ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It is a numeric, commercial, book identifier, that is intended to be unique. Publishers purchase ISBNs from affiliates of the International ISBN Agency, and then the ISBN is assigned to each separate edition of a title intended for print or publication.
The purpose of the ISBN is to establish and identify one title or edition of a title, from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition. This allows for more efficient marketing of tiles by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers, and distributors.
Fun fact: For more than thirty years, ISBNs were 10 digits long. On January 1, 2007 the ISBN system switched to a 13-digit format. Now all ISBNs are 13-digits in length.
In addition to the reasons mentioned above, it may also be necessary to apply for a new ISBN for other reasons. These include making substantial changes that would qualify as a new edition of your book. If you are changing to a different publisher, they will require a new ISBN. If you want to change your book title. Or if you are creating a new version of your title in a different language.
If you are going down the traditional publisher route, your publisher will be your book’s publisher of record. However, if you are self-publishing, you do have the option of using an ISBN assigned by your publishing service company (e.g., Lulu.com, CreateSpace or Kobo), in this case this company will appear as the publisher of record.
This is useful to know when creating eBooks and entering in the publisher’s information. If you make a mistake and enter a different name as the publisher, when it comes time for the database to electronically approve global distribution, it may get rejected.
The advantage of self-publishing, is that your publishing service company can assign your book an ISBN at no cost, as is the case with Lulu.com. This is tempting to self-publishing authors, especially first-time authors who are unsure of their market’s size and may rather spend their money on professional book editing and design services.
There are several advantages to getting your own ISBN. One of these is maintaining complete control over what is entered in your book’s metadata; the descriptions and categories that help libraries, bookstores, and readers worldwide, discover your book and decide whether they want to purchase it.
In today's digital world, your book’s metadata can hugely impact its chances of being located and purchased by your target audience. This is an advantage to self-published authors who do not have the marketing and distribution capabilities of a traditional publisher to fall back on. But not that it really matters…
These day’s we’ve all become masters at self-marketing, promoting, and raising awareness through social media and other paid avenues such as campaigns and adds. Some writers even travel and sign books, promoting who we are as authors as well as representing the company we have chosen to self-publish through. For more about this, see the section in this book about expos and conventions.
As a self-publisher, you will be the publisher of record, therefore; your ISBN will remain unchanged even if you change your publishing service company or publish with multiple companies. Publishers and self-publishers are required to report all information about titles to which they have assigned ISBNs to, at the time of registration.
An ISBN cannot be re-used even if the book goes out of print. It is also important to note that an ISBN is different to a barcode. While the ISBN serves as a unique book identifier, sellers of physical books use barcodes to manage their inventory by reading the barcode at the time of purchase and sale. Several free tools are available online to convert an ISBN into a bar code. You can also get a bar code from the agency that supplied you the ISBN.
As mentioned, you can purchase your own ISBN, or even do without an ISBN if you are only looking to print books, or sell ebooks through retailers who don’t require it.
Any individual or organization with orders or inquiries regarding your book will approach the publisher of record, which is connected to the metadata book database. If you are with a traditional publisher, they will take this inquiry, but they may also take a cut of royalties. If you are the self-publisher, you reap the financial rewards as well as controlling visibility of potential sales.
If you are printing copies of your book for a limited circle of family and friends and will be selling directly to them, or if you are only selling the ebook version through retailers who are flexible about ISBNs, you don’t need an ISBN.
You can draw encouragement from this data found on Google, from the US (Wikipedia):
43% of ebooks purchased on Amazon.com do not have ISBNs.
24% of all ebook dollars on Amazon.com go to books without ISBNs.
US consumers are spending $550 million per year on ebooks without ISBNs.
As online bookstores gain in popularity, compared to brick-and-mortar stores, the future for ebooks looks promising. However, if you are a serious writer there may be some downsides to not having an ISBN.
For example, your book won’t be accessible to the section of your audience that prefers actual books. A few online retailers may not stock your ebook, which would hurt sales, and your book won’t be listed in Books in Print, a vast bibliographic database of book titles that aids in the search and discovery of books. In saying that, if your ebook sales take, you can always apply for an ISBN later and launch multiple versions to maximize distribution channels and sales.
Each country has an agency that issues ISBNs. Bowker is the official ISBN agency for the US, whereas authors in the UK can approach Nielsen. Prices vary with quantity; a block of 1000 has a lower per-ISBN cost, than a block of 10 or a single ISBN.
So just remember...
1. While ISBNs are not necessary to sell ebooks, printed books cannot be sold without an ISBN.
2. Each version of your book would need a separate ISBN
3. Purchasing a block of 10 would be more cost-effective than purchasing one.
Finally, YOU are in control of your title, and you have choices, so take the time to ensure you have made the right one for you, and the direction of your literary vision.