Everything Independent Publishers Need to Know About ISBNs for E-Books

Linda Aksomitis
Linda Aksomitis

I get many questions about ISBNs in my course, Publish and Sell Your E-Books, so I thought I’d do a blog post to answer some of them.

Let’s start with the question: What is an ISBN?

ISBN is the acronym for International Standard Book Number. These numbers are assigned by different issuing agencies around the world. So, if you’re in Canada, you need to get your number from the Canadian ISBN Service System or CISS. If you’re in the United States, you get your ISBNs from the Bowker U.S. ISBN Agency.

Another important question students ask is how much does an ISBN cost? In Canada, we’re lucky. Our ISBNs are free and very easy to get once you’re registered as a publisher. Independent authors just login to their account and generate ISBNs as they need them. Other countries charge fees, some of them quite a lot. In the U.S. it’s $125.00 for one, but $1000 for a thousand! See: https://www.myidentifiers.com/

The big question many self-publishers ask after finding out the cost is: Do I have to get an ISBN to sell my e-book?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is that it depends.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble (check under Add/Edit a title heading) will both sell your e-book using their own product numbers, so you don’t have to purchase ISBNs if they’ll be your main outlets. All you do is upload your book to their online bookstores and they generate a number that’s specific to them. These numbers are not used anywhere else. They are not ISBNs.

Many other online bookstores do require an ISBN for you to sell your e-books with them: Apple, Sony, and Kobo are some of the largest. (Note, you can give away your e-books on the Apple iBooks store without an ISBN, or you can upload book apps created with iAuthor without an ISBN)

So, what can an independent e-book author do if he or she doesn’t want to spend a $125 for an ISBN? Luckily, there are some free options.

A number of distributors or aggregators, including Smashwords (I use them), will give you a free ISBN for your EPUB format e-book. If your distributor gives you a free ISBN they are generally listed officially as the publisher, so you do need to read each agreement carefully to ensure that they aren’t asking for any rights or putting any restrictions on you. Since Bowker is selling those 1000 ISBNs at a $1, it’s an inexpensive service to provide their publishers.

See the Smashwords information on ISBNs: https://www.smashwords.com/dashboard/ISBNManager

If you get a free ISBN from your distributor, the distributor owns the number–not you. You can’t use that ISBN to upload your e-book to additional bookstores or to sell the book yourself from your own site.

There’s also one other catch to ISBNs. An ISBN number is specific to the format of the book, not the contents of the book. With traditional publishing, hardcover and paperback books have always had different ISBNs. This was required for sales to ensure that buyers and sellers could easily identify the format they wanted.

The same thing is true with e-books. You must have a different ISBN for every format of your e-book. I, for example, generate ISBNs for: MOBI (for Kindle), EPUB (to distribute through Smashwords), PDF (to sell myself), EPUB (to sell myself), and for POD (print-on-demand) paperbacks.

That means there are an awful lot of numbers identifying exactly the same book contents, doesn’t there?

If you have more questions, join me in class. A new session starts each month and is offered by community colleges around the world.

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