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?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
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:
- Use your own
- 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
- 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?