If you’re a Canadian author, you’re one of the luckiest people in the world

Learn more about TimToday we discuss ISBNs. Have you self-published a book in Canada? Color me green with envy.

by Timothy Pike

One of the best parts of my job as a self-publishing assistant (besides working with writers who are over the moon about having just finished their novels) is telling clients that they’re about to save a lot of money as their books go to press.

Angel Maker by Barry B. Wright (Cover design by Bri Bruce)

Angel Maker by Barry B. Wright (Cover design by Bri Bruce)

This is why Canadian authors, like Barry B. Wright, author of Angel Maker, are among the luckiest people in the world.

I’ll get to why this is, but first, let me grumble for a minute.

As Americans, too much of our time and energy is spent thinking about ISBNs. The International Standard Book Number, really just a book’s ID number, is such a simple concept, yet lives rent-free, day in and day out, in our heads. (I’m assuming most people spend their mornings sipping coffee and pondering the finer points of ISBN’s. No? Just me? Okay then.)

ISBNs are easy to spot in the wild. If you were to take a book off your shelf right now and flip it over to the back cover, you’d see a hyphenated number above the barcode. That’s the book’s ISBN. But it’s not just some random number.

Those 13 digits (older ISBNs have fewer digits) identify not just the title, but also the publisher, edition, size of the book, and the format—whether e-book, paperback, or audiobook. The good news is that ISBNs are hardy souls; no matter the agency that issued them, they’re valid and recognized anywhere else in the world, forever. The bad news is … well, it’s not actually bad news, as you’ll see in a moment. To understand why, though, let’s start with some background about the largest bookseller in the world.

The 800-pound gorilla of the industry, Amazon, is widely regarded as the best place to self-publish a book. This is not just because of its massive platform of readers, but also because they are able to print copies of your book—one at a time—and ship them off to your customers without you having to lift a finger, a service called print-on-demand.

Amazon also offers you a free ISBN when you publish your book on their site. Seriously, they’re handing ’em out like Oprah over there (“You get an ISBN! You get an ISBN! Everybody gets an ISBN!”)

Well, not to spoil the party, but it looks like I’ll have to be the one who sits in the corner of the room and tells you that you’d be better off passing on the free ISBN, and instead purchasing one of your own.

This is because—I’m just going to say it—it makes your book look more professional. Your goal as a self-publisher, and certainly the goal of my publishing service, is to make your book look like it just came from a New York publishing house. And the free ISBN, unfortunately, doesn’t help with that—for a variety of reasons.

First, “Amazon” will appear on the record as the publisher of your book (yawn). Also, bookstores don’t like to stock books with Amazon-issued ISBNs (and that closes doors that you want to stay open). But there’s another reason to get your own ISBN, one that you might not know about—and it’s a lot more fun.

You get to create your own publishing house! It’s called an imprint, and that’s the name that will go on the back of your book and be tied to your ISBN, making you the publisher on record, not Amazon. The fun part, of course, is thinking of a name for your imprint (Barry went with “Wright Escape Publishing,” which I thought was perfect.)

So let’s say you’ve taken my advice and decided to get your own ISBN. If you’re an American author, you’ll soon be dealing with a company that traces its roots back to New York City in 1868—and a German immigrant who had a brilliant idea.

Frederick Leypoldt was a bookstore owner who had been in New York for over a decade when he decided the world could use a better system for keeping track of all the books that were being published. So he started the company that would become known as R. R. Bowker, which today is the exclusive provider of all ISBNs in the United States. (Leypoldt, apparently, was a busy man; he also founded Publishers Weekly.)

Upon visiting the Bowker website, American authors are faced with a choice: one ISBN for $125, or ten for $295. This is where strategy and planning come in: weighing your long-term needs against today’s budget.

Most authors are just publishing one book in the here and now, which might leave them tempted to go with the lower-cost option. After all, why spend $295 when you can spend $125? But let me tell you why this is almost never the way to go.

First off, I always recommend publishing your book in more than one format—paperback and Kindle to start with—in order to reach as many readers as possible. Each format requires its own ISBN, so this means you’ll need at least two right off the bat.

Do you plan to write and publish more books? If you pony up the extra dough now, you’ll have eight ISBNs left over that will at least feel like they’re free over the next several years as you continue to publish books. They’re yours to keep until the end of time. Didn’t I tell you ISBNs are hardy souls?

So grabbing the 10-pack for $295 is the best route to take. That’s the “bad news” that actually isn’t bad at all, because at $29.50 per ISBN, it’s significantly cheaper than buying just one, and you’re coming out way ahead. This is what I do for my clients when it’s time for ISBNs.

I should mention that even though the publishing packages I offer are a “done-for-you” service, I don’t just slink off into a cave and emerge 90 days later with your finished book. Most authors I work with love to have input into the process.

For example, they might have a particular vision for the cover, or wish to work closely with the copyeditor. I also like to be there to answer questions along the way, and communicate with authors about their options at each stage of the project. Every book is a lot of fun, and I take great pride in making it look phenomenal.

And with Barry, I had the added pleasure of informing him that he was very lucky indeed for being based in Canada. Why is that?

It’s because for Canadians, ISBNs are free. That’s right, as a Canadian, you can get your very own ISBN for $0 down and $0 a month. The government takes care of issuing and keeping track of ISBNs for all Canada-based publishers, and gives you an online account to manage your book titles and request new ISBNs when needed.

Go Canada!

By the way, you should really check out Angel Maker and pick up a copy. It’s a World War II–era spy thriller with a healthy dose of historical fiction, and characters that feel so … real. Barry’s also got a Fan Club at ChapterBuzz that he’d love for you to join if you wish to throw your support behind one of our most talented authors. You’ll also meet many more.

At the very least, be sure to give him a follow so you can stay up-to-date on his new material!

How about you? If you’ve self-published, what was your experience with ISBNs? Let us know in the comments!

I’m Timothy Pike, founder of ChapterBuzz, and self-publishing coach specializing in helping you publish a beautiful book to the virtual shelves of Amazon—and even the real shelves of your local bookstore.


Wikipedia: R. R. Bowker
Wikipedia: Frederick Leypoldt
Wikipedia: Publishers Weekly

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