The Weird World of ISBN’s

ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is the identifier you see on the backs of books. It ISBNallows each edition of a book to be uniquely identified.

If you’re traditionally published, the publisher takes care of this for you, but if you choose to self-publish, you have to handle it yourself.

Since I plan to start releasing books this summer, it’s time for me to acquire the necessary ISBN’s. In the U.S., there’s only one place that sells ISBN’s, an organization called Bowker.

So that makes it easy, right?

Not so fast. Here is the pricing structure for ISBNs:

Quantity:   1      Price: $   125.00

Quantity: 10      Price: $   295.00

Quantity 100:    Price: $   575.00

Quantity 1000:  Price: $ 1000.00

I know what you’re thinking, because it’s exactly what I thought: huh?

That’s right. A single ISBN costs a hundred and twenty-five dollars, but if you buy a thousand, they’re a buck apiece.

Because of this pricing, it’s really important to accurately estimate the quantity you’re going to need. Let’s do some math.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, you need a unique ISBN for each edition of each book you publish. So, if you’re going to publish an e-book and a paperback, you need two. If you also plan to do an audio version, that’s another ISBN. Hardback? (Probably only if you’re traditionally published)–another ISBN.

Also, if you later release an updated edition, say with a new cover, that’s a whole new set of ISBN’s.

Right now, I’m planning to publish two, possibly three, books this year. Initially, I plan to make them available both as e-books and as paperbacks. If sales justify it, I may also release them as audio books later.

So, 3 books x 3 formats = 9 ISBNs.

If that were the end of my publishing plans, the ten-pack might make the most sense. But I intend to write and release a total of nine books in my Touched by a Demon series as well as half-a-dozen contemporary romances set in the small, fictional town of Russet Springs. I also have plans for a couple of women’s fiction books.

Now we’re looking at (9 + 6 + 2) * 3 = 51 ISBN’s

At this point, it seems safe enough to go with a quantity of a hundred. I have to say, though, if I suddenly become prolific and manage to push out twice as many books as expected, I’m really going to regret paying $5.75 per ISBN when I could have gotten them for a dollar.

Maybe we should form a collective–Eight Ladies Publishing–and buy a thousand.


24 thoughts on “The Weird World of ISBN’s

  1. I found this article to be incredibly informative about ISBNs. While splitting the cost of ISBNs among several people may sound like a good idea, check into it first, because the number identifies the publisher and I’m not sure if you want any name but your own listed (you may be fine with that…I’m just saying it’s worth looking at the pros/cons).

  2. Like Justine, I plan to buy my own ISBNs, because I want to be the publisher of record and the numbers aren’t assignable.

    For me (if I were in the US), the logical purchase would be 100 numbers, even if I planned to publish 101+. 10 wouldn’t take me very far, and the price reduction for buying 100 is significant compared to the additional cost. But if I bought 100, then even if I used 10 ISBNs per year, that’s 10 years worth. Say I used 20 per year, I’m still good for 5 years. In the meantime, I could use the $425 I didn’t spend on ISBNs to pay for covers or copy editing. Which means I could put more books up for sale and hopefully start to earn a stream of money that will pay for my next tranche of ISBNs in 5-10 years’ time.

    Of course, if you expect to use 101+ numbers and you can find the funds today to buy 1000 ISBNs and still afford all the other start-up costs, that would be the way to go 😉

  3. PS You have to buy ISBNs in your home country. They’re free in Canada (I believe), sold by Bowker in the US, and Nielsen UK in the UK. The cost over here is:

    1 ISBN = £89
    10 ISBNs = £159
    100 = £359
    1000 = £949

    Interestingly, the price breaks don’t translate and the incentive to trade up to a 1,000-number block isn’t as great in the UK. Wouldn’t it be nice to be Canadian, though?

  4. LOL, I’ll get writing. The Eight Ladies Publishing Corporation has a nice ring to it, though, doesn’t it? (I think it does, but you know I’m joking. The cost of setting up a corporation when I have three and half short stories to my name sounds very daunting.)

    I thought ISBNs were free, for some reason, and just a matter of registering with the Library of Congress. But, no, they refer you to Bowker.

    Which is so weird. Why is this seemingly privatized?

    One interesting thing I noticed while skimming through the info: an ISBN can only be used once. If the work is edited (“revised edition”), it needs a new ISBN.

    And then there’s ISSN.

    So, would I need to buy my ISBNs from Japan? Ugh. What a headache! I’m sure they don’t have an English website. Oh, lovely. This looks like what I have to deal with:

      • This is excellent incentive to research things from the Japan side. I’ve already found a brochure in English from the JBPA (Japan Book Publishers Association), which I didn’t even know existed three hours ago. I am not seeing any fees in the FAQ; it might be free in Japan, too? Anyway, I’ll keep an eye out for writers in Japan who are in my situation!

        Thanks for posing the question!

  5. Sometimes ISBNs go on sale, so that’s one thing. The other thing is that you can get by pretty nicely with the unique numbers that the online publishers (i.e., Amazon, et al) will assign you if you want. ISBNs have benefits when it comes to wide distribution and library book buyers, for example, but you don’t have to use ISBNs to make money off your books or even make them discoverable. In fact, you could make an argument that for authors planning to stick with KU only, there’s no reason at all to go with ISBNs.

    I once used an ISBN for a group publishing project. It wasn’t too hard, but the book didn’t sell well, so it wasn’t much work. The three of us formed a publishing company and assigned the ISBN to the company. However, the “company” didn’t have a bank account, so we used the corporate account that one of us has. Then when the money rolled in, 🙂 it went to that account, and we had to trust her to divide up the profits fairly. Which of course she did.

    I’m not at all advising that we do this, but the Ladies could form a publishing company and share a block of ISBNs. But that doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to deal with the headaches a group company would create.

    • Although I plan to start in KU, I don’t want to block myself into strictly Amazon.

      And while it sounds like you had a good experience forming a group publishing company for a single book, that could mean a lot of headaches and hassles for the Ladies, especially since you’re the only one of us who has experience publishing.

      Sometime in the next month I’ll bite the bullet and buy 100.

    • Most self-publishing “experts” (I only put that in quotes because does any of us really know what we’re doing?) advise against using the different numbers assigned by the different companies (i.e., Kobo, Amazon, etc.). Any company who offers an ISBN (and many do) ends up being the publisher of record. And I think Amazon, et. al. has their claws deep enough into all of us. I don’t need them to be the publisher of record, too. 😉

  6. Have any of you run across people using an ISBN when selling a short story or novella? I don’t see one on “The Flowers of Vashnoi” (the only short-fiction I’ve got on my new computer right now). There’s just a copyright notice with a c-in-a-circle. I think I’ll ask . . . .

      • Thanks! Thanks to you, I see it’s got an Amazon Standard Identification Number, and a BN ID over at Barnes and Noble. I don’t see anything on iTunes, but that may be more hidden. These aren’t mentioned on the e-novella itself. I think Amazon and B&N assigns these numbers for internal convenience. I see on Wikipedia that an e-book won’t use its ISBN for its ASIN, but the link to Amazon Affiliates doesn’t have anything readily available about ASINs or ISBNs.

        I think short stories must follow different rules, and maybe e-books do as well.

        • Nope, short stories and novellas are the same as long form, no matter if it’s ebook, paperback, hard cover, or audio book. If you publish it, it needs a unique identifying number. You can use the unique (free) numbers the platforms provide, as Bujold evidently did for “The Flowers of Vashnoi,” or you can buy an ISBN. There’s pluses and minuses to either decision.

          Also, just fyi, if you look at the details on the indie-pubbed books at Amazon (I didn’t look at the other platforms), Amazon is no longer listed as the “Publisher.” Now the author is the “Publisher,” and the “Sold by:” section is “Amazon Digital Services, LLC.” Interestingly enough, on some of my books, there’s no Publisher listed at all, there’s just a “Sold by.”

        • These numbers are free numbers assigned by the companies that own them. The problem with using them is that if I search by ASIN or Barnes and Noble’s ID, it will only show me the book at that selling location. I do not get to purchase that book at the retailer of my choice (unless I go searching for it by title at the retailer of my choice), because there is not one unique identifier across all selling platforms. Also, how can I be sure it’s not the same book or an updated version if the numbers are different at every selling location? If you use an ISBN, that number has to be replaced with a new one if you issue a new edition of your book.

          You can use an ISBN for any published book. It doesn’t matter whether the book is a 900 page novel or a 10 page short story.

          In Lois’s case, she may decide not to use an ISBN for a short story, preferring to save them for her longer length novels. But I’m totally guessing.

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