Reasons to Get Your Own ISBN for your book (with an audio version)

Shawn Robinson describes himself as “A writer, a husband, a father, a Christian, a hiker (or at least I was till some recent health problems), a lover of coffee, a biker (not the cool kind, but the kind that rides around on an old motorcycle and has a blast) and someone who enjoys watching movies with my sons and playing cards with my wife.”
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In the first part of this blog, we explored some of the basics of ISBNs. In this blog, I want to explore why I would recommend you get your own, personal ISBN (as opposed to going without one or using a freely provided one by a printer/distributor/publisher). Later, we’ll look at where you get an ISBN and how to get one in Canada.

Today, I’m going to talk about why you should consider having your own ISBN, but I realize I’m going to be ruffling a few feathers here for self-publishers. ISBNs aren’t cheap. Self-publishers are often trying to do what they do with a limited budget so… to suggest spending loads of cash on an ISBN when there is a free option being offered can be upsetting.

If you are growing upset as you read this, just skip the blog. This is not a life-or-death issue. You can use the one offered by Createspace or KDP without causing the sky to fall. The goal of this blog is not to say that if you do not use your own ISBN, you are wrong. It’s more to say, “this might be something to consider for the future.”

A lot of companies will offer to provide you with a free ISBN. Createspace and KDP (for Amazon) both do this. If you are trying to cut costs, this may sound very tempting. However, it may not always be the best move.

Full Disclosure

Okay, just let me take a moment for full disclosure. I’m Canadian. Some of you already know what that means in regards to ISBNs. For those who don’t, it means that ISBNs are free for me. Canada provides free ISBNs for Canadian authors. I don’t know why, but they do. I like it. It’s cool.

I share that because I’m going to argue that you would be better to have your own ISBN, but some of you will feel I’m not able to properly argue this point since it’s free for me and not for the vast majority of authors on the planet. All I can say is, free or not, there are some distinct advantages to having your own ISBN.

Reasons to have your own, personal ISBN

(as opposed to one assigned to you through a Vanity Press or Createspace or elsewhere)


Your ISBN is assigned to your publishing company/imprint. That means that if you set yourself up with Createspace or a Vanity Press (I wouldn’t recommend using a Vanity Press in most situations) and use their ISBN, the imprint will point to them, not to you. That means they are listed as the publisher. Perhaps this is vain, but part of self-publishing is ownership and control of the whole thing, right? 


Okay, so… control. Think of it this way. The ISBN points to the publisher. This means that if you use an assigned ISBN from another company (rather than getting your own), they are the publisher. Orders for the book go to the publisher which means that if an order comes through for your book, they get the order. This is a small problem if you are dealing with few books and want them to oversee all this, but if you are looking for distribution around the world and want a bit more control, then you have a bit of a problem.

Let’s say you decide you want to print your book at an off-set printer. Since you are not the publisher, you cannot print it using their ISBN without their permission. I have no idea what it would take to get Createspace to give permission for something like that. You can certainly print it with a different ISBN (it’s your book, remember), but not their ISBN. Often people will self-publish because they want to maintain a lot of control over their work. Using an assigned ISBN from another publisher means you do all the work, but technically, they are the publisher.

This also technically gives them control over certain information. For instance, they can change the metadata for your book. This can be the short and long description of the book, the categories it fits in and more. The publisher of a book actually has a fair amount of that kind of control. However, it is not likely they will do this at all. You shouldn’t have to fear that this is a likely scenario, but the option is available to them.

Different distributors

Alright, what you likely want to do is get your book out there through as many avenues as possible. Ingram, for instance, is the big distributor/printer. You might even find that Ingram prints some of your books being sold through Amazon (I just received one of my books from Amazon the other day that was printed by Ingram. Strange, eh?).

A huge percentage of books are printed and distributed by Ingram. Most people have never heard of Ingram, but Ingram is absolutely huge. When I upload my books to Ingram, since they are a distributor, they start distributing my books around the world. Suddenly they show up on Chapters, Kobo, Foyles, Book Depository, Abebooks and just about everywhere else. Look up an online bookstore that sells print and ebooks, if you’re curious. I have only really made use of Amazon and Ingram for distribution. If you do a search for “Arestana” on just about any online store, if it’s Amazon, it’s through Amazon. If it’s there and the company is not Amazon, Ingram has likely put it up there.

You can’t put your book up on Ingram or other places if you don’t have your own ISBN–unless you get another ISBN or go without one (ebooks). Since ISBNs are the way to track your book sales, multiple ISBNs for the same book aren’t always the best move. 

NOTE: I’ll be blogging about Ingram soon.  They are an excellent company to work with and very much worth your while to use.  While they can cost you money, I have used them a fair amount and never paid a single setup fee.  I’ll share how when I blog on it.

The Future

So… imagine a world without Amazon. I don’t mean without the race of women from whom we get Wonder Woman. I will admit, I enjoyed the newest Wonder Woman movie, and it would be too bad to be without it. When I mention “Amazon,” I also don’t mean the rainforest. I don’t like the idea of not having the Amazon Rainforest.
I’m sorry, I’m getting off track.

Imagine a world without Amazon… the online book retailer. You published your book with Amazon and used their ISBN for your print book and their ASIN for your ebook. Unfortunately, they went out of business during the intergalactic civil war of 2027. Since then (it’s now 2043), no one can access your book.

Now, there are parts of what I said above that are unrealistic, but the fact remains that big businesses do not last forever, and your ISBN is the identification number that is tied to you and your book. If you use an identification number tied to a business that could go under (because remember, a free ISBN belongs to them), you risk your book not being available for purchase.  This is an even bigger concern if you are using a Vanity Publisher (again, I would not recommend it).  They could easily disappear and you will have to start over on the publishing front.

Yes, you could always assign it your own ISBN after 2027, if you’d like. It’s not as if the intergalactic civil war changed Bowker. It turns out in this future, Bowker actually funded the war from the revenue gained through selling ISBNs to self-publishers–so they are as strong as ever.

But imaginary futures set aside, the reality is if you use a free ISBN from a company, they have the capacity to go under, and that version of your book becomes unavailable.

So, these are some reasons to get your own ISBN.

Some of you are thinking, “I see what you’re saying, but that still doesn’t convince me I need to shell out the money for an ISBN.”

Fair enough. Go with the free one. It’s not the end of the world to use the free one. There is just a little more control and a little bit more freedom if you own your own ISBN. If you can afford to buy ISBNs in bulk, that’s the way to go (the quantity discounts are huge).

In Part 3 of this blog, we’ll take a look at where to get an ISBN as well as a little bit about the cost. In Part 4, we’ll explore getting an ISBN in Canada. Since Canada gives free ISBNs, I’ll talk through what that process looks like.
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