Your Book’s Unique Identifier: ISBN

Last week, we talked a little about IngramSpark, and spoke briefly about ISBNs. The International Standard Book Number is your book’s unique identifier, how we know that your The Island is different from her The Island. For each format of book, you technically need to have a different ISBN, although the rules are bending in this new age of self-publishing.

Do I need ISBNs?

Print books need ISBNs, eBooks published through Nook, iBooks, and the like (Smashwords) need an ISBN, but Amazon doesn’t require them for .mobis. That’s led to an interesting new phenomena where a large swatch of eBook purchases aren’t tracked/reported by the traditional mechanisms (but that’s a post for another day).

Bottom line: The only time you won’t need an ISBN is if you’ve decided to go exclusive with Kindle Unlimited, and you won’t be publishing physical books.

Where Do I Get ISBNs?

You can either pay for ISBNs through Bowker or you can get them for free on Smashwords and CreateSpace. Why would you buy for ISBNs at all? It all comes down to what you’re looking to do.

When it comes to eBooks, ISBNs are less important. As we said above, Amazon doesn’t even require them, and Smashwords offers them for free. There really is no downside to using Smashwords’ ISBN, except that Smashwords will be listed as your publisher on the eBook distribution.

Free vs. Paid for Print

For your print books, there’s a little more to consider. CreateSpace does offer free ISBNs, but if you decide to use them, you become limited in your expanded distribution and ability to sell books in bookstores (We wrote about it in more detail here). For our money, we like owning our ISBNs for our print books. CreateSpace doesn’t offer hardcovers, so we have to buy them anyway, and we like IngramSpark’s expanded distribution.

ISBNs are How Much?

Many bookstores won't accept books that aren't returnable. You can only make books returnable at IngramSpark, and IngramSpark requires a Bowker-provided ISBN.That was the first thing we thought when we saw the prices on Bowker. True, one is $125 (yes, WHAT?), five are $250, and you can get a whopping 100 for $575. So which should you pick? Again, this all comes down to what your goals are as an author/publisher.

If you’re like us, and have at least 50 books in the ol’ pipeline (remember, you’ll need a different ISBN for print and hardcover), then the $525 makes a lot of sense. But if you’re a one-shot wonder with your magnum opus, then we’d actually recommend going with CreateSpace’s free ISBNs.

The one thing we’ll caution is that if you have any plans to potentially sign in a bookstore like Barnes and Noble, consider that many won’t accept books that aren’t returnable. You can only make books returnable at IngramSpark, and IngramSpark requires a Bowker-provided ISBN.


Want to know more about this topic? Need some help with formatting, editing, or even marketing? SGR-Pub offers a wide variety of services to help you make the most out of your self-publishing journey.

Contact us today for more information. We can’t wait to work with you!

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