3 Reasons Why You Need an ISBN

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One thing in a book's production life which often goes un-investigated is the number of your book. The ISBN.

What's an ISBN? It's your book's International Standard Book Number. This number points not just to your book, but to a specific edition — say, the paperback or hardback one. For self-publishing authors the more you know about ISBNs the more exciting it gets with possibilities, so let's look at 3 reasons why you need an ISBN.

1) It simplifies tracking sales

ISBNs are used to track sales on and offline. Primarily there are two ways you can get an ISBN: buy one yourself, or get a free equivalent number when uploading to eBook aggregators (Amazon, Draft2Digital, Lulu, IngramSpark etc). What this means for the author is that uploading with Draft2Digital generates an ISBN, and Lulu and IngramSpark will give you a number each in their own system — assuming you're only selling digitally, you now have three numbers for one book. Amazon will designate you with one of their own numbers too, an ASIN. So while we have the same product, we have four numbers from four different platforms.

Enter the ISBN. While buying ISBNs can be expensive, the problem it solves is your book's number is the same on every platform, even if it is just for the one format of your book.

2) It gives you more control

Ebooks, audiobooks, paperbacks and hardback versions of your book all require different numbers. This is where the cost of ISBNs comes in as one book can have four numbers if you decide to offer these four formats. Multiply that by ten for a ten-book series and suddenly you've got 40 ISBNs, which can be costly — though check with your national suppliers (looking at you, Canadians!). With an ISBN, your book is discoverable by more than just retailers. For libraries and book suppliers, having an ISBN allows your book to be found and ordered without needing a specific storefront — plus many libraries do not stock books that have no ISBNs on principle, meaning that ISBNs are your ticket into the world of library users.

3) It allows you to decide your future

Having a singular number not only allows you to define the books' format but also its edition. Let's say you've got adoring fans who love your work, or maybe you envisioned a different cover years later, maybe even a special edition — you could do a limited run of 1,000 copies. You could do a hardback run with extra content, a paperback with added maps, an eBook with clickable links — the opportunities are endless. By having individual identifiers for your books you also inadvertently define its rarity. Again, great if you've got adoring fans.

There are many authors publishing their work for limited periods with one retailer, then offering digital editions on their own platform, crowdfunding a hardback edition on the next, and [ releasing an audiobook] across all channels later — all with different ISBN numbers. Each a rarity of their own maker. By having a separate ISBN for each version, you're creating special content for your readership. As a self-published author, being able to control your book isn't just about money, it's about steering your career. An often overlooked thing, but a powerful one.

Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with world class self-publishing resources and professionals like book editors, designers, and ghostwriters. She lives in London.