To ISBN, or Not to ISBN?

I’ve been on the brink of buying a ten-pack of ISBN numbers a half-dozen times the last few weeks. The reason I haven’t just pinched my nose and stepped off into the deep end is, quite frankly, money. For that ten pack, which should be adequate to publish two novels in paper and multiple e-formats, it will cost me $250. Which is a fairly large chunk of change to  lay out on a speculation at this point in my life (full-time student, mother… etc).

So I have been wondering how bad it would be for me to publish without an ISBN. I have already done so with my short stories, using the oh-so-simple KDP process to publish them. I will be attempting Smashwords soon. I know, I keep saying that. Really, I’m busy, and the writing is not even third or fourth on my list right now, I am afraid. For the novel, however, I wanted to make a print version available through Createspace, and I already have one bookstore who is willing to carry copies for me.

isbnIn order to sell it, I am told, I need an ISBN, and a barcode. I wonder how much that still holds true, though, in the shifting lines of the publishing world. If the novel is generally available in e-book form and then in print only as needed for specific orders, I wonder how that would work? I do not want to price it out of the market, the print edition ought to be no more than any other traditionally published trade paperback, $14.99. I see self-published trade paperbacks on sale for more than a hardback and I wince. I don’t imagine those sell very well at all.

I still have not made up my mind. I’m consulting my mentors in the business. I’m taking a close look at my budget. I know that if I choose to go through Amazon or Smashwords without one, and I’m not careful, they wind up listed as the publisher. I know with Amazon that can be fixed, because I have done it with my shorts.

One way or another, I will have this book out very soon. I have waited so long, and I’m working on multiple other projects, I need it done, and I’m proud of it. Also, my kid’s friends want to buy copies.

I’m muddling through all of this, exploring new ground for me. In my explorations I am reading the work of those who have gone before. Dean Wesley Smith gives me this quote “This writer as publisher is nothing new, actually. Before 1950 or so, self-publishing was an accepted form of publishing. Only from 1950 to 2008 was it looked down on. Now it is accepted again. Only difference is the difficulty and delivery systems.”  I find this inspiring as I tread down the road to self-publishing.

Finally, I decided to buy an ISBN from Createspace for the novel. It was $10, and allows me to publish under my own imprint, Stonycroft Publishing. I submitted my files, and while waiting for them to be reviewed I continued on to the distribution channels and spent a further $25 for the expanded distribution. I’ll blog at length soon about the Creatspace experience. So far, it has been painless.

Please take a moment to support Amazing Stories with a one-time or recurring donation via Patreon. We rely on donations to keep the site going, and we need your financial support to continue quality coverage of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres as well as supply free stories weekly for your reading pleasure.

Previous Article

Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 10 in series)

Next Article

A Sneak Peek at The Flames of Shadam Khoreh

You might be interested in …


  1. ISBNs are an ISO standard (International Organization for Standardization) and each country has its own issuing entity. In the US that entity is the private company Bowker (not the big publishing firms). I don't know how they came to be keepers of the keys, but yes, the prices seem outrageous. The big firms, by the way, are paying like a buck an ISBN.

  2. Interesting Read…comments too.

    Glad you brought this item up. I'm curious how this racket works. I take it that the government doesn't issue ISBN, so how does one get set up in the business of issuing them?

    It sounds like any imprint could be a legitimate issuer of ISBNs. Afterall, why should just the big firms be the only ones allowed to issue ISBNs?

    Why not Billy Bob down at the corner Copy Cabana?

    I believe in paying for good service, but issuing a computer generated number doesn't sound like a lot of overhead.

  3. Sounds like another outdated structure due for reform, if not toppling altogether. Having worked in the book business, I do like the convenience of ISBNs, so I would not mind so much if they charged you a couple bucks, but 25, 100? A little competition would cure Bowker quick. Perhaps Canadian ISBNs (ISBNs are free there, or so I hear) could be used. Surely someone can come up with an end around that scares Bowker into charging a reasonable price.

  4. Cedar,

    I've been researching the ISBNs of late myself. It seems as if this ebook revolution is still working itself out. ISBNs are not required for Amazon, but some of the other Ebook distributors do require them like Sony and Apple. (someone correct me if that's wrong.)

    I also note that the entire ISBN system is a racket. Seriously, charging $100 for a single ISBN which is just a number generated by a computer program. The fact that you can get bulk pricing for $1 or less per ISBN simply shoes what a racket it is.

    The ISBN "agency" also recommends a unique ISBN for each digital format. That is one for Kindle, one for Nook, etc.

    They also request each hardcopy form have its own ISBN.

    For me this means to cover my basis, I need one for "all" ebook formats. (The idea of one for every format is ludicrous, but you can see their motivation. $$$) and one for the hardcopy version. Of course if you have hardback and paperback you have to have a different one for each.

    I hear the $$$ racking up.

    A quick note that if you do not purchase the ISBN yourself from the "agency" then you cannot be listed as the publisher. (again correct me if I'm wrong.) If you purchase an ISBN from a "re-packager" they will always be the publisher of the ISBN, because it came out of their block of ISBNs. This is easily determined by the number itself. Each publisher has their own identifier as part of the ISBN.

    I have mixed feelings about Smashwords and some other ISBN re-packagers. It really depends on your ultimate goals and what rights you wish to maintain.

    Good luck. Just another slippery slope of the publishing world.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.