When To Buy Your Own ISBNs

In 2017, I bought a block of one thousand ISBNs. Other authors have been asking me why I did that and if they should do the same. I’m writing this blog post so I can point them at it. The short but glib answer is, when the missed opportunity cost of piggybacking on Amazon’s (previously CreateSpace’s) free ISBNs exceeds the expense of buying your own ISBNs.

But let’s break this down a little more.

Most indie authors don’t sell many books. If you have only one or two titles, don’t even think about getting your own ISBNs. Spend your money on editing your next book.

If your book does sell, chances are it only sells on Amazon. Amazon doesn’t care where an ISBN comes from. I imagine they’d happily ditch ISBNs, except for that pesky Expanded Distribution to the wider world of bookstores.

And that wider world of bookstores is where your own ISBNs come in.

If you are regularly making sales in Expanded Distribution, you’re selling print to the world outside Amazon. Those are the folks where ISBNs matter. The reason that they matter isn’t because they check your ISBN against a list of Amazon-owned ISBNs and refuse to buy. It’s because:

the owner of the ISBN controls where the book can be printed.

This is vital.

If your ISBN comes from Amazon, you can only get your book printed at Amazon.

If you own your ISBNs you can have your book printed anywhere. Use Amazon and IngramSpark alike. If a book really takes off and you need to do an actual print run, you can do that and slip those printed books into the supply chain with the same ISBN. Stores and readers don’t care who printed the book so long as it’s of reasonable quality and doesn’t fall apart as they’re reading it. (I’m looking at you, Robert Jordan.)

Your own print run might seem ambitious right now, but while the plan “I’m gonna sell a million copies a year” might not be realistic, the plan of “If I sell a million a year I want to do it in the least profitable way” is just plain daft. Just as you have a backup plan in case of failure, have a route open to maximize success.

So how did I make this calculation?

One, I was being directly contacted for bulk orders on books in locations I couldn’t serve. I could drop-ship books from CreateSpace US, but many of these orders came from overseas. And CreateSpace wouldn’t put customs paperwork on overseas shipments, so I’d have to have the books shipped to me, prepare the customs paperwork, and ship them over to Europe or Asia or wherever. The shipping costs on orders of even 20 books were prohibitive.

The cost of a lost opportunity.

Additionally, my Expanded Distribution sales were growing. ED pays about 40% of cover price on sales. IngramSpark lets you set your own rate, but “50% no returns” is perfectly acceptable. That’s an extra 20% on each unit sold.

I counted my annual sales through Expanded Distribution. I figured out how many ISBNs I needed to buy. I assumed that I’d get an extra 15% on each ED sale (because I’m pessimistic), and that sales would go they way they had for last few years (because I had to pick a value). Yes, these are fragile assumptions.

When the calculation showed that the increased proceeds from IngramSpark sales would pay for the whole block of ISBNs in about a year, and everything after that would be extra income, I bought my ISBNs.

How did I decide how many ISBNs to buy?

I averaged how many titles I publish in a year. Multiplied that by the number of writing years I hope to have left. The math said I’d need a little less than 300 ISBNs. As I’m in the US, it was cheaper to buy 1000 ISBNs than 300, because Bowker is milking the US ISBN market for every last penny.

So I bought 1000. (Before you ask, I can’t resell my extras.)

I am now done with the ISBN problem forever. FOREVER.

To my shock, the investment paid off in three months. My unit sales almost doubled. My books sell in places they never could reach before, mostly in Asia. I sell print books in Malaysia and India. Will that happen to you? Dunno. It won’t hurt your sales, though.

And I have enough to experiment with things like hardcover books. Which, to my surprise, sell. Even in Asia, where they’re not merely expensive but fiendishly expensive.

Once you have your own ISBNs, the real fun begins. You need to re-issue all existing titles under your own ISBNs, so that you can control the printing. This is vital. Someone that wants to order your book will look up the title in their online system and order it by ISBN. If you have one version of the book on Amazon with one ISBN, and the identical book with a different ISBN in IngramSpark, who knows what they’ll wind up ordering? Basic business says you must have a consistent product line. When two hundred people order your book, you don’t want them either getting two different products or, worse, half of them unable to get your book because it’s not available in their area under that ISBN.

This means you need to prepare for success.

Changing your ISBNs means changing your book interior. Adding IngramSpark as a printer means changing your cover.

Are you prepared to make those changes?

Yes, your cover and interior designers are professionals and would never screw you over. Maybe your designer is a dear friend or an award-winning master with a sterling reputation. But people get hit by busses, leave the field, or eaten by antelopes all the time. If nothing else, there’s retirement.

You need not only the finished product, but the source files for them as well. (Some designers will offer digital escrow services, which can be okay so long as it’s at their expense.) When the time comes for you to update fifty titles with your own ISBN, the last thing you want to have to do is redo the covers of your best-selling series because you can’t change shift the design as needed to match IngramSpark’s requirements. You want to have your designer or their successor open the original design, shift a couple items a millimeter or two, and be done.

Do the math now. Figure out how many you need and what the cost would be. Once you know the answer: forget about it until you hit those numbers. Put your energy and your worry on the thing that you can control: your craftsmanship and the amount of time you spend making words.

Because making words is how you get to have problems like needing your own ISBNs.