Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Self-Publishing: Understanding ISBNs

Kathryn Page Camp
Even a self-published book needs an ISBN. But do you know what that is?
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It’s a thirteen-digit number (ten digits before 2007) that functions as a social security number for books. Every book should have a unique ISBN to help bookstores, libraries, and other purchasers locate it and to distinguish it from other books with the same name.
The ISBN identifies the title, the publisher, the edition, and the format (binding) for a work. This means that you may need multiple numbers for a single book. For example, a paperback and an electronic version should have separate ISBNs. (The specific rules for e-books are beyond the scope of this post, but you can find information at Significant changes to the content of the work are considered a new edition and require a different ISBN. Fixing typos and making other minor changes make it a reprint rather than a new edition, but adding a foreword or appendix or reorganizing the book are significant changes that require a new ISBN.
As noted, the ISBN identifies the publisher. If you use CreateSpace and allow it to assign the ISBN, that makes CreateSpace the publisher as well as the printer and distributor. If you purchase your own ISBN, you are the publisher and CreateSpace is just the printer and distributor. So if you want to be the publisher, make sure the contract with the printer allows it, then buy your own ISBNs.
Why does it matter? If you want to use a different service to print your book and the printer has assigned the ISBN, the reprint will need a new one. If you are the publisher, a change in printers is irrelevant. Having more than one ISBN for the same version of a book can also be confusing to buyers.
Then there is the question of transparency. Do you care how easy it is to discover that the book is “self-published”? Those in the know can look up the ISBN and discover that it belongs to CreateSpace or that you purchased a single number, either of which can be a hallmark of a self-published book.
There is nothing wrong with letting the printer provide the ISBN and become the technical publisher. In fact, it may be your only option if you are on a tight budget. But you can’t make the decision that is best for you unless you understand how ISBNs work.
For those buying their own ISBNs, even one is expensive—$125 at the time of this post. But for twice that much, you can buy a block of ten. And if you plan on publishing your book in other formats or are considering a sequel, you will need additional numbers, anyway. Since ISBNs have an indefinite shelf life, you might as well buy a block of ten and keep the others in reserve.
U.S. publishers purchase their ISBNs from R.R. Bowker LLC at Once you have bought the ISBN and assigned it to a book, you register it to that book (or format or edition) at the same website.
The ISBN goes on the copyright page and the outside back cover of a print book. For an e-book, display it on the title or copyright page.
You can find more information on ISBNs at
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Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her new book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013) is available from and other retailers. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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