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.
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:
- You can apply to the National Library and be your own publisher of record — using your own name;
- You can apply to the National Library and use a company that you have either made up or actually created.
- 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!