Ep 04: ISBNs for Self-Publishers

Join us as we discuss the importance of ISBNs for self-publishers, including where to buy an ISBN, how many ISBNs you’ll need, and the importance of owning your ISBN yourself.

Your ISBN is how you sell your book, which makes it one of the most important pieces to self-publishing. It's a product number that identifies your book from other books and even from different formats of the same book. If book sales are part of your self-publishing author goals, you'll need to know about this essential piece of the self-publishing pie.


Robin Cutler [00:00:09] Welcome to Go Publish Yourself, an IngramSpark podcast. Hello, I am Robin Cutler, the Director of IngramSpark.

Justine Bylo [00:00:17] And I'm Justine Bylo, and I manage our Author Acquisitions Program.

Robin Cutler [00:00:21] Well, Justine, we have a topic today that, I'm just going to say it right out, this is not a sexy topic.

Justine Bylo [00:00:29] Oh man, not sexy.

Robin Cutler [00:00:32] But, like sex, it sells. What you really need to know, we are going to talk about today on ISBNs. ISBN actually stands for International Standard Book Number, in case you never knew that. Did you know what ISBN stood for?

Justine Bylo [00:00:50] I think I got a few of the letters, but not all of them.

Robin Cutler [00:00:53] Yeah, I know, and ISBNs have been around for probably more than 50 years now. An ISBN is nothing more than, like a SKU, a product number for books.

Justine Bylo [00:01:06] It's just the identification number for your book, essentially?

Robin Cutler [00:01:10] Yes.

Justine Bylo [00:01:11] Okay.

Robin Cutler [00:01:12] And the "I," as I said, stands for International, so there's just things you need to know about ISBNs, and one of the things we want to cover today is the importance of ISBNs related to your own published book as an indie author.

Justine Bylo [00:01:30] That's a great topic. Definitely not sexy, but important.

Robin Cutler [00:01:35] Let's get started here. One of the things you need to know, where it says "International," is ISBNs are basically country-specific, so where you get your ISBN depends on what country you reside in. So, here in the U.S., there's a company called Bowker, which is spelled B-O-W-K-E-R. Bowker is the entity in the U.S. that provide ISBNs to U.S. citizens. In Canada, ISBNs are actually generated and provided by the Canadian government. In the U.S., citizens pay for the ISBN. If you're lucky enough to be a Canadian citizen, you actually get your ISBN for free.

Justine Bylo [00:02:27] Oh, Canada!

Robin Cutler [00:02:28] I know.

Justine Bylo [00:02:29] Canada.

Robin Cutler [00:02:30] Canada always does it a little bit better, don't they?

Justine Bylo [00:02:32] I know!

Robin Cutler [00:02:33] And in this case, Canada definitely... But Canada is not the only country, there's many countries around the world that actually think that creating a book, authoring a book, is actually a cultural activity that they want to encourage their citizens to engage in.

Justine Bylo [00:02:50] Oh, wow.

Robin Cutler [00:02:51] And so that's why they offer free ISBNs in certain countries.

Justine Bylo [00:02:55] If I have a U.S. ISBN that doesn't mean I can just sell my book in the U.S., correct?

Robin Cutler [00:03:00] That's correct, so the "I" in ISBN, like I said before, means International, so it means that, once you have an ISBN that ISBN is used to sell your book globally, so that's something to keep in mind.

Justine Bylo [00:03:15] Good to know!

Robin Cutler [00:03:16] Yeah, so why do you need an ISBN?

Justine Bylo [00:03:18] Yeah, why do you?

Robin Cutler [00:03:20] You need an ISBN, just like if you're selling any product, you need an ISBN that distinguishes your book from any other book in the marketplace. That's why it's important. Retailers, libraries, online stores like an Amazon, Walmart, whoever; when they want to buy your book, they will actually purchase it by the ISBN number.

Justine Bylo [00:03:46] Oh. If I have a paperback version of my book and a hardcover version of my book, do I need two separate ISBNs then?

Robin Cutler [00:03:54] Yes, you do, and I'm so happy you asked that because a lot of people don't know that. Yes, for every format of your book, for every book that you distribute or put out into the marketplace, you will need a separate ISBN that distinguishes each edition from the other.

Justine Bylo [00:04:14] So eBook, paperback, hardcover ...

Robin Cutler [00:04:17] Large print, any kind of special gift edition, coloring book edition, they all need their own separate ISBNs. You can see it doesn't take long before you've racked up four or five different ISBNs that you need for every version of your book.

Justine Bylo [00:04:38] Yeah, and it's important to have the multiple formats, so you need to have multiple ISBNs.

Robin Cutler [00:04:42] Yes, so, like I said, here in the U.S., you can purchase your ISBNs, and this is the least expensive way to purchase, is to buy a block of ISBNs from Bowker, that's bowker.com. I think you can buy a block of 10 for right under $300.

Justine Bylo [00:05:05] Yeah, I think a pack of 10 is actually the least expensive, more bang for your buck, essentially. You can buy them, I think, in five also, if you are only doing one book or one and a half books.

Robin Cutler [00:05:19] It's an investment in your book as an indie author and a publisher of your own work. It's definitely an investment that you have to make.

Justine Bylo [00:05:28] And a lot of companies give them away for free. How do you feel about that?

Robin Cutler [00:05:34] Depending on what your plans are as an author, as a publisher down the road that might work for some length of time for you, but the other thing to remember about an ISBN is that it lives the life of that book. As long as you are still the publisher of that content, the ISBN is the same ISBN for the life of the book, so it can last a long time. And there are different places online that you can go and get a free ISBN, but that ISBN will be attached to wherever you got that free ISBN, whatever service you got that from.

Justine Bylo [00:06:19] You won't own your ISBN?

Robin Cutler [00:06:23] No, and it might be okay for some period of time, but, generally, we hear from most authors they wish they hadn't done it that way. They wish they had owned it from the very beginning, and that way, whenever they go to distribute, they're not kind of tied to that entity.

Justine Bylo [00:06:39] Exactly.

Robin Cutler [00:06:40] That's just something to remember, and IngramSpark, we do sell single ISBNs for $85, which Bowker sells that same ISBN for about $150, so it's a discounted price, which is really good.

Justine Bylo [00:06:55] Everyone loves a discount! That's good!

Robin Cutler [00:06:58] Yeah, so that's a positive thing, but, like I said, if you're putting your book into multiple formats, you're going to need multiple ISBNs.

Justine Bylo [00:07:06] Yeah, and that's where the 10-pack comes in.

Robin Cutler [00:07:08] Yeah, I think so. The other thing to know about ISBNs, so say you self-publish or you're an indie author, you create your book, you put it out in the marketplace, and then you get a publishing deal with a traditional publisher. What will happen is, your ISBN will be basically turned off, and that new publisher will republish your book under their ISBN, so it gives the book a whole new life.

Justine Bylo [00:07:43] Oh, and that can happen in reverse too, right?

Robin Cutler [00:07:47] Yes, so talk about the reversal, what that would look like.

Justine Bylo [00:07:51] If you get your rights reverted back to you as a traditionally published author from your publishing house, it will have that ISBN that they originally put on the book. But, if you have your rights reverted back to you, you then become the publisher and you would go out and buy a new ISBN for that book and change that information and make the book your own and give it a new life.

Robin Cutler [00:08:14] Yes, at Ingram, every book that's in distribution, whether it be a print book of various formats or an ebook, like we said, requires its own ISBN. That's just something you should just plan, just write that down in your budgeting, that you're going to have to invest in that.

Justine Bylo [00:08:36] Yes, absolutely.

Robin Cutler [00:08:37] As well as the editing, the cover design, that sort of thing that you're going to have to do.

Justine Bylo [00:08:43] Yes, it's a necessary, important cost associated with publishing.

Robin Cutler [00:08:49] What else can we say about ISBNs? Is there anything else to say? How important it is? I would say that, if you're listening to us now, just plan on it. You don't have to worry about an ISBN ahead of writing your book. Go ahead and finish the writing, have it edited, have it designed, but there will be a barcode that the designer has to put on the back of your book.

Justine Bylo [00:09:21] Well, at Spark, we do it for them.

Robin Cutler [00:09:22] Yes, we do, but that's something you have to remember. Look at a book on your bookshelf. You'll see that there's a barcode on the back of that book, and it will have the ISBN as the barcode.

Justine Bylo [00:09:35] And sometimes you can buy those barcodes from Bowker, but here at IngramSpark, if you leave a space for that barcode on the back of the book, we will put it in for you, which makes the process a lot easier.

Robin Cutler [00:09:46] Yeah, so you don't need to invest in that.

Justine Bylo [00:09:48] No!

Robin Cutler [00:09:49] That's true, and what's your thoughts about adding the price into the barcode? Are you for or against that? What do you think?

Justine Bylo [00:09:58] I'm actually kind of against it, because you could price your book at one thing, and it's not performing how you hoped in the market and you want to do a price change. Well, then you would have to go and change your barcode and do a revision on your cover, and I think it just makes things more complicated. Not putting it in gives you a little bit of freedom to play with the price in the marketplace.

Robin Cutler [00:10:21] Yes, because that book with that barcode, any bookseller will be able to scan it and find the price on your book.

Justine Bylo [00:10:28] Exactly.

Robin Cutler [00:10:28] Like, if that's in the Ingram catalog.

Justine Bylo [00:10:28] Exactly.

Robin Cutler [00:10:31] Okay, so what else do we want to say? I think...

Justine Bylo [00:10:35] Oh, I have an important thing.

Robin Cutler [00:10:37] Oh, you do?

Justine Bylo [00:10:38] Yes, if you are an author who has had their rights reverted back to them and the publishing company is letting you keep the ISBN, don't do it, and here's why: you will be responsible for any returns associated with that book. You never know how many that's going to be and that could really put a dent in your wallet, so, if you are getting a book back, always put a new ISBN on it.

Robin Cutler [00:11:04] Yes, that's really good advice, Justine. I'm glad you mentioned that. The ISBN travels the full length of the book, the full life of the book, so you need to know what you're doing when it comes to that. So, I encourage you, as an author, to do the very best publishing practices and number one on my list is to own your own ISBN.

Justine Bylo [00:11:29] Yeah.

Robin Cutler [00:11:30] I think we exhausted this topic.

Justine Bylo [00:11:32] Yes, it's been riveting.

Robin Cutler [00:11:36] Not sexy, but riveting.

Justine Bylo [00:11:37] Yes.

Robin Cutler [00:11:38] Okay, so thank you all for joining us today on this riveting episode of ISBNs. Follow us on Twitter (@IngramSpark), on Facebook, sign up for our blog at IngramSpark.com. I think our blog is the best one in all of indie publishing, and you'll learn a lot, so I encourage you to do that. And, until next time, thank you for listening.

Justine Bylo [00:12:02] Thanks for listening.


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