Why You Don’t Need an ISBN (And What You Should Invest In Instead)

Lately, I’ve been trying to focus my energies less on discussing disadvantages of the corporate system and more on taking fuller advantage of being independent. I’ve been focusing a lot on Exciting Press–trying to fill readers’ Kindles and iPads and Android devices with the very best stories we possibly can.

Which is why, last night, when Bibliocrunch’s Miral Sattar highlighted last evening’s Twitter #indiechat with Bowker to me, I intended to avoid it. Miral and Porter Anderson both highlighted Bowker’s product manager, LJN Dawson, as well as touted Bowker’s new “self-publishing services.” I saw some of it–I was on Twitter, decompressing–but didn’t figure to participate until a tweet from the Bibliocrunch account pulled me in. No one had yet mentioned that authors no longer need ISBNs. No one had mentioned how incomplete Bowker’s tracking data actually now is.

So I thought I would. Long and short: as an independent author publishing digitally, you’ll do better ignoring any of Bowker’s offerings–including its “self-publishing services” and investing instead in founding your own small press as an LLC and legal entity.

ISBNs

First: if you want your print book on shelves in either bookstores or libraries, you’ll need an ISBN.

For this reason, corporate publishers–big publishers–definitely need an ISBN. Publishers who print books and ship them using the returns system need ISBNs. It’s how stock and sales are tracked (though to what end is unclear. The only bestsellers lists based on sales are those on the Kindle store and iBookstore). When you see any industry report noting anything regarding revenue, sales, or profits (like, for example, that ebook sales are plateauing), they are basing those reports on tracking ISBNs.

So, big question: are you a corporate publisher? Do you want your book on bookstore shelves or in libraries?

The answer to the former is likely no. You may want your book in bookstores or libraries, but know this: private, mom-and-pop bookstores tend to eschew independent authors (or “self-published,” as they’re likely to call them). One big reason is that most independent authors don’t (and perhaps can’t) offer returns, which is how bookstores do business.

(There are a lot of horror stories from mom-and-pop bookstores wherein independent authors have behaved badly to them, badgering them or berating them or just in general being awful. Don’t do that. If a private bookstore doesn’t want to host your reading/stock your book/etc., just go elsewhere. For the most part, arguing is just going to make you look bad, and they’ll unfortunately extend your behavior to all authors.)

If you want your book in bookstores or libraries, you probably need to seek publication through the corporate system. Query agents. Maybe you’ll get one, and maybe he or she will sell your book for a nice (though nowadays probably not “very nice”) advance, and you’ll get great marketing support and etc. It’s entirely possible.

These days you don’t need to have print books in actual bookstores to ensure that readers will find your stories. These days you can go to the major digital retailers to sell your book. The big five ebook retailers are Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Sony–to lesser extents there are a few other places like Diesel and such, but I think those big five cover it. Now, bonus question: guess how many of those retailers require you have an ISBN.

If you said “none,” congratulations. You’ve done your homework and research and you’re on your way. I’m proud of you. Well done.

It’s probably poetic justice that the big five corporate publishers in the print space are being supplanted by another big five, but there’s a big difference: if you want to sell your book on Kindle, you don’t have to find an agent, or attract a New York publisher, or anything. You can simply upload your book to any of those five places.

(And my recommendation is to do so directly. I think you’ll need an Apple product to upload to the iBookstore [I think iBooks Author is available for iPad, and you can create within its confines], but I think that’s about the only requirement among them. You can do so indirectly through a place like Smashwords, but the site will accuse you of vanity if you want to list yourself as the publisher, and your book will have to say Smashwords Edition, and a few other things–but honestly, I think it’s better to deal directly with the sites through whom you’re selling. So if you want to sell on Nook, just go directly to Nook. They all let you do so nowadays.)

Tracking

One of the big claims Bowker makes is that ISBNs are good for tracking.

Now, here’s a deficit in my knowledge of the system. I’ve only used ISBNs twice–for the print versions of The Prodigal Hour and Meets Girl. I picked up each one for ten dollars (I think) through CreateSpace. I don’t necessarily want the books in bookstores or libraries, but I did want readers to be able to buy a print version on Amazon, and for the extra ten bucks, I figured why the hell not?

I don’t know what information Bowker tracks about either book. I don’t know if it sees how people found the Amazon page, or if it can tell people who bought Meets Girl because it is listed as meta-fiction also bought other novels tagged as such. I don’t know if Bowker can see that both books have combined to sell, like, a half dozen copies tops in the two years they’ve been available (interrobang because ZOMG has it really been two years?!).

I don’t know if Bowker sees any of those things, but I know Amazon does. Through Author Central, I can see a lot of great data. About who’s bought those books, and from where, and track things like my author rank and et cetera. Amazon provides me lots of graphs with data collected from BookScan (in conjunction with or powered by Bowker, I believe), but I’ll be honest I rarely use them.

What I do use is Kindle. Through the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) site, I can see near-realtime sales data for all Exciting Press titles. How real time? I’d wager there’s maybe a five minute lag, tops. I know that, when I offer free promotions, I can literally refresh the page every second and watch the number of downloads increase by five or ten at a shot. It’s happened like that a couple of times.

Apple’s iTunes Connect allows for the same thing. I can see realtime data in a nice chart Apple graphs for me. Free and paid downloads on the iBookstore.

What’s interesting, and very important here, is that I can see those figures, but Bowker cannot.

None of the digital Exciting Press books have ISBNs. That means Bowker can’t see that we sold more than 5,000 copies last year, nor that nearly 50,000 readers downloaded our books. Not huge numbers, but I can’t imagine we were the only ones. Consider Hugh Howey and Wool. Hugely popular, phenomenally bestselling–and none of the Kindle versions serially published appear to have ISBNs. Enough of those sold that Howey climbed the top seller lists and struck a deal with Simon & Schuster. It appears not even the Omnibus collected edition has an ISBN–its page lists a Page Numbers Source ISBN, but that refers, as far as I know, to the ISBN of the source Amazon draws its Kindle Real Page Numbers function from (both Meets Girl and The Prodigal Hour list Page Numbers Source ISBNs for their ebooks, presumably because those pages are drawn from the pages in the CreateSpace print versions).

Amazon reported last year that something like a quarter of its top selling titles had been independent. I just looked, and as I write this, seven of the top 10 bestselling Kindle books on Amazon don’t have ISBN numbers.*

Bowker can’t see any of them. That means Bowker can right now see only 65% of the Kindle top 20. I’d go farther along the list to explore, but I think that’s damning enough. Even if giving Bowker the benefit of the doubt, all those stats and all that data about ebook sales plateauing and et cetera misses probably 30% of the market.

That’s a huge percentage that’s just totally not visible to them.

They’ll blame it on the authors and the company. “Well, if they’d use ISBNs, we’d be able to!” And I’m not saying that shouldn’t matter, but I see no compelling reason to get an ISBN.

They claim search visibility: books on Amazon show up just fine in Google and others.

Their website (I’m not linking) is just egregious about it. On their FAQ page:

Do I Need An ISBN To Publish My Book?

If you wish to sell your book, most vendors require an ISBN.

I guess they mean “most vendors besides Kindle, iBookstore, Nook Press, and Kobo,” but I also guess if they said that, people might notice that, no, one doesn’t need an ISBN to publish a book.

Founding Your Press & LLC

So you’re looking at Bowker’s prices. $250 for a block of 10 ISBNs. You can get 100 for $575, or best yet, 1000 for $1000.

It’s not an insignificant price.

Me, I think you’re better off taking the $1000 you’d buy for a block of 1000 (keep in mind Bowker maintains not only that all formats, like hard cover, paperback, and ebook, require their own ISBNs, but also that each digital format might, as well, so maybe one ISBN for your PDF and one for your ePub. So best case is that you need at least two ISBNs, one for a paperback and another for your ebook, and maybe a third for Kindle, and you’re going to want to publish more than one book, right? It adds up fast)

and going directly to a business lawyer who can help you complete the paperwork and filings necessary to become a limited liability company (LLC).

An LLC is a business entity. It keeps one’s private assets (like the house or car you own, or whathaveyou) separate from (business assets). It affects how you file taxes (and what the IRS looks for and at when you do).

Why would you want to do that? A couple reasons. If somebody sues you as a publisher, they can’t get your private assets. I don’t know why they’d sue you, but it’s a just-in-case scenario. You know, kind of like “Just in case a bookstore decides to overlook the fact that you’re an independent author and order a few copies of your book for its shelves.”

*

The most important advice I would give you as an independent author is to approach it as a business, and as a professional. Not “like a business,” but actually as one. Not “with professionalism” but as a professional. As such, things like legality are necessary considerations. I would recommend that, as a business professional, you do your research in advance, come up with a plan, and execute it strategically. That means carefully weighing all options. Me, I recommend saving costs when you can. I recommend not investing in areas where investment isn’t actually necessary.

That’s why I recommend against ISBNs. I recommend–if you’re going to publish independently–you use Mobipocket Creator to make your ebook and upload it to the KDP platform. If you want to upload to iBookstore, Nook, and Kobo, use Calibre to make that PRC into an ePub and upload it in those places. Between those four, congratulations: you’ve covered something like 95% of the ebook market.

I’d try to be more accurate there, but nobody knows how big the ebook market really is yet. Least of all Bowker.

*Based on a comment from Miral Sattar below, I went to seek out citation here.

First, I misremembered Amazon’s press release. It read (in part)

Amazon announced that 23 KDP authors each sold over 250,000 copies of their books in 2012, and that over 500 KDP Select books have reached the top 100 Kindle best seller lists around the world.

Which is not at all what I’d remembered. But I still think it’s pretty huge. 23 authors x 250,000 . . . even if half those authors had ISBNs for their books, that’s still nearly 3 million books. (It’s 5750000 total, nearly 6 million).

Here’s the link.

And here’s a Forbes article that notes that Amazon said 15 of the top 100 UK bestsellers were KDP books.

I had deliberately not cited the bestsellers I was seeing. It’s not really possible to, given the list changes so much and in realtime.

But right now, at the time of this edit, here are some:
#5 – Beauty from Surrender (Georgia Cates)
#6 – Trophy Husband (Lauren Blakely)
#10 – Corpse Reader (Antonio Garrido)
#11 – A Different Blue (Amy Harmon)
#12 – My Side (Tara Brown)

I will note, however, that I think this is digression. My main claim is that you don’t need an ISBN to publish your book on any of the major digital retailers. Regardless of sales statistics and bestseller lists, that’s not going to change.

16 Comments

  1. Great insights, Will. Do you have the source for this? I’m doing research and would love to be able to source this. -> “Amazon reported last year that something like a quarter of its top selling titles had been independent. I just looked, and as I write this, seven of the top 10 bestselling Kindle books on Amazon don’t have ISBN numbers.”

  2. ADAM

    You have a typo – Hugh wrote “Wool”, not “Wook”. Wook by Hugh would be an awesome Star Wars novella though.

  3. I get peeved all over again whenever I hear about e-book sales “plauteuing” “leveling off” or “dropping.” First, there’s the little matter that a drop in percentage gain doesn’t necessarily equal a drop in numbers, especially after the years e-book sales have been having, and second because the vast majority of indie books are–as you say–totally invisible to most entities doing the reporting on these figures. And yet indies exist, and we sell books.

    As I’ve come to expect from you (but hey, no pressure…), this article does a great service to indie author/publishers and the indie-curious. Thank you.

  4. Bridget: I think I read Chuck Wendig note it’s akin to when a plane reaches its cruising altitude–it may no longer be rising, but it’s still way up there. I don’t think we’ve yet hit that altitude, but I think maybe we’re climbing slightly more slowly.

    And we probably have to. Otherwise we’d end up in the troposphere, and I didn’t bring the right pants for that.

    And thanks. I actually thrive under pressure, so bring it. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see more posts.

  5. Bowker doesn’t actually get details on ANY Kindle sales, because Amazon doesn’t give it out. Neither does Neilsen’s Bookscan – same reason. The AAP does track ebook sales from major publishers by collecting the self-reported data from those publishers (which is hopefully something near accurate).

    So Bookscan’s bit about tracking is complete malarky when it comes to ebooks.

    And as Bridget mentioned, ebook growth hasn’t slowed; the rate of market share gain has slowed. Which it had to: anyone with basic math skills knows that something cannot double its percentage of market share forever. 😉 But year over year sales have continued to accelerate, not slow.The increase in unit sales between 2012 and 2011 was greater than the increase in unit sales between 2011 and 2010.

  6. SIMON TOWNLEY

    Am I missing something here? Or maybe the situation has changed. But I went through Smashwords rather than direct to Apple iBookstore and Kobo specifically because you do need an ISBN to go direct with them. They insist on it. Or they did when I last checked, which admittedly was more than six months ago.

    • Simon, as of the end of October, Apple no longer requires an ISBN for iBooks, and I’m not sure when Kobo stopped, but they do not, either. Exciting Press (the publsihing company I founded) has several books both for sale and for free on the iBookstore right now; none have ISBNs.

      Now that no major digital retailers require ISBNs, I recommend against Smashwords in favor of going directly to the retailers.

  7. Nice insight into something many don’t think about. It’s much different in Canada, because here we get ISBNs for free.

    But it’s very true that in this day and age, you probably don’t need to purchase them. Even if you want to go print, Createspace allows you to use your own ISBN, or they’ll give you one for free. CS may not be able to get your books in the aisles of bookstores, but they do get you listed in bookstore catalogues. With so many readers buying online, that can mean a lot.

    Thanks for this. It’s definitely a good topic for Indies to know about.

    • Hi Lindsay. Thanks for the comment. Yes, if ISBNs were free in the US, I’d totally be like, “Well, what the hell. Can’t hurt!” If Bowker started offering them free, I’d even probably pick up a few, just to have them.

      And great point about CreateSpace. Both my novels have ISBNs because CreateSpace allowed me to easily pick them up. I think I paid $10 to have Exciting Press listed as the publisher on them. Maybe. I can’t remember.

  8. Hi Will,
    Thanks for this article. It’s a question I’ve been pondering for some time. Thought I’d point out that Sony eBookstore no longer seems to be available to US- and Canada-based markets. (Here’s their site: https://ebookstore.sony.com/). I only used Smashwords because Sony did use to require ISBNS. When I discovered recently that they are no longer live for the majority of my audience, I quit using Smashwords to distribute, because, like you, I think it’s much better to go direct to the other distributors you mentioned. Thanks again for the article!
    Tammy

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