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How to Get a Free ISBN for Your Self-Published Book

Go over to your bookshelf and pull down a book—any book. Check the back cover. See that random string of numbers right beneath the bar code? That’s called the ISBN: International Standard Book Number.

And you need one if you’re going to self-publish your book.

free isbn

Getting an ISBN is essential if you want readers to find and buy your book. But be careful. If you choose to get a free ISBN, you may be giving up control of your book’s metadata, which could be damaging to your self-publishing business and limit your books discoverability.

How the ISBN works and why it matters

Each number in an ISBN corresponds to a specific piece of metadata. (Metadata means, “data about data.” In other words, it’s information about your book.) Everything from the language your book is written in, to its publisher, page count, and format is encoded in those numerals. It’s a universal identifier that retailers, librarians, and (whether they realize it or not) readers rely on to catalog and find books.

The ISBN is the universal system the book industry has been using since the middle of the last century. It’s not going anywhere. And so while this is one of the least sexy aspects of your self-publishing adventure, it’s an essential one.

Let’s say you’ve completed your latest masterpiece, a practical handbook called How to Title a Hypothetical Book. You decide to publish an ebook and print version, each of which are assigned a unique ISBN. That way, when a reader goes searching for your book, she can find the right edition of your work. And if she loves what you’ve written, the ISBN makes it easier to find your follow-up bestseller, Made-Up Album Titles for Lazy Musicians, because the ISBNs for each book list you as the author.

How do you get an ISBN for your self-published book? These three options will get you what you need, but beware: some are better than others.

1. Get a free ISBN through CreateSpace

CreateSpace is Amazon’s on-demand publishing platform, and it’s a great choice for budget-conscious self-publishers. Rather than sinking money into inventory you’re not sure you can sell, CreateSpace cuts your costs by only printing books when a customer orders one. It’s the self-publishing platform we teach and recommend in our BookWorthy self-publishing e-course.

Plus, it gives you the choice to add on the ISBN for free.

Plenty of costs go into publishing your book, from printing and shipping to advertising and marketing. Dropping over $100 on 13 little numbers can feel like a supreme waste of money. It’s tempting to spring for the free option if you’re planning on using CreateSpace anyway.

But you probably shouldn’t.

If you plan on publishing more books in the future or if you want to make self-publishing your business, avoid the free ISBN provided by CreateSpace. Here’s why.

A free ISBN locks you into a printer

For starters, choosing the free option will lock into using CreateSpace as your publisher. You can’t switch printers and take your ISBN along with you. This doesn’t mean you can’t sell your book elsewhere; it just means that Create Space is your sole printer.

A free ISBN won’t let you be listed as publisher

Another reason to consider your options: if you use the free ISBN provided by CreateSpace, you won’t be listed as the publisher. CreateSpace will.

For example, here’s how Amazon lists the publisher for Dan Sheehan’s book After Action.

free isbn

Dan chose the free ISBN when he published this book through CreateSpace. Even though for all intents and purposes, Dan is the publisher, CreateSpace gets the credit because of the book’s ISBN.

To be clear, you’ll still keep ownership and copyright of your book if you choose the free ISBN option. But giving up this essential piece of your book’s metadata could prove problematic. For example, if you want to create your own independent publishing imprint, you need to take every opportunity to build your brand. Having CreateSpace listed as your publisher could make it harder to reach that goal.

A free ISBN may make it harder to find your book

Listing CreateSpace as your “imprint of record” may make it harder for readers and booksellers to discover your book. You’ll be lost in the sea of all the other authors published through CreateSpace.

A free ISBN could give your book a bad rap

Although the undue stigma of self-publishing is going away, listing CreateSpace as your publisher is like erecting a billboard that tells people, “I did this all myself.” Some people still interpret this to mean, “This book isn’t any good.” The quality of your work will, of course, prove them wrong, but it’s better to hedge off those objections from the start.

When you should use a free ISBN

In a handful of instances, free may be the right choice:

  • This is the only book you’ll ever publish.
  • You’re publishing something for limited distribution (like a pamphlet for an event).
  • You’re printing off a few books to give as a gift to family or friend.

In these and other circumstances, there’s no need to drop money on an ISBN.

2. Get a custom universal ISBN through Create Space (Recommended)

Should you avoid CreateSpace altogether? No way. It’s still a smart, affordable way to get your book out into the world. And thankfully, CreateSpace has an alternative that avoids nearly all the problems listed above.

It’s called a custom universal ISBN.

The crucial distinction between this and the free version is that you can choose the publisher. (Of course, they still let you list CreateSpace as the publisher, but why would you?) This puts total control of your book’s metadata back in your hands, which is important for all the reasons listed above.

At $99, it’s the most affordable way to secure your ISBN while avoiding most of the pitfalls of the free version.

Keep in mind that since this is provided through CreateSpace, going this route still locks you into CreateSpace as your printer. But chances are you chose CreateSpace for their affordable on-demand printing, so this is still a great choice for most self-publishers.

3. Provide your own ISBN (and take advantage of bundling)

If you’re not using CreateSpace, you’ll have to provide an ISBN through another service.

The primary place to get an ISBN is through Bowker. (In fact, CreateSpace can only give away ISBNs because they bought a mother lode of them from Bowker for pennies on the dollar.)

Bowker’s prices are higher than CreateSpace’s universal ISBN, but the service has advantages.

When you should provide your own ISBN

If you plan on publishing your book in a few formats (epub, paperback, hardcover, etc.) then you’ll need a unique ISBN for each format. Remember, an ISBN encodes all the metadata about your book, including format.) Bowkers lets you buy 10 or even 100 ISBNs at a time.

If you’re only publishing in one print format and an ebook, it’s not worth getting Bowker’s 10-ISBN bundle at $295. (Better to get two ISBNs from CreateSpace for 200 bucks.) But if you’re planning on publishing more than one book in a short period, getting your ISBNs all at once will save you money in the long run.

Bowker and other ISBN retailers also let you bundle your ISBN with other services you may need for your book anyway, like copyright and a barcode.

Nobody publishes a book alone

From writing and editing to the creative demands cover design and the technical nature of publishing, there are a lot of complicated steps to becoming a self-published author. But just because you’re self-published doesn’t mean you’re entirely self-sufficient.

Even the smartest, most savvy self-published authors need a bit of help from time to time.

That’s why we created the BookWorthy self-publishing e-course. In 16 engaging video lessons, Jennifer, Aaron, and Simon teach you the nuts and bolts of self-publishing your book—covering everything from ideation to publication (and sharing).

Every BookWorthy member also gets access to the private BookWorthy Members Facebook Group and Office Hours Q&A where future self-published authors just like you are collaborating and encouraging each other to keep pursuing their dream.

We’ve packaged up the entire e-course experience into an easy to understand, beautifully designed, and affordable program.

So if you’re tired of spinning in circles and are ready to finally make your dream of becoming a published author a reality, register for BookWorthy today.

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