Buying an ISBN for your self-published book
Whether you print and distribute a single edition of the paperback through one, two or more Print-on-Demand providers, you need only 1 ISBN for that paperback. You do not need to have a separate ISBN for each distributor. In fact, using multiple ISBNs for the same paperback edition might result in your book listing being duplicated on the Amazon website, because they might not realize that your KDP-distributed copy is the same edition of the same book as your IngramSpark-distributed copy. Duplicated listings might also confuse your readers, because they won’t know what the difference is between the two versions and might end up not buying either of them.
Use only one ISBN for your paperback, regardless of how many distributors you are going to use. If you are also publishing a hardback, you will need an ISBN for this edition which is different than the one you used for your paperback.
Free KDP Print ISBN
KDP Print (same as its predecessor CreateSpace) offers free ISBNs for paperbacks published through the service. When you use this ISBN, your book's Amazon page will have "Publisher: Independently published". This is an improvement over CreateSpace's free ISBN which resulted in publisher name being listed as "CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform", which some readers could perceive negatively.
If you choose to use this free ISBN, you can only use it with KDP Print. If you ever decide to expand your paperback distribution beyond Amazon and make more profit from each sale than with KDP Print Expanded Distribution, you will need to buy your own ISBN and either re-publish the KDP version with the new ISBN or just use it with the version of the book distributed with another service, confusing readers on Amazon who will see a duplicated listing on Amazon, with two different ISBNs.
Free IngramSpark ISBN
As of June 2020, IngramSpark allows authors in the U.S. to assign a "free" ISBN to their book published through them. The associated publisher/imprint name is "Indy Pub". This allows you to save on buying an ISBN to publish with IngramSpark, but getting your own is still required if you want to publish the same edition through both Ingram and KDP and avoid duplicate listings on Amazon and other retailers.
However, there are a couple of catches. If you use a free title set promo code, you can't use a free ISBN, so this "free" ISBN is effectively costing you $49 if a free title set up code is available. Hence, the actual savings, as compared to $85 ISBN purchased from Bowker, are reduced to $36 ($85-$49). Also, if you do assign a free ISBN, Ingram forces you to enable the book for distribution: it's unclear whether you can decide to withdraw it from distribution later.
Official ISBN agencies
US: Bowker sells single ISBNs for $125 and a bulk of 10 ISBNs at $295.
As of late October 2018, Bowker has temporarily disabled an option to buy ISBNs from their website. As of late November 2018, Bowker has restored their MyIdentifiers website and the option to buy ISBN numbers. However, we have discovered the access to website is blocked for visitors outside the US.
UK: Nielsen sells single ISBNs for £89 and a bulk of 10 ISBNs for
Canada: Library and Archives Canada provides ISBNs free of charge.
Australia: Thorpe-Bowker sells single ISBNs for AU$44 and a bulk of 10 ISBNs for AU$88. Unlike ISBN registrars in other countries, Thorpe-Bowker adds one-time fee of AU$55 to the first ISBN purchase made by Australian authors.
Cheap ISBNs from resellers
You might find "cheap" ISBNs online sold by companies or individuals not authorized by International ISBN Agency as official ISBN agency for any country. Those re-sellers buy huge blocks of ISBNs from Bowker (or the ISBN agency in their country) for as little as $1.5 per ISBN. Then, they offer these ISBNs to independent authors for less than authors would spend by buying directly from Bowker. Those ISBNs have the original buyer's "publisher" or "imprint" name assigned to them and they remain under control of those who bought them originally, not the authors who bought them from such re-seller. Such ISBNs may also be offered by some service providers as part of their book publishing packages
While these ISBNs are not tied to any distributor (which differentiates them from the free ISBNs provided by distributors) and hence can be used as a part of the distribution strategy outlined in this article, they are not under the author's direct control and can't have their chosen "publisher" name assigned to them. These "re-sold" ISBNs might be an alternative choice for those authors who want to save anywhere between $50 and $100 on a single ISBN purchase, but you need to be aware that they are not "owned" by you.
The only way to fully "own" ISBNs and have full control over them is to buy them from the official ISBN agency of your country. If you are in the US and want to save some money while buying your own ISBNs, you can take advantage of the partnerships between Bowker and one of the two major printer-distributors, which allow you to pay less for the exact same ISBN. Details are included below.
Discounted ISBNs for US authors
US authors can purchase single ISBNs at a reduced price by taking advantage of the partnership between Bowker – the official US ISBN agency – and one of two major US companies: IngramSpark and Amazon.
All of these discounted ISBNs are purchased directly on Bowker’s website and can be managed on MyIdentifiers.com. The rules governing their use are the same as if purchased at full price which means that you will truly own any ISBN you obtain in this way.
This will allow you to determine your own publisher (imprint) name and fully control your choice of print distributors, including KDP Print and IngramSpark.
IngramSpark. While setting up a paperback with IngramSpark you will reach a step where you will be asked to provide your own ISBN and will also be presented with an option to either purchase an ISBN from Bowker at a reduced rate or assign a non-distributable SKU number to your book. When you choose the option to buy an ISBN, you will be redirected to Bowker’s website where you will be able to complete the purchase, paying only $85 instead of the regular $125 for a single ISBN.
CreateSpace. While setting up a paperback with CreateSpace you will reach a step where you will have to choose between a free CreateSpace-assigned ISBN, your own ISBN and a “Custom Universal ISBN” priced at $99. When you choose the last option, you will be redirected to Bowker’s website and you will only have to pay $99 instead of the regular $125 for a single ISBN. Owing to the fact that CreateSpace also offers free ISBNs and Libraries and Academic Institutions Expanded Distribution channel requires the use of a “CreateSpace-Assigned ISBN” (meaning the FREE option) authors often wonder how this $99 option is different to the Bowker-bought $125 ISBN. The answer is that apart from the reduced price, it is exactly the same. If you are wondering why CreateSpace uses such a fancy name for this discounted ISBN option, here is a bit of history. They used to offer a $10 ISBN called “Custom ISBN” which allowed authors to use their own imprint name, but those numbers were owned by CreateSpace and could not be used with other companies. Hence, the “Universal” part in the name of the $99 option indicated that it could be used with any distributor or printer (which CreateSpace refers to as “any publisher” on their website). They discontinued this $10 option as of June 22, 2016, presumably due to non-agreement with Bowker or an objection raised by the International ISBN Agency due to this unique, non-standard practice, but the “Universal” name of $99 ISBN remained.
Amazon (KDP). In early 2017, Amazon opened up a public beta of KDP Print, which uses KDP front-end interface to print paperbacks on demand using exactly the same technology and facilities that CreateSpace uses. As a paperback published this way also requires ISBN, they joined CreateSpace in offering free ISBNs, which can only be used with KDP, but they now also offer discounted ISBNs to authors through a partnership with Bowker. Unlike IngramSpark and CreateSpace ISBN options, you can use a special link that will allow you to purchase a single ISBN or even 2 ISBNs at $99 per number before setting up a paperback. You can use this link even if you do not plan on using KDP Print. We can provide you with an up-to-date, valid link for this discounted ISBN: simply contact us and we will send it your way.
Those discounted $85 and $99 ISBN options are a good choice if you are only going to publish up to 3 paperbacks in the near future, as that adds up to a total of $255 and $297 respectively for 3 numbers.
However, if you do plan to publish more than 3 paperbacks in the foreseeable future and do not mind paying more upfront for future savings, you will be better off by buying a pack of 10 ISBNs for $295 directly from Bowker or even 100 ISBNs for $575 if you are a really prolific writer. Those bulk ISBNs do not expire, so you can use them years from now.
Bowker and other ISBN agencies might try cross-selling barcodes. They will try to convince you that you have to buy the barcode for your book, alongside your ISBN. That isn't the case. You don't need to buy the barcode in order to publish your paperback with either KDP Print or IngramSpark. While your paperback does require the barcode for distribution, it can be obtained for free. KDP will automatically generate a barcode with your ISBN and then superimpose it in the lower right-hand corner of your back cover. IngramSpark provides barcodes as part of their cover templates and they can be placed anywhere on the back cover by your book cover designer, but if it's not included, Ingram will add a barcode to the back cover automatically before asking you to approve the book for printing.
This article is work-in-progress. It is published in hopes of being useful, but it is not as comprehensive as our finalized articles, may be slightly outdated and contain small errors. Subscribe for updates.
Read our other article to learn about Print-on-Demand distribution strategy.
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