As an Indie Publisher, Do I Really

Need an ISBN for Publishing Online?



Okay, now that I’m done being melodramatic, allow me to explain why I am so adamant about having an ISBN.

For first and foremost, what is an ISBN? ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It operates as the social security number for every book written and published. Publishers use the ISBN in order to prevent other publishers from duplicating the book.

While Amazon and other online distributors might tell you that you don’t need an ISBN to publish and distribute with them, having an ISBN is the single most important thing you can do for your book. Here are three key reasons why:

#1. ISBN numbers establish YOU as the publisher of your novel!
For e-books and print books, the ISBN number is what allows you to claim the rights of your work as both the author AND the publisher. Without the ISBN, you are still the author of the book and you still hold the copyright, but the “publisher” of the book (and thus, the “rights holder” of that version of the book) is now up for grabs. One of the main things that distinguish a publisher from other businesses is that publishers are required to own ISBNs to be called a publisher. If you don’t have an ISBN number for your book, or you use an ISBN given to you by another online distributor, such as Smashwords or Amazon, they are in fact the publisher of your novel, not you. And no, the fact that you incorporated Coffee Cup Press, LLC and used its funds to produce your book doesn’t make a lick of difference. So if you want to be known as the publisher for your work, get an ISBN. Having said that, you MUST buy an ISBN from Bowker. Do not “get a free one” from another company, distributor, or seller of books.

#2. ISBN numbers distinguish different versions of your work from one another, and more importantly, denotes rights management for your work. When you write and publish a book, that book is considered an “edition” of your intellectual property. Say you wanted to create an “illustrated version” of your novel, where you have some in-text pictures. To take it a step further, let’s say you wanted to create a “graphic novel” version of your book. Are all three of these versions of your story the same? Certainly not. And a unique ISBN for each version of your work is going to legally testify to that fact. Imagine selling the rights to your work to a publisher, but none of the editions of your work have ISBNs. And so, in the contract, all that’s stated is the title, the author, and the copyright date of the work. No ISBNs. Seems a little imprecise, don’t you think? It also provides too fertile a territory for capitalist robber-barons to snatch the rights to multiple versions of your work right out from under you. Remember, publishers, licensors, and other larger corporations have teams of lawyers… you don’t. Isn’t it better to be more specific about precisely whichversion of your work is up for sale or license? Protect your rights to your work, and make the ISBN a part of that protection.

#3. ISBNs allow you to track your sales and marketing data! Surely, you can do this on or and with other online distributors, but you want to be able to do this in other venues as well, online and offline. ISBNs give you the power to do so and hand you some very nice data on who exactly is buying your book and from where, regardless of HOW your book is being distributed. For print distribution in bookstores, by the way, ISBNs are definitely required. You should make sure you have a unique ISBN for both the ebook and the print book versions of your work, even if Amazon is the one distributing both.Another reason to have an ISBN is, who knows what other online venues will open up! Who knows what the wonderful future holds for indie publishers? (It’ll be a prosperous one for sure!) You should have your marketing data, your rights, and your ISBN at your fingertips so that you can capitalize on the next movement in distribution. So do yourself a favor and give your work the freedom to proliferate in different spaces, safely, with an ISBN.

So what do you think? How do you feel about getting ISBNs? Do you agree or disagree with the necessity of them? Post your comments below!

Keep it indie, and see you next time,
<3 Colby