Getting Your ISBN the Fast Way as a Self-Publishing Author

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You see it right above the barcode, and it feels like instant legitimacy. It’s the ISBN (International Standard Book Number). So, as a self-publishing author, how do you procure one of those? 

It’s actually a fast process, and as long as you understand the ins and outs of getting an ISBN, you’ll find it to be surprisingly straightforward. Still, if you’re unsure how to work this into your larger publishing plan, you can always check out expert advice.

How to get an ISBN

If you’ve heard the name Bowker, it’s for a reason. R. R. Bowker was partners with Dewey (of Decimal System fame) and an influential figure in publishing. Since 1968, the company Bowker has been the official ISBN agency in the United States. The UK equivalent is Nielsen, and Australia’s is Thorpe-Bowker. You’ll find such an agency in every country.

You can purchase ISBNs (individually or in bulk) from these providers. It’s a good idea to do your research on these agencies to make sure you’re getting the best deal possible. You also want to be reasonable about your publishing goals. For instance, if you plan on publishing your book in different formats or mediums, you will need more than one ISBN.

If money’s tight, you can also get a discounted or free ISBN from aggregator businesses—companies that distribute your book, such as IngramSpark, Draft2Digital, Smashwords, BookBaby, and eBookPartnership. In some regions, like Canada, authors can get their ISBNs for free from the government. 

Understand how ISBNs work in your region so that you can save money and time. Given the general upfront costs associated with self-publishing, you want to make sure you’re not spending an unnecessary amount of money on ISBNs. 

What about ASINs?

An ASIN is a potential option. Amazon uses complimentary ASINs like ISBNs; they’re assigned when a book is published there and are used solely for the platform. 

However, having both can be advantageous. An ISBN is like a passport, valid and searchable everywhere, hence the “international.” An ASIN only works for Amazon’s database. Thus, an author will need both to distribute through other websites or bookstores. If you only wish to sell on Amazon, then stick with the ASIN, but be aware that it curtails your reach. 

Again, it’s a good idea to think about your publishing priorities. If you have dreams of reaching as many readers as possible, then you’ll most likely need more than an ASIN. 

Why invest in an ISBN?

So, why pay for an ISBN if you can get one for free or intend to stick with Amazon? After all, when you’re self-publishing, there always seem to be more expenses than dollars. 

Here’s a common snag—if you apply for an ISBN through a previously mentioned aggregator, industry rules prevent you from expanding outside of that company’s retail channels. That’s not so if you purchase an ISBN straight away.

For example, if you’re selling your book on Amazon and Smashwords, you’ll have an ASIN and an ISBN. However, if you expand into IngramSpark to increase sales, you’ll need to apply for another ISBN. It quickly becomes a rabbit hole situation of ISBNs and publishers. It sounds confusing to keep track of just for you, and bookstores and libraries usually won’t bother trying and will decline to stock your book. You’ll avoid all of this by investing in an ISBN from the get-go.

So, decide if you want to maintain your ISBN’s consistency between platforms and aggregators. If you are unsure what’s best for you, you can consider hiring a book marketer to chart a course. They will help ensure you’re making the right decisions to turn your book into a success.

Find your provider

If you’ve decided to buy, you need to find your provider, using portals such as

Get that Costco card out

It serves you better to buy in bulk here. Not only do you get a significant discount, but one ISBN per book is rarely enough. If you’re publishing in print, you’ll need separate ISBNs for hardcover, paperback, and audiobook. Bowker charges $125 individually, while 10 ISBNs cost $295. It’s a practical investment. Buy more ISBNs from the get-go so that you can save money down the line. 

Wherever you get your ISBN from or wherever you live, register it with Bowkerlink. This will add your book to Bowker’s Books In Print, a giant bibliographic resource used by libraries worldwide

Just like that, your book has an ISBN! If you’re hesitant about the next steps or are still perfecting your manuscript, consider hiring a professional typesetter or marketer

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