ISBNs Don't Matter As Much As You Probably Think They Do, But You Might Want To Start Owning Your Own Anyway

I was about to post an overlong response in a comment thread on Joel Friedlander‘s The Book Designer blog, but on reflection, realized what I was about to post wasn’t a response, it was a blog entry in its own right. The article associated with the comment thread is about Library of Congress registration information [Editor’s note: the article is reprinted here on Publetariat today], and the subject of ISBN ownership came up in the discussion going on beneath the article, in the comments. And here’s what I have to say about ISBN ownership:

In the case of an individual author who only self-publishes his own manuscripts (as opposed to someone running an imprint, publishing works by other authors) what does it matter, really, who’s the registered owner of the ISBN on a book? There’s no legal or regulatory tie between ISBN ownership/registration and copyright or intellectual property rights. ISBN registration only designates ownership of the ISBN, not ownership of the content of the book to which the ISBN has been assigned.

I’ve used Createspace’s free ISBNs on all of my self-published books to date, and while this technically makes Createspace the ‘publisher of record’ in the ISBN records, I still retain all rights to the published material and I still own the copyrights. CS’s terms of use state this explicitly, and CS is also very adamant that their company not be listed as Publisher on their clients’ books’ copyright pages.

ISBN ownership can help to establish the legitimacy of a publisher’s claim to profits from a given book in a legal challenge situation, but given that CS has made it abundantly clear it never wants to be named as the publisher of record for any of the books it prints and distributes, the likelihood of CS trying to usurp my royalties seems pretty remote. Also, since copyright is the most meaningful measure of intellectual property ownership in the case of a book, and I own the copyrights on my books, the fact that CS is the registered owner of my books’ ISBNs wouldn’t allow CS to claim my intellectual property rights, either. One caveat: the financial and legal waters would be a bit murkier if I were running an imprint and publishing other authors’ works as well as my own, and in that case I would absolutely want to purchase and register all the ISBNs in the name of my imprint.

While not being the registered ISBN owner prevents me from listing the books with wholesale catalogs myself, since Createspace now offers to create wholesale catalog listings as part of their service, it’s a non-issue for me. My CS books are available on Amazon, Amazon UK, through Barnes and Noble, and through every other bookseller and retailer that stocks its inventory via the Ingram or Baker & Taylor catalogs, and that’s most of them.

Borders is a special case, in that its online and in-store inventory is stocked from an internally-maintained catalog; the only way any publisher, indie or mainstream, gets her books listed with Borders is to get one of Borders’ buyers to add them to Borders’ internal catalog. Since my CS books are listed in the Ingram and Baker & Taylor catalogs, from which Borders draws entries for its internal catalog, I could approach a Borders buyer and inquire about getting my CS books added to Borders’ catalog if I wanted to, but I haven’t bothered.

True, my books aren’t available through European wholesale book catalogs (since only the registered ISBN owner can list books with those catalogs), but since I’m not promoting my books in foreign markets nor releasing them in foreign language editions, I don’t think I’m missing out on many sales there. Amazon UK is the #1 bookseller for English-language books in Europe, and my CS books are already listed on that site.

While not being the registered ISBN owner also prevents me from registering my books with the Library of Congress, I don’t really care about that and I don’t think anyone else does either—with respect to my books, anyway. It would matter if I were trying to get my self-pub books stocked by public and institutional libraries, but let’s face it: self-pub books, novels especially, aren’t likely to be stocked by those libraries anyway.

If I self-publish anything new in the future I’ll most likely purchase my own ISBN/barcode blocks for the new projects, but only because "premium" or "expanded" distribution options offered by print and digital publishing service providers increasingly require that the author/imprint be the registered owner of the ISBN. Since this is already a requirement for Smashwords’ premium ebook catalog, I expect it’s going to become commonplace for ebooks to have ISBNs just like print books and hard media audiobooks.

Even so, I still see the whole thing as little more than an administrative hoop through which I’ll soon be forced to jump and an extra expense I’ll be forced to shoulder to make retailers’ lives easier. Cost of doing business, and all that. I’m still not likely to list my self-published books with European wholesale catalogs, nor Borders’ internal catalog, and I definitely won’t bother registering them with the Library of Congress.

I have always maintained, and still maintain, that ISBNs are merely tracking numbers used by retailers, libraries and government agencies to organize, and retain control over, their inventory of books—nothing more, and nothing less. Some people (and I’m not talking about Joel Friedlander or anyone who’s commented on his article) treat ISBN purchase and ownership like some kind of mark of legitimacy, and others even go so far as to tell self-publishers that if your book’s ISBN isn’t registered in your name, that fact alone makes your book a "vanity" project and you an amateur who doesn’t deserve to wear the name "author".

Horsefeathers. There may be compelling business reasons for this or that indie author to purchase and register his own ISBNs, and there are definitely compelling business reasons for imprints to do so. But that’s all they are: business reasons.

This is a cross-posting from April L. Hamilton‘s Indie Author blog.

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