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October 28, 2016

Should You Buy Your Own ISBNs

ISBNs For eBooks

Many authors choose not to buy ISBNs for ebooks, although under certain circumstances— especially with distributors—you still need them. Depending on which distributor you use, you might have to pay a small amount for that unique identifying number. I know that Smashwords and Draft2Digital offer them free. Bookbaby and eBookpartnership and a few others charge a small amount—Bookbaby charges $19, and EBP charges $15. (If you use EPB’s conversion service the ISBN is free.)

If you go direct with the retailer you don’t need an ISBN. Amazon, Nook, Apple, Kobo, or Google don’t require them. (Unless something has changed recently.)

But I’m not here to talk about ebook ISBNs. We’ll do that in another post. I want to discuss the ones that seem to cause all of the trouble and confusion—ISBNs for print books.

ISBNs For Print

Are ISBNs required for print? — Yes[1]. In fact, an ISBN is required for each version of print. A 6×9 paperback would need one, and if you decided to do a hardback it would need another. If you wanted a large-print version, you’d need a third. Audio books would require yet another ISBN.

CreateSpace hands out free ISBNs as if they were candy. It’s understandable, as they only cost CS about $1.00 each. But they also offer other options for $10 and $99. The question is, should you buy them.

The free and $10 options for ISBNs can only be used with the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. If you plan to use Ingram to print in addition to CS, you’ll need your own ISBN or the $99 one from CS—or the one Ingram sells. I’m not trying to convince anyone that they should or shouldn’t purchase an ISBN; I’m simply going to show you that it makes sense to do so.

Costs of Printing A Book

Costs CreateSpace IngramSpark
Upfront Cost Free $49[2]
Annual Cost Free $12
Book[3] $4.45 $4.86
Discount 40/60% 30/40/55%
Gross profit[4] $4.55/1.55 $5.64/4.14/1.89

As you can see, CS is free to set up your books. Ingram charges a flat rate to set up, plus a $12 yearly fee. In addition, you will be charged $25 for changes made, so make sure your book is finished and the way you want it before submitting to Ingram.

Note the difference in discounts also. The 30% option is new to IS, but it has always been available with Lightning Source, in addition to a 20% option. Managing your discounts allows the potential for significantly higher profits. It all depends on your distribution strategy. We’ll cover that later.

Let’s take a look at the cost of ISBNs and where to purchase them. I’ve only listed the most common places to acquire ISBNs for print books, and that’s assuming you are using either CS or Ingram. Regardless of who you use, if you live in the US or the UK, Bowker and Nielsen are primary choices.

Cost of ISBNs

Quantity ISBNs CreateSpace IngramSpark Bowker Nielsen
1 Free/10/99 85 125 112 [5]
10 Free/100/990 850 275 225 [6]
100 Free/1,000/9,900 8,500 575

Let’s look at a few facts:

  • An ISBN is required for print books[7]. You don’t have an option.
  • If you use the free one or the $10 one from CS, you cannot use it elsewhere, which means if you decide you want to take advantage of Ingram’s distribution later on you’ll have to buy another one.
  • If you use the $99 ISBN from CS, you can use it elsewhere, but only if you don’t opt for expanded distribution.

Logic

Since you’re going to need an ISBN, you should do everything you can to make sure it’s to your advantage. Many authors decide to use CS’s free ISBN, and they don’t print with Ingram. That’s one option, but if you think you’re going to sell at least a few books outside of Amazon, it’s probably not your best option. You’d be leaving money on the table.

Let’s look at some sample data.

Book Sales

The chart below is based on CS supplying Amazon at all times, using a 40% discount. I have allowed that CS would sell as many books in expanded distribution as Ingram would, even though it is doubtful. My books sell consistently more on Ingram.

Books sold Amazon sales Other sales Inc. CS Inc. IS Yrly CS Yrly IS
10 per month 5 5 $31 $38 $366 $452
20 per month 10 10 $61 $75 $732 $900

These numbers look good even when you consider the cost of the ISBN and the cost of uploading to Ingram. If you sell only ten books per month, you’ll earn your ISBN cost back in a little more than one year, and that is assuming you pay the high price of just one ISBN. If you buy a pack of ten, the ISBNs only cost you $27 from Bowker, which means you make a profit the first year using Ingram. Every year after that is gravy.

The numbers in that chart might be optimistic for most people. For the big sellers they’re nothing, but most indies aren’t going to hit 10 print books per month, per book.

But imagine if you had five books.

The numbers really start to add up at five or more books. Let’s look at another very realistic chart.

Book Sales Based On Five Books

Books sold Amazon sales Other sales Inc. CS Inc. IS Yrly CS Yrly IS
30 per month 15 15 $93 $115 $1,098 $1,356
40 per month 20 20 $122 $150 $1,464 $1,800

With this estimate, I only counted on either 6 or 8 books per month, per book—not an unrealistic number. Let’s take the lower of the two estimates—30 per month. You would end up earning $258 more with Ingram than you do with CreateSpace. At 40 per month, you’d earn $336 more. (You still have to deduct your additional expenses from those earnings.)

Bottom Line

You may never reach the kind of numbers I’ve listed in these charts. But then again you might far surpass them. Either way, I hope this gives you some data to help in your decision making. And if you want to see a detailed comparison of the benefits of CreateSpace VS IngramSpark, take a look at these posts:

If you enjoyed this post, please share.

Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes non-fiction booksincluding the No Mistakes Careers series.

He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.”

If you want to make sure you get all the good posts, sign up for the mailing list.


  1. If you intend to sell them in stores.  ↩
  2. Members of ALLi receive a discount.  ↩
  3. Based on 300 page, B&W, paperback, perfect bound, cream paper, matte cover.  ↩
  4. Based on retail price of $15.00  ↩
  5. Includes a one-time set-up fee of $46.  ↩
  6. plus VAT  ↩
  7. If you plan on selling them online or through brick-and-mortar stores.  ↩
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One Response to “Should You Buy Your Own ISBNs”

  1. Very helpful articles for someone who is considering self publishing. Clear & concise.
    Thanks.

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  • This blog will be a little different from many you see. Contrary to the characters in my books, I don’t really kill people, or catch those who do, so the blogs might be about reading, or writing, or animals. These are the things I have great passion for. It might also contain posts about food, or ancestry, or substance abuse. My oldest son is a great cook. My daughter is a genealogist (rootsintheboot.com) and my youngest son is a recovering drug addict. He has been clean for three years, and runs a rehab center (intoactionrecovery.com).

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