ISBN's: To Have or Not to Have

A journey into e-book publishing -step 4 - the ISBN dilemma.

You may know that printed books are required to have an ISBN (International Standard Book Number), but did you know that if you publish a book in more than one format, e.g. hardcover, paperback, audio-book, you need a separate number for each format?

I certainly didn’t until I started looking into whether I needed one for my e-book. I was pleased to discover that Amazon.com does not require an ISBN for publications on Kindle, thinking it was one less hurdle to surmount, until I read several articles which suggested that the requirement for e-books could soon change and it made more sense to have a number at the outset as apparently several other e-book publishers already insist that you use an ISBN. 

However, just like the different formats of a printed book, different versions of an e-book require a different ISBN so, if I use one when I start publishing on Amazon, it does not give me any advantage later if I also want to e-publish elsewhere, which leaves me wondering, why is it worth doing now?

The idea behind the numbering system is ‘to establish and identify one title or unique edition of a title from one specific publisher allowing for more efficient marketing and cataloguing of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers, and distributors’ (FAQ’s:General questions at www.bowker.com) but, given that I am only e-publishing on Amazon in the first instance and they will do all the distribution, this does not seem relevant.

Looking at the supplier’s web-site (there is only one supplier in each of the countries which use this system, in the US it is R. R. Bowker LLC) it seemed that you can no longer buy just one ISBN. The page listing fees and services showed that the minimum quantity sold was a block of ten for $275 which, given that the fee used to be $125 for one, seems quite reasonable - $27.50 per version, assuming, of course, that you do get round to using all ten, and by the time you use the third, you are saving money compared to what you had to pay for individual numbers.

However, I later found another part of the web-site headed ‘agents/authors’ which included an order form. This one quoted a price of US$125 for one or ten for $250! There was no indication on the web-site as to why there was a difference in quantities or price between the two pages, which left me feeling even more confused. I sent an email to the site asking for clarification, but as yet have not received a response.

As this is my first foray into publishing, I’m rather reluctant to spend money that is not essential while there are still marketing and promotion expenses to consider. I hope I won’t regret my decision, but if anyone reading this has any experience to share, I’d be most grateful to hear your comments.

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