A five-part series of NOT legal advice by somebody who is confused
Hi and welcome back to my blog. If it’s your first time here, I hope you enjoy the post and consider visiting every week.
As you can read above, I’m embarking on a series of posts regarding the legal problems, tasks, and tribulations all writers and, particularly, authors, face.
The very first thing I must point out is a disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. What follows are comments on what I have found scouring the internet, talking to published friends, and some insights from a couple of Q&A sessions I’ve had with actual legal professionals.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dig into ISBNs.
The first question most of us have is what does ISBN stands for. ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number.
ISBNs were 10 digits in length up to December 2006. However since January first, 2007 they are now always 13 digits. ISBNs are calculated using a specific mathematical formula and include a check digit to validate the number.
Each ISBN has five elements, each of which is separated by spaces or hyphens. Three of the five elements may be of varying length.
The elements are:
Prefix element: currently this can only be either 978 or 979. It is always 3 digits in length.
Registration group element: this identifies the particular country, geographical region, or language area participating in the ISBN system. This element may be between 1 and 5 digits in length
Registrant element: this identifies the particular publisher or imprint. This may be up to 7 digits in length.
Publication element: this identifies the particular edition and format of a specific title. This may be up to 6 digits in length.
Check digit: this is always the final single digit that mathematically validates the rest of the number. It is calculated using a Modulus 10 system with alternate weights of 1 and 3. The Modulus 10 or MOD 10 algorithm is also known as the LUHN algorithm. This algorithm is a simple checksum formula used to validate a variety of identification numbers. There are several applications, going from checking such things as credit card numbers, IMEI numbers, Canadian Social Insurance Numbers, and others. The LUHN formula was created in the late 1960s by a group of mathematicians.
What is an ISBN used for and why do we, as authors, need one for our books?
Well, let me start by saying we need more than one for each book. That came as a surprise to me, and it may surprise you too, but I’m just telling you my experience with the whole thing, so: Surprise! You need more than one ISBN for your book if you are going to publish it in more than one presentation (i.e. if you are going digital, paperback, hardback, and/or audiobook any and all of these, each, will require one ISBN).
The ISBN is essential as a product identifier. It is used by publishers, booksellers, libraries, internet retailers, and other supply chain participants for ordering, listing, sales records, and stock control purposes. The ISBN identifies the registrant as well as the specific title, edition, and format. Yes, you read that right, each edition requires an ISBN.
What does an ISBN identify?
ISBNs are assigned to text-based monographic publications. Therefore journals, newspapers, or other types of serials will not need to be identified by one.
Any book made publicly available can be identified by ISBN. As you know, many authors start by publishing one or more books that are “free”, that is to say, for example, they are free of charge on the Kindle book store, on Wattpad, or Smashwords. Here we are not talking about “FREE on Kindle Unlimited”, because that is a subscription service and, thus, the book is not free, it is available for rental as it were, but it is most definitely not free and reading it results in income for the author, always a good thing.
Naturally, this “free offer” applies to digital books for the most part. On digital books, your cash outlay is minimal, and you are using that particular book as a loss leader to attract readers to your brand. Offering a printed book for free is a large investment, it happens, but most authors starting out don’t have that kind of money. Publishers usually don’t offer free books, unless there is a very, very, VERY good marketing reason for it. Of course, we are not talking here about ARC or courtesy gifts, we are talking about the whole edition of a book title being given away for free.
All of these free books, however, can and should be identified with an ISBN. Kindel, KOBO, Smashwords, or any of the other digital outlets will require an ISBN to be able to correctly identify the book. They may even supply one for free. They use it to identify and keep track of the book. Obviously, when we are selling the book, the ISBN becomes an invaluable tool for inventory, sales history, and statistical control and tracking.
Now, in some instances, the author or authors may want an ISBN for individual sections (such as chapters) of books, or special and specific issues or articles from journals, periodicals, or serials that are made available to the public independently of the whole magazine or anthology. If there is a need for tracking and following up on text-based work, the way to go is to get an ISBN for it. This is particularly true if you are planning on commercializing it.
So, once you have your finished book, that is to say, it is completely done, from Title and Author page, Copyright page (which normally includes the ISBN), Dedication page, Backlist page, to Index and Maps or Illustrations page(s), then you can get the ISBN for it. It doesn’t matter if your format of choice is EPUB, printed paperback, printed hardback, .pdf, audiobook, or any other form of publishing, each of these should get an individual and independent ISBN. Again, if you are publishing independently through one of the “big ones”, they’ll supply your book with any needed ISBN. If you are going through the traditional publishing route rather than indie, your publisher may supply the ISBNs. But. You need an ISBN for each presentation of your book.
But wait, you say, I’m writing an illustrated children’s book, a haiku collection, a photography compendium, a… etc, etc, etc. If you have doubts, please check the following link and it will let you know what is eligible for an ISBN: https://www.isbn-international.org/content/scope-and-assignment-isbn
Does ISBN protect my writing?
An ISBN is an identifier. It does not claim the person submitting the work is the legitimate original author or makes any claim or comment regarding the authenticity or originality of the origin of the work. It does not convey any form of legal or copyright protection. It is a useful tool for the distributors of text-based material but does little if anything to help you protect your intellectual property. That is not its function. It is an identifier and an aid for bookkeeping, statistical analysis, and inventory control. In some countries, however, the use of ISBN to identify publications is a legal requirement.
We will go into copyright in another post.
Who should apply for ISBN?
The publisher of the book should apply for the ISBN.
As far as the ISBN is concerned, the publisher is the group, organization, company, or individual who is responsible for initiating the production of a publication.
The person or organization bearing the cost and financial risk in commercializing the product is the publisher. So, for a traditionally published book, the publisher will obtain the ISBN, for independently published authors, they have to get the number.
The printer is simply the entity that physically puts ink to paper, but it is not the publisher, and therefore, they do not usually supply or have ISBNs available.
In several countries, there is detailed legislation regarding publishing so contact your national ISBN agency in advance for advice. If your route is indie publishing, check the ISBN requirements and availability well ahead of your intended or planned publishing date.
In the US, you can purchase ISBNs as an independent author at several places such as:
There are many other options, and a quick internet search will give you many results. Always check with people that have done it before and make sure you are getting what you want from a reputable source. It is better by far to spend a little more time and money than to find that you have been given a bogus or even worse, a previously used ISBN.
So, that’s what I found out about ISBN’s. Since I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, you should do your due diligence when planning your book launch and publication.
What do you think about ISBNs? Did you find out anything new? Do you have any further questions? Please, let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading and have a great day.