Do You Need An ISBN?

What Is The Purpose of An ISBN?

Every single day, I'm asked about ISBNs.  Yup--every single day.  I get self-publishers who have purchased one ISBN; I get self-publishers who have purchased a pack of ten.  I receive book files with a metadata sheet showing one ISBN per "format," a format being print, ePUB, or MOBI.  I'm constantly asked if self-pubs need an ISBN "for their copyright."  It's obvious to me that people don't really understand the purpose of an ISBN, so let's dig in, and once and for all, set out the facts.

What Is an ISBN?

First, ISBN does not stand for "International Body Suit Number," or "Industrial Sexy Body Number."  No, it stands for "International Standard Book Number."  ISBNs are recognized internationally.  Yes, there are some glitches surrounding international recognition, but unless you're the next JK Rowling, really, this won't affect you at all, so ignore that.

The purpose of an ISBN is, simply, ordering, distribution, fulfilment and payment.  Say that again:  ordering, distribution, fulfilment and payment.  To understand this more easily, think back a few short years to a time when every book was in print, and generally, published by publishing houses.  

The Why? of ISBNS:

Think about how bookstores order books. Or Big Box stores, etc.  If your book is trade-published, and it's out in three formats--say, hardcover, trade paperback and mass market paperback--how does the store actually order the book?  If they put in an order saying "We want 100 copies of 'Bob's Big Boy Book,' in paperback," which book gets shipped to them from the distributor?  And more importantly, who gets paid for that order of 100 books?  Remember that in traditional print publishing, it wasn't that uncommon for one publisher to print the hardcover and first run paperback, and another to print a different type of paperback--say trade versus mass-market.  So, one book; three formats, two publishers, as the example we'll discuss below, in "Here's How It Works."  

Remember the purpose of publishing--it's a business. It's a business which is about making money, and getting paid for their work, like every other business.  One publisher doesn't want the wrong book being ordered, or worse, the wrong publisher being paid for their order.  During ordering, in humongous warehouses filled with towering stacks of boxes of books, how does the warehouse worker know which book to ship, on that hastily-scribbled order for 100 paperback copies of "Bob's Big Boy Book?"

Enter the ISBN.  The ISBN--which is unique to each book, and to each VERSION of the book--ensures that the correct book is shipped for our hypothetical shipment. And, again, the important part--the ISBN ensures that the correct publisher gets paid for our 100-book order.  

Here's How It Works:

You've probably read all sorts of drivel all over the Net, about what an ISBN means, or why you need one, or why you don't.  Here, we're going to give it to you straight.  

The person or company or entity that purchases the ISBN for any given book is the publisher of that book.  Period, end statement. When that book is ordered, via whatever means, the holder of that ISBN is the company that gets paid for that order.  

As an Example: Back to "Bob's Big Boy Book," available in three formats.  Hardcover, trade paperback, and mass-market paperback. It's published by Red River Publishing.  Or, let's say--for the purposes of our example--that the Hardcover and the trade paperback were published by Red River Publishing, but the mass market paperback was published by Yellow Road Press. Three versions, two publishers.  When Costco orders a book, what happens?

  1. Costco looks up the book that it wants, either on its own inventory lists, or by using BooksInPrint, and decides that it wants  100 copies of "Bob's Big Boy Book," in mass market paperback.   
  2. To order it, they submit their order to the distributor (in some cases, this goes directly to the publisher, but usually, it's a distribution warehouse).  
  3. They order the book by its correct ISBN--so, "ISBN-for-mass-market-paperback" is what goes on their order form.
  4. The warehouse ships them the correctly-identified 100 copies of the mass market paperback, using the ISBN as the indicator of which book is being requested;
  5. and--here's the kicker--Yellow Road Press gets paid for that order. Not Red River Publishing.  Why?
  6. Yellow Road Press gets paid because Yellow Road Press is the publisher of record, identified by the simple fact that they are the OWNER of the ISBN associated with that specific edition.  Knowing who owns which ISBN resolves any and all issues of "who gets paid," for the overworked stock clerk and inventory manager.  

So, do ISBN's matter for eBooks?

That's a great and confusing question.  They do IF you are publishing through a distributor, aggregator, or trade publishing house, because they receive their payments, from Amazon, from iBooks, from B&N, etc., by ISBN.  They track your book using that same ISBN, and their payment accounts are also ordered by that unique identifier.

When they upload their dstribution list to the stores for sale, it's via FTP, (File Transfer Protocol) and this means that the books they have in their server aren't called "Bob's Big Boy Book_paperback.ePUB (or MOBI);" they're called "12345678910.ePUB" and "12345678910.MOBI."  The file is shown as "ISBN.ePUB" or "ISBN.MOBI."  This is how the books are referenced, and how payment stubs are annotated.  When Smashwords, for example, gets paid by B&N, their payment stub will have all the books listed by that number (the ISBN), followed by the format (ePUB/MOBI/print paperback, etc.), and the amount.  Smashwords, in turn, pays you the same way--by the ISBN.  That's why Smashwords "gives" you an ISBN when you publish with them--so that they can track the book through their eBook distribution network; track the orders, track the payment, and track what they pay you.  It's all about ordering, fulfilment, and payment.  

In eBooks, obviously, distribution and fulfilment aren't quite the same. This is why people get confused about whether or not they need an ISBN; because by and large, ISBN's really only matter for print books. Now, that's if YOU are directly uploading and selling your books on Amazon, etc.  eBooks aren't "ordered" from some warehouse; they don't get "shipped," and everything happens in a single location. Amazon is, all at the same time, the storefront, the distributor, and, by and large, the publisher.  The book gets loaded by you to their servers; they keep it there.  When a buyer clicks "buy," they deliver it via the Net or wifi or (choose option X).  You, the actual publisher, have already done the shipping and distribution, because you've uploaded it there. They do the rest, and then pay you at month's end.  They have their own internal inventory system--using ASIN's (Amazon Sales Identification Number).  An ASIN is assigned to your book (yes, pretty much exactly like an ISBN), and that's how they internally account for sales.  

So, if you are publishing directly to the main four retailers--Amazon, B&N, iBooks and KoboBooks--no, you don't need an ISBN, because there's no ordering, no shipping, no fulfilment (other than what they are themselves doing), and they don't have to track you and your book through a third party.  

For the TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read) crowd:

Here we are, back at the beginning.

  • Do you need an ISBN to register your copyright?  No.  
  • Do you need an ISBN to publish an eBook on Amazon? No.
  •  Do you need an ISBN to publish an eBook on B&N?  No.
  • (Nor on iBooks or KoboBooks, for eBooks).
  • Do You Need An ISBN if you are publishing through a distributor, like IngramSpark? The answer to that is maybe. Some distributors are happy to let you use your own ISBN (like Smashwords); some want to assign their own ISBN.  I can't answer that one for you--before you spend your hard-earned shekels on an ISBN, check with the distributor that you plan to use for distribution of your eBooks.  
  • Do you need an ISBN to publish a print book on Amazon?  Yes, realistically.  You can use one of theirs; you can use one of your own, but for accounting purposes,you're going to want an ISBN from somewhere.  

If you use one of Amazon's free ISBNs, at Createspace, your publisher will show up as Createspace (because, remember:  that's who actually bought and owns the ISBN you're using).  The print version is ordered by bookstores, warehouses,  etc.,from Createspace; it's fulfilled by Createspace, and they are the entity that the bookstore pays. In turn, they pay you your share of the order--effectively, a royalty, if you think about it.  If you think about who does the printing, fulfilment, and distribution, it's easy to think about who buys and owns the ISBN.  

Lastly, despite how an ISBN is purchased, and which governmental entity (the copyright office) is associated with ISBNs, remembrer this: NO, your ISBN doesn't prove your copyright. It would be evidence, if a case ever arose, but copyright registration is completely separate and apart from ISBN acquisition and use.  Don't let anyone tell you differently.  

Here endeth the ISBN lesson.  


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Christmas 2024!

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