The Book Business: ISBNs and Imprints

groundhog lying on grass Photo by Lisa Simpson on
Photo by Lisa Simpson on

Hello Readers,

This is the second post of a multi-part series. The previous post was the The Book Business: An Introduction. You can go back and read that if you wish, otherwise let’s jump right in!

If you’ve read a book, you are likely aware of the acronym ISBN. What I had to look up when I started with this business is what it actually means: International Standard Book Number. In short, it’s a unique number assigned to your book and it is associated with key metadata about your book including the imprint, or publisher, of your book.

question marks on paper crafts

I imagine if you are reading this post from an internet search, you may have come here with one question in mind: “Should I purchase my own ISBN?

Let’s address that first.

Up front, you need to know: ISBNs are not cheap and there is only one authorized place that can sell you an ISBN directly. In the United States, this is Bowker. You’ll need an ISBN for each format of your book (i.e. audiobook, ebook, hardcover print, softcover print, etc.). And you’ll need an ISBN for any major revision or new editions of your book. It can add up pretty quick.

We purchased and registered our own ISBNs.

This is in part because of our long-term goals of becoming an independent publisher. Publishers absolutely should buy these numbers and assign them to the books they publish. With this goal in mind, we invested and bought a block of ISBNs because buying in bulk makes them affordable on a per unit basis. A caveat if you’re considering doing the same – they can’t be transferred so if the business doesn’t go in our planned direction, it’s a sunk cost.

Even without this goal, we would have bought our own ISBNs because of a strong desire to not allow anyone else to have control over our publications (more on this below.) To show this more clearly, when registering an ISBN, it gets associated with a Publisher as shown in this image.

This information is shown in Bookwire. For example:

That company name is your imprint. It can be just about anything you want it to be but it has to match. If you publish through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), for example, they will ask for your imprint and that Publisher line is the answer.

Is this really important?

While self-publishing is becoming more normal, it still carries a stigma. One of the biggest giveaways that a book is self-published is when you look at the imprint and it doesn’t show a company name. It’s important to have professional branding that shows time, attention, and care was put into this product.

red and yellow stop sticker

Side note: Stop calling yourself a self-published author. You are an “independent author”.

Is it worth the money? I mean, I can just get a free ISBN from wherever.

Fair point, almost every distributor will offer a free ISBN. If you go to vendor-specific publishing platforms (i.e. Barnes and Noble Press or KDP), they’ll offer you a free ISBN. When you use a distribution platform including Lulu, Blurb, or IngramSpark – you’ll get the same free ISBN offer. But there’s a few catches.

First, you’ll have no control over the imprint on any of these platforms which I’ve already established is important for branding. As examples, IngramSpark uses the imprint “Indy Pub” and KDP uses “Independently Published.”

Second, you will not be able to reuse that ISBN for distribution elsewhere. Say, for example, you want to follow some common advice and use IngramSpark to distribute to everywhere except Amazon and then publish your book directly on KDP. If you got a free ISBN from Amazon, you won’t be able to use that on IngramSpark. And you don’t want to use a free ISBN from each provider because you don’t want multiple ISBNs for the same publication. This would be confusing for retailers and customers.

A Quick Side Note on FreeISBN
pile of covered books

During my research, I came across FreeISBN. Using this service, you can potentially get a free ISBN (again, no imprint control) and you can get fairly cheap ISBNs from them with their basic package. The company also offers a premium package that allows you to control the imprint. 

I cannot speak to the legality of this service or what would happen to your ISBNs if you invested and the company went out of business. What I can say is that when purchasing a block of ISBNs, they will be associated with your organization (as set up in Bowker) and some of the digits in that ISBN specifically represent your organization. (This caused me some issues with IngramSpark distribution because we purchased ISBNs under two separate Bowker accounts.)

Anyway, my point is, use that service at your own discretion. I was unwilling to give them my money on the grounds that it feels too much like ISBN resale which may not be allowed.

So, why two separate Bowker accounts?

This was a mistake that we made.

Initially, before we dreamed up any business, we knew that we were going to work towards publishing Kate’s books. So, she set up a Bowker account and purchased a small package of ISBNs specifically to meet that goal.

A long time later, when we came together with all these crazy ideas and plans, I established a whole new account specifically for Vulgar Scullery Maid Publishing. I didn’t need to do that. I was unaware of this area of Bowker’s system:

Here you can add multiple profiles (read: users) to your organization. 

However, since I didn’t look before I started clicking things, I missed this and now we have two separate accounts with the same Organization Name in the Bowker system.

Oh well.

Wrapping Up

Personally, I advocate for purchasing your own ISBNs to maximize control over your intellectual property but that doesn’t mean you have to do it. Using the freely provided ISBNs is a viable option in some cases. It really just comes down to understanding your target goals, strategy, and budget.

Thanks for reading this week and stay tuned for our next post in the series where we talk about copyrights! Follow us here, on Facebook, or LinkedIn to make sure you get notified as these posts are released.


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