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Why You, As A Self-Publisher, Need Your Own ISBN

You need one ISBN for your paperback and a different ISBN for the ebook version of your paperback. You will need a third ISBN if you print a hardcover version of the same book.

(International Standard Book Number
used by bookstores to order books)

It's all about a number and who owns it.

There are ways to expertly publish a book while retaining all the rights, and I mean all of them. It has everything to do with who owns the ISBN.

Before 2006, only publishers could purchase ISBNs from R.R. Bowker (the official dispenser of ISBNs in the U.S.). These International Standard Book Numbers are required to register a book in the Ingram database used by every bookstore to order books and are typically found on the back of books on the top of the barcode.

Starting in 2006, an author could buy a single ISBN directly from R.R. Bowker and become a true self-publisher
. Bowker sold single ISBNs in the 1990s but it became a hassle and they stopped. In 2006, with the explosion of self-published books, they decided to offer single ISBNs for $125. You, as a self-published author, can also buy a block of 10 or more.
What do the numbers in an ISBN mean?
Joel Friedlander wrote an informative article explaining the various numbers and their meanings titled, How to Read an ISBN.
Short version: the first three numbers of the ISBN identify the industry (books, publishing). The next number is the language group identifier (the language the book is written in), the next set of numbers identifies the publisher, the next set of numbers indicates the book title and the last number is the check digit (makes sure the other numbers are correct).
Follow these links to buy a single ISBN or ten ISBNs directly from R.R. Bowker.
If you don't own the ISBN, you do not own all the rights to your book (I don't care what online publishing companies claim). If a company "assigns" you a "unique" ISBN, you do not own the ISBN or the publishing rights to your book and the publisher who allegedly assigned you that number will make two or three dollars (or more) off every book you sell. That includes books you buy (sell to) yourself. Most online publishers would rather you didn't know that.
In other words, you wind up paying the publisher twice. You pay the total, upfront cost to publish your book. Then you pay the publisher again for each book you print. Do you really want to do that?  
Would you buy a new car, then sell it after a few years and split the profit with the original car salesman? Of course not, but that is exactly what happens if you use an "assigned" ISBN.

 The happy publisher who talked you
into buying his "package deal"

I can show you how to keep that money in your pocket where it belongs and never share profits with anyone.
At the risk of contradicting myself, there is an exception to not sharing profits. It has to do with online book sales. Barnes & Noble, for instance, requires a 50% (Amazon, 55%) discount to offer your book online. If your book retails for $12, B&N buys it for $6. Digital print cost for a 150 page book is about $3, leaving you a $3 profit. (Ebooks must offer the same discount even though the retail price is much less.) Don't be alarmed. If someone buys your paperback or Ebook online, you won't know it until you get your quarterly check in the mail. You won't have to ship it, invoice it or touch it. (Ebook commissions are paid more frequently. Bookbaby pays every two weeks if your ebook is selling.)
How Print on Demand (POD) works:

The online bookseller transmits the buyer's order details to a digital printer and the book is Printed On Demand (POD) and mailed in a matter of hours.  Not bad for a product you don't even have to stock or handle. You will make two to three times as much, however, through your personal sales. It all evens out in the end. Take every sale you can get.

How can you identify a vanity publisher?
 Just let any potential publisher know you will be using your own ISBN and brace yourself for the onslaught of reasons why you should use theirs. I've heard every reason in the book, from minimizing the importance of who owns the ISBN, to how difficult it is for an individual to purchase one, to belittling me for not wanting to go with a "recognized" publisher.  Some are so behind the times, they say you have to buy a block of ten numbers (true for UK authors, but not American authors). Evidently, they aren't yet aware that Bowker is dispensing single ISBNs to self-published authors, and has been for some time now.
If you hear the words, "Yes, you can use your own ISBN," you are probably  dealing with a publisher who will treat you right and help you become a self-published author. 
Follow these links to buy a single ISBN or ten ISBNs.

Many vanity publishers claim to be self-publishing companies. A true self-publishing company will let you use your own ISBN, making you the publisher of record. They will only sell you the services you need to get your book in print, like cover design, interior layout, editing, Ingram database entry and barcode. You will not sign a contract. You will simply order and pay for the services you want and need. I have found less than a dozen online publishing companies that are true self-publishing facilitators. They typically serve your needs without the high-pressure hype vanity publishers use. And you won't get an avalanche of email or phone calls pressing you to publish with them.
These are the cold, hard facts: if you don't own the ISBN, you are not a self-publisher, and you do not own the publishing rights to your book (and you will definitely pay more than you should).

Bottom line: vanity publishers want to assign their ISBN to you. By the way, there is no such thing as an "assigned" ISBN. It belongs to them, but they want you to believe it's yours.

A vanity publisher's profit comes from the books the author buys to either give away to family and friends or to sell to others. For that reason, these publishers set the retail price higher than it should be. Then they offer you a 50% discount to buy your own book. The higher the retail price, the more the author pays. The more the author pays, the more the vanity publisher makes. It's all about the money. Problem is, it's your money.

If you see the words "assign" and "unique ISBN" in the same sentence in a "publishing package," run, don't walk, to the nearest Website exit. They will publish your book, with or without editing, but you will pay much more than necessary to buy and/or print your own book for personal sales.
"Why did I let them talk me into using that assigned ISBN?" "They said I could get a package deal* for $799. They said I could get a free, assigned ISBN, cover design and interior layout, and a total of 5 free books. They said my book would be "available" in 25,000 bookstores in the U.S.
Later I learned that only meant someone could walk in and order it in a bookstore. Then I found out, for that same amount of money, if I had used my own ISBN, I could have received better cover design, better interior layout and at least 100 edited and delivered books. That vanity rep forgot to tell me that $799 vanity publisher package doesn't even include editing or shipping. And, like I already said, I didn't see my book on any bookshelf anywhere. I guess nation-wide distribution doesn't mean what they led me to believe."

*Always be ready to pay more, and get less, with a package deal. The publisher wins and you lose.
I can tell you which publishers will allow you to use your own ISBN. (A few will insist you provide your own: like RJ Communications, Art Bookbindery, Bethany Press, and Morris Publishing, to name a few.) 
FYI: Only a handful of publishers are authorized agents for R.R. Bowker. If you are not sure about an alleged Bowker partner publisher, ask who will be the registered owner. If they say you, then they are an official Bowker partner.
As of 2010, there were 12 publishers Bowker had partnered with to apply for single or multiple ISBNs on behalf of authors who want to self-publish. They are Aardvark, Bethany Press, Expressio, FilmMasters,,, PPC Books, Publisher Services, RJ Communications (, RKD Press, Signature Books, and WordClay. Bowker may have added other reliable publishers to that short list.
If you didn't buy your ISBN directly from R.R. Bowker or through one of these 12 authorized publishers, you do not own the ISBN and will not be the publisher of record. CAUTION: Thoroughly investigate any of these publishers who accept ISBN applications for Bowker because they may also offer other packages or services that do not include the ISBN. Two of these publishers will require you to be the official owner of the ISBN. They are RJ Communications (also known as and Bethany Press. produced my first book and I was very impressed with the result. They are professional and first class all the way.

With your own ISBN, you become a self-published author and, as I said earlier, you retain full publishing rights and make the most profit per book through personal sales. 

One of the best places I have found, so far, to procure a single ISBN is (Authorized Bowker partner)

If you agree to print through them, they will provide you with a single ISBN and a bar code for $99.00 (typical cost is $150.00 if you buy directly from Bowker at (also known as RJ submits the application to R.R. Bowker who is the actual dispenser of the number. You own it. 
Ron Pramschufer offers the most comprehensive Q & A on ISBNs in his monthly newsletter,
Andy Weissberg, of R.R. Bowker gives a thorough overview of ISBNs, including ISBNs for ebooks in a 2010 interview.
Read a companion article on the ISBN question by Joel Friedlander on the same website titled ISBN 101 for Self-Publishers.
Follow these links to buy a single ISBN or to buy ten ISBNs directly from R.R. Bowker.
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What do you mean, I can't use my own ISBN?
We'll just see about that.
Note: If you plan on your paperback becoming an ebook, you should buy 10 ISBNs. A single would cost $125. Another single for an ebook would be another $125, or $250. You can buy ten for $295.
UK authors cannot buy a single ISBN—they must buy a block of ten (£132) at Nielson UK ISBN Agency.  On the plus side, just the act of applying for an ISBN from Nielsen gets UK books listed with and Waterstones online booksellers.

New Zealand authors can obtain ISBNs from the National Library of New Zealand.

Australian authors can apply for ISBNs here.
*Find a complete list of ISBN agencies for every country around the world from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe at: ISBN Information.
You can also Google (your country and ISBN agency) to save time.

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                                                           Updated October 24, 2015