Self-Publishing 101: How to Purchase & Register an ISBN

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I’m in the middle of publishing my third novel, and I thought I’d take a moment to explain everything aspiring indie authors need to know about ISBNs while I’m in the process of uploading the metadata for Blood of the Enemy.

In this article, I’ll break down what an ISBN stands for, how it’s used, why it’s important, how much it costs, and how to purchase and register with Bowker (with screenshots).

What Does ISBN Stand For?


ISBN is an acronym for International Standard Book Number. Pre-2007, ISBNs were a combination of ten digits. Post-2007, they’re thirteen digits long.

Depending on the format, the ISBN is usually broken up by dashes. For example, the ISBN for my first paperback novel is 978-1-7325998-3-3.

What Is an ISBN?


An ISBN is a commercial book identifier that publishers, distributors, libraries, bookstores, retailers, and other professionals use to access the metadata for your novel. It’s essential for finding titles and placing orders.

In other words, having an International Standard Book Number assigned to your novel is important if you’re an indie author. Without it, retailers won’t be able to find your book.

Do Self-Published Authors Need to Buy an ISBN?


Although your book usually requires at least one ISBN, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to buy one.

Let me explain.

Many self-publishing companies give you the option to use a free ISBN. I have personal experience with IngramSpark, B&N Press, and KDP; all three of these reputable self-publishing companies have free ISBNs available for their authors to use.

But there’s a catch. Actually, there are a couple.

First, if you use their free ISBN, the self-publishing company (not you) will be listed under the publishing imprint. Essentially, this means that the platform is recognized as the ultimate owner/publisher of the work. That ISBN is tied directly to the self-publishing company.

For some indie authors, this isn’t a big deal. For others (like me) who like to maintain creative control over their work, it can be a deal breaker.

Second, the free ISBNs provided by self-publishing companies cannot be transferred if you ever decide to move your title to a different platform. This might not seem like something to be concerned about, but it does happen. I originally started with B&N Press and then, due to multiple bad experiences with the company, I switched to IngramSpark. I hadn’t planned on transferring my titles, but the need did arise.

If you’re okay with letting your distributor hold the publishing imprint over your work and you don’t plan on ever transferring your title, then you don’t need to buy an ISBN. You can use the free one provided by the self-publishing company of your choice.

If you want to keep creative control and have the flexibility to someday transfer your title if needed, then you should invest in buying your own ISBNs.

Note: if you are publishing an ebook exclusively on Kindle, you don’t need an ISBN. Amazon will use an ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number) instead. Print books and/or ebooks that will be available on other platforms do need an ISBN.

How Much Does an ISBN Cost?


Bowker is the official ISBN agency for the United States. Before I dive into the cost of purchasing ISBNs, I need to clarify an important point. Every format of your book will need its own ISBN. If you are publishing a hardcover, paperback, and ebook, you will need three ISBNs (unless, as I mentioned above, the only ebook you plan to distribute is on Kindle).

Also, if you plan to use different self-publishing platforms, each format on EACH PLATFORM will need its own ISBN. The only exception (to the best of my knowledge) is if you take advantage of the partnership option between KDP and IngramSpark that allows you to use both in tandem.

Here’s a good example to illustrate what I mean. As I mentioned, I originally started with B&N Press. However, their distribution model limits titles to only Barnes & Noble’s network. I didn’t fully understand how ISBNs worked at the time, and so I attempted to use both IngramSpark & B&N Press at the same time so I could expand my distribution network. It didn’t work because the two platforms couldn’t share the same ISBNs.

My option was to either transfer my hardcover, paperback, and ebook over to IngramSpark (thereby removing it from B&N Press’s system), or to use three more ISBNs (totaling six with B&N Press having three and IngramSpark having three). Transferring was my best option. Unfortunately, I accidentally burned two of my ISBNs before I realized my blunder. Once you use an ISBN, you can’t reassign it to a different title.

This information is important to know because it’s a lot cheaper per ISBN if you purchase a bundle instead of one at a time. If you expect to release additional formats or publish more books in the future, buying a bundle of ten ISBNs will drop the price of each ISBN from $125 to only $29.50 apiece. Since ISBNs don’t expire, you can hold onto them until you need them.

Below is a screenshot of Bowker’s ISBN pricing breakdown as of November 5th, 2022:

Screenshot taken from Bowker’s website on 10/25/22

How to Purchase an ISBN from Bowker


Bowker’s website is fairly easy to navigate. First, you’ll want to create an account.

When you’re ready to purchase one or more ISBNs, simply navigate to the Register and Copyright Your Book tab in the top left corner. In the dropdown, select Buy ISBNs.

From there, it’s as simple as selecting which package you want and adding it to your cart, then checking out to complete your order.

Note: you do NOT need to purchase a barcode. I don’t know why this isn’t clearly communicated; I made the rookie mistake of purchasing barcodes with my first title, only to realize later that I’d wasted my money.

For more information on this, check out my earlier post: Self-Publishing a Book: 8 Facts & Hacks You REALLY Need to Know

How to Register Your Book with Bowker


Now that you’ve created an account and purchased your ISBN(s), you can access them by going to My Account and selecting My Identifiers in the drop-down menu. This will bring you to your complete list of assigned and unassigned ISBNs.

As you can see in the screenshot of my ISBN dashboard below, you have the option of cloning an assigned title. Doing this will save you some work if you’re using the same title, synopsis, etc. but adding a different format of your book into the database.

When you assign a title, Bowker will guide you through four pages of data to input:

  • Title & Cover
  • Contributors
  • Format & Size
  • Sales & Pricing

These will be pretty self-explanatory as you work through each page, but I’ll break down what you’ll need to know for each category.

Title & Cover


This is where you will upload a jpeg of your book cover. You’ll also need to add your title, subtitle (if applicable), publication date, language (and any translations), copyright year, and Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN).

Bowker title and cover page screenshot how to register ISBN

Contributors


Here, you’ll enter your information as the author. You also have a long list of other contributors that you can credit, including editors, narrators, illustrators, cover designers, translators, etc. You can also include additional information here, such as if your work was based on a novel, movie, play, etc. If a person or group had more than one role, you can assign them multiple functions. Don’t upload duplicates of the same name for a separate role.

Bowker contributor screenshot how to register an ISBN

Format & Size


In this section, you’ll specify the format of your book. If it’s a print format, you have the option to add size details, weight, page number, etc. You must specify at least one genre. There is a second slot if you would like to add an additional genre.

Bowker format and size page screenshot how to register an ISBN

Sales & Pricing


This is where you can list your publishing imprint if you have one. Otherwise, you can list your own name. You’ll also input the publication date, title status, target audience, and price.

Bowker sales and pricing page screenshot how to register an ISBN

Conclusion


Self-publishing can seem daunting the first time! There are a lot of steps involved. But it gets easier each time you do it.

I hope this article has helped to explain ISBNs so you feel confident with that phase of your publishing journey. I didn’t fully understand them when I started publishing my first novel back in 2018. That’s why I write this blog; to help other authors learn from my mistakes and navigate a smoother path.

Best of luck to you!