tumblr_m7o5mulLC51r9048wo1_400One of the hottest topics on the self-published author Facebook groups of late has been the need for ISBNs and the timing of those types of purchases. For new self-publishing authors, it’s really a matter of where they are in the process and what steps to take next. Those farther along may have skipped past this step or not had to deal with it as a former traditionally published author or a new hybrid.

First things first, just what is an ISBN and why would we need one? The International Standard Book Number is assigned by one of more than 160 ISBN agencies across the globe. Each agency has its own territory, and for the United States, the agency is Bowker (http://isbn.org/). If an author wants his or her own ISBN—assigned to the author name or publishing imprint—for one-version use at any outlet, Bowker is the place to go.

Each version of a book is eligible for an ISBN, which identifies the book in an international database used by bookstores of all kinds and libraries. ISBN’s purchased at Bowker are registered to the chosen imprint—the name of the “publisher” to be listed on the book. This can be the author’s name or a name he or she have devised for his or her own publishing brand. Additionally, these books are listed in the Bowker Books in Print used by major search engines, bookstores and libraries.

Each version would have to have its own ISBN number, since each number is assigned to not only the title, but also the edition— print or otherwise. Major changes to any work also require a new edition and a new ISBN. When I say each version is eligible for an ISBN, I mean that not all versions of an author’s book necessarily need an ISBN. For instance, authors who plan to market their work solely at Amazon may opt not to assign an ISBN to their digital versions because they are assigned an ASIN for tracking within the Amazon system.

Amazon authors who choose to publish their print works through CreateSpace may also opt to either use the CreateSpace free ISBN (which lists CreateSpace as the publisher) or may pay $10 to use a CreateSpace ISBN that lists the author’s imprint. This ISBN is only good for the CreateSpace version of the book.

So, that’s the what and how and a little of the why of purchasing an ISBN. Identifying your work by your imprint (either your name or a name you have chosen for your brand) adds not only a layer of professionalism to your book, but also ties you to your work officially even without the formality of filing for copyright (a subject for another day).

A few key facts to keep in mind regarding ISBN registration:

  • Not only will you need to purchase an ISBN for any version of your book, but also every edition of a version you want to register.
  • Once a set of numbers have been assigned to a publisher by the ISBN agency (Bowker), the publisher can then assign those ISBNs to books for which it holds publishing rights. You cannot resell, re-assign, transfer or split the list of ISBNs to or with anyone else.
  • If you do re-assign the number to someone else, the industry database will continue to show the original publisher registered for that block of numbers. That means, choose your name before you buy your ISBN(s).
  • Yes, you can buy one ISBN at a time, but the cost is exponentially higher.
  • If you purchase an ISBN from a re-seller, your book will likely be registered incorrectly with whatever publisher first purchased the block of numbers. This practice is widespread, but not a legitimate avenue for ISBNs.

So, knowing some of those crucial tidbits, the when of buying ISBNs becomes clearer—once you have determined the publishing imprint you intend to use for your book. The only place this will be crucial during the actual online publishing process will be with print on demand. An ISBN decision at CreateSpace or the provision of an ISBN at PODs like Ingram Spark will be required to move forward with publication. E-book or audio book publication will allow you to move forward without this step.

The purchase of ISBNs is a large investment for most new authors self-publishing their work for the first time, and those authors should carefully consider the return on investment they expect for that expense.