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What’s an ISBN? Do I Need One as a Self-Published Author? (New Zealand Edition)

The conversation usually goes something like this. We’re discussing what goes on the copyright page of a book, and we ask if the writer has an ISBN. Cue the discussion whether they need an ISBN, and where they should get one.

Let’s face it most of us don’t really think about ISBNs on a daily basis.

ISBNs were not invented in the age of self-publishing — they were designed for the old world of publishing and therefore don’t entirely fit the new world of self publishers and eBooks.

An ISBN  - Do You Know Who Issued It?

An ISBN – Do You Know Who Issued It?

To understand we need to go back to the 1970s. At that time there were problems identifying books. Unable to just put book title and author name into Google, someone may ask a bookshop or library for a book called XX by YY. The problem is they may have mis-remembered the title or the exact author names.

Titles are not unique, indeed the same book can have different names, a practice that is common between the UK Edition (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) and US Edition (Harry Porter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).

So the ISBN  (International Standard Book Number) was invented to solve a very real problem. The rules for ISBNs are:

  • each different format has a different number — to distinguish between paperback and hardback, and now eBook edition;
  • each edition has a different number: e.g. a non-fiction book is heavily revised to bring it up to date, an update with a few typos corrected doesn’t need a new ISBN;
  • each different language version has a new ISBN e.g. if you had a book translated to Te Reo  you need to have a new ISBN;
  • if you change “publisher of record” you need a new ISBN.

The last point is the main area of confusion for authors — and the source of a great number of rumours.

Who Is Your Publisher of Record?

The “publisher of record” is the person or entity to whom the ISBN is issued. Whether or not this appears on the copyright page of your print book is entirely your choice. (Note if you publish your eBook via Smashwords they have a requirement that you acknowledge Smashwords on the copyright page).

You have three choices:

  1. You can apply to the National Library and be your own publisher of record — using your own name;
  2. You can apply to the National Library and use a company that you have either made up or actually created.
  3. If you use the provided ISBNs from third parties including Createspace.com and Smashwords.com then they will be the “publisher of record”.

The first two options will result in a New Zealand ISBN Number — the latter an American ISBN.

Does It Matter is You Use An American ISBN?

If you are marketing to readers directly — it doesn’t matter.

Ever turn over a new book and look down excitedly to check out the barcode on the back cover?  Pore over the numbers underneath checking out who is the publisher of record? Nope me neither.

If you want to have your book listed specifically as a New Zealand book — particularly if you want to sell to libraries or schools who use Wheelers.co.nz to buy books — then you want a New Zealand barcode.

If you want to apply for New Zealand awards or anything else open to “New Zealand authors” — than a New Zealand ISBN would be a good idea (note this will not stop you being rejected as a self-published scum — that’s a different post!)

You may have heard that having a Createspace ISBN means that bookshops won’t stock your book. This is partly true — they probably won’t. But  that’s because Createspace doesn’t accept returns (as the books are print-on-demand) — nothing to do with the ISBN.

You may have heard that if you use a free ISBN from a third party that third party can claim copyright over your book. That’s a lie.

How Much Does an ISBN Cost?

For New Zealanders it costs absolutely nothing — though you have to provide a couple of copies (electronic AND print) for deposit at the National Library. For more details see New Zealand ISBNs.

Australians pay around A$100 at Australian ISBN Agency.

For Americans, Bowker charges around US$125 — slightly less if you buy in bulk. So you now you understand why the free ISBN’s are very important to Americans!

14 Comments

  1. Christine on July 29, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Hi Elizabeth, interesting article. Don’t forget about the millions of copies of books held by libraries around the world. An ISBN is vital for clear, robust cataloguing. Without them, many a library would have ordered the wrong book. Cheers, Christine

    • Lis on July 29, 2014 at 11:26 am

      Hi Christine, yes that’s true – but paperbooks still do have ISBNs – it’s just that any free one will do – it’s just a number. I think many authors forget that. As an author I have mixed feelings about libraries – in some ways they destroy my book sales 🙂 (Though as a reader I use them all the time to avoid NZ’s sky-high book prices)

  2. Rory Graham on February 9, 2015 at 12:27 am

    Do I have to be a New Zealand citizen to obtain a New Zealand ISBN?

    • Lis on February 19, 2015 at 5:02 pm

      Sorry for the delay in replying Rory. No, as far as I know there is no requirement to be a NZ citizen – you may have to be a resident though.

  3. David R Taylor on September 6, 2016 at 3:05 pm

    do I need more than one isbn number for multiple copies of the same book?
    Reply eagerly awaited thanks

    • Lis on September 6, 2016 at 3:56 pm

      You need an isbn per a format – so if you have a hardcover, and a paperback and a eBook you would need 3 ISBNs

  4. Rod Gibson on September 29, 2017 at 8:26 pm

    Hi Liz. I am very new to writing so I have just two questions. If I get an NZ IBSN does that cover me if I sell overseas – sat through Amazon? And If I only want to sell through the Internet as an Ebook should I only sign up for that when I purchase my number? I do appreciate being able to ask these questions so, thank you.

    • Lis on September 29, 2017 at 11:22 pm

      Hi Rod – yes get a NZ ISBN (they’re free) and you can sell to the world – you will also need to give the National library a copy of your book – which for an eBook just means a copy of the final file so that’s easily done. And yes just specify if you want a mobi and/or ePub when you apply for the ISBN. You can do it at the last minute – they usually reply within a couple of business days.

  5. Maaike van Hoeflaken on April 24, 2018 at 2:56 pm

    Hi Lis,
    I have an edited manuscript on Mongolian history that I want to self publish. I am a New Zealand permanent resident (and had the manuscript edited here in NZ). A Mongolian friend wants to print the book in Mongolia and I want to self-publish electronic version as well. Will it be a problem to append a New Zealand ISBN to the books printed in Mongolia? (I have not printed anything before either)

    • Lis on June 6, 2018 at 2:28 pm

      I can’t see an issue but you might want to check with the National Libarary just to be sure

  6. Nick on April 26, 2018 at 3:24 pm

    Hi Lis, so I know ISBN’s are $125 for one but I heard somewhere they go down in price, like $25. Is that true? Thank you, I’m glad I found you.

    N. Lang

    • Lis on June 6, 2018 at 2:26 pm

      In NZ ISBNs are free -so I”m guessing you are talking about the US?

  7. Sara on June 27, 2018 at 3:41 pm

    Hi Lis

    What about a barcode? What are the advantages of having a barcode on a self published book? Is it just a question of whether you are selling the book commercially (i.e. through a bookseller) or not?

    I gather booksellers like barcodes because once scanned they tell you how much to charge the customer.

    Is there anything else I should know about barcodes?

    I have already had my book printed but didn’t think about barcodes and ISBNs until now. Presumably I can apply them in the form of a sticker?

    • Lis on September 11, 2018 at 5:35 pm

      NZ ISBNs do not include pricing info AFAIK. I think you need a barcode, and definitely a ISBN before a bookshop will sell your book. It should also be on your copyright page within the book.

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