The Hidden Cost Of A Free ISBN

Before you self-publish, decide whether a free ISBN is worth its cost.

If you sign with a trade or educational publisher, you will not have a choice about your book's ISBN. That's because the ISBN indicates the publisher, not the author.

Many print on demand or vanity publishers offer a free ISBN as part of their package. As in the case of many free things, you do give something to get something when you accept a free ISBN.

Note that the real issue is not the actual cost of the ISBN because in Canada, New Zealand, and South Afica, all ISBNs are free. The real issue is who owns the ISBN. An ISBN is not transferrable, so a company cannot obtain an ISBN and then pass it on to you. For that reason, I am using the terms granted ISBN and DIY (Do It Yourself) ISBN.

Here, a granted ISBN is one that is given to your book by someone else. A DIY ISBN is an ISBN you own because you applied for it yourself.

A Granted ISBN: The Pros

  • If you live in a country that charges for ISBNs, you an save money by accepting an ISBN from the company that prints your book.
  • Along with the ISBN, the publisher/printer does the legal paperwork required in your jurisdiction. If you hate filling in forms, this option may be for you.

A Granted ISBN: The Cons

  • The ISBN belongs to whoever applied for it. Legally, if someone else applies for your book's ISBN, you are no longer the publisher, only the author.The publisher is whoever applies for the ISBN.
  • Even if you believe that you are self-publishing, if you use a print on demand company or a vanity press and the company owns the ISBN, that company has the legal right to determine price and distribution. This can seriously limit your rights to your own work.
  • If you want your book to be printed by someone other than the company that originally produced your book, you will have to apply for a new ISBN. If you own the ISBN, you can reprint as often as you like as long as you do not change the book itself.
  • Some printers that provide ISBNs do only minimal legal work, which means that your book registration may not contain any contact information for you, only for the legal publisher, the company that applied for the ISBN.
  • The ISBN is part of the ONIX code. Inquiries will go to the printer, not to you, because the printer is listed as the publisher. Those who want to translate your book into another language or make a film of your material will find the printer's contact information, not yours.
  • Your work is building the business of the printer. It is not building your personal business in the same way that it would be if it were labeled with your own ISBN.

DIY ISBN: The Pros

  • You have choices about where and how to distribute your book.
  • You are listed as the publisher. If you create a business that publishes your book(s), that business name appears on the copyright page and in all listings of the book. This gives you two advantages over using a granted ISBN:
    1. Anyone can contact you as the publisher if there is an enquiry about translating your book or creating a film based on your book.
    2. An enquirer cannot tell that the book is self-published as he would be able to if the printer is the publisher. For example, my books are published by my company, Steppingstone Resources, which I believe gives them more credibility than if they were published by a well-known print on demand company. (Note that the overall quality of the book must back up the impression that it is not necessarily self-published.)
  • You can choose what information to include through
  • This could have an impact on your marketing and sales.

    DIY ISBN: The Cons

  • Depending on where you live, there may be a cost to getting an ISBN.
  • You are responsible for all legalities regarding your book, including registering with and sending books to the national depository that holds copies of all published books.
  • You will not be able to use some of the print on demand or distribution channels.
  • You will be accessible to the public who search for the publisher.
  • Summary

    There is no one right choice about whether to use a free ISBN. For some, a granted ISBN offers the better trade-off of ease versus options. For others, the DIY ISBN provides the better package. The pros and cons above arm you with the information you need to make your personal decision.


    Make the right choice about using a free ISBN, and choose the right editing services.

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