Episode 08:

The Great ISBN Debate

Should I Use a Free One or Buy My Own?

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Show Notes

There’s a huge debate in the indie publishing community about ISBNs. Should you use a free one or buy your own? In this episode, I talk about what ISBNs are and what they are used for. I share why I think it’s important to purchase or obtain your own ISBNs for your books.



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Hey fellow Indie Authors! Welcome to this week’s episode of the Indie Author Biz Guide Podcast. There’s a huge debate in the indie publishing community about ISBNs. Should you use a free one or buy your own? In this episode, I talk about what ISBNs are and what they’re used for. I share with you why I think it’s important to purchase or obtain your own ISBNs for your books.

Listen to the end for a free resource you can download to help you in your indie author business.

Welcome to the Indie Author Biz Guide Podcast. I’m Tora Moon, genre bending fantasy and sci fi author, indie business author, and entrepreneur. Here we talk about the business of self-publishing, or as I prefer to call it, indie publishing. As an indie author, you have entered the wonderful world of entrepreneurship. On this show, I guide you through the rocky waters of the indie publishing industry.

I share business basics and principles you can apply to your author business, and really, any business. Other indie authors share their experiences and expertise to give you insight in your career and build your business. You can download your free indie author business checklist, find additional resources, and the show notes at Indie Author Biz Guide dot com. And now, here’s today’s episode.


So, if you’ve been in the indie author community for any length of time, or you’re just starting out with writing, there’s a big debate in the indie self-publishing community about whether you should use your own ISBN number or a free one offered by the distribution print companies.



The reasons for this debate are one, ISBNs are expensive, especially here in the United States. Some countries like Canada, you have it lucky, you get them free. But in the United States and the U.K., Australia, we have to pay for our ISBNs and they can be quite expensive. And when you’re first starting out, you don’t have the money for everything that you need.

Two, many people consider the ISBN system as an outdated system. However, it’s what we have to work with. Three, many authors, especially when they’re new, aren’t sure how to use them once they’re purchased.

I firmly fall into the camp of purchasing and using your own ISBNs, and I’ll get into why I think that a little bit later in this episode.

First off, let’s talk about what exactly is an ISBN. ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, and its essentially is the Social Security number or identification number for your book. And it identifies to booksellers and libraries and other people which book, which edition, which format that they want to buy. And you need one for each format.


So, if you do audio book, you’ll need an ISBN for that. If you do e-book or an epub, you’ll need to have an ISBN for that format. If you do print and paperback and you have a trim size of six by nine, you’ll need a ISBN for that. Now, if you do a print book and you do a hardcover, that is a different format, so therefore, you need another ISBN number for it. If you do large print, that is another format, so you need another ISBN number for it.

Normally, and in most circumstances, you should not need more than one ISBN per format. In other words, you shouldn’t have to have an ISBN for Ingram Spark and then one for KDP Print because the ISBN is not identifying the printer, it’s identifying the publisher. You should not need one for each distributor or printer because what an ISBN does besides identify which book and title per format, it identifies the publisher.

Me, as the publisher, Lunar Alchemy Publishing owns the ISBN for all of my books. It’s one reason why I advocate if you listen to the earlier episodes that you at least set up a DBA for your publishing company. Your ISBN number is one of those reasons why it’s a good idea to have a publishing company.

With traditional publishers, which includes small presses, that are representing and holding the copyrights for many authors, their ISBNs are tied to Penguin, so Penguin purchases the ISBN. Any authors that they represent that they hold the copyright for, they (the publisher) use the ISBN and assign and ISBN to that book in that format.

And when you look at the book, it will say, published by Penguin. So if you look up on Bowker or any of the library systems or bookstores, with Ingram or whatever, when you look up the ISBN for my books, it says Lunar Alchemy Publishing is the publisher. If I wanted to publish other people’s books in the future, maybe, I could use the ISBNs that I have purchased under Lunar Alchemy for those books.

As I’ve mentioned, bookstores and libraries use this number to search for books and to purchase them. And in all retail platforms, except Amazon, they use ISBNs to identify and list your books. If somebody has the ISBN for your book, they can go to Barnes and Noble and say, Hey, I want to buy this book, and if you’ve got it on print with Ingram, then they can look it up in their system and say, Oh yeah, it’s available. I can order this for you. If you’ve got your books listed with Draft to Digital on Overdrive, readers can go to their local library and say, Hey, can you order this book for me? And the library will need that ISBN number to find the exact book that that patron wants, which is yours.

That’s what an ISBN does, and why, even with the outdated system, it’s the only system we have, we still need ISBNs.



Why do I advocate that you should buy or obtain your own ISBNs rather than using the free ones? Sure. They’re free– dollar wise, but they may not be free opportunity cost wise when you use someone else’s number. So, you decide to use Ingram Spark’s free ISBN for your print books. They now have some control over your intellectual property because the publisher, remember it identifies the publisher and not the author, so Ingram Spark is now identified as that publisher.

If you decide that, Oh, I have this great opportunity, a book club, a really big book club, wants to buy my book and I could sell it to them at a discount. Or I’ve got this huge order, my Business and Accounting for Authors, an accounting firm wants to use it and give it to their clients. And I want to go to my local print shop or to an offset printer which will drop my cost way down per copy. If I’m ordering like 1200 copies than what a print on demand will do. But because the ISBN is owned by Ingram, I can’t do that. I’d have to get my own ISBN for that same book, which then could cause confusion with readers and people ordering. Which book do I get?

If you as the publisher aren’t identified with that book and you take that book down to your local printer to print for you or the offset printer, they won’t print it for you with that ISBN on it because you don’t own that ISBN and therefore you really have lost control of that intellectual property.

Another reason is when you use a free number, you’re allowing that entity to adopt your book. They are now listed as the parents or publisher of that book, not you. Remember the ISBN is that identification number or in the United States, you could compare it to your Social Security number. When you have a child, they get a Social Security number. When you birth a book, you give them a Social Security number, you give them an ISBN number. If you allow someone else to give them that ISBN number, they’ve now adopted your book.

Think about that for a minute.

And if they’ve adopted your book, what are some of the problems that could arise from it? So while it hasn’t been a problem in the past, it could create problems with an unethical site claiming they have the rights to your book because they are the publishers. That they can decide whether they’re going to publish and distribute that book or not. And you wouldn’t have any say over that because they’re listed as the publishers. Now, if you are listed as the publisher and somebody did that, you can say, Fine, I’m not going to publish with you and I’ll go with somebody else. But if they own that publishing number, you’re S-O-L. Like, I said, that hasn’t happened yet. So why give them any more control over your book than you absolutely have to? It’s your book. It’s your intellectual property.

And a third thing about ISBNs and why I advocate you have your own, ISBNs are not transferable. So if you get that ISBN from Ingram or KDP or Draft to Digital or one of these other companies, if you then decide that you’re going to get your own, you have to issue another edition of that book because that ISBN is not transferable to another company.

One of the reasons I’m an indie, or self-published, author is I like having full control over my intellectual property and what I can do and or decide not to do with my books and whatever I write and create. I like having the freedom to decide how I distribute my books and how I print them. And using a free ISBN gives away some of that control over my IP, and I don’t like that. That’s why I indie publish. I’m a bit of a control freak. I admit that. I embrace that. I do everything in my power to maintain the control of my intellectual property and my business that I can. What is right for me may not be right for you, but these are the reasons why I choose to buy my ISBNs.


Where to buy your ISBN

Now in the United States, there’s only one place to legally purchase your ISBN. There may be other companies that say, Oh, buy this ISBN, they’re a lot less than Bowker. Those are scams. Don’t do it because, like I said, ISBNs are assigned to the purchaser who is the publisher. That company is now listed as the publisher of your book because they can’t transfer that ISBN to somebody else.

In the United States, Bowker is the only place to legally buy your ISBNs. You can buy one for $125. Don’t do that. You can go through ten like this if you have more than one book. Even if you have one book and you do E-book, audiobook, paperback, hardback, large print. You’re now five ISBNs for one book.

You can buy ten ISBN for $295. That brings the cost down from $125 to $29.50. Better, but certainly not good. The one that I bought–and that if you can do it and you can swing it, put it on your credit card, save up for it, whatever you do–is getting 100 ISBN for $575. Now that drops the cost from $125 down to $5.75 per number.

If you do a series of eight books, you are definitely going to be using those ISBNs. You do more than that, you’re going to need all of those ISBNs, and probably buy another package of them. One of the good things about ISBNs is there’s no expiration date for them. So you save up, you buy them now thinking I’ll never use that many. They don’t expire. They’re good forever, throughout your lifetime, or when the apocalypse hits, whichever one happens first. (I write sci fi fantasy, so had to put that one in there.) It’s an investment in your business to buy these ISBNs.

There’s also one up from that and this is if you’re a very prolific writer and you’re doing a lot of books and a lot of editions of books or you’ve moved into a small publisher type of thing, then you can get a thousand ISBNs for 1500 dollars, which then that brings the cost down to about $1.50.

When you go on to Bowker’s site they try to sell you ISBNs and a barcode that you need a bar code from them for your ISBN. No! ( I’m getting sunrays.) The only thing to buy from Bowker is the ISBN. Don’t buy any of their other stuff. When you send your book to Ingram Spark or KDP Print to print, they give you a blank box for where to put your ISBN. They will generate and print that ISBN on your book for you as part of the printing process. So you don’t need to buy a barcode from Bowker. It’s not needed. And even if you were having an offset press do your books, there’s ISBN generators that you can go online and get that generated for free. They are now offering a QR code. There’s places you can get those for free. If you use Adobe, they’ve got that integrated into their products now. So don’t buy that, only buy the ISBNs from Bowker.

In Canada, you get them free. The government gives them to you for free. Lucky you! In the UK, you get it from Neilson, and I don’t have the costs for that, I didn’t look that up. In Australia, you also get it from Bowker and their Australian branch.

For the U.S., UK, Canada, and Australia, I have those links available in a free resource called Helpful Links, which is available on my website for you to download, and it not only has your ISBN links, it has a whole bunch of other links of what you need for your indie author business.

If you’re outside of these countries, just do a Google search and you’ll find for your country of where to obtain ISBNs. Some countries, like Canada, are free, others like the US not so free.


I hope this has been helpful in giving you some information to make that business decision of whether to buy or use a free ISBN of whatever is right for your business in your circumstances. Every business is different. Every author business is different. If you are only writing your memoir and that’s all you can ever write, maybe you only need one ISBN or maybe you can get away with doing the free ISBN. If you only have one, that’s what I would do is just do your free one. But if you are looking towards writing as a full time career or even as a supplemental income, then it’s a good investment, at least from my perspective for your business.

If you want to know more about how to treat your writing as a business, you can get my book, Business and Accounting for Authors. It’s available in e-book, print, or audiobook formats. It’s available on my website, on all the retailers, you can order it through your library, or go to your local bookstore and ask them to get it for you. Doesn’t matter to me. I prefer you get it on my website, but wherever you get it, it’s fine.

And I do have a section in here about ISBNs and I also have helpful links in the back so you can look at them there. Or like I said, you can download them from my website, and that is at Indie Author Biz Guide dot com forward slash resources. And besides the helpful links, there’s a few other things there that to help you with your author business. And you can always check back because I’m adding more things as I build out what I’m doing.

And if you need help in developing your author business, you’re just starting out, or you want to make sure that your business is in a good place, then my Author Business Development VIP Day may be what you need. Or if you’ve just have a few questions, then maybe the micro coaching, which is only $10, you could do that as well.

I hope this has been helpful for your author business and we’ll see you on the next episode.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Indie Author Biz Guide Podcast. I hope you found value in it. You can get your free business checklist, find more information, and any downloads mentioned at Indie Author Biz Guide dot come forward slash podcast.

Please like and subscribe and tell your indie author friends about the show. If you’d like to support the show, you can donate to Buy me a coffee at Buy me a coffee dot com forward slash I A B G. These donations help support the cost of hosting, editing, and production of the podcast.

Thank you, and I hope you have an amazing day!


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