How To Publish Your Ebook, Pt. 3: The Mysterious ISBN

Read Part Two

Hi everyone! Welcome back! As we trudge into part 3 of How To Publish Your Ebook, we’re getting into the nitty gritty–unfortunately, some of this stuff is going to be boring. Like today’s post. Hurray!

So why bother posting about something boring, right? Because you need this information; because without it, you may end up wasting a lot of money you could later invest into something you need, like a killer book cover.

When I was wading through all of this ebook publishing stuff on my own, one of the things that mystified me was the concept of the ISBN. ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, and no, you don’t need one to publish your ebook. So what’s it for, you ask? Boiled down to its essence, an ISBN is simply a tracking number assigned to your book. This number is used to track the amount of sales you generate across different formats–different formats being print versions, ebooks, etc. An ISBN is a tool used by the guy who’s job it is to generate the bestseller list for any particular week of the year. I saw you perk up. ‘Bestseller?’ you say. ‘Well, I want to be on the bestseller list! That means I need an ISBN!’ Oh, if it was only so easy…

Here’s the thing about bestseller lists: if you’re an indie, you aren’t going to be on one. At least not until they start generating a bestseller list for self-published work, and when I say ‘they’ I mean the folks at the New York Times. The problem with the NYT generating a self-pub bestseller list is that they also publish the bestseller list we all know–the one that’s backed by all the major publishing houses, the one you can’t get on unless you’re signed with the Big 6. That’s right, you heard me correctly… unless you’re backed by a big name publisher, you won’t make it onto a bestseller list, period. Even if you outsell the #1 bestseller in the nation with your self-published ebook, you will not be included in the bestseller ranks. Unfair! But that’s life.

Right now bestseller lists do not acknowledge the existence of us little guys. To them, we’re self-published and we suck… not because we don’t have talent, but because we aren’t generating any revenue for them. We’re the enemy, and as the publishing industry continues to suffer, we will continue to be the bad guy. As I said, don’t hold your breath. It’s more likely that the bestseller list will disappear before indies are allowed on it.

So, now that I’ve dispelled your knee-jerk reaction of purchasing ISBN’s to be ranked as the bestselling author in all the world, what’s the point of having an ISBN at all? Well, for one, certain booksellers require you to have one. Obviously, if you’re going to try to get your book in print and into a brick-and-mortar bookstore, you’re going to need an ISBN. But this blog series is called How To Publish Your Ebook, and since we’re talking about eformats only, here’s the low down…

You do not need an ISBN to publish to Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and because these two booksellers eat up about 95% of the ebook market, if that’s good enough for you, you can stop reading and forget ISBN’s forever.

You do need an ISBN if you want to publish to the Apple iBookstore. But here’s the thing about that: you need to upload your work through a third party (like Smashwords or Lulu) to be published there. I think there’s some cryptic and mysterious way to do it if you own a Mac, but I can’t comment on that because I don’t ‘do’ Apple. However, even if you can upload through Apple directly, buying a single ISBN will set you back about $125 USD. If you upload through Smashwords, they assign you an ISBN for free if you manage to get into their premium catalog. That saves you $125 right there, and renders uploading directly through Apple a waste of cash.

My advice: don’t waste your money on ISBN’s, even if someone out there insists you need one. Amazon has their own way of tracking bestsellers, whether you’ve got a publisher or not: it’s called counting sales. If you outsell everyone else, you’re going to be the #1 ranked author in their Kindle Store whether you have a mysterious ISBN or not.

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4 thoughts on “How To Publish Your Ebook, Pt. 3: The Mysterious ISBN

  1. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot while painting my future. Here we get free ISBNs to our works by request, but it’s potentially complicated (as in I’m not sure what I need to do to get it), so maybe the Smashwords route would be the simple one to take. But then Smashwords would be marked as publisher. If I do get the free ISBN provided to us here in Finland, how do I handle it and do I need to whip up a company for it or what… (I really need to ask someone about it…)

    Then again there’s a possibility I’ll never have to think about these things, so maybe I worry a bit too early. 😀

  2. Pingback: Publishing Your E-Book: A Quick How-To « 21st Century Author

  3. I’ve been publishing with a German publisher (GRIN, located in Munich:, who will also assign an ISBN and DOI (book and ebook, seperately each of corse) for you. Publishing your papers there online and as books (optional) is completely free. Now my publication is available at Barnes and Noble, too besides many other bookstores and cooperation partners, like goggle books, amazon etc.
    Well I must admit I did not reach the bestseller list, yet ;-), but I say go for it, if only to see your name associated with an ISBN.

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