Guest Post: V.J. Chambers on the Importance of ISBNs

Should You Buy ISBNs?


V. J. Chambers

Most aspiring indie authors who’ve been researching the best way to self-publish have run into advice on ISBN buying. The general feeling usually is that if you want to be a serious self-publisher, you need to set up your own imprint and buy your own ISBNs. At $250-275 for a block of ten, ISBNs are not cheap, making them a serious expense for a self-publisher. Should you bother? My thoughts.

Why Should You Listen to Me, Anyway?

I’d like to start with (as Stephen King would call it) an annoying autobiographical pause. I started self-publishing my books in the summer of 2009. Everyone said you had to buy ISBNs, so I did. I got a block of ten and set up my publishing imprint, which I called Punk Rawk Books. That year, I published four print books, and used four of my ISBNs. (What can I say? Publishing books is just kind of addictive for me.) My block of ten cost me $250. That first year, from self-publishing, I grossed about $600. What with various other expenses (pro-plan for Createspace for four books, buying proof copies, etc.) I only made a profit of $182 for the year.

That, as far as I was concerned, was crap. I immediately began wondering if buying those ISBNs had been an actual good investment. After all, I figured, if I hadn’t bought them, I would have made a whole lot more money that year.

Why They Say You Should Buy ISBNs

You need an ISBN to be listed on Amazon, which is a big market, and a place you definitely want your books listed. You also need it to get into things like Ingram and Baker & Taylor, which are book distributors. This kind of stuff is important if you’re trying to get your book into bookstores. Without an ISBN, your book has less visibility, and it’s harder for people to find it. So, I wouldn’t recommend going without one completely.

However, you don’t have to buy one yourself. Createspace, (which I highly recommend for POD endeavors), will supply you a free one. Now, people say that using the free Createspace ISBNs is a bad idea for the following reasons:

-Your book will be listed as published by Createspace. Therefore, everyone will know you’ve self-published.

-If you ever decide you want to remove your book from Createspace, you will lose that ISBN. Then, if you decide to go with a different POD printer, like Lightning Source, you’ll have to buy a new ISBN. Your book will then have two completely different ISBNs, which will make tracking confusing and create all kinds of issues.

Why I Think You Should Just Take the Free ISBN

In regards to distribution and bookstores, I basically think that’s a losing battle (or at least an uphill battle) that’s not worth it for the self-published author. Most bookstores are not going to carry your self-published book. If you’re dedicated and have oodles of time to devote to shoehorning your book into bookstores, by all means, buy an ISBN, publish with Lightning Source, and have at it. Personally, I’d like to spend my time writing my next book. But some people have found success this way. I tend to think that print is not the place to be focusing your efforts in this day and age, but more on that later.

I’m not the kind of person who’s trying to hide the fact I’ve self-published. I’m completely open about it, so I don’t really see why it’s a big deal for everyone to know I published the book with Createspace. So I really think that’s not much of a reason not to take the free ISBN.

In regards to the book having several ISBNs, I don’t really get this argument either. Technically, if you change your book significantly (serious revisions, write a new introduction, slap a new cover on it), you’re supposed to give it a new ISBN anyway. So, there are authors whose books have gone through several printings from a commercial press and that book has several editions and each edition has a different ISBN. If you moved the book to Lightning Source, it would probably make sense to update the cover, etc. So, technically, it would be a new edition and require a new ISBN anyway.

Overall, I think the free ISBN from Createspace is the best choice, but your mileage may vary.

Save the Trees, Save Your Money—Go Ebook First

I don’t publish books in print at all anymore, because I just don’t make enough money (yet) self-publishing to justify the expense and time involved. It takes me about two hours to format a book for ebook publication, and several weeks to format it for print. Last year, my print books didn’t even sell enough for me to make the minimum Createspace payout, so they are not lucrative enough (for me) to want to spend more money on the ProPlan or on buying proofs. My ebooks, however, are selling much better, and my numbers for ebooks are steadily rising.

This is the business plan I wish someone would have suggested to me before I sunk so much money and time into publishing print books.

Start with an ebook. Upload your book to Amazon Kindle’s site and to Smashwords. On Smashwords, opt into their distribution plan, so your book will be featured on Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other ebook sites. Smashwords offers you a free ISBN so that you can get into the Apple iStore. (Amazon doesn’t require its ebooks to have ISBNs.) Yes, that ISBN will list Smashwords as the publisher. If this really irks you, Smashwords also offers the option of selling you a $10 ISBN (which they will deduct from your profits), which will then list your publishing imprint as the publisher. Smashwords can afford to offer you the ISBN so cheap because they have more money and can buy blocks of 1000 ISBNs. At that point, the price per ISBN becomes much less expensive.

Maybe your ebook will take off and you’ll make hundreds of dollars your first year self-publishing. (Don’t hold your breath, however. We can’t all be Amanda Hocking.) If so, fabulous. You now have the money to buy a block of ISBNs if you want. If not, you’re not in the hole or barely breaking even.

The truth is, though, ebooks are gaining lots of ground in publishing. Who knows how important print books will be in five or ten years? The great thing about self-publishing an ebook is that it’s easy, it’s low risk, and it’s cheap (or free) to do. It’s the perfect way to get your feet wet self-publishing, to gain experience, and to start building a fan base. Worry about ISBNs when you’ve got a thousand fans clamoring for your print book. That’s what I think, anyway.

An Annoying Attempt at Self-Promotion

I’m an indie author who writes for teens and adults. I write horror, dark fantasy, and paranormal romance. Find out more about me on my website: Right now, I’m hocking my 99 cent ebook novella, Little Sister. Here’s a blurb:

Ever since Jane Cassidy’s big brother was killed in a car accident six months ago, she’s been taking solace in watching cheesy vampire movies and yelling at the characters on the screen when they do stupid things. She can’t control the tragedy in her own life, but in the movies, the characters can find ways out of the grip of death.

A chance meeting with Bailey Westfield, her brother’s best friend and her childhood crush, catapults her out of her cocoon of grieving. Bailey’s kiss makes Jane feel tugged under a rushing waterfall of cold, sweet darkness. She only sees him at night, and she longs to feel his icy fingers trace the outline of her jaw.

Jane doesn’t realize that she’s been (literally) sucked into the plot of a vampire movie. And she’s not so snarky when there are teeth in her own neck.

You can buy it here: or here:

Thanks for your time and happy writing and publishing!

0 thoughts on “Guest Post: V.J. Chambers on the Importance of ISBNs

  1. Great article, VJ! I’ve just let Smashwords handle my ISBNs for now, since I only have ebook versions out, but it’s good to know CreateSpace will do that too.

    Give me a poke if you’ve any interest on doing a guest post (CreateSpace, ISBNs, or something else informative) on my blog. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the pointers, VJ. It’s so easy to get caught up in the “must do” mentality that the publishing arena can seem daunting. It’s nice to know that some of the “must do” are really just suggestions, and it doesn’t hurt to wait and see before putting forth a huge financial investment.

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