Monday, September 30, 2013


Aspects of Independent Publishing: Part Three - ISBN


What’s with the alphabet soup, Shelton?
We already know what these are.

Okay, so you do. I won’t argue with you. I’m not offering revolutionary information here. Just what I’ve learned through my journey into the independent publishing world. Stick around if you want: I’ll try not to make this too dry a read. 


International Standard Book Number, developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) identifies a book or book-like product. This is the number that reflects globally. An ISBN obtained in the US does not need reissued in the UK, for example. Once an ISBN is assigned, it cannot, should not be reissued since its function is to identify a specific book and a specific publisher. For Canadians, this number is issued by the CISS (pronounced “kiss”), or Canadian ISBN Service System, part of Library and Archives Canada, free of charge.

Lucky ducks.

Americans have a several options we can take advantage of. However, each country has only one distribution point for their numbers. For the United States, that distributor happens to be Bowker. All ISBN issuing sites, including those self-publisher touted “free” ones, originate from this company. Why is this important to mention? I’ll come back to this. First, I wish to break down the ISBN and show you the four parts that make up the 13 digit number.* Why? Because I want to know if anyone out there is as confused as I am about what exactly this number says. And because it's my blog, I can do it if I want to. 

Pick up a book and look at the number, for this purpose we will use one of mine.

The first part – 978 – represents the Universal Product Number (UPC). Well, actually, it represents the Bookland/EAN. A UPC is assigned to anything that is sold around the world. Books get special treatment. Here, the 978 says: this is a product from the non-existent country of Bookland, and so it is, therefore, a book-like product.

Confused yet? Bear with me, it gets worse. 

The next digit – 0 - represents language. In this case, English. This is probably the most straightforward of the parts. Oh, but just to keep it in line with the rest of the post, I’ll confuse you here. This part is actually named The Registration Group Element, and it could be up to 5 digits long for rarer languages, like Ancient Sanskrit.

But wait, does that mean the ISBN is longer than 13 digits?

No. The other sections are adjusted as need be. Don’t ask me why. I didn’t invent the system. If I had, well, knowing me, it would probably be way more convoluted and the resulting number at least 40 characters long.

The next section is The Registered Element, or the publisher. This is very important. This section points to who actually owns the whole rest of the number, and can stretch up to 9 digits long. In my example, I think the whole section between hyphens – 9896698 - is Oldewolff Prints.

Wait, don’t you know?
Didn’t they tell you when you bought the number? 

Actually, this number appears to be quite the guarded secret. You can buy a list of registered publishers and their corresponding code from the International ISBN Agency if you have a spare $2k burning a hole in your pocket. I don't. At least, not right now. And even if I did, is it worth it to me to spend that much money on something that changes constantly? Eh, probably not. It's not something I need to know after all. 

But on to why this section is important. If I were to switch publishers, i.e. drop myself (because Oldewolff Prints is my imprint) and sign on with a different publisher to publish my book, the ISBN would have to change because it doesn’t belong to the new publisher, it belongs to me, er, my publishing company.

So remember when I spoke earlier about the “free” ISBN? It’s free for you, certainly, in that it didn’t cost you anything to get from your self-publisher. However, it doesn’t belong to you either. It ties your book to the publisher. When looking The Trouble With Henry up in the International Bookland Title Magical Database or whatever they’re calling it these days, 9896698 is going to say Oldewolff Prints, not Shelton Keys Dunning. So, that “free” number from CreateSpace? You guessed it. It advertises CreateSpace, and doesn’t mention you at all.

Maybe it’s not important in the scheme of things to you. Maybe you believe having your own ISBN is not worth the cost. But if you plan on printing your book through Lightning Source, you have to have your ISBN already. They do not have numbers, free or otherwise, to assign to you. And it's probably not too hard to figure out if you, say, have a hundred books on your shelves from the same Big 6 publisher. I'll bet the savvy employee of a bookstore could look at the number and tell you who the publisher is. Which led me to ask myself, did I want a savvy employee of anywhere looking at the ISBN on my book and saying "Oh...Another CreateSpace DIYer. Wonderful." I believe in my product, and I decided to put that belief in my own publishing company. And...wait, I'm getting sidetracked now.

If I still have you as a captive audience, you deserve a nomination for sainthood. Just saying.

The fourth section is the item number, or the title of your work, and you guessed it, will be exactly as many numbers as it needs to be to fit the 13-digit profile. I believe, in my above case, the magic number here is 0.

But what about that last number? What’s it do?

That’s the checksum, the Check Number, and it's always only one digit. It doesn’t mean anything. Except, it means absolutely everything. There’s a long, complicated-looking algorithm that the rest of the numbers are put through, and if the number was generated correctly, the sum of the process will equal that last digit. If it doesn’t match, there will be all kinds of errors, from distribution to turtles running willy-nilly, to catastrophic tidal waves the likes the world has never seen before…okay, so I’m exaggerating because I’m not a math person and I don’t understand a lick of the formula.  I just know that for the likes of me, the number isn’t there representing anything in relation to the publisher or the title of the book.

So, Shel, you said Canadians are lucky ducks. Why?

You mean, apart from living in an absolutely gorgeous country with the world's most polite and heartwarming culture? Because ISBNs for Americans aren’t cheap. They’re an expense at $125 a piece that most struggling writers and independent publishers can’t afford. True, like most things in bulk, the per each gets cheaper the more you buy, but you have to be willing to invest a chunk of change to get to that $1/number rate.

If you do decide to buy your own, you can do so as an individual. You don’t need to go through the additional headaches that I did to establish a publishing company first. My humble, non-solicited, un-rewarded recommendation would be to go through the main source at Bowker. They’ve got a few different ISBN packages that make it a tad more affordable in the long run, even linking to a company that will convert your manuscript into eBook format ready to go through the New 3. (Amazon, Apple, and B&N).

If you are planning on releasing your book on more than one platform, you will need more than one ISBN. Convoluted numbering system aside, these numbers are unique to the platform as well as the title. So for each edition: Kindle, Smashwords, Lulu, Kobo, etc., you need to have an ISBN that corresponds. This goes for your print book as well. If I haven't said this enough already, never EVER use an already assigned ISBN for another platform, even if it's the same book. It's not worth the headache.

Now, all of this nonsense aside, the Bowker website is fairly easy to navigate, and the purchase and registration of ISBN are fairly straightforward. The registration process breaks down into small modules, each affording you the option to save and exit without submitting, so if you come across a field that you need to research, you’re not stuck.

A quick note about Amazon before I let you go. The Amazon Standard Identification Number, or ASIN, is something that Kindle Direct Publishing will assign to your book, whether you have an ISBN for it or not. It's assigned for free, and gives Amazon a way to keep track of your metadata. As I understand it, Apple has a similar feature. Apple also has ready to go book templates that you drag and paste to keep it clean and neat. No fuss, no muss. If all you plan to do with your book is to publish it digitally and only make it available through KDP for Kindles, or through iBooks for iPad, then you don't need to buy an ISBN. If, however, you want to market your book through other bookstores, virtual or real, then you'll need to purchase an ISBN or opt-in for a free one from each of your publisher platforms, if offered. 

As with other posts in this quirky series, if you have other questions of a non-legal nature about publishing independently, or if you would like a cheer squad to help you walk through the process, feel free to ask me. I’m willing to help where I can. If it takes a village to raise a child, why not a community to publish a book?

*Since January of 2009. Originally, the number was only 10 digits long.

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