Why owning your ISBN is important—or not

When you hire a vendor to produce your book, the company usually provides one of its own ISBNs, which makes it your publisher of record. This is also true if you use the free ISBN provided by Create Space or Smashwords.

book publishing isbn

Photo by Ove Tøpfer

Bowker is the U.S. registrar for International Standard Book Numbers. Each book receives a unique ISBN, which goes into the Bowker database booksellers and libraries use for ordering. When a bookseller looks up the book in Bowker’s database, the “Publisher” field will say “Create Space” or the name of your vendor.

How can this be if, as I said, you’re the publisher because you’re paying the bill?

It’s a technicality that shows the industry has failed to keep up with new publishing models. We have two meanings for the word “publisher.” One is my definition: the publisher is the one paying the bill. The other, more common, definition is that the publisher is the printer that’s fulfilling orders for the book. We really need a new term for this latter role when the printer is not funding publication but is paid by the author. I prefer the term “vendor” because it accurately depicts the relationship between the author and a company that’s selling services.

If you’re published by a royalty house, this is all irrelevant. The royalty publisher pay you, owns the ISBNs, and fulfills orders. It’s a publisher in every sense of the word.

If you’re self-publishing on the do-it-yourself model, you own the ISBN, you’re the publisher, and yet you can still delegate printing and fulfillment to a vendor such as Lighting Source or Create Space.

This issue of who is the publisher of record only arises when you outsource your book production to a vendor and use its ISBN. I don’t think this is a huge problem. I published three e-stories at Smashwords using its free ISBNs, so technically Smashwords is my publisher. I’m OK with that.

But what if you want to be the publisher of record? I recommend the DIY route, but some find that too overwhelming. If that’s you, there are a couple of options.

You could choose a vendor that will let you bring your own ISBN. Buy your ISBN from Bowker and have the vendor put it on the book. If the vendor insists you use its ISBN, consider finding a different vendor. There are a ton of them listed, and some reviewed, at The Independent Publishing Magazine.

Another option is to hire a consultant to guide you through the DIY process. You’ll probably only need hand-holding once. You’ll probably find that it’s not so scary after all, and you’ll be confident enough to handle it alone in the future. Then again, maybe you’re a busy businessperson more concerned with saving time than avoiding the hassle. You just need someone to delegate the task to. Either way, I can help.

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

One thought on “Why owning your ISBN is important—or not

  1. […] your book for you. Subsidy presses are generally very up front about this arrangement. They may provide the ISBN, which makes them your publisher as far as the record-keepers at Bowker are concerned. This may also be the case if you self-publish […]

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