The ISBN Ownership Question

In preparing to publish my first print-on-demand book I’ve had to confront a number of issues. Along with formatting and pricing and cover design I’ve gone back and forth about the ISBN ownership question. In the end I’ve come to a conclusion about ISBN’s that surprises me a bit, but I think I’m right. And if I’m not right, I don’t think it will cost me anything.

If you don’t know much about ISBN’s, don’t feel bad. I didn’t know anything about them until a year ago, when I set out to learn what I could. It’s a measure of how naive I was that I thought ISBN’s were some sort of quasi-governmental tracking number. In fact, ISBN’s are a product sold by the monopolistic R.R. Bowker company (which doesn’t go out of its way to make clear that it is not, in fact, a quasi-governmental agency).

I don’t dispute the publishing industry’s need for something like an ISBN. Given that a single book can be published in different versions and editions, and in different languages and countries, there obviously needs to be some way to differentiate between all those variations. If you want the Romanian large-print edition of Moby Dick, you need some means of ordering that ensures you get the version you’re expecting. The ISBN system makes that possible.

I’m also not against the idea that a for-profit company services the ISBN market. I don’t like monopolies, and R.R. Bowker is clearly a monopoly. But every publisher, bookseller and book manufacturer relies on the ISBN numbering system, and until that changes — or somebody shoves the Sherman Anti-Trust Act down Bowker’s throat — there’s no point in fighting the beast. (Some of you are wondering how multiple companies could hand out ISBN’s without the whole system collapsing. It’s a fair question, answered in full by the various companies registering domain names all over the world.)  

Self-Publishing and the ISBN
As someone on the outside looking in, I understand that I need to adapt to the current system. I also understand that the ISBN system wasn’t designed with self-publishing authors in mind, even though Bowker is aggressively promoting ISBN sales to individual authors as that market explodes. If a print-on-demand publisher requires that my book have an ISBN in order to be published, then that’s the end of that conversation.

I’ve also followed a lot of conversations about the importance of the ISBN to the self-published author, and I’m not in any position to dispute the general consensus, which is that the ISBN number of your book is important to success in the marketplace. Still, as a self-publishing author I think it’s important to remember that what I’m doing is not what most people in the greater publishing industry are doing.

I may be looking to use the same sales channels that everybody else is using, and I may be packaging my content in the same delivery vehicle (a book), but in terms of scale there are significant difference that shouldn’t be ignored. I don’t have an assistant or department dedicated to managing ISBN’s. I don’t have plans for multiple versions of my book. I don’t plan to market my book in a way that will drive sales in one big pulse. And most importantly, I don’t have any way to pass along my ISBN costs to someone else.

The ISBN Question
The question, then, is not whether to use an ISBN because use is compelled. For me, and for many people publishing through services like CreateSpace, the question is whether to buy ISBN’s directly from Bowker or to use ISBN’s provided by the print-on-demand manufacturer. Purchasing one’s own ISBN means ownership and control of the associated metadata. But there’s cost involved, and for many people that cost may not be trivial. CreateSpace provides ISBN’s free to people using its service, but it owns those numbers and the associated metadata.

It’s not an easy question to answer. I went back and forth on this issue for over a year. My instinct is to always make sure I own and control the information that matters to my writing career. Because there’s nothing more central to that ethos than controlling one’s own copyrights, it seems to me that owning one’s own ISBN’s (and controlling the associated metadata) is a good idea.

But. In what I can only describe as a surprise I recently decided that my instinct in this case is wrong. Or, more accurately, the instinct is a good one, but reality is at odds with my philosophical beliefs. The question is not whether I should buy my own ISBN’s or not, but whether the expense is worth it. All things being equal, yes: I would want to own my own ISBN numbers. But all things aren’t equal.

The ISBN Answer
Currently, a single ISBN costs $125. Whatever Bowker’s direct costs in delivering that computer-generated number to me, $125 is not a small amount.

As I said in the previous post, any potential publishing expense can be judged relative to the number of copies that need to be sold in order to recoup that expense. Whatever per-copy royalty I expect from my book, buying my own ISBN is going to cost me money and obligate me to make more sales in order to break even. Using the free ISBN provided by CreateSpace will cost me nothing. And the more I think about self-publishing, and how critical it is for self-published authors to control their costs, the more convinced I am that cost is the only criteria that matters in this case.

Now, at this point proponents of owning one’s own ISBN’s would point out that a block of ten ISBN’s can be purchased from Bowker for $250, or a per-number cost of $25. And yes, I agree that’s a substantial savings over the monpolistically inflated and absolutely indefensible single-ISBN cost of $125. But in order to achieve those savings the self-published author is obligated to double their up-front ISBN expense, meaning twice as many copies will need to be sold to recoup that initial $250 expense.

So that’s my answer. If the choice is between a free (or inclusive) ISBN and an ISBN that I have to pay for myself, then I’m taking the free ISBN on that basis alone. As a self-publishing author I think there are reasons to doubt the value of ISBN ownership all together, and I detail those below. But the bottom line for me is that every penny I save on publishing costs means fewer books I’ll need to sell in order to make a profit, and from a business perspective I can’t deny that logic.

The Value of an ISBN
Again: the question is not whether to have an ISBN, it’s whether to pay for one. I’m making a judgment based on dollars alone — a judgment I believe best protects my interests as an author and business person. I’m not giving ownership of my copyrights away, or in any way letting someone control my work. I’m not locking myself into a proprietary relationship with CreateSpace, because at any point I can buy my own ISBN and release a new edition using that identifier. What I’m doing is saving money.

Those who advocate for author ownership of ISBN’s would say that I’m either putting myself at risk or losing the ability to control my sales channel, but I don’t see that. I’ve looked, I’ve listened to all the arguments, and right now, with my book, I can’t see any value in owning my own ISBN’s that compensates me adequately for the cost.


  • How many people are ever going to ask for my book at a bookstore or search for it online using an ISBN number? I say none, ever.
  • How many times have I ever used an ISBN to order or locate a book? Never. Not once in my entire life.
  • How many times have I gone to a bookstore looking for a book and had someone ask me for an ISBN? Never.
  • How many times have I heard an independent author say that ISBN ownership was critical to their success? Almost never. (The only examples I can recall involve vanity publishers who used control of an ISBN to push an author around. Yes, in such instances I sure it was a relief to be able to buy one’s own ISBN, but I’m not coming from a place of abuse.)
  • The people advocating for direct ownership of ISBN’s are either R.R. Bowker or people who make their living selling metadata services to authors and publishers. I don’t fault these people for their views, and I don’t discount their expertise, but I’m not in the business of making other people rich at the expense of my authorial health.
  • As already noted, if something changes and I need my own ISBN, I can create a new edition of my book and buy an ISBN. The choice I’m making now will not prevent me from doing anything in the future.
  • Making my book available is the most important thing. It opens doors with readers and makes my work available to people who might be looking for content. If somebody else wants to publish my work or translate it or adapt it in another medium then I can revisit the question of ISBN ownership at that time, if its even necessary. In the meantime I’m not out $125, or $250 if I do the ‘smart’ thing.
  • The ISBN system was created in the pre-internet days. It solves a problem related to tracking and inventory, not a problem related to marketing and sales. The modern internet search engine, primed with a few keywords, can now connect 99.99% of the people who want to find my title with a point of sale. What else do I need?

Speaking of internet searches, this is a good time to remind readers that the importance and utility of your online presence and author platform obliterates the importance of questions like ISBN ownership. Given the choice between spending $125 on a year of site hosting or an ISBN, the greater value is in the site hosting by a factor of a zillion.

The Internet as Metadata
As testament to that fact, if you type ‘Mark Barrett’ into the Google search bar you’ll see that I show up on the second page of hits. Type in ‘Mark Barrett’ + ‘writer’ and I show up as the first hit on the first page, and on five of the ten hits on that page. Type in ‘Mark Barrett’ + ‘story’ and I’m again the first hit, as well as four of the first ten. Type in ‘Mark Barrett’ + ‘elm’ (from the title of my short story collection, The Year of the Elm), and I show up as the first six hits on the first page. Finally, type in Ditchwalk (as if you somehow couldn’t remember how to find my site from that word) and my site or my name or something about a post I wrote shows up in nine of the first ten hits.

As an independent author (or artist of any kind) you will almost always struggle to meet your economic needs. It’s the nature of the beast, and the price to be paid for following your heart and staying true to your convictions. Every dollar you can avoid spending keeps your dreams alive and makes it possible to write another day, hour or minute. Spending money on an ISBN when you don’t have to makes no sense to me. If I’m wrong about that, if something changes, or if my decision hurts me in some way I’ll follow up. But for the time being, that money is staying in my pocket.

* Bowker sells ISBN’s in various blocks. The largest block is 1,000 ISBN’s for $1,000, or a dollar each. That’s how CreateSpace can provide a free ISBN to me: it only costs them a buck and they can easily recoup that cost in their fees. I see no reason why Bowker should be able to prohibit a third-party registrar from purchasing ISBN’s in blocks of 1,000 and then selling them singly or in groups for whatever the market would bear. I’m sure Bowker would fight the idea tooth and nail (and probably already has), but given how quickly the self-publishing movement has grown and evolved, even over the past year, I think it’s an idea whose time has come. Either that, or Bowker’s monopoly should be given a much closer look by the United States Department of Justice.


This is a cross-posting from Mark Barrett‘s Ditchwalk.

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