Laura Howard: All About ISBNs For Self-Publishing


All About ISBNs For Self-Publishing

Ripley Patton is the award-winning author of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.

Today she's bringing us a clear, concise comparison between getting your own ISBN and using one from a third-party.

Inevitably, when self-publishing, the need for ISBNs comes up and it seems pretty obvious to most financially-stretched independent authors that getting them free through a third party like CreateSpace or Smashwords is a no-brainer. 

But is it?

The truth is a bit more complex than that. There are pros and cons for third party ISBNs and Bowker ISBNs, and I’ve endeavored to outline them here:


Third Party ISBN: Usually cheap or free. PRO

Bowker ISBN: 1 for $150, 10 for $250, but the more you buy, the cheaper they are. CON


Third Party ISBN: Not actually yours. It is owned by that third party, which is just allowing you to use it. They are listed as the publisher of record with Bowker and in the Books in Print database. CON

Bowker ISBN: Belongs to you. You are listed as the publisher of record with Bowker and the Books in Print database. PRO


Third Party ISBN: Generally gives you access to all the third party’s lines of distribution. For example, CreateSpace will list you with the Books in Print database (used by libraries and book stores to purchase books), but only if you use their ISBN and pay an extra fee for extended distribution. PRO

Bowker ISBN: May limit your use of lines of distribution through a third party or require you to lodge your books with each distributor yourself. For example, you can lodge your book free with Books in Print yourself, but there are online forms to fill out, etc. CON  


Third Party ISBN: When a third party lodges your book with Books in Print or other distributors, they generally only enter minimal information about your book and list only the format you’ve produced through them. They probably won’t enter an author bio, a blurb, or any other info that might sell your book to purchasers, and they won’t link it to other formats that are for sale through other venues. CON

Bowker ISBN: Entering your book into distribution channels yourself allows you to make sure your book is promoted for purchase in the best possible way for each channel. Plus, you can link all formats of your book for each channel. And listing is usually free. PRO


Third Party ISBN: You cannot use a third party ISBN outside of the venue of the third party who gave it to you. For example, you couldn’t use your CreateSpace ISBN to publish with Lightingsource, or any other third party, even if you are publishing the exact same book in the exact same format. This is because the third party owns the ISBN, not you. CON

Bowker ISBN: Once you assign your Bowker ISBN to its designated format (paperback, e-book, PDF) you can use it to publish that format in any venue or distribution channel. PRO


Third Party ISBN: Will often require that you brand your book with their logo or name if using their ISBN. Many book stores and libraries are less likely to carry a book branded with a self-publishing logo. CON

Bowker ISBN: With a Bowker ISBN you can brand the book with your imprint or yourself as the publisher, thus making the book look more professional and promoting yourself rather than the third party. PRO

So which is better overall? I think it depends on your publishing needs. If you plan to publish only one format with one third party, buying an ISBN from them makes a lot of sense. However, if you plan to publish in many formats through many lines of distribution, it is definitely worth it to pay extra and buy from Bowker.

Okay, I'm super excited to share the promotion that's going on today. It's called Books for a Buck. Thirty five amazing authors selling their books for 99 cents. I've been looking forward to this, and you definitely need to check it out!


  1. Laura,
    Thanks for the chance to guest post, and also for steering people to the Blog Hop. So many great books for 99 cents.

  2. Awesome post, SB!! As per the yoosh :)

  3. Excellent breakdown of ISBNs. I just purchased 10 from Bowker and am now pursuing the LOC route. But this is the best explanation and comparison of third-party to Bowker I've ever seen. Good job.

    Hope Clark

  4. Hi Laura, I am visiting from Hart's blog. I have been reading several of your posts and really like what you have to say. Congratulations on your new book, I am very interested in reading it. I am also your newest follower.

    Kathy M.

  5. Quick question: I see what you're saying that you can use a Bowker ISBN on a book in any format, but just to clarify, do you need a different ISBN for each format of the same book you publish? I've heard the BIP/booksellers' databases will get messed up without that.


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