Self-Publishing: Should You Get An ISBN?

There are a lot of fiddly little details you have to worry about when publishing a book, and one of those many details is the small matter of your ISBN.

What’s an ISBN? Well, an ISBN is an an International Standard Book Number, which you’ll find on the barcode on the back of a book, and oftentimes its copyright page too. If you’re traditionally publishing, or publishing through a small indie company, congratulations! You don’t have to worry about getting an ISBN because your publisher should take care of that for you. But as a self-published author, this is one of the details you’re going to have to handle yourself.

So why would you need an ISBN for, anyway?

Having an ISBN attached to your book is that it makes your book that much easier to put into useful databases. Libraries won’t typically take books without ISBNs, many publishing platforms want you to have one, and it may make it easier for people to search and locate your book.

If you live in North America (like I do), then the only place you can purchase ISBNs from is a distributor named Bowker. Since it’s the sole distributor in this area, Bowker has a stranglehold over the market, and has full control over the price of an ISBN. Which means that they can decide that…

  • One ISBN is $125.
  • Ten ISBNs is $295.
  • A hundred ISBNs is $575.
  • And a thousand ISBNs is $1500.

So depending on which option you go with, any individual ISBN can be worth anywhere from $1.5 to $125. That’s a dramatic price difference!

Real talk — you, as a self-published author, will almost never have a situation where you want to have exactly on ISBN and no more. Why? Because individual ISBNs apply only to a specific published variation of a book. If you want to publish an ebook, a paperback, and an audiobook of your story, these three versions cannot use the same ISBN. You’ll need a separate number for each. So one ISBN won’t do it. And if you plan on self-publishing more than four or five books in your lifetime, ten won’t be enough either.

But a thousand ISBNs might be a little more than most individual authors will go through; it’s an option intended for publishing companies who need to buy ISBNs cheaply in bulk in order to publish multiple books by multiple authors every year. A thousand dollars is also harder for most people to budget for than five hundred.

So for most self-published authors, I would recommend the hundred-ISBN option.

Let’s say you’re not sure you if you want ISBNs attached to your books or not yet. Under what circumstances can you forego them?

Well, if you are strapped for cash and not intending to submit your books to any database or marketplace where having an ISBN is a hard requirement, then you can manage without one… but frankly, the only platform that I’m certain will let you self-publish paid books without an ISBN is Amazon, who will lend you a free AISN (Amazon Standard Identification Number) instead.

If you opt for an AISN only, your book is going to be Amazon-exclusive by default. No other platforms (that I’m aware of) accept AISNs instead of ISBNs.

Since I wanted enough ISBNs to last me a while, and I personally didn’t want to publish exclusively with Amazon, I am now a woman who owns a hundred ISBNs! Since I’ve already registered Shadow Herald‘s physical and ebook versions to an ISBN, I can tell you that there’s more good news about ISBNs.

It’s really easy to assign ISBNs to your books through Bowker’s “My Identifiers” website.

If you already have all the information for your book, such as cover, summary, and genre — which I’d hope you’d have if you’re already going so far as to buy ISBNs — then all you have to do is assign them to an ISBN and wait for Bowker to process it and make it official. That’s all it takes.

While ISBNs aren’t necessary for every self-published author, they’re not as intimidating to approach as one might think. If you look over your publishing goals, do your research, and prepare your budget adequately, then you’ll be okay!

Don’t know anything about how to budget for publishing? This video by Jenna Moreci will teach you how to do it. And if you found this article helpful, then you can support me as a creator by buying me a Ko-fi! Thank you, and have a lovely day.

4 thoughts on “Self-Publishing: Should You Get An ISBN?

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