Are ISBNs Worth Investing In for Self-Published Authors?

I became involved with the world of self-publishing about four years ago, when it was really starting to take off (2012 was the year Hugh Howey first published his international self-published bestseller, Wool, in omnibus form, and, well…I think his numbers speak for themselves about why I was drawn to his version of publishing). I hungrily scoured for information about how to self-publish; which platforms to use, how to publish in paperback and hardcover, hiring cover designers and interior formatters, building a marketing platform on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, and more…it was dizzying, but I was absolutely enthralled.

As I prepared to self-publish my debut novel in December 2014 (the award-winning The Charismatics, with the sequel being released this December 2016), I actually reached out to Hugh Howey on Twitter regarding something that had remained murky to me regarding the self-publishing approach: whether I needed to purchase ISBNs through Bowker for several hundred dollars, or if I could use the free ones CreateSpace offered for their paperback versions (e-books published through KDP, iBooks, etc. don’t require an ISBN). I distinctly remember Howey’s response to me: “I’ve always used the free ones they offer; worked for me.”

Well, there it was—done deal, I’d just saved $250 (if I’d wanted to buy Bowker’s bundle of 10, otherwise it was $125 for one), and I was one step closer to being a published author.

Now, nearly two years later, I’ve amassed a considerable amount of knowledge about the pros and cons of what I chose to do, and wanted to share it with other burgeoning authors, or even more experienced ones like me, who may be debating whether to dive into the purchased-ISBN pool now for their third or fourth books, on whether it’s worth the money or not.

Why You Should Buy ISBNs:

So bookstores, libraries, and wholesale distributors have an easier time finding your work. With your own, personal, Bowker-purchased ISBNs assigned to each edition of your books, they’re much easier to locate because you can register each item in Bowker’s Books in Print database. Without a Bowker ISBN, you can’t be included in that database, making it substantially more difficult for a bookstore to order your books from the printing service you use (CreateSpace and Ingram-owned Lightning Source are the two most popular options, but there are others).

The other issue is that if you’re using a free CreateSpace ISBN, a bookstore will often see that it links to an Amazon affiliate (CreateSpace is owned by Amazon), and might not order from them for two reasons: they’re not able to make money off the books because they don’t receive the typical discounts from other wholesale distributors like Lightning Source, and they may view an Amazon affiliate as a competitor.

Why You Should Use Free Ones or Forgo ISBNs Altogether:

If you’re on a really tight budget, or you’re not planning on selling widespread in bookstores—perhaps it’s a cookbook solely for the family, then by all means, save your money. Most self-published authors are lucky to sell a few hundred books a year, which might allow you to break even after editing, cover design, interior formatting and marketing the book—to add ISBNs to the mix will only increase your money spent up front, which for some can be a hindrance. For a debut novel or a self-published author with a small following, my personal opinion is that you shouldn’t be held back from publishing if you really can’t afford to buy ISBNs, plan only to publish in e-book format, or just don’t want to.

What if You Want to Self-Publish with A Free One First, Then Republish with Purchased ISBNs Later?

That is an option, but not a particularly desirable one. You can self-publish a revised edition with a Bowker-purchased ISBN, but that means two versions are going to show up in databases, on Amazon, for searches, etc. This can significantly impact your sales ratings, and just create chaos and confusion for everyone. For more information on this phenomenon, check out both of these posts:

Ksenia Anske’s Distributing Your Self-Published Books: CreateSpace + IngramSpark

Terri Giuliano Long’s Paperback Distribution: Createspace vs. Lightning Source

Overall, after analyzing what I’ve learned, I personally feel that ISBNs are a good investment if you plan on building a long-term, widespread writing career with a large backlist of books. Because the thing is, the more (good) books you write, the more you’ll sell, the more readers you’ll amass, and the more people will request your work all across the country! Bookstores aren’t going anywhere yet, and it’s useful to have a presence there. If you can afford it, start a good foundation by enabling your work with the best possible chance of being found and/or ordered by bookstores—but don’t let it hinder you from self-publishing at all.

For any and all of your self-publishing questions and editing or writing needs, Midnight Publishing’s staff based in Phoenix, Arizona is here to help. We’ve been trusted with over five million words since our inception and have worked with clients all over Arizona and globally. Contact us for a free editing sample of your first 1,000 words today!

2018-02-08T13:05:57+00:00

About the Author:

Ashley R. Carlson
Ashley R. Carlson grew up wanting a talking animal friend and superpowers, and when that didn’t happen, she decided to write them into existence. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with three (non-talking) pets and one overactive imagination. Her debut novel, a young adult fantasy entitled "The Charismatics," can be found on Amazon or through her website at www.ashleyrcarlson.com. Ashley is obsessed with Yelping to find local restaurants, fostering animals from nearby shelters, and the Real Housewives of...anywhere. She also loves to hear from you!

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