The ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is your book’s identification number or fingerprint. It is a 13-digit number, not a bar code. ISBNs are calculated using a specific mathematical formula and include a check digit to validate the number. ISBN information is embedded in the bar codes on the backs of books.
An ISBN tells a lot about your book. The ISBN identifies and establishes the registrant, title, edition and format of products used by publishers, bookstores, and libraries. It is important for ordering, sales reporting, and inventory control. An ISBN ensures your book's information will be stored in the Books in Print Database, which is consulted by publishers, retailers and libraries around the world. If you plan to sell your book in bookstores, to libraries, or through online retailers like Amazon.com, you will need an ISBN. An ISBN is not necessary if you do not intend to sell the book in stores (online or physical), or with wholesalers or distribute to libraries.
Each country has an agency that issues ISBNs. Bowker Identifier Services is the official ISBN Agency of the United States and its territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, as well as military bases and embassies). The cost for one ISBN is $125. The cost for 10 ISBNs $295.
Authors in the UK can approach Nielsen. To learn more about applying for an ISBN in your country click here. If an ISBN is obtained from a source other than the official ISBN Agency, it might not identify the publisher of the title accurately. This can have implications for doing business in the publishing industry supply chain.
If you plan to self-publish the same title in more than one format, then you will need an ISBN for each format (hardback, paperback and audiobook) For example, if you have an eBook, a paperback, and a hardcover version of the same title, you will need 3 unique ISBNs. It is better to buy 10 or more ISBNs if you plan to self-publish more than one book or in more than one format.
If you are making substantial textual changes that would qualify as a new edition and you will need a new ISBN.
If the book is translated into a different language you will need a new ISBN.
If you are changing your publisher, you will need a new ISBN.
If you are changing your book title you will need a new ISBN.
An ISBN cannot be re-used, even if the book in question goes out of print.
ISBNs are issued to publishers, who then assign them to individual books. Companies often purchase large blocks of ISBNs and then assign them to authors and offer them as free ISBNs in their packages. Self-publishing and first-time authors are often tempted to use an assigned ISBN thinking it is more cost effective. However, using an assigned ISBN will cost you more in the long run.
ISBNs are nontransferable. When you use an assigned ISBN the publisher of record for your book is that company, not you. So, when a book is sold, the proceeds go to the publisher on file, not you the author. The publisher usually gets most of the proceeds, and distributes a small percentage to you as royalties. Why would you pay a company to publish your book and then allow them to take most of the profits of your book sales?
An individual or organization with special orders or inquiries regarding your book will approach the publisher of record, rather than the author. You do not want anyone reaching out to another entity with large orders for your book and then that entity earns the bulk of your profits and gives you what they want you to have.
An assigned ISBN may also limit where you can print and distribute your title. If you want to be the publisher of record in book databases and catalogs, make sure you apply for your own ISBN.
Orders for your book go to the publisher of record which means that if an order comes through for your book, they get the order.
As the publisher of record, your ISBN will remain unchanged even if you change your publishing service company or publish with multiple companies.
Most people self-publish because they want to maintain control over their work. Using an assigned ISBN from another publisher means you do all the work, but they are the publisher.
The assignment of an ISBN impacts how your title is viewed in the sales and distribution system. If a self-publisher wants to be identified as the publisher, the self-publisher must get his or her own ISBN.
Should you decide to republish your book or print it at an off-set printer, you cannot without the publisher of record’s permission.
You have 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 found and purchased by your target audience. This would mean a lot to a self-published author, who do not have the marketing and distribution capabilities of a traditional publisher to fall back on.
ISBNs are not necessary to sell eBooks. Printed books, however, cannot be sold without an ISBN. Remember that each version of your book would need a separate ISBN, and purchasing a block of 10 would be more cost-effective than purchasing one.
So, there you have it. It is my opinion that it is in your best interest to be recognized as the owner of your work and a publisher in your own right. This is why I encourage the authors I work with to purchase their own ISBN. If you plan to write several books, it makes sense to take on the mantle of a publisher and have your own constant publishing imprint on your books.