June 18, 2024

Why I Finally Purchased ISBNs

I wrote this post on why I chose not to purchase my own ISBN. The post was very much a reaction to the passionate and loud advice to indie authors at the time that you had to buy ISBNs to give your books any semblance of respectability, and I just wasn’t buying it (the advice or the overpriced identifiers). I felt the world also needed a passionate retort to the discourse: No way! I do what I want!

Coming back to this topic, I feel like an absolute hypocrite because in the time since I originally wrote about it, I’ve purchased my own ISBN. Not only did I buy some, but I ordered a whopping 100 identifiers for my books past, present, and future.

ISBNs are Stupidly Expensive

So, what changed after I first waxed poetic about my hatred of the book-number industry? Honestly, not much. They are still priced way too high, with one ISBN costing $125 in the United States. And I still believe the other points I made, like books seldom having only one identifier their entire lifetime and readers don’t care about the publisher on record.

I was fortunate when the sales of my Puzzling Escapes series absolutely took off during lockdown. I finally had real money from my author career, and I wanted to reinvest some of that cash into my publishing business.

In addition to increasing the budget for the art in subsequent Puzzling Escapes adventures, I hired a narrator to create an audiobook for my favorite novel, Quality DNA. But I also wanted to add more legitimacy to my publishing brand, and I acknowledged that ISBN under my publishing name, BETH MARTIN BOOKS, was a decent way to do that. $125 for one number, however, is way too expensive.

$295 for only ten numbers is still like $30 per number, and I’d likely need more than 10.

The next step up is $575 for 100 numbers. Regardless of what I’m getting, $575 is a lot of money. It’s a stupid amount of money for a list of numbers. However, it’s also an investment in me and my business. Now, as long as I write 100 books, that comes to a little less than $6 per number, an amount I can more easily stomach.

Am I going to write 100 books? Abso-freaking-lutely.

Books Still Get the Benefits of Having ISBN with the Free ISBN

On Bowker’s website (Bowker is the only company where you can purchase ISBNs in the United States), they list all the reasons why books should use an ISBN, and a lot of these reasons are valid and valuable.

Retailers, including online retailers like Amazon, require books to have an ISBN before they can be sold. ISBNs allow for standardized book identification and enable the book’s distribution worldwide.

Something that people shilling author advice tend to ignore is that your book will enjoy these benefits even when you use a free number. There are limitations imposed on your book when you use the free identifier usually including that only that retailer/printer can print your book. However, that doesn’t prevent authors from utilizing multiple (free) ISBNs for use with multiple book distributors.

IngramSpark Now Offer Free ISBN

The only point I had no good argument against was using IngramSpark. Ingram is the largest book distributor in the world, and in the past, if you wanted their print-on-demand subsidiary IngramSpark to produce your indie title, you needed to provide your own ISBN. However, in late 2019, even IngramSpark started offering free ISBNs.

Honestly, I never saw the draw of using IngramSpark to print my books. Their print quality is no better than Amazon’s KDP since both companies use the same machines and materials. In fact, a lot of KDP books get printed outside the Amazon ecosystem, so your KDP print book might get fulfilled by IngramSpark.

But what about libraries and bookstores? The best way to get your indie book into libraries is by donating it, and the simplest way to get indie books into bookstores is through consignment. In both those situations, you, the author, are providing the book, so it doesn’t matter what the identifier is or which company printed it.

Making New Editions

Moving forward with free ISBNs, I knew that I could change my mind down the road, and it wouldn’t be a huge issue. And it absolutely wasn’t. Many books go through several different editions, and each new edition requires its own ISBN. So, if you have a published book and you want to assign a new number to it, you release a new edition of the book.

I had fun with some of my new editions. Mental Contact got a new cover, and I updated the formatting. I actually changed the title for At Fault to The Earthquake Anomaly. When I originally published The End of Refuge, I did so on a shoestring budget. For the second edition, I hired an editor since the previous one had done a lousy job (I still don’t recommend Fiverr because of this) and commissioned a professional cover.

Other books like Puzzling Escapes: Trapped in the Bookstore barely changed at all between editions, only the barcode on the back cover and ISBN listed on the copyright page getting updated while everything else remains the same. However, there’s no requirement that the copyright page includes an identifier (or that the book even contains a copyright page), and print-on-demand companies add the barcode on the cover for you, so most indie authors wouldn’t need to change a thing in their book files in order to release a new edition with an update ISBN.

Other Publishing Endeavors

I must admit that the authority provided by having my own identifiers has opened an avenue I hadn’t really thought of as an indie author publishing their work: I can publish other people’s books under the Beth Martin Books imprint. However, for the most part, I’ll remain a one-woman show, only distributing my work.

However, I have published a fun word-search book my husband put together. Also, I never would have taken on the Starship Blunder project if I couldn’t go down as the publisher on record. And I imagine it would be harder to get other writers to submit to the project if they didn’t already view me as an industry pro.


In short, who do I think should buy ISBNs? For starters, anyone who plans on setting up a publishing company and publishing work other than their own should purchase their own ISBN. Also, in some areas of the world, these identifiers are more affordable than they are here in the US, and in those places, definitely go for it.

And then there’s my case. If you have money burning in your pocket that you want to invest in your publishing career, and you plan on publishing as many books as possible, then you have my blessing to buy some numbers.

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