Get an ISBN

Getting an International Standardized Book Number is easy. You just buy one from Bowker, the company who manages the ISBN database. You pay $125 and enter your book's information into their website. Done and done.

Holy God Taco! Did you say $125? For one book? What the actual hell?!

Yeah, that's why I wrote a whole section on this topic. We're going to talk about why it's so expensive and decide whether or not you need one.

A single ISBN costs $125. Ten ISBNs cost $29.50 each. 100 ISBNs cost $5.75 a piece. Need 1000? They're just $1.

This pricing structure causes righteous drama. If you're outraged, I don't blame you. There are communities out there dedicated to changing the system. Unfortunately, the ISBN system isn't likely to change anytime soon. I'm going to skip the drama and focus on the facts and how they effect your project. Don't get me wrong, I love a good debate. Just buy me a beer first.

Okay. What's the actual deal with ISBNs?

ISBNs were introduced in 1970, predating the Internet. They're a method for publishers and retailers to catalogue all the books they make and sell. We can skip the history lesson but I wanted to give you a sense of how old of a system we're dealing with. ISBN data goes into a database managed by a private company, Bowker. To Bowker's credit, maintaining a database of all books for sale in the entire world is a pretty huge task.

When you buy any number of ISBNs, you identify yourself as a publisher. I bought ten for myself and registered them to Studio Splurd. After you purchase ISBNs, you go to Bowker's web tool to enter information about your book into the database. Once the info is submitted, anyone who wants to sell your book can access the database and read everything you've written. There is a ton of info you can enter! You enter the title, your name, the year created. You can suggest an age group and select a genre. You can differentiate different versions, issues or volumes in a series. You can identify an artist and a writer if your comic was a collaboration or list several contributors if you made an anthology. You have absolute control over how your book is listed in the database. You do actually get something for your money.

The purpose to buying sets of ISBNs is to let Bowker know that an entire range of numbers are all owned by one publisher. In fact, certain digits of the ISBN specifically identify the publisher. If a publisher only buys one ISBN, that blacks out a whole range of potential ISBNs that are now designated to that publisher. This is the actual reason behind Bowker's pricing chart - a single ISBN reserves a huge chunk of digits that from here on out can only ever be sold to you.

Do I need an ISBN?

It depends on where you're going to sell your book.

You do not need an ISBN if you plan to sell your books yourself by going to conventions or consigning them to comic shops. An ISBN will gain you nothing in these cases.

You do need an ISBN if you want to list your book on Amazon or distribute it to big booksellers like Borders. Big name stores need you in the standardized database so they can automate stocking, marketing, all the logistics.

Can I get one later?

Hells yes. If you're on your third or fourth book and you're looking to get listed on Amazon, you can finally buy that ten-pack of ISBNs, go back and register all your books at once. You don't lose anything by waiting.

If you choose to wait wait, your book won't have the ISBN printed on it. There's plenty of ways to handle that down the road. You're likely ordering a short run right now, so you can just add the ISBN to the cover in future editions. You can also order a roll of ISBN barcode stickers.

There are services out there that offer cheaper ISBNs. What's going on there?

This is a viable option. You just need to understand what you're getting yourself into.

ISBN resellers buy huge packs of ISBNs to get them super cheap so they can make a profit selling them to small-time authors like yourself. Some resellers are more reputable than others, so know who your dealing with.

The main downside to this approach is that the ISBN reseller you buy from is now the publisher. They must register that set of ISBNs to their company. That means when people look up who published your comic, they'll see the ISBN reseller listed as the publisher.

It's really up to you whether this is cool or not.

Should I ever buy just one ISBN?

I really advise against it. If you only ever print one book, you're probably not going to be distributing it. Get the ten when you're ready for the ten.

Okay, I'm buying ten ISBNs. Should I buy the barcode combo?

Ahaha. No. All you need is the basic package, which gives you the number itself and access to the database. If you Google "Generate ISBN Barcode" you'll find any number of websites that'll do it for free. If you want to double check that the barcode generated correctly, you can get a free smartphone app called Google Goggles that will decode just about any barcode you point your camera at.

ISBNs are some pretty tricky business. Hopefully you've got a better sense of what they're all about now. Okay, time to get back to the grindstone.

Next Step: Layout Your Book home

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