Demystifying ISBN#’s – A Bit

A number of authors have been asking me recently about ISBN#’s for indie publishing. I’m by no means an authority on them, but here’s what I know about them:

ISBN# means International Standard Book Number. (Here’s the Wiki, if you’d rather read about them in greater detail there.) Each published book is assigned an ISBN#. When an author publishes with a traditional publisher, that publisher assigns the ISBN#. The ISBN# is a code, unique to that book in that format and edition, and is now 13 digits long. (Older ISBN#’s are 10 digits long and were issued before January 1, 2007.) In the 13-digit ISBN, the first three numbers are 978 for books.

Each section of the ISBN# is separated by a hyphen. Since sections can be of different lengths, this makes the data they carry more clear.

The second section of the code is the group identifier. We frequently see a single digit code here of either 0 or 1, denoting that the book was published in an English-speaking country.

The third part of the code is particular to a specific publisher, so someone who knows ISBN#’s can often tell you the publisher by looking at the number.

For example, my NAL books, published by Penguin, all have ISBN#’s that begin with 978-0-451. So, the ISBN tells us that they are books, published in an English-speaking country, by publisher 451. Those digits identify the house. You can look up on this list on Wiki and discover that this means NAL.

The sequence that follows identifies the individual book.

Traditionally, different ISBN#’s have been assigned to different formats, even of the same book. So, the mass market edition would have one ISBN#, the hard cover would have a second ISBN# and the trade paperback would have a third. Embedded in the ISBN# for each version is the format of the book.

This all got a bit squishy with the introduction of digital books. Some people believe that each format of the digital book (eg. EPUB, MOBI, PDF, etc.) should have a unique ISBN#. Others think that a single ISBN# for the digital edition is sufficient. This is not settled as yet, although recently there was a declaration made by the Book Industry Study Group about best practices with ISBN#’s which insisted upon different ISBN#’s for each digital format. You can read it or even download it right HERE. My publisher, NAL, does assign a separate ISBN# for each digital format.

In the United States, ISBN#’s are administered by R.R. Bowkers. In Canada, ISBN#’s are administered by the Canadian government, though Collections Canada. Bowker has an FAQ page on their site (right here) about ISBN#’s, too.

When an author chooses to indie-publish a work, ISBN#’s become the author’s responsibility. This is where things get interesting. Let’s walk through the various digital publishing platforms one at a time.

There is no need for an ISBN# when indie publishing a book through Amazon’s KDP platform. If you have one and wish to use it, there is a field for it, but it’s not mandatory. Amazon assigns its own internal tracking number – called an ASIN – to all titles anyway.

All Romance eBooks
ARe does not require an ISBN# to publish a book UNLESS you are using ARe to distribute to Apple. Apple requires an ISBN#. If you opt out of Apple distribution from ARe, you can request a 13-digit tracking number from them, which will be used only on their site. Although ARe allows publication of multiple formats of any given title, you can only use one ISBN# for the digital edition of that book.

Smashwords offers several options to authors. They have a free ISBN# option; they have a $10 ISBN# option or you can supply your own ISBN#. Both Apple and Sony require an ISBN for any title they carry. Smashwords assigns a single ISBN# in their list – they are distributing only EPUB, so they perceive this to be an appropriate choice, at least for now. There is more information on their site about ISBN#’s.

The free ISBN# option will list Smashwords as the publisher and you as the author of the work. Some authors get very excited about this and see it as SW making a claim against their copyright. I don’t really understand this concern – to me, this mechanism is the same as my NAL books being listed as published by NAL and written by me. I have used the free ISBN# on my backlist titles distributed through Smashwords.

Note that this ISBN# can’t be used elsewhere. It is tied to Smashwords and the editions they distribute.

The $10 premium ISBN# offered through Smashwords allows you to list yourself (or your company) as publisher. As you’ll see in the article linked above, they offer this as an option for a publisher using Smashwords for multiple authors.

Createspace also offers several options for authors, much like the array offered by Smashwords – free, cheap, and use your own. Like the ISBN#’s offered for free by Smashwords, the free ISBN# at Createspace will list Createspace as the publisher and you as the author. Like the ISBN#’s at Smashwords, you can’t use the Createspace ISBN#’s at another POD site.

Buying ISBN#’s
If you wish to set yourself up as a publisher, you can buy ISBN#’s that identify you (or your company) as the publisher of your books. There are pros and cons here, and you should talk to your financial advisor or accountant before deciding to set up a sole proprietorship or incorporate your company, but there are two ways to get ISBN#’s once you decide.

You can buy ISBN#’s in blocks from Bowker. At this writing, they are $275US for ten – unless you want your order expedited – and you will be listed in Bowker as the publisher, with all your associated contact information. (Yes, this blows your cover if you are publishing under a pseudonym and working as a sole proprietor. That’s one reason to form a company with another name.)

Canadians can get free ISBN#’s from Collections Canada. Once again, this will put your name and contact info into their database, which is essentially public. (It’s not technically public, but anyone can create a free account and search the database.)

I used ISBN#’s from Collections Canada for my POD editions of the Jewels of Kinfairlie. This was because the ISBN# is printed right on the book, so it’s in the artwork. There are lots of POD vendors and I thought it a possibility that I might want to move the edition to another vendor at some point in time. This way, nothing has to change except the vendor – the cover art and the ISBN# will remain the same. I think Createspace is great and I’ve been very pleased with their support and their product, but that was the choice I made at the time. Alternatively, I would have used their free one – so both choices were free, and I went with the one that offered more flexibility for the future.

For my original digital releases, I will use two ISBN#’s from Collections Canada – one for the POD edition and one for the digital edition (regardless of format).

Does that make sense? Did I miss anything?

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