Chief among the (many) burning questions of authors who want to self-publish is “What is an ISBN and do I need one?” A seemingly simple question with a not-so-simple answer…let’s break it down.
It is actually two questions rolled into one. The first part — what is an ISBN? — is objective and therefore straightforward to answer. ISBN is the acronym for International Standard Book Number, which is the system used worldwide to identify a specific book in a specific format, i.e. paperback, hardcover, ebook, audiobook. (And now that you know what ISBN stands for, you can see that saying “ISBN number” is redundant, kind of like saying “cheese quesadilla.” But I digress.)
Think of a book’s ISBN as its license plate or social security number. It uniquely identifies a book within a vast database to immediately paint a picture of that book’s content, format and creator through the details provided by the owner of the ISBN, aka the publisher.
Which leads us to the second, subjective part of the question — do I need one? My response is another question: do you want to be the publisher? In other words, do you want to control the process?
In my experience, controlling the process is the primary reason an author chooses to self-publish. Whether the author takes the DIY path or relies on professionals for editing, design, layout and marketing, that author is spearheading the effort and is the de facto publisher.
Distribution is also part of the process and that’s where the ISBN comes into play, because having your own ISBN provides the greatest control over distribution options.
If selling your book solely on Amazon is your end game, then opting for the free ISBN available through Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) is obviously a cost-effective way to go. Doing so makes KDP the publisher, which can be a turnoff for bookstores.
But if your distribution plan includes a combo of online and brick-and-mortar sales, I recommend getting your own ISBN for the most flexibility. In the U.S., ISBNs are available through Bowker for $125 for one, or $295 for ten numbers. When you consider that each format of a book should have its own ISBN, the ten-pack is an easy choice if you will be publishing a paperback, ebook and audio version of your book, for example.
The key point to remember is that book publishing is ultimately a business, even if writing that book is borne out of passion. Approach the ISBN question with your business hat on, and the answer should reveal itself. Contact me if you need help with that process.