AUTHORS ELECTRIC HOW TO DAY - ISBNs: What they are and how to apply for them by Chris Longmuir

After taking the step of self publishing there will come a time when you need to consider ISBNs and whether you need one, and if you do where to get one and what it will cost, and whether you should avail yourself of the free ones that certain companies offer.

First of all let’s look at what an ISBN is. It means International Standard Book Number, and is what booksellers and distributors refer to when they want to order books. Each number is linked to a specific book and no other. Not only that, but different editions and different formats have a separate number. So when the bookseller or distributor orders the book identified by a specific number they know exactly what they will get.

This is the reason why paperback versions of the book have a different ISBN to the hardback, and the electronic versions. Not only that but each electronic format requires a different number as well, so the epub version of your book will have a different number to the kindle version, you could wind up with quite a few ISBNs for the same book.

It is not a legal requirement, but all paperback and hardback books require an ISBN if you intend to distribute and sell the published book. However, if you are self-publishing something solely for your family and friends, such as your memoirs, family history, or reminiscences, and the copies you produce are in limited numbers which you intend to give away, then you can print them without an ISBN. Notice I said print, rather than publish.

The good news is that while a print book requires an ISBN, you can publish an electronic book without one, depending on where you want it distributed. Amazon, for example, allow you to publish kindle ebooks without an ISBN, however if you want to sell your books through the Apple iBookstore, or the Sony Bookstore they will not accept them without an ISBN. I’m not sure about some of the other ebooksellers. I publish my kindle ebooks without an ISBN because the kindle format is not accepted by other booksellers. However, I ensure my epubs all have an ISBN because I want them to be widely distributed.

There are some free options for ISBNs, but the use of these can be restrictive. For example, Createspace will allocate you a free ISBN for your paperback book, but this then makes them your publisher. The same with Smashwords, their free ISBN will give you access to the ebook sellers who require you to have one. But again, this means that Smashwords becomes the publisher of this version of your ebook. You cannot take either the Createspace or Smashwords ISBN and use it elsewhere. It belongs to the company who allocated it to you. So, if you do another epub version of your ebook and use the Kobo publishing platform, you need another ISBN, and you will now have two epub versions of your book with two different ISBNs. The same goes for the Createspace ISBN, it restricts you from asking your local publisher to provide additional copies of your book.

Of course, you can buy your ISBNs and become your own publisher. This way you can use Createspace, to print your books for the Amazon market, and also publish copies in the UK through a local printing firm to avoid the shipping charges, as all author copies come from the US. By owning your own ISBN you also get included on the Nielsen database and get orders from outlets that are not controlled by Amazon. The only snag is the cost, because you have to buy ISBNs in blocks of ten, or multiples of ten.

The ISBN registration agency for the UK is Nielsen, click here to be taken to the website. The US agency is called Bowker, but I have had no dealings with Bowker, although I would think the process must be similar. Everything I write here is related to a British application.

The easiest way to apply is to download the ISBN application form from the Nielsen website, they also have a PDF providing guidance on how to fill the form in. Click here for the ISBN Guidance Notes. This is where you’ll find the page which contains the links for the guidance notes and the application forms. You can apply by post, online or by email, but the usual way they issue the ISBN numbers is by email, and you have to allow at least 10 days for the processing.

ISBNs are only sold in blocks of ten or above, you cannot buy an individual ISBN number. At the current time a block of ten costs £126.

The ISBNs are supplied by Nielsen to publishers, which means you have to become a small publisher for the purposes of obtaining the ISBNs, however this is not a problem. You can put your author name in as publisher, or give yourself a different name as publisher, whichever you prefer. The form is relatively easy to fill in, but they do require you to send two of the first pages of your book. The pages they require are the title page and the title verso. The title page should contain the author’s name, the book title, and the publisher’s name. The verso should contain copyright and publishing information. The publishing statement should read something like –“Published by (publisher’s name inserted)”. The guidance, however, is very clear about what is expected.

Once you have bought your ISBNs, Nielsen include you on their database, and you can go into it and add your covers. The Nielsen database is excellent for getting you orders for your book because this is what all the booksellers consult when they are looking for a title.

So what do I do with my books? Well, for my paperbacks I bought my ISBNs, became my own publisher – Barker & Jansen (it’s still me) – and I have negotiated with a local printer for copies to be published in the UK. I couldn’t do that if I’d taken the free one. My kindle books I publish without an ISBN, and I use Smashwords to distribute to other booksellers, using their free ISBN.

Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention it, I do get sales through the Nielsen database, mainly from Gardners and Bertrams, UK distributors of books, although the orders are usually for individual copies.

Chris Longmuir


Mari Biella said…
Very clear and helpful advice, Chris - thank you.
Melanie said…
Great advice, Chris.

Here in Canada we can get our ISBNs free through Library and Archives Canada. The first time you apply, the process takes about 10 days but after that, it's almost instantaneous.

Lydia Bennet said…
top post Chris! very clear and helpful. I decided not to have isbn for ebooks, but of course I do for published dead tree books.

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