Part 18: should you assign an ISBN to your Kindle ebook?
An ISBN is a 13 digit number which uniquely identifies books and book-like products around the world. An earlier version of the ISBN had only 10 digits, but these are now obsolescent and can be upgraded to the new format. Each number is only good for one version of a published book: hardcover, softcover and revised editions of the same book all need their own individual ISBN.
This is where things turn into a bit of a hot mess, because the above is also true of ebooks. Each released format currently needs a separate ISBN, with the rationale being that the system is not in place to cater to authors – it’s there to allow people in the publishing trade to quickly and easily find and order new books with the minimum amount of stuffups.

I’m guessing that you’ve all seen one of these before     (source)

ISBNs and the indie publisher

Of course, there are a chorus of competing opinions on this, given that the above rationale is issued by Bowker, who control ISBNs worldwide and therefore have a natural vested interest in selling as many as possible. There have been repeated calls from indie and small publishers, who commonly release an ebook in at least three separate formats (EPUB, AZW and PDF, with many also supporting some of the smaller formats as well) that one ISBN be assigned to all electronic formats of a single book. Amazon has muddied the waters by eschewing ISBNs, instead deciding to assign all new books with the Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN), although they allow authors to attach ISBNs to Kindle ebooks as well.
These opinions boil down to three schools of thought on ISBNs:

Don’t assign an ISBN to any format of an ebook

ISBNs are a money grab by traditional publishing elements which shouldn’t apply to new media. The power of search engines has rendered the ISBN obsolete, anyway.

Assign one ISBN to all formats of an ebook

A foot in both camps, here, but also the idea that ebook formats are fundamentally so similar – basically HTML with some slightly different wrapping – that they should only require one identifier per book, not per version of that book.

Assign an ISBN to each format of an ebook

The ISBN is still the industry standard, and is crucial to distribution outside of Amazon. Sites like Barnes & Noble, Smashwords and the iBookstore require mandatory ISBNs. It is also a worthwhile investment in credibility – not bothering with ISBNs is the hallmark of the clueless self publisher, not a professional indie publisher. You’ll also miss out on inclusion in Bowker’s marketing databases and listings such as Books in Print, and for Australian authors won’t be able to submit to the National Library’s Cataloguing in Print database.
If you decide to take this route, now is the time to apply for CiP, so the application can be processed while you’re working on other areas of your ebook. More details about this are here.
[Edit] You will find that there is a good proportion of book review blogs who use the ISBN as a kind of gatekeeper; they only review books that have ISBNs. However, it must be noted that the number of review blogs that are active, accepting unsolicited submissions and willing to take indie published ebooks from new authors is vanishingly small. Most of these blogs also do not crosspost to Amazon (which is where you want the reviews, really). Still, by skipping an ISBN, you may be depriving yourself of precious initial sales and exposure.

The difference between Bowker and ISBN resellers

Thorpe Bowker handle ISBN assigning in Australia. You can see from the following table that each number is much more expensive bought singly, rather than in blocks; ten ISBNs cost the same as two purchased individually. (Oddly enough, they are also the one thing Australians aren’t price-gouged over, compared to the US equivalent.)

Block of ISBNs Cost AUS$ Cost per, $AUS* Cost US$ Cost per, $US
1 $40.00 $40.00 $125.00 $125.00
10 $80.00 $8.00 $250.00 $25.00
100 $435.00 $4.35 $575.00 $5.75
1000 $2,750.00 $2.75 $1,000.00 $1.00

* Note that there is a one-time account setup fee of $55 for new publishers.
Now, because of this logarithmic pricing scale, there are plenty of ISBN resellers out there who will buy blocks of a thousand and pass these on to indie publishers for roughly $10 per. For example, Smashwords sell ISBNs for $1O for EPUBs sold via Smashwords. It sounds like a win-win, right? The reseller makes a tidy profit margin and the indie publisher can buy individual ISBNs for a fraction of the price they would pay singly.
The trouble is that once an ISBN has been purchased, it stays with that buyer for life. So, if Iggy’s ISBNs buys a group lot at $2.75 per and sells them for $10 each, it seems like a great deal compared to Bowker’s $40 + $55 registration fee. However, these numbers are tied to the original purchaser and cannot be transferred. You will still hold the publishing rights, but the publisher will be listed by Bowker as Iggy’s ISBNs. You can’t ring Bowker up to change the details assigned to a number (well, you can, but they’re going to say no). Joel Friedlander goes into more detail on the subject here, including the revelation that many successful indie authors now wish they had bought their own ISBNs.

Barcode printing of ISBNs

The skinny here is that ebooks do not need barcodes. They’re just for paper books. If you are printing in hardcopy, be aware that Bowker will charge a hefty fee to have each number printed, although it appears that there are free online resources to bypass this cost.

My take on things (for what it’s worth)

As I dislike reading fiction ebooks in PDF, there appears to be only two other widely-used formats worth supporting for the indie publisher right now: AZW and EPUB. Other locked formats are dead or dying and most new ereaders now support EPUB as standard.
I purchased a block of ten ISBNs, intending to use one for each electronic format; therefore, the block would last for five novels (!), if I didn’t do a run of paper printing as well. However, given that the Kindle AZW format would be sold nowhere except on Amazon, it seemed pointless to assign that format an ISBN [edit] (in hindsight, a minor whoops). I’ll be assigning an ISBN to the EPUB version and registering this version with the various publishing databases.

Proceed to Part 19: ‘Generating a Kindle-compliant ebook with KindleGen’, or return to the article index.
Return to Re: writing
While I’ve endeavoured to provide you with accurate information, what is considered ‘accurate’ will change over time. If I’m wrong, or you’d like to ask a question or share your thoughts, I’d love to hear your take on things.

Rhys About Rhys

Teacher, writer, editor, cook: a bit like that nursery rhyme, really.
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