The ISBN – Why you should have your own

The ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, is an identification system for books, etc (including electronic publications). Assigning a unique number to each published title provides that title with its own, unduplicated, internationally recognized identifier.

Each different format of an electronic publication (e.g., Kindle, Kobo, EPUB, MOBI, PDF) that is published and made separately available should be given a separate ISBN.  This means if you are planning on having a print copy, an epub copy and a Kindle (.mobi) version, you will need at least three ISBNs for every book you publish.

Publishers, booksellers, libraries and others in the book industry use ISBNs to identify publications and determine the publishing country. An ISBN is required for the sale and distribution of a publication. (For more information see the Library and Archives Canada website.).

When you are planning to self-publish, especially as a Canadian (or I imagine any other non-US citizen) it can get a little confusing because so much of the information available is based on the American experience (especially when choosing a distribution platform, but I’ll have more on that in a future blog). In the U.S., you must purchase ISBNs in blocks. There is a service called Bowker that seems to be recommended for this. But for me, as a Canadian, ISBNs are free. To obtain one, you just have to be a Canadian publisher or self-publisher physically and permanently located in Canada. They even have a handy online service that helps you to assign and manage your ISBNs. So far, I have only applied for an account, so I can’t tell you what the online service is like. I’ll let you know when I get that far. (The auto response from my online application was that it could take up to ten days to process).

Because in the U.S. you have to buy your ISBNs ($125 for a single ISBN!), many of the book distributors like Createspace and Smashwords make a big deal of offering free ISBNs. Amazon even goes as far as assigning their own identifier to Kindle formatted .mobi ebooks called the ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number) so that ISBNs aren’t required. I believe this is also the case if you are publishing with Nook Press, Barnes and Nobles self-publishing platform.

So if you get them for free from the publishing platforms, why bother going to all the trouble of signing up and getting your own? Does it matter whose number you use? The short answer is Yes, it does.

If you don’t provide the ISBN yourself, then you are NOT the publisher of your book, i.e. if you let Smashwords or Createspace assign one of their numbers, then THEY are the publisher, not you. They will be the ones listed in the Books In Print as the publisher.

I found several articles on this topic, all basically saying the same thing. Get your own ISBN. This article, in particular, does a great job of explaining it so rather than rehash it here, I’ll just post the link here.

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