Thursday, April 03, 2014

The Ins and Outs of ISBNs

By Marcy Kennedy, @MarcyKennedy

Part of the Indie Author Series

One of the areas where there seems to be universal confusion among writers intending to self-publish is ISBNs. It’s a business detail that would have been taken care of by our publisher if we went the traditional route, but now, we’re the publisher. Like so many other business details, figuring out ISBNs falls into our realm of responsibility.

A lot of the information about ISBNs when it comes to self-publishing feels muddy, so today I’m going to give you a quick tour of what you need to know about ISBNs by answering some of the most common questions.

What’s an ISBN?

An ISBN (or International Standard Book Number) is a unique 13-digit number assigned to a book. An ISBN can only be assigned to a single book, and once it’s been assigned, the assignment is permanent. It can never be used on another book, even if the original book goes out of print.

An ISBN does not copyright your book, nor does it denote ownership. That’s a whole different topic.

Why do I need one?

The most important reason is that an ISBN helps readers find the correct book. Titles can’t be copyrighted, so your book might share a title with many others. The easier you can make it for a reader to find your book, and the version of your book they want, the better.

Certain sites like Apple and Sony won’t accept your book for sale unless you have an ISBN for it.

Your book can’t be sold to bookstores or libraries without one.

Having an ISBN gets your book included in Books in Print, the world’s largest book catalogue.

Do I need a separate ISBN for the print version and the ebook version of the same book?

Here’s where confusion seems to happen when it comes to ISBNs because the landscape of publishing is changing so quickly. Some people will tell you that you only need one ISBN. Other people will advise you to get a different ISBN for every format of your book (hardcover, softcover, .mobi, .epub, etc.).

But if we apply a little common sense and think like a reader, the answer isn’t as difficult as it might appear.

Remember, the fundamental purpose of an ISBN is to help a buyer avoid confusion—to help them make sure they’re buying the right book and the right version of that book. You’re required to have a different ISBN for hardcover and softcover versions, so you should also at least have a different ISBN for your ebook version.

But does that mean I should also use a separate ISBN for the .mobi version (what Kindles read) and the .epub version (what most other e-readers read)?

There’s not a right or wrong answer on this one. I’ve chosen to keep things simple for myself and the reader, and I’ve used a single ISBN for all ebook versions. The chance of confusion is small since most people who own an e-reader only shop the associated site (e.g., Kindle owners shop on Amazon), and Smashwords makes it clear on the purchase page that Kindle owners should buy the .mobi version.

Based on the advice I received from writers who’ve been self-publishing longer than I have, using a single ISBN for all ebook versions seems to be the current standard. Norms on this might change in the future.

If I update my book, do I need a new ISBN?

If you’re only changing the cover, correcting typos, or making other small changes (like clarifying an awkward sentence), you don’t need a new ISBN.

If you’re adding new material or making major changes to the content, then you’ve created a new edition of the book and you do need a new ISBN to help readers know if they’re buying the old version or the new one.

Should I buy my own ISBN or go with the free version offered by many distributors?

This is the other spot where writers most often get hit with analysis paralysis because of how many opinions float around for pros and cons. Many reputable sites (like Smashwords and Createspace) offer you a free ISBN.

The answer is going to be personal and based on two factors—budget and whether you care about who’s listed as publisher on your book.

If Smashwords or Createspace provides your ISBN, they’ll be listed as the publisher on your book. If you own your ISBN, you or your business will appear as the publisher. (For example, my business, Tongue Untied Communications, is listed as the publisher of my Busy Writer’s Guides because I own my ISBN.) Owning your ISBN also allows you to control the bibliographic data and metadata associated with your book.

If you only plan to publish a few books, if writing is a hobby for you rather than a business, or if you’re on a tiny budget, you’re fine going with a free ISBN. Because writing is a business for me and a main source of my income (alongside editing and teaching writers), I chose to acquire and use my own ISBNs.

Where do I buy an ISBN?

If you’re an American, you can get your ISBNs fromBowker through Identifier Services. The price per unit cost decreases the more you buy. A single ISBN will cost you $125, but a package of 1,000 costs $1000. For most independent publishers, the best option is to go with the middle ground and buy either 10 ISBNs for $295 ($29.50/ISBN) or 100 ISBNs for $575 ($5.75/ISBN).

If you’re a Canadian, we actually have a better situation. We can register with CISS (The Canadian ISBN Service System) and receive our ISBNs for free. For a Canadian, there’s absolutely no reason to take the “free” ISBNs offered by places like Smashwords or Createspace.

What other questions do you have about ISBNs? Do you have any other recommendations for new self-publishers when it comes to ISBNs?

Marcy Kennedy is a suspense and speculative fiction writer who believes fantasy is more real than you think. Alongside her own writing, Marcy works as a freelance fiction editor and teaches classes on craft and social media through WANA International. She’s also the author of the Busy Writer’s Guides series of books. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth at

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About Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction: A Busy Writer’s Guide

You’ve heard the advice “show, don’t tell” until you can’t stand to hear it anymore. Yet fiction writers of all levels still seem to struggle with it.

There are three reasons for this. The first is that this isn’t an absolute rule. Telling isn’t always wrong. The second is that we lack a clear way of understanding the difference between showing and telling. The third is that we’re told “show, don’t tell,” but we’re often left without practical ways to know how and when to do that, and how and when not to. So that’s what this book is about.

Chapter One defines showing and telling and explains why showing is normally better.
Chapter Two gives you eight practical ways to find telling that needs to be changed to showing and guides you in understanding how to make those changes.
Chapter Three explains how telling can function as a useful first draft tool.
Chapter Four goes in-depth on the seven situations when telling might be the better choice than showing.
Chapter Five provides you with practical editing tips to help you take what you’ve learned to the pages of your current novel or short story.

Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction also includes three appendices covering how to use The Emotion Thesaurus, dissecting an example so you can see the concepts of showing vs. telling in action, and explaining the closely related topic of As-You-Know-Bob Syndrome.


  1. This was a really helpful post. Thank you!

    Tweeted :)

    1. I'm glad it helped, and thanks for the tweet!

  2. I've read various opinions regarding ISBNs but the information shared in this post has been the preferred angle taken. For now, I've been using the free ISBNs offered by Smashwords and Creatspace, at least until my budget allows the option to afford otherwise :-)

    1. Unfortunately, ISBNs can be really expensive for Americans. If you have a budget of only a couple hundred dollars (or less!), I'd definitely say don't spend it on an ISBN. Spend it on editing or your cover. Those are much more important than whether or not you bought your ISBN or accepted a free one.

  3. I did a lot of research on this before indie publishing. I decided to just get the free numbers from Smash and CreateSpace. Thanks for all the great information. It was definitely confusing for me at first.

    1. I love hearing different views on these topics because there is no right and wrong per say. What influenced your decision to go with the free ISBNs?

  4. Does using the free CreateSpace ISBN limit the ability to post your ebook Barnes & Noble or other e-retailers?

  5. HI again - in my comment above, I believe I'm confusing the free CreateSpace (for print) ISBN and the free Amazon assigned ISBN (i.e., the ASIN) for the ebook version. Does that ring a bell?

    1. In case Marcy doesn't see this... yes. Amazon uses it's own tracking number (ASIN) if you don't have an ISBN. But I believe that's just for Amazon's site, it's not good anywhere else.

  6. 10 ISBNs for $295 ($29.50/ISBN) is only good for one book, or could i use the 10 on up to ten books, or does each book nee its own set of 10?? Thanks Lisa

    1. You can use the ISBNs for different books. For example, if you had one title in both paperback and ebook format, you'd use two ISBNs and have eight left. If you had ten different titles in only ebook format, you'd use all ten ISBNs.

  7. Hi Janice and Marcy,
    Marcy for once it pays to be a Canadian. Thanks to your informative post, I now know the reason why I should have my own ISBN.