In my work with self-publishing authors, I find there are some misunderstandings about what an ISBN is.
It is common knowledge that ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, but aside from that, what does it mean and do you have to have one?
YES – you have to have an ISBN if you are going to market your book through a retailer.
The ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is 13 digits if assigned on or after January 1, 2007, and 10 digits if assigned before that date. It is unique to every book or edition. It is the way all book retailers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors catalog books and their editions, and how someone looking for a particular edition can tell which edition they’re actually getting. Book re-sellers will not print or distribute a book without an ISBN.
ISBNs do not expire. If you have a 10-digit number issued before 2007, those numbers are still valid.
You need a separate ISBN for a print book, a separate ISBN for a soft cover and a hard cover, a CD, DVD, and for a book to which you make major changes. Currently ISBNs are not required for electronic books, such as Kindle, but they do add credibility and they may be required in the future.
NO – you don’t have to have an ISBN:
If you are handling the printing yourself and distributing your book only through your own resources: As a company, only to your employees or as giveaways to clients; back-of-the-room sales only; for family and friends; or any other distribution other than through retailers.
This includes if you are distributing your book only through electronic means. For example, if you write a book, but offer it for sale only through your website, you will not need an ISBN.
What does ISBN represent?
An ISBN represents a national or geographic grouping of publishers, identifies the publisher, identifies a particular title or edition of a title and the last single digit validates the ISBN. The key element here is the identify of the publisher. If you use an ISBN assigned to someone else, you will probably not be able to use that same ISBN number with another publisher, or you may incur additional costs.
Can you give your ISBN away?
You can’t give away or “gift” your ISBNs, but you can distribute them to your heirs in your will. Although a block of ISBNs can pass down to your heirs, blocks cannot be split among heirs; the whole block (or whatever is left) can only be assigned to one heir.
A block is determined at the time you purchase your ISBNs, i.e., currently you can purchase one ISBN for $125.00, 10 ISBNs for $250 or 100 for $575. Each of those designations would be considered a “block.” If you think you might want to distribute your ISBNs to different heirs, you might want to consider buying them in more than one block, i.e., instead of buying 10 ISBNs in one block, buy 5 instead of 10, even though they will cost you more because they are discounted by the number in a block.
Most Print On Demand companies will provide an ISBN free, and this may work for you. But be wary of it and know what you are obligating yourself to. Usually if you select to use this “free” ISBN, that source will be listed as the publisher and you may be limited in the places where you can market or publish your book.
Bowker, Inc. is the only official issuing agency in the US. If you purchase an ISBN through another agency, individual or company, beware. That company will then be listed as the publisher of record.
The only exceptions to this are certain companies such as CreateSpace who have purchased large blocks of ISBNs sold through My Identifier, which is owned by Bowker. See their Custom Universal ISBN option to purchase one ISBN for $99.
Be very wary of buying an ISBN from anyone other than Bowker, except as noted above. If you do, the person from whom you buy it will always be listed as the publisher. It is much better for a buyer to purchase their own ISBNs through Bowker and not have to be concerned with where they can market their book or who is listed as the publisher.
If you publish your book through a traditional publisher, you also need to be wary because they will use their publisher’s ISBNs and if something happens to the relationship or to their company, you may have problems retaining the rights of ownership to your book. I have heard horror stories of authors to whom this has happened when their publishing company went bankrupt.