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Be Your Own Publisher

A question we often get from prospective authors is ‘Should I buy my own ISBNs?’ The answer is ‘Probably not – but it depends.’

Some printers who don’t offer publishing services will try to tell you that if you don’t own the ISBN, ‘the copyright doesn’t belong to you’, or that ‘you aren’t really self-published.’ Neither is true. And some outfits may offer to sell you one of their ISBNs, but it doesn’t work that way – you won’t actually own an ISBN unless R.R. Bowker assigns it directly to you.

For 98% of new self-publishing authors, the purchase of ISBNs is a waste of valuable resources – namely money that can be better spent on marketing. And ownership of a block of ISBNs has more work attached to it than most people realize. Still, there are valid reasons to buy those ISBNs and become a real live ‘publisher of record.’

Before we get to the pros and cons, let’s define a couple of things. The ISBN is the International Standard Book Number that uniquely identifies your book. To quote isbn.org, the organization that manages ISBNs:

‘The purpose of the ISBN is to establish and identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition, allowing for more efficient marketing of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors.’

In other words, the ISBN is just an identifier, a ‘part number’ so that publishers, distributors, and bookstores can keep it straight with all the millions of other books out there.

It’s also important to understand the concept of the imprint. If the ISBN is the part number, the imprint is the brand name. WingSpan Press is an imprint of WingSpan Publishing, Inc. Author House and iUniverse are imprints of Author Solutions, Inc. Bantam, Dell, Knopf, Doubleday, and Random House are all imprints of Random House, Inc. It’s like Chevrolet and Cadillac are ‘imprints’ of General Motors. Publishers use imprints mostly as marketing tools. If you want to self-publish your book and market it under your own imprint or company name, then you may have a good reason for owning your own ISBN.

ISBNs are assigned to publishers in blocks from ten up to one hundred thousand numbers. That publisher becomes the ‘publisher of record’ for books published with those ISBNs. Generally, that means that the publisher’s imprint will appear on the book as well. So if you plan on calling yourself ‘Bob’s Really Big Publishing Company,’ a block of ISBNs just might be a good idea. Assign your own ISBN and you become the publisher or record, and you can put your own imprint on the book and market away.

But – you guessed it – there’s a downside. Most self-publishing services companies won’t help you publish your book if you don’t use their ISBN, and that dumps a host of issues back into your lap. Design, layout, printer specs, finding and managing printing, dealing with LOC and Books in Print, and most importantly, getting your book distributed are all hurdles you’ll have to face on your own. Aarrgh! Are you doomed?

Nope. There’s a middle ground. Some self-publishing services, WingSpan Press among them, will do the production work, the publishing, and the distribution for you, but still, let you publish under your own ISBN. So, you can get the help you need getting your book into the market without someone else’s logo on it.

Another, related question that comes up frequently: What effect does ISBN have on the copyright? The answer is ‘none.’ ISBNs are not related in any way to who owns the rights to your work.

So, buying ISBNs, Yes or No?

The Pros:

  • You’re the publisher of record. You can list your book in Books in Print and the Library of Congress. Your imprint shows up in the Amazon listing.
  • If you decide to get your book printed/published elsewhere, it’s your book and your ISBN – go for it. (Hint: If you do use a service to do layout and design, be sure they give you a copy of your print files as part of the deal.)
  • You market YOU. You get to announce that Your Imprint has published a new book.
  • If you decide to do it all yourself, i.e. layout, print, distribution etc. then you aren’t sharing the profit with anyone else.

The Cons:

  • You can buy a single ISBN (from www.myidentifiers.com, part of R.R. Bowker), but it costs $125. A block of ten costs $400. And remember, you become responsible for Library of Congress filings and for keeping Books in Print bibliographic data current.
  • If you don’t find a company that will do the setup, print, and distribution for you, you have to do it all yourself, which is more expensive, and more trouble, than most people think at first glance.
  • You either have to print 500+ books to get a decent print price or set up and manage your own Lightning Source account. Either way, you’ll need some accounting software and help with printer specs.
  • Do you have room in your garage for 1000 books, and how excited are you about packaging and shipping them to Amazon or BN two or three at a time? Booksellers aren’t going to buy them in larger quantities.

Bottom line, how important is it to see your own imprint on your book? Want to own your own publishing house and market under your own company name? Then ISBN ownership is the way to go. Would you rather let someone else do all that work for you? Then save your money and spend it marketing your book.