No, You Still Don’t Need an ISBN for Digital

Almost four years ago now, I wrote on my own site about ISBNs: “Why You Don’t Need an ISBN (and What You Should Invest in Instead)”

That post still gets a lot of traffic, and I see a lot of people on Twitter and Facebook still sharing it. Some ask me whether it’s still the case.

A week or so ago, the ever-anonymous Data Guy, who collaborates with Hugh Howey on Author Earnings, released a new report. February 2017 Big, Bad, Wide & International Report: covering Amazon, Apple, B&N, and Kobo ebook sales in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

It was interesting to dive into. It covered the big four digital retailers in what I think is the big five English-language markets.

Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. Kindle, iBookstore, nook, and, well, Kobo, respectively. Data Guy sums it up thusly:

So this time, we rolled up our sleeves and basically went for the whole enchilada:

  • The top five English-language countries
  • The fifteen largest ebook stores
  • 750,000 top-selling ebook titles, in all genres and categories.
  • All of it calibrated against 700,000 points of raw, unfiltered daily sales data, from over 20,000 distinct ebook titles across all 15 stores.

When we were done, we were looking at the most comprehensive international picture of English-language ebook sales available anywhere. And now, we’re excited to share it with authors everywhere around the world.

That seems a pretty big swath of the digital market.

There are a couple of things that those digital retailers all have in common. They’re all part of big corporations: Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Rakuten. Together they possess, what, like a hundred years of bookselling experience? Barnes & Noble has been in business since around the seventies, I think. Amazon started in the late 90s. Apple and Kobo entered much later; Apple with the iBookstore at the launch of the iPad, and Kobo in 2009 in within Canada’s Indigo ecosystem.

Know what else they all have in common?

None require an ISBN for you to list your ebook for sale in their respective marketplaces. In fact, Apple is really the only one that requires any sort of specialized or proprietary anything, and that’s because in order to upload a book directly to the iBookstore, you have to use Apple’s iTunes Producer software, which is Mac only.

Should you get one anyway?

I mean, that’s a decision for you to make, but I still haven’t seen a compelling reason. Usually, the arguments for ISBNs fall into four categories:


Because what if Amazon goes out of business!? This argument basically posits that associating a unique identifying number with a particular version of a book has a positive benefit for the life of that version. And I mean, I guess. But to me it feels a pretty flimsy case for an at-least-$250 investment. I don’t know your financial situation, but me, if I’m spending north of $250 on something, I like for that something to be more of a need than a want.


Because access to some niche not covered among those mentioned in that block quote up above is apparently exceedingly important. But hey, maybe people want to list their books as “#1 Books-a-Dozen Bestseller.”


The argument here seems to be that no matter where your book is, a reader would be able to look it up by this convenient 13-digit number, as if any reader ever has looked up a book by its ISBN. “Excuse me, my bookclub is reading 573-689078540542789480-2589026. Do you have that in stock, or can you order it for me?”

The Appearance of Professionalism

I’ve read authors argue that having an ISBN makes them seem more “legitimate.” Because it’s what “traditional” publishers use. I say if you’re relying on a random 13-digit number for the appearance of either professionalism or legitimacy you’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Now, provided, all this would be moot elsewhere. In the US, ISBNs are divvied about by Bowker, who uses a bulk pricing system. Want one? Last I looked, one is $100 and has limitations like you can’t list yourself as publisher (and there went that whole professionalism/legitimacy thing), which means you’re automatically looking at the next tier, which is $250 for 10. So $25 per. Up to $1000 for 1000.

Me, I go back to necessity and intention.

Do you want your book in bookstores?

If so, you shouldn’t be trying indie anyway. If you want your book in print and on retailers shelves, get to querying. I wish you luck.

Do you want a high quality ebook for sale on all major digital platforms?

In that case, you don’t need one. If you want one anyway, that’s one thing. But you shouldn’t think you need one.

So I stand by the thoughts in that original post. You don’t need an ISBN for your ebooks, and you’d arguably do better investing the money you’d spend on one in something else instead. More on that next post.



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