How to obtain an ISBN number

The book industry really only uses one metric to distinguish between publishers and non-publishers. If you own an ISBN block, you're a publisher. The ISBN number is the key value that identifies the publisher of a book in all of the online databases and inventory systems used world-wide. I've heard that in some countries you can obtain an ISBN number for free, but in the U.S., you have to deal with the Bowker agency, where "agency" has a special legal meaning, that they've been granted a monopoly franchise by the government. The last ISBN block I purchased consisted of 10 numbers (enough for ten titles) and cost around $250 with the additional publisher registration charge. They call it an "application process," but I've never heard of anybody failing.

All it takes to obtain an ISBN number is a credit card (or a check and a lot of patience), but it's only the first step in the process. Bowker will aggressively market add-on services to you that I've never seen any need for, they really stretch the use of statistics for sales pitches in strange, new ways. You can generate bar codes for your book covers for free with Bookland, and you can convert older 10-digit ISBN's to 13-digit ISBN's for free as well. Don't get panicked into thinking you need to change your existing book covers, the new system grandfathers in books published with the 10 digit ISBN's.  

So, now you know how to obtain an ISBN number, buy it from Bowker, but that's not the end of the story. You'll want to get your ISBN information registered with Books-In-Print, and the only practical way to do that is to sign up for BowkerLink (the only free service they have), the online tool for uploading book information, including price, page count, distribution, etc. It is one of the worst software interfaces I've used in my life, but that's the price of dealing with a monopoly.  

Obtaining an ISBN number makes you a publisher in the eyes on the book industry, but it won't sell any books for you, no matter how many add-on services you pay for. The supply exceeds the demand for new titles, most never see the light of a bookstore shelf or sell much beyond the author's family and friends. Using a subsidy press to publish your book doesn't make you a self-publisher unless you own the ISBN number on the cover. One of the common misconceptions about self publishing is that you don't have to obtain your own ISBN number to become a publisher if you pay a subsidy press to publish your book. If it's their ISBN, they are the publisher, not you.  

You can publish books on a shoestring and you can even succeed, but you can't pretend it's a publishing business without first obtaining an ISBN number. Spend the $250 now, even if it means skipping a few meals, or you'll regret it for the rest of your publishing life. Bookselling is all about marketing, and establishing yourself as publisher with an ISBN is the easiest (and cheapest) step in the path.


Keith Martel said...

wow- quite helpful piece on isbn-thanks. My project is currently working with repackaging vintage public domain books as audio books- many of the great books are being recreated as ebooks and hard copies, but few are creating a high quality audiobook- the problem that I have run into is the necessity for an isbn #- a quick search found you! thanks. look forward to checking back for more info.

Keith Martel said...

one question though- could you say a bit more about why you would want your 10 digit isbn to be changed to a 13 digit? whats the advantage?

Judith Hernandez said...

This is good information for me, but you may help me with a question. If I live here in USA, print the book in Mexico and want to sell it in USA and MEXICO. Where do I get my ISN MExico or USA?

Pamela Waterman said...

A couple of comments. Regarding selling in other countries: I have books with US-generated ISBNs that I had printed in Canada. I've sold them around the world, no problem. RE: the 13-digit ISBN numbers. The ISBN system simply changed a number of years ago because they were running out of numbers, and also wanted a system where the first three digits (I think that's correct) represent the country of origin. You can only get 13-digit codes now; you can also convert the old 10-digit codes to a new 13-digit version, online, for free. Don't try to just add the digits you see on US books, to the front-end of an old 10-digit code; the converter also changes the final two digits according to some algorithm. Hope this helps.

Afzal Pasha said...

Hi, I am from Pakistan and wanted to print a book of Hymns and Worship Songs in Roman English. There are lot of other books already available but are in our Urdu language. Moreover, in my book there will also be a music sheet of each hymns. Since our community members are living around the globe but they have no access to such material in their countries. I wish to sell this book in North & South America, Australia, Europe as well as in other countries but wanted to get printed it in Pakistan (its cheap printing here). Kindly guide me to get an ISBN from Pakistan or USA?