The Truth About CreateSpace's Free ISBNs

If you’ve heard about dire consequences of accepting the free ISBN offered by CreateSpace, or that those free ISBNs aren’t "real" ISBNs, you’re just hearing misinformation perpetuated by people who don’t understand what ISBNs are all about, who’ve never used CS’s services, and/or who have an axe to grind against CS.

The ISBN: A Mainstream Tracking Tool
The ISBN system was developed in 1966 to facilitate the creation of a single, standardized method publishers, booksellers and libraries could all use to track books.
Prior to the advent of the ISBN system, each publisher, bookseller and library had its own, internal tracking system, and none of those systems could easily share information with one another. This didn’t pose much of a problem until the mass-market paperback was introduced by PocketBooks in 1939. Prior to that time, only hardcover books were available to buy and they were very expensive; booksellers didn’t tend to move a lot of copies per month, and it wasn’t too difficult to track those sales or report them back to publishers.  
Despite the huge popularity of the paperback book, bookstores snobbishly refused to stock them until the 1950’s, seeing them as somehow inferior to the hardcovers on their store shelves. Nevertheless, millions of copies were flying off the racks at bus stations, drug stores and markets, and the need for some kind of standardized tracking system soon became apparent. 
From Wikipedia:
The International Standard Book Number, or ISBN , is a unique, numeric commercial book identifier based upon the 9-digit Standard Book Numbering (SBN) code created by Gordon Foster, now Emeritus Professor of Statistics at Trinity College, Dublin, for the booksellers and stationers W.H. Smith and others in 1966.
An ISBN is assigned to each edition and variation (except reprintings) of a book. The ISBN is 13 digits long if assigned after January 1, 2007, and 10 digits long if assigned before 2007.
Generally, a book publisher is not required to assign an ISBN, nor is it necessary for a book to display its number [except in China]. However, most book stores only handle ISBN-bearing merchandise.
How Important Are ISBNs, Really?
Over time, the ISBN has come to be associated with legitimacy in book publishing, since all mainstream-published, hard copy books have ISBNs and the ISBN system has been adopted industry-wide. The claim that a book without an ISBN cannot be stocked by any library or retailer is a myth, however. The fact that an ISBN makes it easier for them to keep track of their books makes them reluctant to work with books lacking ISBNs, but this is a matter of choice on the part of the retailer or library, not a rule backed by law or regulation. This is why indie booksellers are able to stock chapbooks and other books lacking ISBNs.
ISBNs are only important to the extent publishers, libraries and retailers rely upon them. For example, since the ISBN system hasn’t been uniformly applied nor enforced where ebooks and audiobooks are concerned—probably because publishers have never believed ebooks or audiobooks will ever comprise a significant piece of the publishing pie—, ISBNs are considered entirely optional for books in those formats.  
Are CreateSpace’s Free ISBNs "Real"?
R.R. Bowker is the official U.S. ISBN Agency; all ISBNs in the U.S. originate from Bowker, though they can be re-sold once purchased from Bowker.
The free ISBNs issued by CS are real ISBNs which CS purchases from Bowker in blocks just like any other publisher. However, when you accept the free ISBN from CS, CS remains the registered owner of that ISBN—ISBN ownership is not transferred to you.
Registered ISBN Ownership – Why Does It Matter? 
All the false claims I hear about CS books (that they can only be sold on Amazon, that they can’t be listed in Bowker’s or other bookseller catalogs, etc.) stem from the fact that CS remains the registered owner of the free ISBNs it provides. This isn’t as big a deal as it’s made out to be for most individual indie authors, and any author or small publisher who prefers to register her ISBNs in her own name can purchase her own ISBN and barcode block direct from Bowker (as of this writing, it costs US$150) rather than accept the free ISBN from CS.  It’s also worth noting, mainstream authors aren’t the registered owners of their ISBNs either: their publishers are. 
Registered ownership of an ISBN only becomes a pertinent issue in three cases: 1) when the book changes publishers/printers, 2) when the publisher or author wants the book added to catalog listings, and 3) in litigation over copyright, publication rights or proceeds from sales.
1) ISBNs, Once Registered, Are Non-Transferable
Since CS is the registered owner of the free ISBNs it provides, if the author chooses to withdraw his book from CS and publish it elsewhere he must acquire a new ISBN—but this is true of mainstream books as well. 
It’s not too likely to happen thanks to contractual obligations, but if Neil Gaiman somehow wrests control of his The Graveyard Book away from Harper and gets a different publisher to put it back into print,  the existing ISBN on the book will remain the property of Harper and the new publisher will have to purchase and assign a new ISBN for their printing of the book. And if that should happen, the old ISBN floating around in the system will cause confusion for people trying to purchase the book; a lookup on the title may point to the old ISBN, and the book published under that ISBN will turn up as "out of print".
Even if you elect to withdraw your book from CS and publish it elsewhere for some reason—and let’s face it, once the book is in print and listed for sale, this isn’t a great idea—you didn’t pay anything for CS ISBN so you’re not losing anything by letting go of that ISBN. You’re introducing the possibility of ISBN confusion, but that’s your fault, not CS’s.
Some people will protest that a new ISBN must also be acquired if you want to release an updated or revised edition of your CS book, but that’s true for any book within the ISBN system: each edition of any book being offered for mass-market, retail sale in the U.S. must be assigned its own, unique ISBN, regardless of who published it or how. 
2) Only The Registered Owner of the ISBN Can Create Catalog Listings
Only the registered owner of an ISBN can list the associated book with the Library of Congress, Bowker’s Books In Print (catalog for U.S./Canadian libraries and booksellers), Ingram (another U.S. catalog), or the Nielsen’s catalog (for UK/European libraries and booksellers), and CS elects not to create those listings for any of its ISBNs.
Most authors have been told these listings are crucial to their books’ success because libraries and book retailers generally rely on catalogs for all their book orders; if your book isn’t in the catalogs they won’t know it exists, and even if you tell them it exists, they won’t usually order it.
They could order direct from CS, but they’re not likely to do so since their entire system of ordering and tracking inventory is based on catalog orders.  Also, orders placed directly with CS aren’t returnable in the same way as books ordered in bulk through catalogs. As a rule, CS books are only returnable if the book is defective or was damaged in transit.
However, in my opinion this is a non-issue for the great majority of indie books because libraries and mainstream book retailers aren’t likely to stock our books anyway.
It’s true that if your book is listed in the catalogs you can tell potential buyers that your book can be ordered through any bookseller, but if the buyer must place an order for the book (as opposed to picking a copy up off a bookseller shelf), why wouldn’t he place that order on Amazon, where he’ll get it at a lower price and may be able to get free shipping as well?
I’m also fairly confident the big, chain bookstore is an endangered species (I blogged about it: Big Chain Bookstore Death Watch), so in my opinion there’s little point in spending much time, money or effort on courting them.
There’s one important caveat here. When you publish through CS, an Amazon listing is automatically included as part of the publishing process for free, though you can choose to opt out of the listing. Listings on Amazon’s international sites are not included. In order to get your book listed on any of those sites you must register your book with the Nielsen’s catalog (it’s free), and in order to register with Nielsen’s, you must be the registered owner of your book’s ISBN. 
3) ISBNs Are Important In Court
Being the registered owner of the ISBNs affords you certain legal protections as a publisher, and helps to establish copyright in the U.S. in cases where copyright hasn’t been registered separately. That’s why the one case where even I think it’s definitely worthwhile to buy your own ISBN/bar code blocks direct from Bowker is if you’re running, or forming, your own small imprint. 
Does CS Recycle ISBNs?
With respect to the hysteria surrounding CS’s recycling of its ISBNs, that’s all it is: hysteria. So long as your book remains with CS, the assigned ISBN remains with your book. It’s true that when an author withdraws his book from CS after the ISBN has been assigned, CS may re-assign the ISBN to a new book. However, this isn’t the nefarious practice so many naysayers make it out to be.
5/4/09 Correction: According to Amanda Wilson, CreateSpace’s Public Relations Manager, CreateSpace does not, and never has, re-assigned its ISBNs. If an author accepts the free ISBN and subsequently removes her book from CreateSpace, the ISBN assigned to her book will go out of circulation.
ISBN re-use would definitely be a problem for books listed in any of the mainstream catalogs, because anyone looking up a book by ISBN might get the book to which the ISBN was originally assigned, or the book to which the ISBN was re-assigned. In fact, re-use of ISBNs is strictly prohibited in those listings. I also previously discussed the issue of ISBN confusion on out-of-print books.  
Even so, this is not an issue for authors who accept the free CS ISBN because only the registered owner of the ISBN can list the associated book with any catalog services, and CS chooses not to do so. Remember, if those listings are important to an author he can purchase his own ISBN and barcode block direct from Bowker
Mainstream Concerns Aren’t Always Shared By Indies
Most of the worries about CS’s ISBN practices are based on mainstream publishing and book distribution models, which are largely inapplicable to individual indie authors.
Since I only publish my own books and wish to remain "out and proud" about my indie status, I elected not to form my own imprint, and I also elected to leave CS listed as the publisher for my books. I have no plans to withdraw my books from CS, and can’t really think of any reason why I might want to do so in the future. I don’t care about getting my books listed in the mainstream catalogs, since I find it’s much easier (and less expensive) to drive buyers to my Amazon listings than it would be to drive them into brick-and-mortar stores.
7/27/10 Update: After I published my books with them, Createspace instituted a strict policy whereby Createspace is not to be listed as the publisher anywhere in or on Createspace-produced books; either the author or company/imprint name (if applicable) is to be listed as the publisher of record.
True, my books aren’t visible to book buyers outside the U.S., but since I never planned any big international marketing push, nor to release my books in foreign language translations, international listings haven’t been a priority for me to date. Mainstream booksellers will often hold back on international releases of first editions from all but their most popular and bestselling authors as well, so I’m not alone in taking the conservative approach.  I may elect to purchase my own ISBN/bar code blocks when publishing future editions, but on my first editions there was no reason for me to refuse CS’s free ISBNs and I suspect the same is true of most indie authors. 
An Opposing Viewpoint
In the interests of fair play and full disclosure, I’m providing a link to Walt Shiel’s discussion of ISBNs on his View From The Publishing Trenches blog. Mr. Shiel is adamant in his belief that ISBNs should only be registered to the author or an imprint, and that ISBNs should never be re-used.
Note that Mr. Shiel comes from a background in mainstream publishing however. In my estimation, all the arguments he offers are either based on assumptions or realities that are only applicable to the mainstream publishing/bookseller world, or warn against potential problems that are no more likely to crop up for an indie book with the free CS ISBN than for a mainstream-published book with an ISBN registered to the publisher. For example, Mr. Shiel talks about how the author must return to whomever is the registered ISBN owner for subsequent print runs of his book—but the concept of print runs isn’t applicable to POD books, ebooks or digital audiobooks.

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April L. Hamilton is an author and the founder of Publetariat. 
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