For a long time, the majority of self-publishers didn’t bother to purchase an ISBN for their ebooks. This was in large part because the Kindle store didn’t require one (and it still doesn’t, though most other ebook sellers do). However, times have changed. A big effort has been made by those of us working with self-publishers (I’ve heard this repeated frequently at conferences and on teleseminars over the last year) to better educate folks, so more and more self-published ebooks now feature unique ISBNs.
The fact is, if you have more than one version of your book available—versions meaning different editions or formats—it becomes very difficult for book buyers to know what they’re ordering, especially from distributors. When you publish a book, you want to make it as easy as possible for purchasers, so sales are most certainly lost when a buyer cannot tell at a glance which version is which in an online catalog. Peter Mathews, Publishing and Editorial Manager at book data provider Nielsen Book, has noted that those titles in Nielsen’s top-selling 85,000 titles with complete data records sold 70% more copies on average than those with incomplete metadata. “Incomplete” metadata means those listings without ISBNs and other types of information.
Besides the practical reasons, there’s also image to consider. Self-publishers already struggle against negative stereotyping—many see self-publishers as unprofessional amateurs who would rather do things cheaply than correctly or the best way possible. Why reinforce that sad image by skimping on perhaps the most basic element of a new title’s creation?
My advice is to give a unique ISBN to each format you use, because until all e-readers equally accept EPUB or another universal format, the end-user needs to know easily and clearly which version they’re purchasing. The only exception would be if you are only publishing a Kindle version of your ebook. No one can get confused between versions if there’s only one available, though for the reasons I’ve already discussed, it may be worth your while to purchase an ISBN anyway. My mantra: If you’re going to self-publish, don’t handicap yourself right out of the gate. Take the time, energy, and/or money to do it right!
You can get your ISBN the same place all the big publishers do: Bowker sells them individually or in blocks of ten. Since one ISBN costs $125 while ten will run you only $250, you’ll want to purchase a block if you’re publishing in more than two different formats. I’ve also heard of ISBN resellers who offer individual ISBNs for lower costs, such as Publishers Services, which offers a $55 ISBN/bar code package. I like the price, but have no experience with this vendor personally, so be sure to do your homework before you buy.
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.