WHAT ARE THEY? ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, a row of 13 digits containing information about your book, such as the publisher, language and format. It allows your book details to be entered into a database and made available to wholesalers, bookshops, lending libraries and – through them – your customers.
ISBNs are also used to create barcodes to store this information in a format which can be easily scanned into a machine by booksellers. ISBNs and barcodes are usually placed on the back cover of paperback books. The ISBN is also traditionally displayed on the copyright page.
Not necessarily: you don’t need an ISBN to sell your book directly through an author website, to friends and family or at corporate/social events. You do, however, need one if you wish to sell through online or bricks-and-mortar bookshops.
At this stage, you’re probably thinking, ‘Duh! That’s exactly what I want to do!’, but I’d advise you to read a blog post on distribution and weigh up the economics of each option before you make any decisions. As I’ll discuss later, one of the more economically viable ways to distribute your print book is to use Kindle Direct Publishing’s print on demand service to access Amazon. If you do this, they’ll give you an ISBN and barcode for free.
Many companies that offer self-publishing packages also provide an ISBN and generate a barcode for you. This is usually done either for free or at a small cost. Technically, like Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), they then become the publisher of your work, and you publish under their imprint. Providing they’re reputable, this matters not a jot. It doesn’t affect your copyright and has the advantage that you don’t have to deal with registration and data management.
You don’t need to worry about ISBNs for ebooks. Amazon – by far the biggest market for digital books – doesn’t even use them, preferring its own ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number). You’ll be given one of these for free if you use KDP’s ebook service to list your work. Most other major retailers, such as Apple’s iBooks and Barnes & Noble, may like you to have an ISBN but don’t require it.
There’s only the occasional one, like WHSmith, who insists upon it. If you access these markets via Smashwords, as I suggest, you’ll automatically be assigned an ISBN for free. It’s a waste of money to buy an ISBN for an ebook, but there’s nothing to stop you doing it if you wish to. The one thing you mustn’t do is use the same ISBN for your ebook as for your print version. You’ll assign details about the physical properties of your book or ebook for every ISBN you buy, so it’s tied to that particular product. This means that you should also use a different ISBN for every format your ebook is available in whether that be PDF, EPUB or MOBI.
If you decide you want to buy an ISBN, it’s a simple process, open to anyone. Visit The International ISBN Agency (https://www.isbn-international.org/) to identify which of the 150 plus national agencies charged with selling ISBNs worldwide covers your location. You need to purchase from whoever supplies the country you live in, regardless of where you intend to sell your book. I provide links to the ISBN agencies for Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the US and the UK in the resources section at the back of this book. The cost varies from country to country, often depending on government funding.
For instance, in Canada, ISBNs are free, whereas, in the US, prices start at $125 for a single ISBN. In the UK and Ireland, Nielsen Holdings is the sole distributor. To buy an ISBN, visit http://nielsenisbnstore.com/home/isbn, add the quantity required to your basket, and register as a new user, providing all relevant information. Your company structure is probably best described as Sole Trader, but Other may also be an option. The cost is currently £89 for registration and one ISBN, or you can go all out and get a block of ten for £159. Assuming there are no glitches, you should receive your ISBN(s) by email within ten days.
As well as buying an ISBN, you need to register your book’s details, such as genre, title, publication date, size and number of pages. This might be done at the time of ISBN purchase or separately at a later date. Check with your national ISBN agency for details. In the UK, information about your book is entered immediately after payment. Don’t worry if you don’t have all the details to hand yet. Just complete what you can, ensuring all the data you do enter is correct because you’re limited in what you can edit later on. Your book will then be registered in a database, available to bookshops worldwide.
At this point, you’ll start to see it pop up on Amazon and other online shops with whatever information about its physical properties and expected publication date you provided. Inclusion in the ISBN database doesn’t indicate that your book will be on the shelves of bricks-and-mortar bookshops. On a practical level, it means that a bookshop has the ability to order a copy of your work if a customer walks into the store and requests it. I’ll tell you more about the logistics of this in the section on distribution.
Many countries have facilities for authors and publishers to access their book’s metadata, allowing them, for instance, to add a cover image and keep information about availability and price up to date. There are limits to this: changes to size, binding or publisher require a new ISBN. Again, check with your national ISBN agency for details of if/how you can access your book’s details. If you live in the UK, register with Nielsen’s Title Editor (http://nielsentitleeditor.com). Once your account is set up, log in, locate your book (using the search function), and then click Edit Book. BARCODES In some countries, it’s possible to buy a barcode from the same agency that supplies ISBNs. This is the case in the US where, for an extra $25, Bowker (the national
ISBN Agency) will sell you a barcode. KDP provides barcodes for free, and if you’re publishing via an all-in-one package provider, they often deal with this area for you. Alternatively, your designer or printer may be able to provide you with a barcode either for free or at a small cost.
I’m aware I’ve used a lot of terms in this section that you might not be familiar with yet. If you’re feeling a bit bamboozled, fear not: all will be explained in simple terms later on.
For the moment, just be aware of what an ISBN is and where you can get hold of one should you need it, but don’t do anything until you’ve decided how you’re going to distribute your book.