The Weight Behind ISBNs that Authors Should Know

An author called the other day to discuss a book project. She had done her homework and had a lot of great questions to ask. One question in particular was, “If I publish with Radius Book Group, who owns the ISBN?”

“Before I answer that question,” I replied, “help me understand why you want to know.”

“Well,” she explained, “I heard that if I self-publish my book, but don’t own the ISBN, then I might not be able to sell the book, if I move from one distributor to another.”

“So your question about ISBN relates to a concern about distribution?” I asked.

“Yes. That and wanting to have control over my own book,” she elaborated.

I concurred, “We too prioritize authors controlling their own books and maximizing distribution. Our authors always retain copyright to their book.”

With that context in mind, I went on to explain that ISBNs are a means for the publishing industry to discreetly identify and track individual products in the distribution system. The key isn’t the ISBN or who purchases it, but how the ISBN greases the wheels of the distribution system. The connection booksellers make between that number and the publisher impacts sales. Booksellers are more likely to carry a book with an ISBN associated with a reputable publisher than one without that connection. Like the colophon printed on the spine of the book, the ISBN carries weight when connected to a publisher with a good reputation. An author can purchase and use her own ISBN, but that may hinder sales, compared to using the ISBN of a reputable publisher.

In the end, I said, “If you want to purchase and use your own ISBN, you can, but then Radius cannot help distribute your book. If you want access to the worldwide distribution of our partner—Ingram Distribution Services—and to benefit from the market recognition of Radius Book Group, then we will use our ISBNs with your book.”

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