Sunday 16 June 2024

ISBNs - Should you buy them for your books? And where do I buy them?

I've been asked several times by self-published authors about ISBNs. Questions like: do I need them? Where do I buy them? Can I use the one's Amazon provides, so here I have gathered some information together, because it can be hard to find out up-to-date information.

Okay, let's start at the beginning. The ISBNs Amazon provides for both ebooks and paperbacks can NOT be used anywhere else outside of Amazon. If you want to 'go wide' - meaning sell on other bookselling sites or in shops - for ebooks go to Smashwords, or actually Draft2Digital (who have taken over Smashwords so it's in the process of being merged but not completed yet - as of June 2024). They issue free ones for ebooks like Amazon, but they don't do paperbacks.

As for buying ISBNs, which you will have to do if you want to sell paperbacks outside of Amazon - and don't want to use their extended distribution option (I'll come back to why it's best not to in a minute) - each country has its own rules, and you have to buy them in the country you are resident. You can not buy them from another country as it is linked to the country you are paying tax in. For the US, it is Bowker, and in the UK it is Nielsen. Each country has its own rules with them, how many you can buy and for how much. If you are lucky enough to live in Canada they are free! Here in the Netherlands where I am, I can only get 10 at a time, they don't do bulk selling as they don't want large gaps in numbers, and it costs me almost 300Euros. ISBNs are not cheap.

USA: Bowker:

UK: Nielsen:

To put your paperback books up 'wide' outside of Amazon, you need to go to IngramSpark who will distribute to Libraries and other places, making them orderable in shops. Now the twisted thing here is that Amazon actually use IngramSpark for their distribution, so if you ARE using their extended distribution for your paperbacks in Amazon with free ISBNs then you will have to faff about transferring the book over from Amazon to IngramSpark, and then upload your book with your own ISBN. It is possible. I have done it with Dead Lake. However, with my other paperback Sleep as I didn't have it in Amazon Extended Distribution, so I just put it up on IngramSparks with its own ISBN. Amazon will pick up the one with the best price, so although in some ways it is duplicated, it is not noticable to the buyer.

Now, back to why it's best not to use Amazon's Extended Distribution. Besides the fact you get only a titchy tiny royalty doing it that way, Libraries will NOT buy from Amazon, so if you don't have your book with IngramSpark, they will say it is not orderable as far as I understand it. I have a friend who is an editor for the big publishing houses, and this is insider information. Publishing houses hate Amazon due to their monopoly, so won't buy in bulk from them. But it is a personal choice.


IngramSpark is a bit of a faff to use, it's a bit out-of-date and slow in its system, but they were quite helpful with the transfer. They have just made it free (this year - 2024) to put up books but you need to have the complete finished product ready to go. You can get a template for a cover, they are slightly bigger than Amazon. Any edits are free up until 60 days after publication on IngramSpark, but after that if you want to make changes it will cost you $25 each time. BUT the workround is becoming a member of ALLi (Alliance of independent authors) and you can get free codes for this.

I have as yet been unsuccessful obtaining an author copy from IngramSpark for comparison because I ordered one, and wasn't prepared to spend over £23 postage for one book for it to be tracked etc, so only paid for basic postage and it never arrived. When I asked them two weeks later if they had any information they sent me quite a rude reply telling me off for not paying the extra! I said I wasn't prepared to pay that much for one copy of my own book! (because they are UK based and I am not).

Just to clarify, you can only buy ISBNs in the country you are residing in. And the ISBNs that both Amazon and Draft2Digital/Smashwords provide are not transferrable to anywhere else.

Through Draft2Digital you can publish paperbacks too. I chose IngramSpark because they automatically distribute to Libraries and shops. 

If you are looking for more information on how to self-publish, check out these two guys who have all the information for free! 

David Gaughran

Dave Chesson, Kindlepreneur 

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