Better Investments for Authors than ISBNs

If you want to buy ISBNs in the US, Bowker (the only purveyor of said, but we won’t even start with the monopoly in effect) charges the following:

  • $125 for 1 ISBN
  • $295 for 10 ISBNs
  • $575 for 100 ISBNs
  • $1500 for 1000 ISBNs

Obviously this rewards buying in bulk, and my guess is for a corporate publisher like Random House or HarperCollins, they probably have even better deals in place, purchasing tens of thousands at a time.

But you’re not a corporation. You’re an author, with one book you want to sell. You’re looking at that single ISBN, which would be fine except as far as I know you can’t fully personalize that option enough to list yourself as publisher if that’s the one you chose. Also, as you read more, you’ll learn more about Bowker’s proposed best practices for ISBN usage, like that each version of your book should have its own (which to me renders the whole “My book has one unique 13-digit identifier” argument moot, but like I said, none of the arguments have made sense or convinced me thus far). So you need one for the print version, and even though you don’t need any for digital versions, Bowker says you need not only another but another for each version. So you’ll need one for the Amazon (.mobi) version, and another for the version for other stores (.epub, most likely). But I mean  why stop there? You might at some point need a .pdf, and who knows, maybe someone will want as plain .txt for some reason, and hey you wrote the thing in a .doc, and don’t forget the semaphore  and smoke signal versions!

Even for one book, the proposal is to invest that $300, because out of the gate you’ll need three (print, .mobi, .epub), and you’ll probably write more books, or . . .

But you’re looking at this as an investment, which is because, I propose, you’re looking at writing as a potential career. You want to write lots more books, and that $575 option is looking like the best bang for your buck.

Here are better ways to spend that money.

A 4k Monitor

A lot is made about how good videos and games look on 4K monitors, but you know what it really makes a difference for? Text. Simple black letters on a white screen. I’ve found it reduces eye strain, and you can get some awesome, large monitors for a fairly good price on Amazon.

A Mac

MacOS is great software. Pages is a terrific program that lets you save a document on your desktop and access those latest changes via your iPhone or iPad without actually taking any other steps. It’s like magic! But that’s not all; you can get to the iBookstore through a distributor (like Draft2Digital or Smashwords), but if you want to go direct, you’ll need iTunes Producer, which Apple unfortunately makes only for the Mac. Also, I think some distributors require you have an ISBN for very, very niche venues. You can get an entry-level Mac mini for $500, or you can check Apple’s online refurbished section. I just got a great mini with better than entry-level specs for a barely-more-than-entry-level price.


Vellum is a Mac-only ebook formatting program that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. It’s wonderfully visual and lets you accomplish complex graphics and layout options with simplicity. What’s more: it’s free to use, and the only charge comes when you actually generate your ebook, at which point it’s $10 per ebook (and I believe that’s all formats), or you can just buy a license that lets you generate unlimited ebooks for $200.

Setting up an LLC

I noted some people think that an ISBN somehow confers professionalism or legitimacy. I say find a small-business lawyer, set up a consultation, talk to them for an hour about what you’re doing and how you want to do it, get their counsel, and with them set yourself up as the small business you are. Because all indie authors are at the very least small presses whose lists happen to be books by a single author (and who knows, maybe one day you’ll want to work with other authors). Prices will vary by lawyer fees, but when I founded Exciting Press, I worked with a lawyer who advised me about business structures, helped me file, and worked with me on a relatively standard, easy-to-read agreement I could use going forward, and the full price for all that was less than Bowker wants for 1000 ISBNs.

A Good Editor/Cover

I’ve seen some bad covers. I’ve seen places that offer pre-made covers for, like, $150. I think if you want a professional-quality cover you need to work with a professional designer, which I’d wager would start around $300. Editing? A professional content edit (both typos and story structure) would probably go as high as $1500 or $2000, but I think if you shop around, you could probably manage both for that $1500 you wanted to give Bowker, and believe me it’s better spent going back to the creative community and when your book stands out, it won’t be because of a  13-digit number.

That should give you a good start.

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