Ebooks and ISBNs

There is raging debate in the writing world about assigning ISBNs to ebooks. Some say an ebook doesn’t need an ISBN. Others say it does. As someone about to publish an ebook, I needed to know.

I had a second question. There are two formats for ebooks: Mobi (Kindle) and Epub (Nook, and everyone else). To fully cover the ebook market, I need both versions available. If an ebook needs an ISBN, would I need two, one for each version?

The actual answer is yes, an ebook needs an ISBN, and yes, each version gets its own. Those answers come right from the source, ISBN International, the folks in charge of those things.

According to ISBN International, ISBNs are assigned based on format, not text. A book can have six different formats — hardback, quality paperback, mass market paperback, audiobook, Kindle, and Nook. That means the same book, with no textual changes, has six formats and needs six ISBNs.

The ISBN serves as a library call number. It identifies the book by format and edition. A reader wanting the second edition mass market version does not want the first edition hardback. Hence, why two separate numbers are needed.

There is an exception, and this is why so many writers say the ebook does not need an ISBN. If a book is published through a proprietary platform, and carried by a proprietary market, then it does not need an ISBN. This means Amazon. Kindle, and the Mobi platform, are available only through Amazon. An ebook published through Amazon is assigned its own proprietary number by Amazon itself. It is naturally identified. It is also naturally protected, as far as an ebook can be. So, it won’t necessarily need an ISBN, unless the author chooses to get one for it. The majority of ebook writers publish through Amazon, foregoing Nook. So, they would say no, the ebook doesn’t need one.

I’m picky. I want one for my Kindle books. And as I want to cover Nook and Google and Apple readers, I want Epub versions available (Lulu will handle that). So, every book I publish will receive four separate ISBNs (hardback, paperback, Kindle, and Nook). When I can afford to hire Tara Strong to record an audiobook, that will be a fifth.

2 thoughts on “Ebooks and ISBNs

  1. I’ve thus far published exclusively with Amazon, so I am not an expert on this issue. However, it is my understanding that the other ebook retailers do not require you to have an ISBN.

    If any authors are reading this post seeking advice on the subject, I highly recommend they do additional research before spending precious resources on an unnecessary item.

    • That all depends. Amazon definitely does not require an ISBN. It is an option. They have their own library number they will assign to it (at the moment, I can’t remember what Amazon calls it). If you publish an Epub ebook in one market only, you probably don’t need an ISBN, either. However, if you want to publish across markets, you do. For instance, if you publish an ebook on Lulu, and sell only through their store, you won’t need one. But if you want to sell it on Barnes and Noble and Apple, you will.

      Let me put it this way — it really helps. Titles cannot be copyrighted, so it is more than possible that several totally different books will have the same title. Of course, that presumes the buyer knows the ISBN, and how many of us do? And according to ISBN International, the number provides more leverage to the writer for copyright protection (important in this age of digital piracy).

      But you don’t need to pay for the ISBN. Both Amazon and Lulu will give your book an ISBN for free. The only reason to pay for the ISBN is if you want yourself, the writer, listed as the publisher, instead of Amazon or Lulu.

      Personally, this is what I’m doing. If I own the ISBN, then I’m the publisher, and Amazon is the printer and distributor. I can move the book to a new printer and distributor without having to call it a second edition. Moving the Mobi version isn’t an option because Mobi is proprietary to Amazon. I’m stuck with them. But for the Epub version and the print editions, moving them is, should a better POD system and distribution system come available.

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