Self-Publishing #5 — Distribution and ISBNs


Last Updated: January 2019

Distribution Paths

How a self-publisher distributes their book will boil down to one or a mix of four options as outlined by Jami Gold in her two-part series on Fiction University: here’s part one and part two.

As Jami notes, taking that last option means not selling your book anywhere else. I won’t go into detail about the pros and cons of each distribution option—I can’t say it any simpler than Jami does—but here are some of the questions you should ask yourself:

  1. How big is your budget? Expenses can include editing, formatting, cover art, file conversion, advertising, fulfillment services, and various other fees for everything from business licenses to ISBNs to webhosting.

  2. How much time are you willing to spend on the business side of your writing career?

  3. How much of the logistics of selling are you willing to handle? This includes handling tax paperwork, and managing fulfillment, refunds, and updates.

  4. How wide or narrow of a market do you want to sell to? Are you willing to let go of certain markets that only deal with large distributors or retailers?

  5. How much effort are you willing to put into managing and customizing your book’s back matter, metadata, and any updates or changes to price or content across multiple author/seller/publisher accounts?

  6. How much of a delay are you willing to accept while content changes or price updates propagate to your book’s product page?

  7. How important to you are retailer-specific marketing pushes or promotion tools?

  8. How many differing formats of sales data are you willing to work with?

  9. How much in fees are you willing to give up with each book sale as either a flat amount or a percentage of your book’s price? This would include fees taken by retailers, distributors, fulfillment services, etc.

  10. How comfortable are you with relying on one income source (this would be the exclusive option with KDP Select) that might carry the risk of reduced or no royalties should your rankings fall, should your book’s price be set incorrectly, or should your account become frozen for one reason or another?

  11. How important is it to you that your book be available through certain channels, regardless of how few sales those channels produce?

  12. How important is it to your business plan to offer one or more “permafree” books?

See also: "10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to Any E-Publishing Service" by Jane Friedman

Like everything else in this Self-Publishing series, the distribution plan you choose is up to you. For Eidolon, I chose to sell through Amazon KDP, Smashwords (which pushed to iBooks, Kobo, and Nook), and CreateSpace for my print edition. Some channels weren’t worth the time and marketing budget I allotted for them. Maybe they will be in the future. Additionally, maximizing my book’s visibility in some channels didn’t happen due to a glaring ambiguity in the publisher's tools. In the meantime, I’m trying a different distribution path for my latest release, The Fisherman’s Widow.


Formerly, one of the only ways to offer a Print-On-Demand paperback of your book on Amazon was to publish on Amazon-owned CreateSpace, which would push the paperback offering to Amazon's main site.

However, Amazon KDP began allowing self-publishers to set up and publish a Print-On-Demand paperback through KDP itself rather than a separate site like CreateSpace. For a time, this service didn't offer "proof copies, author (wholesale) copies, and expanded distribution to bookstores and non-Amazon websites," but as of February 2018, Amazon KDP now offers proof copies and author copies to its self-publishers.

Already have a CreateSpace book? Amazon has you covered.

Additional Resources:

Keeping Up with Best Practices in the Industry

One of the few things indie authors currently seem to agree on is that building a market outside of Amazon can be slow and difficult. Then again, it’s not hard to find someone saying their sales through iTunes or Smashwords are stupendous, or blog posts decrying the latest change to Amazon’s algorithm or sales ranking formula, or conflicting proclamations on whether a certain distribution path is “dying.” Researching the current publishing environment can be tricky when you have to weigh the relevancy of a four-year-old article about a certain publishing path or marketing tactic, and nothing more recent or more reliable can easily be found.

The best most of us can do is try to keep up with the latest industry news, tips, and tricks. How you prefer to do that is up to you, but I use an RSS aggregator like Newsblur to collect the RSS feeds of multiple blogs and news sources. Here is a non-exhaustive but good-quality list of sources for you to consider:

What’s an ISBN and Why Does It Exist?

An ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is basically a product identifier, and it’s used by retailers, publishers, libraries, and more to identify “monographic” texts available to the public. (Periodicals, journals, etc. are assigned a different type of identifier.) Pre-Internet, finding a particular book was difficult, especially if you didn’t know the author, the publisher, or even the exact title. Worse, the book you wanted might share its title with one or more other books, and the edition you want might not be the current edition, and on and on. ISBNs were meant to standardize that process.

Pre-2007, ISBNs were 10 digits long, but currently they’re 13 digits. To understand the parts of an ISBN, read “Self Publishing Basics: How to Read an ISBN” by Joel Friedlander via The Book Designer.

ISBN and Copyright

Let’s get something straight before we go any further. An ISBN is merely an identifier. Getting an ISBN for your book (or getting a free one from a retailer or distributor) does not confer copyright ownership, or any kind of copyright protection. According to the International ISBN Agency, “in some countries the use of ISBN to identify publications has been made into a legal requirement,” but in the US, ISBN registration merely points to the publisher of the book, not the copyright owner of the book the ISBN identifies. Copyright and publishing rights are two different things.

How Do I Get an ISBN?

In the US, ISBNs are sold by Bowker. In the UK and Ireland, they’re sold by Nielsen. In Australia, they’re sold by Thorpe-Bowker. In Canada, you can get them for free from CISS. (So jealous!) For other countries, you can look up the right agency on this website.

Does an eBook Get Just One ISBN?

Unfortunately, no. But don’t think eBooks are getting shafted. Print-book ISBNs can also add up. A trade paperback in English, an English-language audiobook on CD, and a hardback in Spanish would each require their own ISBN. If you update that English-language trade paperback with new content, that second edition would need a fresh ISBN. (Note: merely fixing a few typos does not require a new ISBN.)

Every “product form” of a book needs to be differentiated, and this includes different eBook formats. If you’re selling your book as an EPUB, a PDF, and through Kindle, you’ll need to assign three ISBNs to each product form. Moreover, if the DRM software on an EPUB file distributed through one channel is different enough from the DRM on an EPUB file distributed through another channel (e.g. one allows printing and the other doesn’t), those require two separate ISBNs.

Because the questions about what gets an ISBN and when rapidly spirals out from here, refer to these articles and/or your country's ISBN agency for more information:

Why Are ISBNs So Expensive?

In some countries, ISBNs are cheap or even free. I envy those countries. In the US, however, one ISBN costs $125, ten costs $250, and a hundred costs $575. (The next jump up in ISBN packages is 1000 for $1500—it used to be $1000, but there you have it.) When self-publishers are forced to allocate an ISBN for each eBook format and each print edition, publishing just one title can require a lot of ISBNs. If you’re on a small budget, that’s a big, upfront cost. And isn’t it just a number? How is that worth such a large expenditure?

Good question.

In 2010, Joel Friedlander at The Book Designer conducted an email interview with Andy Weissburg of Bowker, who I feel dodged the question of price (it used to be done for a nominal fee and hey, Canadians get free ones). Instead of justifying the price, Weissburg explained how buying an ISBN is more than just receiving a number. As a self-publisher, you get access to online tools that let you manage all the metadata for each format/edition assigned a number. You also get to be part of a large database used by booksellers, retailers, libraries, search engines, and even social networks.

Are those benefits worth $5.75 or $25 per edition? Of course, Bowker thinks so, but some self-publishers have complained about the reliability and usability of those online tools. Others have complained that the high price, especially in the US, is a barrier for many indie authors and therefore has created an invisible marketplace where non-ISBN indie sales are not tracked properly. Market trends and sales data are thus less accurate.

Should I Buy ISBNs?

Now we’ve come to the real question. Of course, if your country’s ISBNs are cheap or free, you should definitely go for them. For everyone else, especially authors in the US? Well, do you think a few hundred dollars to self-publish your books with proper ISBNs is worth the benefits that Bowker touts? Or conversely, do the downsides of being in that invisible market outweigh the cost of ISBNs?

Personally, I wasn’t sure—still am not sure. There’s no way to know in terms of hard numbers what you’re losing (or not losing) when you, specifically you, opt out of buying ISBNs. On the fuzzy feelings side, some publishing experts suggest or outright state that not buying ISBNs means you’re not legit. I decided with Eidolon that I’d forego ISBNs due to a tiny budget, but in the future, I may buy have to bite the bullet on that $575.

All I can do to help you make this decision is to offer up the varied opinions of others. Most indie authors agree that you don’t need to buy ISBNs if:

  • You plan to publish only one or a handful of books;

  • Writing is more of a hobby for you than a career, or;

  • You have a very tight budget.

You should also know that some indie authors who didn’t use ISBNs later said they would considering buying them (for example, to gain access to certain distribution channels) despite the success they had even without ISBNs.

Joel Friedlander offers up two reasons to buy ISBNs:

  • You can form a small publishing company and list it as the publisher, even if it only publishes your books. For some authors, veiling the self-published status is important. Otherwise, free/cheap ISBNs offered by “author services companies” or retailers like Smashwords and Amazon will list themselves as the publisher.

  • You can edit your book’s metadata yourself, meaning you have control over the keywords that play a huge part of your visibility in search engines.

What Are the Alternatives to ISBNs?

Many online retailers will offer you a free ISBN for the edition you sell through them, such as Smashwords and CreateSpace, or they’ll sell your book without an ISBN by providing an alternate identifier, such as Amazon’s ASIN. These retailers accept regular ISBNs, but do not require one in order to sell through them.

Additional Resources/Opinions:

A warning: be careful if you research this topic further. In writing this post, I found several sources that proliferated incorrect information about ISBNs.