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July 16, 2014
By Allison Schiff
If an author wants to make her book commercially viable, she needs an ISBN. It’s as simple as that.

To ISBN or not to ISBN—that is the question. While it's almost universally acknowledged that for a self-published book to be successful its author needs to procure an ISBN (International Standard Book Number), many indie authors remain confused about ISBNs and how they work.

To clarify all things ISBN, we spoke to Rebecca Albani, public relations manager at Bowker—the official source of ISBNs in the United States—who says that having an ISBN not only makes a book commercially viable, but also makes good marketing sense.

“When you’re publishing a title, especially as a self-published author, you should do everything you can in order to make it as identifiable and discoverable as possible,” Albani says. “Attaching an ISBN to your book makes it more searchable and gives people another way to find it.”

But What Is an ISBN, Really?

ISBNs are 13-digit (formerly 10-digit) strings of numbers used to uniquely identify both print and digital books and to facilitate sales to bookstores and libraries worldwide. Several distributors, including Apple, Kobo, and Sony, require ISBNs before accepting material for sale.

How Do I Get One?

"Attaching an ISBN to your book makes it more searchable and gives people another way to find it."
ISBNs can be purchased directly from Bowker or via a third-party vendor. It’s also possible to acquire an ISBN through online publishers like Smashwords and Amazon’s CreateSpace, which buy ISBNs in bulk from Bowker for resale.

If an author plans to sell her book in multiple forms—hardback, paperback, e-book, audiobook, subsequent editions, bundles—each needs its own ISBN. Once an author has registered her work and been assigned numbers, she can submit metadata for her material to the Bowker database, where it then flows to retailers, libraries, universities, and schools. Metadata, in essence, is any information related to a book that someone could possibly search for, including title, description, author, author bio, price, page count, distributor, and pub date.

How Do ISBNs Work?

If an author buys through Bowker, she is automatically designated as the owner of the ISBN or the “publisher of record,” meaning that person has the ability to access, update, and maintain her metadata through Bowker’s website

If an author buys her ISBN through an entity other than Bowker, it’s possible that she won’t be listed as the publisher of record. Before going with a third-party, an author should ask whether or not she will actually own the ISBN she's buying.

It’s also imperative never to reuse an ISBN. Consider an ISBN a book’s fingerprint. Slapping an existing ISBN on another book will only create confusion in distributor databases and ultimately hurt sales.

But no matter who the publisher of record is, accurate information is the coin of the realm when it comes to metadata. If erroneous info makes it into the metadata, it could take a month or more for corrections to make their way through the data feed to Bowker’s millions of clients.

“Once the metadata has been submitted, it goes out to the world—and you don’t want wrong information about your book out there,” Albani says. “We always tell publishers to send out correct data the first time rather than having to make corrections.”

But if an author does need to issue changes, a single ISBN means she only has to alter one set of metadata. If her works are available through different distributors without a unique identifier, she’ll have to update her metadata multiple times.

Why Do I need an ISBN?

An author can sell PDF versions of her book without an ISBN on her own website; and if she doesn't have an ISBN and doesn't plan to buy one, some publishers will provide a free identifier number for internal use, like the “CreateSpace-Assigned ISBN” or the 10-digit ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number), which an author can get through Kindle Direct Publishing and use to sell work on

But both of these situations have their downside. In the first case, an author has no distribution, and in the second she is limiting the discoverability of her book.  If an indie author wants to a book to have nationwide distribution to bookstores and appear on library shelves, an ISBN is absolutely essential.

It’s also worthwhile noting that it could end up being a serious pain if an author decides to change her mind and assign an ISBN to a title down the line. While Amazon and Barnes & Noble will allow an author to simply fill out the ISBN field and re-upload her book, other platforms, such as Kobo and Smashwords, require the author to delete the existing record and upload it from scratch, meaning that she’ll lose all her user reviews.

How Much Will It Cost Me?

A single ISBN from Bowker is priced at $125, but a package of 10 is available for $295. Even if an author is only publishing a single title, she'll most likely be creating multiple formats—each of which needs its own ISBN—which makes it more economical to buy in bulk.

The price tag might seem steep considering all the other expenses involved in self-publishing a book, but this is a corner Albani advises authors to avoid cutting.

“You’ve put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into creating your book and you don’t want to do something on the cheap at the end of the process,” Albani says. “This book is your baby, so you should do this the right way.”