The ISBN number is kind of like a Social Insurance Number for a book. It’s an identification number that, when broken down, indicates where a book was published, in what format, and by who. It also keeps track of how many editions are out there. It’s needed so royalty payments and money from sales can be directed to the proper publisher for distribution to the author. It is, if you like, a way to track inventory, like a SKU on retail items in other kinds of merchandising.
Outside of Canada, an ISBN can be purchased by an individual author for $ 125 from R.R. Bowker, which has a monopoly on this service. Publishers, however, buy them in blocks so that the cost to a traditional publisher is a fraction of that. An ISBN can be obtained in as little as 48 hours (express) or two weeks (non-priority).
ISBNs are sold in blocks of 10, 100 and 1000. It’s suggested that before you buy one, you should figure out the number of publications you will publish in the foreseeable future, and then select the block that will cover those so you can maintain one publisher prefix and minimize your unit cost per ISBN.
In Canada, however, publishers and authors can get a free ISBN, courtesy of the Canadian government through http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/ciss-ssci/index-e.html
Elsewhere, as of last September, a block was $250 for ten ISBNs, $575 for 100 ISBNs, and $1000 for 1000 ISBN numbers. Included with the ISBN is a SEO Title Card – a search optimized web page that features information about your book, published on sites such as BookWire.com.
Once you get your ISBN, you have to submit information about the title etc. into the Books in Print database at http://www.bowkerlink.com. (It is not done automatically. Getting an ISBN alone is not enough.)
A question was asked in the comment thread about ISBNs in e-publishing and whether they’re needed. Like most things in the new frontier, things are in a state of flux. At the moment, the answer is not always.
But if you get one, you may need more than one, for example, if you re-write the book substantially at some point after you’ve published it, or change the title. The ISBN User’s Manual explains:
• An online publication may be a bibliographic or fact database that is subject to change any second. This would be comparable to an encyclopedia or dictionary which is also constantly updated in other media, without each little amendment leading to a new edition or new ISBN. Only significant and/or structural changes (including title changes) would require new ISBNs.
• Linked material (e.g. hypertext) would only be considered covered by the same ISBN if the related material is actually part of the publication.
• If an online publication is available under different operating systems and/or command languages, each “format” would require a separate ISBN.
Note that final point because it’s contentious: that each format of an e-book requires a new ISBN.
My non-fiction book, Lament for a First Nation, has two IBSNs, one for hard cover and one for trade paperback. But in e-publishing, an e-book could be published in many different formats. Is an ISBN really required for each one?
The ISBN people say ‘yes.’ Indies say ‘not a chance.’ One opponent of this approach argues that requiring a unique ISBN for different e-formats of the same book would be like requiring a separate SKU for each colour of the same shirt sold by Sears.
On the ground, different e-publishers have taken different approaches. Some say you need an ISBN, others that you don’t.
Amazon requires an ISBN number but only one because it sells on Kindle exclusively. [NOTE: They use an identifier which is actually the ISBN number.] Any sale of an e-book by Amazon is a sale on Kindle, which makes inventory easy to track. Smashwords, on the other hand, sells to nine different e-book providers. Does that mean having nine ISBNs? What about where e-book pricing differs from country to country, for example, in Australia, where e-books are priced higher than in the U.S.?
If you’re a publisher, it’s a bit of a mess. Some do get an ISBN for every e-book format to track regional sales and sales in different formats, others don’t. Apparently, according to Brian Green, the director of the International ISBN Agency, “booksellers and wholesalers favour a different ISBN for each format, while most publishers prefer a single identifier.”
So the answer to the question about ISBNs is that if you publish through Amazon, you need an ISBN. If you self-publish through Smashwords, you will need an ISBN to sell to Apple i-Pad but other Smashwords retailers (like Kobo and Barnes and Noble) don’t require one.
Smashwords lets you choose. You can supply your own ISBN, provided it has never been used for any other print book or ebook edition.
Or, Smashwords will supply an ISBN at no cost after your book has been accepted into the Smashwords Premium Catalog. Note if you choose this second option, Smashwords will be your publisher and will list you as the author.
If you want to remain on the record as publisher, you would have to pay Smashwords for an ISBN (called the Premium ISBN) that lists you as publisher and Smashwords as distributor. The cost is $9.95. Also note that the third option is more of an internal record with R.R. Bowker that anything else: most retailers will still list Smashwords as the publisher.
I think if you’re considering e-publishing it’s best to have an ISBN for marketing reasons as well as to keep track of your sales, and best for you to get your own ISBN. You’ll be the publisher regardless of whether you go through Amazon, Smashwords or some other e-book service. Remember that if you make major changes to your e-book or change the title, you’ll need another one. And keep an eye on the ISBN debate about e-book formats and their effect on ISBNs in case you end up having to get more.