The ISBN Zone


One area of this whole self-publishing, Print On Demand, e-book thing that seems to still be mired in confusion is the whole question of ISBNs. I myself am still confused about it, so let’s see if we can work it out all, shall we? I’ve mined the magical interweb for the answers to my ISBN questions, but they aren’t always presented in the most straight-forward way. So if you know anything better, or can confirm or correct, please do let me know in the comments below.

What is an ISBN?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. This 10 or 13 digit numerical identifier helps catalogue, track and, um, identify various editions of books.

Although not legally required, in order for your book to be distributed and sold through the same channels as a ‘properly’ published book, you need to have one. It normally appears on the copyright page and above the barcode on the back of the book.

And we have W.H. Smith to thank for them. Who knew?

Peter Paranoia

An ISBN normally appears alongside the copyright notice, but it has nothing to do with ownership. The main purpose of an ISBN is to identify, whereas copyright serves to protect.

As long as the self-publishing service you use operates a non-exclusive agreement (and it should), you have nothing to worry about with regards to ownership or your rights. For example: if you take a free ISBN from Createspace, they own the ISBN (and so you can’t use it with anyone else) but they do not own your work.

I have seen countless self-publishers get their independent knickers in a right twist over ISBNs, and while some concern (however unfounded) over the ownership of your work is perfectly natural, being wildly paranoid about scenarios that have about as much chance of transpiring as I do of getting an urge to run a marathon (or anything, or anywhere) is just plain crazy.

So stop worrying about what whether or not taking a free ISBN will affect your future Universal Studios movie rights/NBC sitcom development deal contract negotiations and come back and join the rest of us in the real world – where we’re selling books.

ISBNs and Createspace

Createspace, the Print On Demand arm of Amazon, offer self-publishers four ISBN options:

  1. A free ISBN. Createspace will be your publisher of record, although ‘Createspace’ won’t appear anywhere in your book unless you put it there, but it will appear on your Amazon (and other) listings. This is what I did, and what I recommend you do – especially if you’re only going to be publishing a book or two. This is the lowest cost, fewest headaches way to self-print, and that’s the only way I’m for.
  2. A custom ISBN ($10 and US residents only). You get to choose the publisher of record, i.e. make up your own publishing house name, and although with this option your book won’t be eligible for inclusion in the Libraries and Academic Institution distribution channels, you’re still in for all the important ones, like online booksellers. You can only use this ISBN with Createspace.
  3. A custom universal ISBN ($99 and US residents only). Like No. 2, but you can use it with any publisher, e.g. if you decide to do a second print run with a difference service, you can use the same ISBN. (I think! But then what else could it mean? Answers on a postcard please.)
  4. Provide your own ISBN.

Your ISBN goes at the top of your copyright page, and Createspace’s all-seeing computers will rifle through your interior file to make sure it’s there before you’ll be allowed to order a proof copy.

You’ll also find that as your Amazon listing begins to build, the ISBN will be the quickest way to find it.

You can read all about Createspace’s ISBN options here.

ISBNs and Amazon KDP

ISBNs are not required to publish an e-book with Amazon KDP. They will automatically assign you a 10-digit ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number) which helps track your ebook on its sites. Mine, for example, is B003BNZC10.

You do not need to insert this into your e-book file.

There is a field during the title set-up process for you to put an ISBN in, if you already own one, but you don’t need to. And since you can only use each ISBN once, why waste it on an edition that doesn’t even require it?

You cannot use an ISBN you have already used on a print or any other edition but you can put something in your e-book like, ‘A print edition of this title (ISBN-XXXXXXXXXX) is also available.’

ISBNs and Smashwords

You don’t need an ISBN to publish an e-book with Smashwords, but you do need one to sell your e-book in their Premium Catalogue. So ah, basically yes, actually, you do need one!

Smashwords offers three ISBN options:

  1. Use your own
  2. Take a free one. Your book must be eligible for their Premium Catalogue (i.e. past their Premium Catalogue entrance exam) in order for you to receive one of these free ISBNs and, as with Createspace above, this will register Smashwords as the publishers of record
  3. Acquire a premium ISBN from Smashwords ($9.95 and only available to US residents) that registers you as the publisher of record. Again, your book must be eligible for inclusion in Smashwords’ Premium Catalogue in order to purchase this.

You can find out more about Smashwords’ ISBN options on their FAQ page.

My ISBN Tattoo

If some day in the dreamy future I get a book deal and become an international best-selling author and then find a time machine that lets me go back and slip a copy of my book into the pocket of one of Oprah’s producers and then use some sort of Jedi mind trick on them to get an invite to the show, I would SO get a tattoo of the ISBN on that book.

How cool would that be?

Answer: VERY.

Click here to read all my self-printing posts.

Click here to read about Mousetrapped, the book I self-printed.

9 thoughts on “The ISBN Zone

  1. yasminselena says:

    I recently discovered that if you wish to published directly with KOBO ( Canada based e-publishers) and also Waterstones online ( UK store) you also need an ISBN.

    I love your posts by the way. I am a relative newbie to you Catherine, but really appreciate the massive amount of time and effort you put in to sharing your knowledge.

    I’ve got my own debut, Gunshot Glitter, coming out soon and it’s hair-raising but also exciting navigating this virgin terrain for the first time : )

  2. J.M. Kearns says:

    I’ve been researching the ISBN question: it looks like I’m about to self-publish several books and I need to know whether to spend the steep bucks (now $125 for one ISBN or $275 for ten) to get my own. There is oodles of talk about this on Createspace forums. But I also found a helpful blog that includes the following. I am not sure, though, which bibliographic databases the writer is talking about, or how important they are in real life to typical self-publishers. Thoughts?

    “2 Reasons to Own Your Own ISBNs

    Most of the self-publishers I’ve worked with are setting up their own publishing companies and funding their project in the expectation of becoming profitable. In every case I’ve advised them to buy their own ISBNs. Here’s why:

    The ISBN contains within it a “publisher identifier.” This enables anyone to locate the publisher of any particular book or edition. If you use a “free” ISBN from an author services company or a subsidy publisher, that company will be identified in bibliographic databases as the publisher.
    Owning your own ISBNs gives you the ability to control the bibliographic record for your book. This is an important part of your book’s metadata, and is a key component in your book being discoverable by online searchers. This has a powerful influence on your efforts to attract search engine traffic to your title.”

    The blog is and is by Joel Friedlander.

  3. Klaus says:

    Hey Catherine,
    thanks for your great post. To understand you correctly: Isn´t it a big disadvantage of the CreateSpace-ISBN, that you can only use this ISBN (and thus the whole book) within Createspace then?!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I don’t understand what you mean. The CS assigned ISBN is free and CS distributes the book to Amazon. You can’t use the same ISBN elsewhere (eg. Lulu) but you can publish your book as many times as you like wherever you like so long as you get a different ISBN for each edition and only use services with non-exclusive agreements, which CS has. What’s the probłem?

  4. Klaus says:

    Hey Catherine,
    I see. I didn´t think of the possibility of having different editions. Stupid me! 😉

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