to isbn or not to isbn

Okay, so I’m struggling with this question myself right now, and I thought it might help to talk it out, hopefully inform everyone else out there still trying to figure it all out.

The ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, can be found on every published book. It’s the identifier that lists the title and the publisher to the rest of the world. The numbers are actually assigned to the publisher, not the author, and are owned by the publisher, not the author. After writing a novel, and selling said novel to a publisher, the author retains copyright (typically) but sells the publishing rights – foreign, domestic, electronic, audio – to the publisher they’ve signed a contract with. The Publisher of Record owns the ISBN number that will be used to identify the book(s) and track them as they pass through the Retailer (bookstore).

When you go the “traditional” route of agent/publisher/bookstore shelves, the ISBN is just part of the deal. You don’t have to give it a second thought.

When you go it alone, it’s something you need to consider.

Your first consideration is: Do I need one? Answer: No. You don’t need an ISBN in order to produce a book at, say, Lulu and put it up for sale. Your book isn’t being listed in the Books in Print database, it’s not being displayed on the shelves of any brick-and-mortar bookstore, and no one’s gonna wander in to Barnes & Noble and ask the nice clerk behind the counter to order it for them. So you can, going this route, publish your book absolutely free, at no expense to you, and be offered up for sale, and you don’t have to fuss about any of the added extras Lulu and other sites offer.

Your second consideration is: Do I want one? Answer: Maybe. You will need an ISBN if you want your book listed in the Books in Print database. You’ll need an ISBN if you want someone to wander in to Barnes & Noble and ask the nice clerk behind the counter to order a copy for them. And you’ll need an ISBN if you, somehow, manage to talk a bookstore into carrying a few copies for sale (it can happen, but it’s another blog post). You’ll also need an ISBN if you want people to search Amazon and buy your novel. Right now, Lulu’s titles are searchable at Amazon, and folk can buy them there – but they’re technically still buying them FROM Lulu, not Amazon.

If you’ve decided your answer is Yes, there are more things to consider, and this is where the waters muddy up for me, so let’s talk it out.

If, for example because it’s the example I’m familiar with, you are using Lulu, and you decide you’d love to get an ISBN for your shiny new novel – you can buy one for $99.00. It’s real, and official, and will list Lulu as your publisher in every book database on God’s greenish blue earth. People can order you from Barnes & Noble, or go to Amazon and look you up. Your book will look and be official and all that hullabaloo, and where other books might show ACE or Tor, yours will say Lulu. While you retain all rights and ownership at Lulu, they will actually own that number.

Now, if I don’t want that — if I truly want to be an Indie artist — I have to own and control everything. And that means, I have to own my ISBN’s. And I can, so can you, by purchasing them directly in blocks of 10, 100 or 1,000. To do that, you fill out a form that lists YOU as the publisher, you pay them, and they send you a block of numbers that are uniquely your own, registered to you, listing you as the Publisher of Record. Then when you produce a title and assign one of your numbers, they list your book, your number, and you the publisher in the Books in Print database, and you become available to the whole wide world. Bookstores can order your title for a customer, or even for their shelves (don’t hold your breath, seriously, we’ll discuss that later).

And let’s not fool ourselves, there’s also a slight component of ego involved. Having an ISBN makes your book “complete”, and might even be a source of status in your mind.

So what’s the catch? Why haven’t I purchased the numbers already and what am I still debating?

Well, they’re not cheap. A block of ten will set you back $275.00, a block of 100 will cost you $995.00 and if you’re feeling ambitious, 1,000 come to a whopping $1,750.00. Now you can, officially, buy them one at a time for $110.00, but you’re directed away from the official site and sent to a broker who requires you “enroll” in a service in order to purchase the ISBN, and you must remain enrolled in their program, at a cost.

So a block of 10 it is. And when you think of it logically, it makes sense. Buying 10 ISBN’s brings the individual cost down to $27.50 each. Now you’ll need a number for your print novel, and a number for your eBook. You can’t use the same number, even on the same novel. Each variant – eBook, print, Audio, etc – requires it’s own number. And if you ever revise or alter that novel, you’ll need a whole new number. So they’re not to be used lightly.

Let’s say you have a novel, and it’ll be available in print and as an eBook. You’ll need two ISBN’s for that title. If you bought a block of 10, you’ll use 2 for this one novel, at a cost to you of $55.00 out of your $275.00. That’ll leave you 6 numbers, and if you keep this up – eBook and print – you’ll have enough for 4 more titles.

It’s not hard at all to fill out the paperwork and order a block of 10 ISBN’s as a publisher. The paperwork is pretty minimal. Your name and address, the company name you’re using as Publisher, a contact name and phone number for Rights & Permissions and a few other very simple, minor details. You’ll also have the opportunity to purchase an EAN Bar Code at the same time – what a Bar Code does for you is allows a bookstore to carry your title on their shelves, and sell/track it. We know the chances of that happening, and they cost $25.00 EACH, so we don’t bother (well, I don’t bother, your mileage may vary).

Let’s just say, 10 ISBN’s and 10 Bar Codes will come to $525.00

But wait, there’s more ! You can buy your SAN (Standard Address Number) at the same time. This number is an ANSI standard (American National Standards Institute) and assigns each address a unique number used to positively identify all buying and selling transactions within the book industry. A fingerprint, if you will, that is shared between you and your vendors (assuming the fairy dust worked and you’re shipping to bookstores). They’re $150.00 and we say “No thank you kind sir.”

Now that your eyes have glazed over, let’s ask the questions again. Do you need an ISBN? No. Do you want an ISBN?

Still unsure? So am I.

Holding me back is practicality. I’m not going to make my fortune being an Independent publisher of my own work. I’m not going to “be discovered” and offered a huge contract with a big name publishing company. I’m just happily writing away, entertaining readers and having a good time. Would I like to have ISBN’s on my titles? Yes, I would. I think I could reach more readers if the titles were purchasable through Barnes & Noble or Amazon. Not everyone knows who or what Lulu is, and they might hesitate using a credit card with an online company they’re unfamiliar with, where they’ll sell their soul to Amazon in a flash. Your books are not going to sit on a shelf in any bookstore, but someone could walk in to their local B&N and ask the nice lady behind the counter to order it for them. Or they could surf B&N’s website and find it, then order it. And let’s face it, all the other “grown up” novels have a number.

But is it worth shelling out $275.00 ? Yeah, it boils down to $27.50/ea, but you have to buy them all at once.

My roommate/sister is unemployed, so I’m supporting us both. I have a tooth that’s chipped and needs work. I CAN continue to do this without ISBN’s and be none the worse for wear. Times like this, the Lulu option of just $99.00 seems really tempting, until I’m reminded that Lulu would be listed as my Publisher of Record, and that after doing that three times, I could have bought a block of 10 and been completely Independent. When I sit and contemplate the real cost per number is only $27.50 after buying a block of 10, I think it’s a no-brainer, until I have to shell out $275.00.

That’s when my financial responsibility powers activate, and I talk myself down again.

I have the money, easily, but is it truly and honestly wise to SPEND the money?

My real desire is to be my own Indie Publisher – Midnight Reading, and be the Publisher of Record for all of my titles. And in order to do that, I’ll have to go for it. But my wallet is padlocked, and I swallowed the key !

I’ve considered “going in” with others. Find 2 or 3, maybe 4 people who want to share the numbers. Spread the cost out. The only issue is that their titles, anything they wrote that they used a number on, would require showing Midnight Reading as their Publisher of Record. Maybe not an issue to some, but if the roles were reversed – if someone offered to share with me and use their Publishing company name – I wouldn’t do it. ISBN’s can’t be sold by anyone other than Bowker’s and the few brokers approved through them by the government. So the block of 10 you purchase will always be identified as yours, whether you use them on your own titles, or someone else’s.

Now you might wander over to Create Space and find out they’ll give you an ISBN at no charge to you. But not only will they be the Publisher of Record, their contract is pretty friggin’ strange and their formatting is a much more involved, rather annoying venture. Add to that the facts: Createspace = Amazon = The Devil ! ;}

And there we are. ISBN’s in a nutshell. My friends tell me to Just Do It, and I’m sure I will – eventually. In the meantime, my next post will be another issue I’ve been researching more and more lately: Advertising.

Power to the People!

Make Love, not War!

Excuse me, I asked for Sprinkles.

2 thoughts on “to isbn or not to isbn

  1. So the information in this and the addendum post is very good. I didn’t realize before reading the post that the ones sold though a service like made them the owner while the author is paying. The problem I see when giving them the ownership of the ISBN is that if author ever stops selling the eBook (for example) though them (or they go out of business) is that if someone looks up the ISBN they will be directed to which wouldn’t be selling it anymore. It would be better if they could contact the author to find where they could buy it (maybe new service).

    I do agree with you about owning ISBN for book you self-publish makes it more concrete. It becomes a book that can be ordered by book stored (regardless if it is likely or not).

    While the 125.00 single ISBN purchase seems expensive (compared to 10 ISBN price), it is good for a single trail. But I am not sure if it would increase sales in eBook. Maybe it will make a difference with printed book.

    As always, and very informative post about your adventures in self-publishing.

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