long as they have anything to say.

Addendum: How big a block of ISBNs should you buy?

Here’s how I think about it…

Bowker offers the following blocks:

  • $125 – 1 ISBN
  • $250 – 10 ISBNs
  • $575 – 100 ISBNs
  • $1000 – 1000 ISBNs

I thought the no-brainer should be 100 ISBNs, but then I started doing some calculations. I’m nearing the end of my first series (it could go on, and I might return to it, but I’m planning to start the next one soon, so let’s call it a full set.) Here’s the ISBN count needed, if I do everything by the rules.

  • 4 novels, 1 omnibus story collection: Paperback, MOBI, EPUB
  • 10 short stories, 2 mini-story collections (no print): MOBI, EPUB

That works out to (5 x 3) + (12 x 2) = 39 ISBNs. It will likely be more as I create bundles, audiobooks, separate Smashwords editions, etc., but let’s ignore that.

This represents a bit less than two years of work (darn those day jobs). Let’s call it two years and 40 ISBNs to keep the numbers easy to handle.

So, why not just buy that block of 100 ISBNs? Because that represents only about five years’ worth of output for me. Do I expect to still be writing in three to five years? Why, yes, I do. If I buy a block of 100, then when I need the 101st ISBN, I will have to buy another block of 100, and then I will have spent $575+$575 = $1150 for the privilege. If I buy 1000 ISBNs for $1000 now, then it’s much cheaper. I don’t need to ever use 1000 ISBNs, I just have to use 101 for this argument to make sense, and I’ll get there in three more years at this rate. This also gives me the freedom to experiment with all sorts of bundling and other formats without worrying about ISBN costs, at $1/unit.

UPDATE – Bowker is raising the price of 1000 ISBNs to $1500 (from $1000) effective October 1, 2014. If the price for $575 doesn't change at the same time, then the decision point between the 100-ISBN bundle and the 1000-ISBN bundle moves from 101 ISBNs needed to 201.

Addendum 2: Controlling Metadata

(in response to comments from the original article)

Even with your own ISBNs you don't necessarily control your own metadata. You want to have the fewest input sources for metadata that you can. I'm aiming for Bowker, Ingram (Lightning Source), an ebook distributor (ebookpartnership), Createspace (Amazon only), direct to Amazon/B&N/Kobo to make discounted brief sales easier, and a limited use of Smashwords. Of that list, only Amazon and B&N can do without an ISBN (Kobo supplies whatever it is that is ISBN-like, and Smashwords requires an ISBN from someone).

That's only 8 sources and it feels like a lot. Remember all the marketing advice you see about updating your book descriptions, modifying your subjects, changing your pricing, adding subtitles, and so forth? Until recently, I was supporting 13 sources, and there are more retailers coming along all the time. How can I do meaningful marketing experiments with metadata if the list gets longer and longer?

Same for the actual content of the ebook. Ignoring the (hopefully) temporary issue of errata, still I like to update the Also By This Author page every time a new work comes out, if I can. The longer the list of primary places I have to upload to, the harder that is to do. That's not directly ISBN-related, but adds to the desire for a shorter list that's still worldwide, and distributors want ISBNs.

In any case, institutionalizing an end-run around the effective international standard may be possible for a while in the present chaos, but it is not a safe long-term strategy. Aggregators are going to become ever more crucial as worldwide outlets multiply, and they're going to be all about product codes — they can't run without that. It would be shocking if the existing ISBN isn't used for this purpose.

Addendum 3: ISBNs as Supply Chain Identifiers

(in response to comments from the original article)

ISBNs don't exist because of some conspiracy to collect money in the book trade. They exist for exactly the same reasons that all businesses which trade in products require identifiable SKUs (Stock-Keeping Units). Pick up any product from any store and you will likely find such a product number, and a bar code to go with it. The SKU for the blue sweater in size 12 is different from the one for the blue sweater in size 14 or the red one in size 12. The SKU always identifies a single instantiated product, not a range of products. It's used to eliminate any ambiguity about what the customer wants to buy.

In most cases, an SKU is private to a particular vendor. A manufacturer puts an SKU on a component part he ships to an assembler. That company puts its own SKU on the assembled product, and the wholesaler who buys assembled products from all over the world puts his own SKUs on his inventory items. The retailer who buys from the wholesaler ultimately adds his own SKU, and when you buy that flashlight from RadioShack, that's the number you see.

What makes the book trade different is that it was able to organize an SKU standard that travels with the product from the manufacturer all the way through the retail system, worldwide. That is a very remarkable achievement, unique to media. Because of that, all the players in the book trade, from manufacturers to wholesalers to bundlers to retail outlets are able to use the same SKU for the product along the way. That doesn't mean that a retailer might not also assign a private SKU to an item (e.g., Amazon's ASIN) for its own use (Amazon sells a lot of things besides books and they all have an ASIN number). But retailers who only sell books can use the item's inherent SKU, its ISBN, as the product number, and many of them do.

Think of a small retail store, perhaps online only, somewhere in Poland. It sells ebooks and a few book-related items (readers, perhaps). All it needs for SKUs are the ISBNs the ebooks come with and a few assigned SKU numbers for its other goods, like readers, which it will assign using the EAN-13 standards (which have the same format as ISBNs). Its accounting system can use the ISBN as the SKU for each item it sells. it can order ebooks from aggregators and wholesalers and distributers using the universal SKU system they all understand: the ISBN.

There are hundreds of such small online ebook retailers today, and soon there will be thousands. All it takes is a website design and a little start up cost. They don't need capital for inventory. The barriers to entry are very low. You will never be able to deal with them directly, and they will get their ebooks from aggregators and distributers, not directly from publishers. In many countries, online ebooks retailers will grow like mushrooms where print retailers won't. Think of Africa or parts of South America where modernization skipped landlines and went straight to cellphones, where everyone has a cellphone and that's how they read books.

Today Amazon might be, oh, 80% of the worldwide ebook marketplace. They're in a dozen countries. Apple is in 50 countries. In a few years, Amazon will be 60% of the marketplace and declining. How can I say that? Because no single retailer, no matter how effective, no matter how much first mover advantage they have, can hold a completely dominant position in the marketplace if the barriers to entry by competitors are low and the competitive marketplace is broad. It will certainly happen, and the only imponderable is how quickly. And at the direct competitor level, some of the world's giants are only just getting started, like Sony and Samsung. As a commenter said on some recent article I read, in Africa, no one's heard of Amazon. But they all know Sony and Samsung.

A lot of indie authors say: all I need to publish are ebooks, and all I need to reach are Amazon and maybe a couple of other retailers, and I'm done. And you don't need ISBNs for that because you're only dealing with a couple of companies, all of whom are willing to either use their own SKU for the purpose or supply an industry SKU (ISBN). Ebooks are a fraction of the full ebook & print industry (20-30%), and Amazon/B&N/Kobo are a (large) fraction of the ebook retail market operating in a fraction of the world.

That's a good place to start, but personally I'd rather have it both ways. I want to be in the full ebook & print industry by having both print & digital formats (and audio, too), and I want to be in the full worldwide market. To play in the full market, I need ISBNs. It's what the book trade operates on.

In this country (USA), ISBNs costs money (free (subsidized) in Canada). Tough. It's a cost of doing business. Start small until you're sure you're going to keep writing, then suck it up. Otherwise you're playing with one hand tied behind your back.

Amazon won't be around forever. How many retailers are? How's Sears doing, these days? The book trade, however, will never go away. The key to longevity is aligning with best practices in the book trade.

Someone objected that no one looks for a book by its ISBN number these days, but search engines have nothing to do with it. The strength of the ISBN is commerce, not discoverability.

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  1. Thanks for doing the math for me. If 101 books is the cutoff for it being better to buy 1000 than 100 ISBNs, and I’m 64, and looking to publish my first novel (Book 1 in the Pride’s Children trilogy), I may not be as prolific as you, but I may still live long enough to use more than 100 ISBNs because of the different versions.

    Plus, if you buy two blocks of 100, you only have 200. That’s not a lot.

    I love finding people who 1) already did the work for me, and 2) were kind enough to blog about it – with ALL the details. Appreciate it!

    July 14, 2014
  2. My pleasure.

    I find the ISBN issue is like the Coke vs Pepsi debate — it becomes a religious argument about “I don’t need to pay no stinking money for this”. As you can see from the article, that’s not how I believe you should think about it.

    July 14, 2014
    • Here I am, back again.

      And here’s a new question: if you have published with Amazon, for example, and Createspace, and have used (I think – I’d have to go look) the option to BUY an ISBN from Createspace (which may have changed by the time I get to Book 2, and may have changed already), can I CHANGE the ISBN on Amazon for the print volume – or do I have to unpublish and republish to do that? And if so, do I lose my carefully-acquired reviews? (I should probably ask them that one.)

      I have a year or so until Book 2 is finished and published, and if I manage to do that, I really should start being systematic.

      Thanks – just off the top of your head is fine, if you have thoughts you can share.

      January 16, 2017
      • The reviews are tied to the Amazon ASIN number, I believe. If you retire the CS book, the ebook will remain, and when you republish under your own ISBN, I believe you will retain them. However, it’s better to ask Amazon to be sure.

        You retire an old publication with an old ISBN. You don’t “change” the ISBN — you issue a new one.

        January 16, 2017
        • Thanks! I knew about the ISBN changing with a new edition, but will have to see if a new printing and or a few tiny typo corrections require that.

          As for reviews and the ASIN – makes sense (but I’ll ask, to be sure), because they appear on ebook and print page.

          January 16, 2017
          • Doug

            What did you find? Does the correction of errors require a new ISBN?

            August 24, 2017
          • Karen Myers
            Karen Myers

            If you add or remove pages for a print edition (change the physical form of a product), or change content meaningfully (edit changes beyond simple typos or error corrections), then the product you are offering is a different product than before, and needs a new ISBN.

            Cover changes are considered marketing, and new covers do NOT require new ISBNs.

            August 25, 2017
  3. Doug

    Thanks for helping me see the advantages of buying in bulk. Nonetheless, for a single use, sells a “Basic ISBN Number & Barcode” for $18.99. (I am not sure why Bowkers would charge $125.00.)

    August 24, 2017
    • Karen Myers
      Karen Myers

      Bowker charges what the market will bear, and bigger players get better discounts.

      When you see a “discount ISBN” service, you have to ask questions. For example, I have a block of 1000 ISBNs for Perkunas Press. They cost me $1 each. I can’t resell them to you directly — they are registered to my Publisher account — but nothing prevents me from using them for you if I were to become the publisher-of-record for you (YOUR BOOK, published by Perkunas Press). I could choose whatever price for that ISBN that I choose for the purpose. I don’t have to necessarily own any rights or receive any royalties to do so.

      If that happens then the official records for your book would show “Published by Perkunas Press” pretty much everywhere.

      Is that a bad thing? That depends…

      Createspace does something like that. When you get a free ISBN from Createspace, it’s giving away something that costs it less than $1 (bigger bulk deal than mine), and you are showing up in catalogues where people order your books (at bookstores, from Ingram) or elsewhere as “Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform”. That IS a bad thing, because bookstores know that means “Amazon”, and some of them won’t order Amazon books, even to fulfill specific customer requests.

      Even if you use your own ISBN for Createspace and therefore your publisher persona shows up as the publisher-of-record, Createspace gives you no choice over discount rate (40%), and so your books show up at a disadvantage to traditionally published books with a standard discount rate (55%).

      Back to your basic questions to ask for isbn services:

      1) Who is the publisher-of-record once you get a ISBN from them?
      2) Who updates the record at Bowker (presumably them)?
      3) How does the company make its money? ISBN sales? Royalties? Various services?

      If you don’t understand these things, it’s hard to tell if it’s a good deal for you. If they’re the publisher-of-record for you at Bowker, what keeps them putting anything they want to into the Bowker record? What happens if they go out of business?

      Don’t forget, you should be getting 3 ISBNs, not 1 (paperback, epub, mobi).

      August 25, 2017
      • Doug

        What a delightful and clear explanation. Thank you !

        August 25, 2017
  4. Richard Bell
    Richard Bell

    I am trying to understand all this. Can my paperback have one ISBN from CreateSpace and the same book have another ISBN (that I purchase) from Ingram? Do I tell Ingram what the new ISBN is? Is there anything else about this that I should be aware of? Thank you.

    November 2, 2017
    • Createspace and Ingram, your primary POD (Print On Demand) providers, operate as your printers. You give them a product, and they print it.

      Your product is your cover and your block of text (PDF) complete with its ISBN code. You could go down the street and find a commercial printer to produce books, if storing inventory and shipping books yourself makes sense to you, and he would be much cheaper per unit. You would give him the same product to manufacture

      So, yes, you just use the same ISBN (yours from Bowker or whatever your national supplier is) and the same interior file. You will typically need a unique cover file for each printer, because the paper used for the interior will have different thicknesses from different manufacturers (and their suppliers), and thus the spine might be a little wider or narrower to match, so the cover needs adjustment.

      This must be your own ISBN, of course, not the free one that you can use from Createspace — they own that one.

      So, just to be absolutely clear… You buy an ISBN (free in some countries). You use it for the book at CS. Once you’re happy with the book proofs at CS, you go to Ingram and use THE SAME ISBN when you set up with them.

      Any printer will choose how to charge you, and that will vary. CS charges nothing for title setup or for revisions, and deducts the per-unit cost from the retail price in calculating your royalty. Ingram charges a title setup fee for both the interior and cover, a charge for revisions, and an annual “market access” fee for continuing to carry your book (circa $12). That’s why people finish all their revisions using CS before setting the title up on Ingram.

      Your physical printer down the street will charge you a per-unit cost for a set quantity, usually, rather than breaking it down. Revisions are typically a whole new print job.

      Now, CS and Ingram are ALSO distributors. CS distributes only to Amazon, and Ingram distributes widely everywhere else, including to other distributors. Your local physical printer doesn’t usually have anything to do with distribution (or storage), just manufacturing.

      November 6, 2017
      • Richard Bell
        Richard Bell

        Karen, thank you very much for your advice which I will follow. My only mistake so far has been to send the cover to Ingram without first adding in the bar code. Maybe they will be lenient to a beginner and not charge me again when I send the revised cover. I also had issues with the Imprint but I think I have that straightened out. I just invented a name for myself as publisher. Also had to tell them I was a sole proprietor.

        November 6, 2017

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