Indie behind-the-scenes: ISBNs

Continuing with my theme from yesterday about authors on a budget and spending your money wisely, today I want to talk about ISBNs. For those of you who don’t know, ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) are the 10/13-digit identifier numbers on the barcode of a book. Every book has one, and they’re each an individual identifier. They are used by booksellers, libraries, publishers and more to keep track of books; and because of complicated reasons, in the US they are exclusively available—for outlandish sums of money—through a company named Bowker. And a common myth that’s floated around the self-publishing community is that you should buy them for your indie titles.

Guys: you do not need to buy these. You don’t. There are only two circumstances under which you need to buy an ISBN from Bowker:

  1. If you are setting up a small press (and if you are only going to be publishing your own books under the imprint, you might want to think twice before doing this—see below)
  2. If you are planning on publishing hardcover editions through Ingram Spark. I don’t recommend using them for your paperbacks—again, see below

You don’t need to buy an ISBN for an ebook. Amazon, Draft2Digital and Smashwords will each give you a free one and there’s no difference between free and paid identifiers when it comes to ebooks. You may have heard that in order to list your own imprint as the publisher, you need to provide your own ISBN—this is only for paperback or hardcover books. As of the last time I checked, you can list your own imprint as the publisher on Amazon and D2D and still use their free identifier number. It doesn’t matter.

When it comes to paperback books, you can get a free ISBN number through Createspace, but you have to have Createspace listed as your publisher in order for it to count. This is because Createspace is the one buying the ISBN numbers from Bowker for you in these circumstances, and whoever originally buys the ISBN is the one it’s registered to. (That’s also why you can’t buy ISBNs from third parties. You will likely see people other than Bowker selling ISBNs online, but don’t do it! The ISBN will not be registered to you, it will be registered to whoever originally bought it from Bowker. That will cause you a ton of trouble later at retailers and other avenues.)

The fact that the free ISBN means your publisher will be listed as Createspace is the biggest reason that authors, particularly previously traditionally-published authors, think they should get the custom ISBN. This is because there is still a stigma attached to self-publishing in the book world, and/or because of the conventional wisdom that many bookstores and libraries see Amazon as the Big Evil and don’t want to support them by stocking a Createspace book.

But listen, guys: the biggest reason that bookstores balk at stocking self-published/Createspace books, even more than the above explanations, is because they’re print-on-demand rather than offset (where publishers run a set amount in one go rather than printing every book individually) and that means they generally don’t allow returns. Bookstores don’t want to buy a bunch of books if they don’t have the option of returning the unsold books. There’s only so much space on a store’s shelves, they can’t afford to have your unsold books sitting there forever.

It doesn’t matter whether you pay the money to hide that you published through Createspace. If a bookseller has not heard of your publisher before, it will only take them a minute or two to figure out that this is a POD book. The only difference you’re going to make by forming your own imprint for your self-publishing venture is making them think, “Hm, a vanity press,” rather than, “Hm, a self-published book.” You’re not going to trick them.

Look, guys. I know. I know there is a stigma associated with self-publishing still, especially in certain genres. I know that having a publisher’s name after your book’s title instead of Createspace gives you that tiny bit of street cred, sloughs off a little bit of the stigma. I know that makes it very tempting. I think about it a lot myself. But you have to ask yourself whether that’s really worth the several hundred dollars it’s going to cost you to get these ISBNs. Maybe it will be for you. But most readers don’t care. Unless your previous publisher had great brick-and-mortar distribution and you were a big seller for them, you’re probably not going to be stocked in most bookstores unless you do some hardcore hand-selling—and if your hand-selling game is good enough for that, it won’t matter whether you’ve got an imprint name or Createspace after your title.

Anyway. Another reason people buy ISBNs is if they want to publish their book through Ingram Spark instead of Createspace, because Ingram requires them. Back in the day, Ingram was famed for having better quality books than Createspace, but CS has really stepped their game up in the past two years. Their paperbacks are nice. The binding isn’t too stiff, it’s got a good trade paperback-feel to it. Their cream pages and matte finish look very professional. I can’t really tell much of a difference between them and Ingram anymore, or between regular trade paperbacks. BUT Ingram is way harder to work with than CS. You have to pay an up-front setup fee (though I hear this is being waived at the moment—not sure if this is temporary or a permanent policy switch), and you have to pay a fee every time you make a change. You are going to need a professional to format your book for you, and even then you might still have problems because their requirements are quirky. Their customer service is supposedly very difficult to work with.

For that reason, I recommend you just skip Ingram if you’re only planning on doing paperbacks. Createspace has free setup, free ISBNs, great quality, good customer service—I’ve had problems here and there, but their customer service resolves it fast. There’s just not really an advantage to using Ingram for paperbacks.

Which leads me to the one reason you should consider springing for the ISBNs: if you want to have hardcover copies of your books made. As of now, Ingram is the only reputable POD printer who does hardcover books (I know Lulu does them, too, but you may not want to work with Lulu for reasons), so if you want your book to be in hardcover, you’re going to have to buy the ISBNs.

There are caveats about that, too—for example, the fact that the printing process is so expensive for hardbacks that you’re going to have to set your retail price high to break even on each book. I saw a picture of an Ingram Spark hardback on Twitter, and it was so pretty that I looked into having Fourth World done in hardcover. The book is about 340 pages and I’d have to sell each copy for over $20 to break even on it. Considering the fact that most YA hardcovers of similar length go for $11-12, there’s just no way. No one is going to buy that. Maybe someday when I have money coming out my ears I can do it, because, yeah, it’s gorgeous. I would like to have it. But it’s not going to sell at that price. I wouldn’t recoup that money. So it’s going to be a hundred-dollar hardcover for pretty much just my own enjoyment, which is not something I can afford right now, and neither can most authors on a budget.

Basically, there’s just not much of a reason to buy your own ISBNs, especially if you’re a beginner at self-publishing. It’s a huge expense without much tangible payoff, and if you’re on a budget, it’s really not worth that expense.


Want more indie publishing tips? I’ve been collecting them here on the blog under the Publishing Tips category! Be sure to check back periodically for more, or, if you’d like, sign up for my mailing list; I usually do a round-up of my blog posts on my newsletter, so that’s an easy way to keep track. 😀

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