Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Can I Use My Smashwords ISBN When Publishing Elsewhere?

by J. Lea Lopez

From keeping your e-pubbing legal to contacting book bloggers once you've published, authors who self-publish have plenty of questions, and we love being able to answer as many as we can. One question I've seen popping up recently is whether an author can use the ISBN provided by Smashwords when she uploads her book at Amazon or another retailer.

Short answer? No.

There, question answered, thanks for reading!

Okay, okay. I know some of you are kicking your feet and whining But why not? It'll save me money to use the ISBN provided for free (or as part of the $9.95 Premium option) from Smashwords when I upload to [insert other eBook retailer here].

My gut-reaction reason for not using the ISBN given to you by Smashwords when you e-publish elsewhere is that it's simply unethical. Smashwords is not your cheap ISBN vendor. They offer their free or low-cost ISBN service to people who use their distribution services. It's a perk. Something to entice you to do business with them, you see. If you take that ISBN and attach it to your Kindle book or any other eBook format that you then distribute yourself (or through some venue other than Smashwords), you're taking advantage of the service they've provided. In the long run, this could hurt indie authors everywhere. If everyone snagged a free or cheap ISBN from Smashwords and then used it elsewhere, you can bet your laptop Smashwords would eventually stop offering the service. You might be saving yourself some money in the short term, but you'll be doing yourself (and the rest of us) a huge disservice in the long run.

*steps off soapbox*

Now let's look at some of the logistical reasons you don't want to do this.

First, you don't need an ISBN to publish and have your eBook sold through any of the major outlets except Sony and Apple. You can sell direct through Amazon and have Smashwords distribute to various other outlets without an ISBN. So why even bother putting an ISBN on your Kindle version when you upload to KDP? Amazon will assign you their own identification number. The point of an ISBN is to identify a title (or an edition of a title). Retailers then use the ISBN to track sales of that title or edition. Since Amazon and other retailers will assign their own identification numbers to your book for sales tracking purposes, I'd be curious why indie authors feel the need to bother with an ISBN for the eBook at all, outside of the retailers that require it.

You're required to have a different ISBN for each edition of a book. If you do a print edition, you'll need a different ISBN than your eBook edition. It's currently hotly debated whether each of the eBook formats constitutes a different edition, thereby requiring different ISBNs for each. Some say yes, others say no way, and it's even unclear based on what I've read from Bowker and here. Here, in the ISBN Users' Manual, is the closest thing I've found to the assertion that each format will require a different ISBN. But it also begs the question of whether an eBook is either "software" or an "online publication." Their section on non-printed books was written in 1996 and covers physical items like audio cassettes, CDs, computer tapes, and more, but (obviously) not eBook files. Behind the times much?

When you purchase an ISBN yourself, there's a dropdown menu to specify why type of book the number will be assigned to. Among the different format types, there is a "multiple formats" option—according to some people's personal experiences I've read, like this one—to select when specifying what the ISBN will be associated with. It would seem this option would be sufficient to use with all eBook formats. Of course, ISBNs are expensive, which is why many people have been asking about using the one given to them by Smashwords in other places. In the U.S., it's $125 for one ISBN, $250 for 10, $575 for 100, or $1000 for 1000 (obviously the best deal, but how many indie authors have $1000 to spend on ISBNs, and how many anticipate needing that many?) plus processing fees. If you're Canadian, you are super lucky. You can get yours for free.

When Smashwords purchases the ISBN for you, that ISBN is attached to the ePub version of your book ONLY. Why? Because that's the industry standard for everyone but Amazon, and that's the format that is distributed to Apple and Sony, the two retailers requiring and ISBN. So the ISBN record will only list ePub as the format, even if you use it when you upload to Amazon.

If you've purchased ISBNs for your eBook versions, let us know about your experience and your thoughts. 

J. Lea Lopez is a writer with a penchant for jello and a loathing for writing bios. Find her on Twitter or her blog, Jello World. She has had some short stories published, most recently in the Spring Fevers anthology, available as a free download.

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Jean Oram said...

*steps on soapbox*

Do it the right way!!!

As a librarian... YES you need a new ISBN for different formats. YES, YES, YES!!!!!!

You need a different ISBN for ebooks and paper copies. They ARE different. I can't stress this enough.

Librarians use ISBNs to order books. That's how the vendor knows which version/format of the book to send. If a librarian puts down an ISBN on their order form, sends it in, and there is both an ebook and a paperback with that ISBN and they get sent the rights to distribute an ebook when they really wanted the paperback... or worse yet... an audio book. Imagine the pissed off librarian. Not a pretty sight. We like our categories (and that includes formats) to be neat and tidy thank-you-very-much.

So, if you have a print version get yourself a new ISBN. That way when people order they will get the right format. It will make you look professional and if your book gets crazy popular you will not regret doing it right the first time.

For example, hardcovers and paperbacks have different ISBNS. Paperbacks that are different editions can have the same ISBN if they are the same in content (no changes), page numbers, etc. Sometimes the cover may even vary--but they are still the same book.

*steps off soapbox*

J. Lea Lopez said...

Preach it, girl! :-) I didn't even touch on different ISBNs for print and digital (or audio, etc.) editions. I certainly hope people realize they're needed, for the reasons you mentioned!

Jemi Fraser said...

I learn so much from you folks!!! :)

Darke Conteur said...

Yeah, I get mine for free (Canadian, thankyouverymuch), and I had to purchase a separate one when I did my print book, even though it was a compilation of my first two. After I registered with the site, and got confirmation of my account, it was a simple matter of filing out FOUR lines, and they assigned me a number. That's it!

I wish I'd known about purchasing my own from the start.

Gina Gao said...

You go girl. I really liked reading this post. And thanks for sharing your viewpoint on this issue.

C.M.Brown said...

Yes, I did know this and I have used different ISBN's for the different formats of my book. What I would like to question is as a Smashwords Published writer is - I thought that if you use Amazon's KDP for an eBook you are not to have it published for sale anywhere else, in that format? Is this correct?


J. Lea Lopez said...

Thank you Gina! :-)

Carolyn - KDP is Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon's self-publishing program as a whole. There is no exclusivity period unless you enroll in the Select program, which allows people to "borrow" your book. In that case, there is a 90-day period where you may not sell your ebook (in any digital format) anywhere else.

digireado said...

I'm only just learning how expensive ISBN's are in the US. In Australia it costs A$55 for new registrations (once only)with one ISBN for A$40 and 10 for A$80. It goes through Thorpe Bowker here. And yes, please always do a different ISBN for each ebook (and other) formats. I recommend that an author purchase their own so they are not tied to any retailer/aggregator. I've read that if you use supplied one they may be listed as publisher in some retail channels.

Josh Pritchard said...

If you're looking for cheap ISBN numbers and registration in the Bowker database - look no further. . You keep all the rights etc. and can use your ISBN number however you'd like.

Dianna Narciso said...

When you purchase a block of ISBNs from Bowker, they are assigned to you as the publisher.

So, if you purchase ISBNs from, who got them from Bowker, primedia elaunch, owner of the ISBNs, will be listed as the publisher of your book, not you.

bethm1687 said...

Why am I so confused?

I don't understand...if I received a free ISBN from Smashwords, do I need to purchase another ISBN for Amazone Kindle?

What if my own publishing company (Cat Fence-In Books) is publishing our new book Humantics via print? Does that get a new ISBN # too?

J. Lea Lopez said...

Bethm1687 - you don't NEED to purchase an ISBN for your Amazon Kindle edition. You can just use the ASIN assigned by Amazon. However, if you WANT your Kindle edition to have an ISBN as well, you will need to purchase a separate ISBN from the one provided to you by Smashwords.

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