July 1

Why it’s essential for authors to own your ISBNs


Be free! Own your own ISBNs

If you are an independently published author who wants to self-publish professionally, you absolutely must buy your own ISBNs. This post will show you the many reasons why you should invest in this for your independent author-publisher business.

An ISBN is an International Standard Book Identifier purchased in the country you do business in. In the USA we get them from Bowker, which is owned by ProQuest, a private company, and yeah, they're expensive. In other countries, ISNBs may be issued by government funded entities like libraries, so they're free (thanks to taxpayer dollars). Find your ISBN agency at the International ISBN Agency website.

Again, your ISBN is "International" so everyone in book industry around the world, and readers around the world, can find your book. You need to purchase ISBNs from the ISBN agency that operates in the country you're doing business in.

What you'll learn in this post

In this post, you'll learn:

  • Why you need ISBNs and how to assign them
  • How owning ISBNs makes you a professional
  • The importance of the CIP Block
  • Library sales and ISBNs
  • How to future-proof your book
  • How to prevent being trapped with a vanity press
  • How one format with two ISBNs create confusion
  • How to avoid missing out on the bestseller status
  • Why bookstores don't like Amazon
  • How to create your own publisher imprint
  • The importance of ISBNs for your book's translated editions
  • Which book formats need their own ISBNs
  • How to purchase your ISBNs

Books are tracked by the industry using the ISBN

The purpose of the ISBN is to identify one specific version (format) of a book. Most author-publishers publish their books in both paperback and ebook formats. Many publish in hardcover, and many are publishing an audiobook, too. So you need a unique ISBN for each format, which may include the following:

  • Paperback
  • Ebook
  • Audiobook
  • Hardcover
  • Multimedia edition (or any special edition)
  • Repeat the above for a 2nd (or 3rd or etc.) edition
  • Repeat above for each translation (Spanish-language ebook, paperback, etc.) 

This allows you and the book industry to track each book accurately all in the same place. Assign one ISBN to your paperback, no matter where you sell it, and another your ebook, no matter where you sell it, one version of your hardcover, no matter where you sell it, and so on.

Many authors make the mistake of using Amazon's free ISBNs for their paperback and ebook to publish in the Amazon store, and then using another ISBN in another store, and another in another store, and another... So the unknowing author-publisher ends up with two or three or even more ISBNs for the same format of the same book.

I've worked with authors who think they have a bestseller and want to be recognized for it. But the book industry cannot "see" that the one book has been a bestseller, because if one book has two ISBNs then the industry considers it two separate books. 

Book titles cannot be copyrighted, so the ISBN is the only way the industry can track your book. When you assign only one ISBN for the paperback, the industry can see how paperbacks are sold. If you have five ISBNs, you have quintuplets, and they all have the same name. How confusing is that!?

ISBNs are your book's children, as explained by Carla King at Self-Pub Boot Camp

Having different versions of your book also confuses the buyer, who may see two or more sources for your book at a single store. Which one do they choose? They may click off in confusion.


The key word is "professionalism"

If you care about how the industry views you as an author and a publisher you will adhere to professional standards. Your book should look like and be distributed like any book published by the traditional publishing houses. So purchase your ISBNs under your own publisher name, get professional cover and interior design, a CIP block and when you get a barcode for your print editions, make sure to embed the price in it. For details, see the IBPA's Industry Standards Checklist for a Professionally Published Book.

CIP Block

Also consider adding a CIP (Cataloging in Publication) to make your book indiscernible from any other professionally published book. But mostly it's to make your book attractive to libraries, and this is not an insignificant market. You need to own your ISBNs to get a CIP block.

Consumer's Guide Authors Editors Publishers

Your CIP block is listed on your copyright page and, like the old Dewey Decimal system, it gives librarians the information they need to shelve your book. Get my free Consumer's Guide for recommendations on where to purchase a CIP block.

CIP block

Are you a publishing pro and aren't clear about ISBNs, LCCNs, PCIP blocks, and other book registration systems and how to get them and use them? Connect with me to find out how I can help you up-level your services for your authors. Book a quick talk with me here! 

Library sales in the US

Selling to libraries in the US requires that you obtain an LCCN and a CIP block for your book. To get a CIP block you need a Publisher ID. (That's the 7525 part in the example ISBN shown here.) Your unique Publisher ID is embedded in the ISBN (packs of 10 and up). Library sales are not a trivial market for independent publishers!

You'll need to go to the Library of Congress website to get the LCCN via the PCN program. I know I'm throwing a lot of acronyms at you. Up-level your knowledge, your ability to hire out tasks for your project, or for you author assistants, your services for your authors. I can help. Book a quick talk with me here! 

Future-proof your book

In the future, you may want to partner with a small press or make some kind of hybrid publishing deal. It happens! These professionals will evaluate how easy or how difficult it is to get your book on over to their catalog before they make a decision. Authors who use free ISBNs have a difficult-to-impossible time doing this. So... own your book!

When you control your book data - that is, when you own your ISBNs - you can access your ISBN records and "forward" your old ISBNs over to the new publishing company. 

Self-publishing companies will not do that for you.  So you may have a much longer period of transition where the "old" version of your book is out of print and the industry does not know that it's available under a new ISBN.

You'll never be trapped with a vanity press

A "free" ISBN is never free. It comes with a price. I've helped many authors extricate themselves from vanity presses who own their book data, to take back their freedom to choose where they will publish their book.

Among those named in Writer Beware, a watchdog list, are all of the Author Solutions companies (Xlibris, iUniverse, Author House, Balboa, to name a few), Outskirts Press, and Tate Publishing, and so many more.

Ethical self-publishing companies will always allow you to apply your own ISBNs. Unethical self-publishing companies often force you to accept them as the publisher.

So purchase your own ISBNs and you'll never be trapped with an unscrupulous author services company who charges much too much for services and printing.

Already done that? See my post on The Vanity Press Trap: How to Avoid and Recoup the Damage.

To recap... 

One format + two ISBNs = confusion

Again, when you use an Amazon ISBN for your book and then want to distribute it more widely, your ISBN will not transfer to IngramSpark, PublishDrive, Draft2Digital, Smashwords, or elsewhere. That ISBN is owned by Amazon.

How to fix it

Well, you can't really fix it, and count sales for two or three books toward the one book, but you can make these repairs so you can own your own ISBN for your book. You have several options:

  • 1
    Continue using the store or distribution company's free ISBN for your book and then...
  • 2
    Purchase your own ISBNs and apply one of them to the book that's being distributed with the new company. This results in one book (paperback) with two ISBNs, which is not ideal, and you can stop here, But you can take another step if you want:
  • 3
    Purchase your own ISBNs and retire the book. Republish it, and assign your own ISBN to it. Now, go to your ISBN record (in the US, that's Bowker), and then replace the Amazon ISBN, creating a single ISBN for that format. You may experience some interruption and redirection that makes your book unavailable for a while. If you book is not experiencing many sales this is okay, but if you've got a bestseller on your hands, it's probably best to stick with solution two, above. 

Bestseller status

To recap, if your book has two ISBNs you may be missing out on bestseller status. The industry counts book sales by formats. So if you've sold 2500 ebooks on Amazon and 500 ebooks on Kobo under two different ISBNs, and 3000 is the magic number to be considered a bestseller in your category,  you won't get that publicity because the industry simply won't know.

Bookstores don't like Amazon

You should be friends with your local independent bookstore. Want to do a reading there? An Amazon brand on your book is not good for making friends with them.

Create your own publisher imprint

I like to encourage independent authors to create a business or publishing house name (your publisher imprint). In the US, you can obtain an EIN in your own name or in a company name. If you have already decided on a publishing house/imprint name, and have applied for a Fictitious Business Name (FBN) and obtained DBA (Doing Business As) in your county, you may use the DBA, instead. In this case, you'll purchase your ISBNs in your business name. 

Note these business and tax terms apply to US authors. Your business and tax procedures are probably different (though similar) in your country.

According to Bowker, "An imprint is a trade name, or brand name, used by a publisher to identify a line of books or a publishing arm within the organization. You may have multiple imprints. The imprints may be developed to market works to different buyer interests."

For example, I have registered two imprints under my company Misadventures Media. Destination Published is the imprint I use for my self-publishing guides. Motorcycle Misadventures is an imprint for my motorcycle adventure travel books.

These imprints are associated with my business (and publisher name) Misadventures Media. So I don’t need DBAs or EINS or separate business bank accounts for Destination Published or Motorcycle Misadventures. They’re both associated with (reside under the umbrella of) Misadventures Media. I've registered Misadventures Media as a business with a DBA (Doing Business As, or Fictitious Business Name), a business license for my city, and a business bank account. I've also registered an EIN (tax ID) for that business.

Find out more about how to create your own publisher imprint in this post.

A note for authors living outside the USA

Until recently, authors living outside of the US had to obtain an EIN to avoid being taxed 30% on royalties earned in the US. That’s no longer the case, but there’s so much misinformation on the internet today that I feel obliged to clarify. If you are selling books in the US but you don’t live in the country, you do not need an EIN any more but you do need to apply for ITIN (Individual Tax Identification Number) using Form W-7. You’ll also need to complete a W-8BEN form, which allows distributors to pay your royalties without withholding taxes as specified in the tax treaty for your country. Some companies, such as IngramSpark and Amazon, will automatically pop the W-8BEN form up when you need it during the publishing process. For more information  check Smashwords’ checklist of the steps you need to take. You can use roughly the same procedure for other distributors and vendors.

Translated versions of your book

You'll need a new ISBN to identify your Spanish language paperback, your German language paperback, your French language paperback. Your Spanish language EPUB, your German language EPUB, your French language EPUB...  are you getting it? 

Why miss out on foreign sales? You can do this easily and for free with StreetLib and Bablecube, sharing the royalties with the translator.

See the Author Friendly Podcast episode #5 with AC de Fombelle of StreetLib.

Your first step to becoming a professional author-publisher

Obtaining an EIN is a good first step to doing business as an author. It’s easy and it’s free, and it keeps your business expenses separate from your personal expenses. When tax time comes around, you’ll be ready to present your case as a small business with Schedule C. Obtaining an EIN will get you set on the right path to your career as a professional author-publisher.

Again, which book formats need their own ISBN?

You'll need one ISBN for your hardback, another for your paperback, and stilla another for your ebook. If you create an audiobook, that's a fourth ISBN. It doesn't matter where you distribute - it's the format that counts.

  • 1
    Paperback: Your paperback printed and distributed by Amazon KDP to the Amazon store should have the same ISBN as the one you upload to B&N or IngramSpark. If you got a free ISBN from Amazon... well, that was a mistake, so just keep it and apply your own ISBN to the book you upload to IngramSpark or elsewhere.
  • 2
    Hardcover: No matter where you print and distribute your hardcover book - if you create one - you'll use the same ISBN for that, too. (I recommend IngramSpark for hardback book creation and distribution.)
  • 3
    EPUB: When you distribute your ebook to Amazon using a distributor (popular choices include IngramSpark, PublishDrive, Draft2Digital, StreetLib, Bublish, Gatekeeper Press) you'll need just one ISBN for the EPUB version. That EPUB will be sent to Amazon, too. So when you assign an ISBN to your ebook, use "ebook" and not EPUB or MOBI. 
  • 4
    Audiobook: Another ISBN gets assigned to the audio edition of your book, too.
  • 5
    Special editions: If you create a special, custom edition of your book with images, links, multimedia, etc., that's one more!
  • 6
    Repeat the above for every language your book is translated in.

How to purchase your ISBNs

In the US, authors should go to the Bowker My Identifiers site and sign up for an account. Buy 10 ISBNs for $295 or 100 for $575. It costs $125 for one, and you'll need two or three for the various formats. (More on that down the page.)

 In the United States, ISBNs are expensive. In Canada, they're free. Use your search engine to find your country's ISBN registrar.

How much do ISBNs cost in the USA?

Read more on how to make your book look just like those from the traditional publishing houses in my post 20 Rookie Interior Book Design Mistakes to Avoid.

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