ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, and they’re something most people don’t ever think twice about until they get started in publishing. One way or another, virtually all books will require an ISBN to be published. If you don’t have one, depending on the particular online retailer, one may be assigned to you, or another kind of identifying number may be assigned (like Amazon’s AIN for e-books.) However, if you want to be able to list your book through as many channels as possible, you’ll need to get an ISBN.
There are a lot of ways to get them—both free and paid—and a few ways to do it incorrectly.
An ISBN is a 10 and/or 13-digit identification number for books used to catalogue and order the book. You may recognize them as the numbers at the top of barcodes. Encoded in that number is a variety of cataloguing information.
In general, each version of a given book will have its own ISBN. For example, if you’re publishing a paperback, hardcover, .mobi (for Kindle), and .epub (for other e-readers), you’re technically supposed to use four distinct ISBNs. Many self-publishing authors cut corners by using one number for everything. On its face, doing this doesn’t cause problems in going to market—your files are unlikely to be bounced back by online retailers—but it undercuts the purpose of the ISBN (to help retailers, libraries, and customers find your book.)
It depends. ISBNs are registered with the official U.S. ISBN Agency, which is Bowker. Bowker may charge different rates depending on sales, holidays, promotions, etc., but in general a single ISBN runs $125. They can be bought in bulk at a discount—$295 for 10, $575 for 1000, and on and on.
An ISBN is registered under the name of the publishing company. If you’re self-publishing, it’s a good idea to come up with a name for your publishing company rather than use your own name. That way, if you publish multiple titles, customers can search by your publisher name and find all of the books you’ve released—that’s the one big advantage of buying all of your own ISBNs. In fact, it’s probably the only real advantage.
This can represent a significant cost to an independent author. Luckily, there are free or cheap options available for those who don’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for their own identifiers. The easiest of these is to use an ISBN assigned to you by a publishing service if you’ve partnered with one. At BookFuel, for example, we provide all of our authors with as many ISBNs as they need—and we’re not the only people who do this.
Some online retailers won’t actually require an ISBN to sell your book. If you publish through CreateSpace or Kindle Direct Publishing, for example, Amazon can assign you a free number. In that case, the publisher will be listed on your sales page as something like “CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform” or “Amazon Creative Services.” In the case of CreateSpace, you can pay a bit extra to list a different publisher name, but you won’t be able to use that number outside of the CreateSpace system—they’re not transferrable, universal ISBNs.
Ingram Spark, a similar service, also allows you to purchase ISBNs through them when you’re using their Print on Demand services. In fact, most self-publishing or Print on Demand services will sell you an ISBN or assign you one for free. However, in case you haven’t noticed the pattern yet, you generally won’t get to identify yourself (or your company) as the publisher if you’re getting a discounted ISBN. It’s the same for BookFuel—we’ll use your ISBNs if you’ve got them, and if you want to use one of ours, we’ll be listed as your publisher. That’s a simple function of being the registrant who purchased the numbers. Of course, in our case, that’s a good thing, as it associates you with a broad catalogue of other successful authors.
Some companies and publishers will sell you an ISBN for dirt cheap—as low as a couple of dollars— without any other relationship with you at all, but the deal’s the same there: they’ll typically be listed as the publisher, not you. They’re just buying ISBNs in bulk and passing on the costs, like wholesaling any other product.