Often around the time that authors are exploring CreateSpace, they’re stopped dead in their tracks by the requirement that they choose an ISBN. CreateSpace offers three options, ranging from free to $125, and each option comes with different advantages. Which should you choose? Before we get into that, let’s start with the basics:

What IS an ISBN?

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a 13-digit number (10 digits before 2007) assigned by standard book numbering agencies as a means for publishers, libraries, distributors and retailers to track titles and editions. Although ISBNs serve the same purpose throughout the world, the means by which they’re distributed vary from country to country, as do the costs.

If you’re in the United States, “universal” ISBNs, those that can be used regardless of how you sell your book, are distributed by the Bowker Agency. At time of writing, ISBN costs through Bowker are: $125 for one $295 for ten $575 for one hundred Obviously, if you will be publishing multiple books, the block of 100 is a steal, but it’s a substantial upfront investment. Don’t be tempted to buy them thinking that you can sell the extras to friends. When you buy them, they will be registered to your name or company and cannot be transferred.

Be warned that while you’re on the Bowker site, you’ll be offered upsells and cross sells of services and products such as barcodes, cover design, and copyright registration. In most cases, these are either unnecessary (CreateSpace, for example, automatically puts barcodes on your paperbacks at no charge) or more expensive than they would be if you did them yourself (copyright registration in the US costs $35 if you do it yourself; $79.95 if you go through Bowker).

More to the point, Bowker desperately wants you to believe that you need at least 5 different ISBNs for a single book, one each for your hardback, softcover, .epub, .mobi, and .pdf. This is very unlikely to be the case. You probably need one at most—and quite possibly you can get away without buying any.

An ISBN is required for

• Every unique format (paperback, hardcover, audiobook) edition of a book that is sold through a retailer such as Amazon or a distributor such as Ingram;
• Every subsequent edition of a hardcopy book. An edition is considered “new” if it is either a different format (different size or binding type) or has substantial changes or new material.

An ISBN might be required for

• Ebooks, depending on the distributor. Most distributors, including Amazon, do NOT require ISBNs for ebooks. Smashwords requires ISBNs if you use their service to sell on some platforms, but they offer you a free “custom” ISBN if you don’t want to pay for one of your own.

An ISBN is not required for

• Independently retailed ebooks (those you are selling from your own website/Gumroad/eJunkie, etc.);
• Updated versions of books that do not include major changes to the content. For example, spelling corrections or a new cover do not create a new edition of your book. If you buy ISBNs through Bowker, you’ll need to go back to your Bowker account every time you use one and formally assign the title to the number.

Back to CreateSpace

CreateSpace gives you four three ISBN options: Free; Custom; Custom Universal; Provide Your Own. Let’s have a quick look at each: [Edited 8/16: the Custom ISBN from CreateSpace is no longer an option.]

Free: CreateSpace will assign you a “custom” ISBN but CreateSpace, not you or your company name, will be listed as the publisher on your Amazon listing. You will not be able to use this ISBN if you distribute anywhere outside of CreateSpace/Amazon. This is also the only option that will give you access to CreateSpace’s Library Distribution channel.

Custom, $10: You can list your name/your company as the publisher, but again, you can use this number only only if you are distributing through CreateSpace. You cannot use the same ISBN if you want to put your book into wider distribution. 

Custom Universal, $99: This is a Bowker ISBN at a $26 discount. You/your company will be listed as publisher and you can use it even if you distribute your book outside of CreateSpace. This is a good deal if you need only one ISBN and plan to sell your book on other platforms. Provide your own: If you’ve already bought an ISBN through Bowker, you can use it on CreateSpace by choosing this option.

I hope that will clear up some of the confusion around ISBNs. If you are outside of the United States, you can do a Google search for “[your country] ISBN” or look into the following:

• Australia: Thorpe-Bowker
• India: Government of India
• UK & Ireland: Nielsen Book ISBN Agency
• Canada: Government of Canada