As a self-publishing author, one of the most critical decisions you need to make is whether or not to buy your own International Standard Book Number (ISBN). This 13-digit numeric code uniquely identifies your book, providing information about its publisher, title, language, edition, and version. In this article, we will explore the benefits and drawbacks of buying your own ISBN, as well as address common questions surrounding this topic.

Why is having an ISBN important?

The ISBN ensures that your book can be easily identified and ordered by customers, libraries, bookstores, online retailers, distributors, and wholesalers. It means you control the keys to the kingdom.

That being said, an ISBN may not be required for eBooks sold through retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple. If you only plan to sell eBooks through these platforms and not print physical copies, you could potentially do without an ISBN.

Why Would I Not Need an ISBN

There are a few circumstances where you might not need an ISBN. Here are a few we can think of;

  • If you are only publishing a book for a limited amount of people such as a group of family or friends
  • If you only ever plan to publish eBooks on a single platform
  • If you have a small budget with limited funds and you just want to get started publishing

In all of these scenarios, it would be fine to get a free ISBN from a platform. But if things change, then realize you’re stuck with that free ISBN and platform, unless you want to release a new issue of your book with a new ISBN number.

Benefits of buying your own ISBN

If you decide to self-publish, you have the option to use an ISBN assigned by your publishing service company (e.g., Amazon KDP) or buy your own. While opting for a publisher-assigned ISBN at little or no cost can be tempting, especially for first-time authors, there are several significant advantages to purchasing your own ISBN:

  1. Full control over your book’s metadata: Metadata includes descriptions and categories that help libraries, bookstores, and readers worldwide find your book and decide whether to buy it. As a self-published author without the backing of a traditional publisher’s marketing and distribution resources, having complete control over your book’s metadata can drastically impact its chances of being discovered and purchased.
  2. Maintain the publisher of record status: With your own ISBN, you will be the publisher of record. This means your ISBN will remain unchanged even if you change your publishing service company or publish with multiple companies. In plain English, this means you have the freedom to move your book to whatever platform you want without any issues.
  3. Consistency with future projects: If you plan to write several books, having your own ISBN creates a consistent publishing imprint across all of your works. Since you’re the publisher on record, all your books will have the same publisher name.

What Does an ISBN Cost?

The cost of purchasing an ISBN number can be a deterrent for self-publishing authors, as they may be operating on a limited budget. However, when considering the whole price of self-publishing, it seems like a smaller cost, related to everything else.

The cost for a single ISBN from at the time of this writing is around $125. However, buying a block of 10 is only $295. So you can see, that purchasing larger quantities lowers the cost per unit. This can be beneficial if you plan on publishing more than one book over the coming years.

Also, ISBN numbers don’t expire. You can purchase a block of them and use them years down the road.

By allocating budget for an ISBN number, self-publishing authors gain freedom, control, and long-term stability. While using a free ISBN isn’t the end of the world, the benefits of investing in your own far outweigh the initial cost. If affordability is a concern, consider purchasing ISBNs in bulk, which can significantly reduce the cost per ISBN.

Where to get an ISBN

Each country has an ISBN-issuing agency, such as Bowker in the US and Nielsen in the UK. Pricing varies by the quantity, with larger blocks of ISBNs offering lower per-ISBN costs. For self-publishing authors, purchasing a block of 10 ISBNs can be more economical than buying a single one. Some countries, do offer free ISBNs, so make sure to research resources for your country.

Free vs Paid ISBN

In conclusion, buying your own ISBN provides numerous benefits, particularly concerning metadata control, publisher of record status, communication, and consistency across future projects. While there are some instances where an ISBN may not be necessary, purchasing your own can significantly improve your book’s discoverability, reach, and sales potential.

The only real scenario where using the free ISBN seems reasonable is if you only plan to ever publish eBooks and sell them on the same platform, forever.