Does my self-published book need an ISBN?

The question of ISBNs in self-publishing comes up a bit. Traditionalists are adamant that an ISBN is “essential” and that it make you look “professional”.

I have to admit to being a bit allergic to that latter word: “professional”. It’s a word that’s making a beeline for my list of hated words, because it’s so often used to put down “people who disagree with me”.

In the 1990’s in the heydays of my non-fiction bookselling, I dealt with a publishing company in Germany. They had about 40-odd books out and made a living from this. None of their books had ISBNs. To me, it was a small pain in the arse, because I listed their books on websites that liked to get ISBNs and that put their books in the dungeon of the pre-1960s books that did not have ISBNs. Bookshops need ISBNs to enter books in their system, and so do libraries. Despite failing the traditional industry, the books sold quite well. They were books on diving and sea life and I suspect many were sold through specialist retailers. This was in the publisher-controlled, pre-ebook time.

Back then, I published some books and bought ISBNs for them, because bookshops needed them. I even bought a block of ISBNs for my first lot of ebooks. But after I did that, I found it impossible to register them through the Thorpe-Bowker website. They gave me no help, so I gave up and had a re-think: what do you actually pay for when you buy ISBNs?

Amazon doesn’t require it.

If you make a print version through Createspace, they will give you a free ISBN to satisfy bookshop systems. I’ve already pointed out that when you self-publish ebooks, the bookshop circuit is not your main focus. Besides, authors of popular books report that the Createspace ISBN does not deter bookshops from ordering. Anyway, bookshops are not your focus. If they are, seek a traditional publisher.

None of the other retailers require ISBNs. In fact, Hugh Howey’s latest Author Earning report * looked at the ISBN situation for the top 120,000 books at Amazon. A whopping thirty percent do not have ISBNs. Earnings and sales do not suffer. In fact, the report shows higher sales and income for books without ISBNs. Now before we all draw conclusions from that, let’s just say that sales do not suffer.

Think about it: self-publishers say (and this has been proven right) that the vast majority of buyers do not care about who published a book. Certainly buyers can rarely name the publisher of books they buy. Why then should they care about whether or not it has an ISBN?

“Oh, but it looks PROFESSIONAL!”

Seriously, bollocks. All an ISBN does is line the pockets of an industry that, by self-publishing, we have already chosen to step out of.

Sure, buy an ISBN if you want, but unless your focus is print and bookshops and libraries, it’s money wasted.

In Hugh’s words:

What we can say for sure is that the clear lack of any material benefit in the marketplace makes the cost of purchasing an ISBN for an ebook very difficult to justify — the same money would be far better invested instead in better professional editing, proofreading, formatting, cover art, and the like.

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