ISBNs – the Unexpected Expense

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Game Publishing Lessons Learned


I recently rounded out the Game Publishing Lessons Learned series with an article about Post-Kickstarter Fulfillment. Though that brought an end to the topics raised over at RPGGeek, it wasn’t the whole story about what I learned during my first foray into game publishing.

When the layout process was nearing completion for Psi-punk, I got an e-mail from Ruben (the layout artist) asking me for the ISBNs I would be using for the book. At the time I had a general understanding of what an ISBN was (it’s a 10 or 13-digit number that uniquely identifies your book) but I didn’t know the significance of having one. More importantly, I didn’t know that it could potentially be a huge added expense. I found myself scrambling to educate myself about ISBNs and find an inexpensive solution to be able to provide them to my layout guy.

What the Heck is an ISBN?

So what exactly is an ISBN, and why is it potentially a huge expense? Here’s the official answer:

About ISBNs

What is an ISBN?

“ISBN” stands for “International Standard Book Number”.

The ISBN identifies a book or other book-like product (such as an audiobook) in a specific format and edition, but also the publisher. If an ISBN is obtained from a company other than the official ISBN Agency, or one of its channel partners, that ISBN might not identify the publisher of the title accurately. This can have implications for doing business in the publishing industry supply chain.

What is the purpose of an ISBN?

The purpose of the ISBN is to establish and identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition, allowing for more efficient marketing of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributor.

Are there other resources for ISBNs?

If you are located in the United States, or a territory of the USA (Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, etc.), Bowker is the official registration agency of the ISBN.

For more information about the ISBN standard, visit the International ISBN Agency’s FAQ gives us more useful information:

An ISBN is essentially a product identifier used by publishers, booksellers, libraries and internet retailers and other supply chain participants for ordering, listing, sales records and stock control purposes. The ISBN identifies the registrant as well as the specific title, edition and format.

Okay, so the ISBN identifies a specific publisher, book and edition. What does that mean?

When you register an ISBN, you submit information to an international database that maintains detailed information about every registered book. Not just every book though, every edition of every book.

Let’s say you’re publishing an RPG in three formats: Hardcover, Softcover, and PDF. Each of these books is considered a separate edition. Each edition requires its own unique ISBN. If you would like to publish as ePub and Mobi, those each require their own ISBN also. A single book could easily require 5 ISBNs, or even more if you publish in other accessible formats, such as DAISY, large print, Braille, or audiobook.

This is all to help maintain a detailed database of books. A retailer or librarian can look up an ISBN and know exactly which version of which book is found. It’s helpful.

Unfortunately, it’s also costly.

What is the Cost of an ISBN?

Each country has a single licensed registrar, and each registrar is allowed to set the price they choose to charge for ISBNs. You’ll have to consult your country’s own registrar for specifics, but here are a few common ones (thanks, Wikipedia):

Australia: In Australia ISBNs are issued by the commercial library services agency Thorpe-Bowker, and prices range from $42 for a single ISBN (plus a $55 registration fee for new publishers) through to $2,890 for a block of 1,000 ISBNs.[13]

Canada: In Canada Library and Archives Canada, a government agency, is the responsible entity, and there is no cost. Works in French are issued an ISBN by the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

United Kingdom and Ireland: In the United Kingdom and Ireland the privately held company, Nielsen Book Services, part of Nielsen Holdings N.V., is the responsible entity, and there is a charge. ISBNs are sold in lots of ten or more.

United States: In the United States the privately held company RR Bowker is the responsible entity, and there is a charge, which varies depending upon the number of ISBNs purchased, with prices ranging from $125.00 for a single number.[15]

So if you’re in Canada, you’re in luck. But did you notice that last entry on the list?

“…with prices ranging from $125.00 for a single number.” Emphasis mine.

That’s right, in the United States a single ISBN, when registered through the official US issuer, costs $125. Don’t worry though, Bowker sells them in blocks of 10 for only $250. Too bad you’ll blow through those with just two to three books.

Bowker also sells ISBNs in lots of 100 for $575 or 1,000 for $1,000 (don’t take my word for it, see for yourself on Bowker’s pricing page). Notice how quickly the cost per unit declines? The pricing model is skewed heavily toward larger publishers who require large blocks of numbers. For a self-published author like you and me, 10 ISBNs for $250 is your closest bet, but you may wind up sitting on a bunch of ISBNs you don’t need or won’t use for a while.

Do You Need an ISBN?

As with many things, whether or not you really need an ISBN sort of depends. If you listen to Bowker and other registrars, they’ll tell you that you always need an ISBN for all of your books. Of course, it’s in their best interest to tell you that, isn’t it?

Because the official answer is always “Yes!” I’ll give you an unofficial answer from my own opinion, research, and experience.

If you have any intention of selling your book in a retail store, you’ll need an ISBN for each edition of your book. Retailers depend on the ISBN to look up books in a database and enter them in their own store’s systems. Without an ISBN, it complicates the matter for them. If you’re running a Kickstarter campaign and choose to offer a Retailer reward level, expect to purchase a block of ISBNs. You may want to build that into your funding goal (I didn’t).

If you’re just planning on selling PDFs through websites like OneBookShelf or, the answer isn’t as straightforward. While OBS does allow publishers to enter an ISBN, few people will search for your book based on that number. doesn’t even bother with them.

If you’re publishing “micro PDFs” (short books intended only for PDF formats) then I wouldn’t suggest bothering with the whole process.

Are There Cheaper Alternatives?

You could move to Canada. Unless you already live in Canada, in which case you’re not sweating this issue any more, are you?

Officially, you’re supposed to go through your country’s registrar. That allows you to register yourself as the publisher of the book. Bowker has this to say about purchasing ISBNs elsewhere:

I see ISBNs for Sale on other services, is this legitimate?
Bowker forms relationships with many companies who purchase ISBNs on your behalf, as part of their many other publisher services. There are also many companies not affiliated with Bowker who purchase them in their names and package them in their service.
Before you buy an ISBN from anyone, find out who will be the registered owner of the ISBNs you purchase. If your are not the publisher, the company who provides you with an ISBN is required to provide your Title Data. Many people struggle to get their Title Data added or updated when they do not control their own ISBNs.

If you have questions about an ISBN offer online, contact The US ISBN Agency with details of the seller, and the price, for clarification.

So it is possible to register your ISBNs through a different service, but it’s important to note that the alternative service will be listed as the book’s publisher. Let’s take Amazon’s CreateSpace service as an example.

CreateSpace offers an ISBN for free with every book sold using their service. Using CreateSpace’s free ISBN lists CreateSpace as the publisher, and it may be difficult to get your books into non-Amazon bookstores while using one.

You can also purchase ISBNs from any one of a zillion ISBN resellers on the internet, but you have to exercise caution. That reseller’s name will be listed as the publisher on record for your book, and it is up to them to register your title with the Books In Print database. If they don’t give you tools to register the ISBNs yourself, you’re at their mercy to get it entered. And what’s the point of buying an ISBN to begin with unless you have it entered into the database?

It’s a tricky situation to navigate, to be sure. Pay the high fees to get yourself listed as the publisher or risk the drawbacks of the cheaper route?

What I Did

I risked the drawbacks of the cheaper route. I purchased a block of 10 ISBNs through for $70 (or $7/each). They offer you the option to use their website to register your books with the Books In Print database and claim to not hold any rights to your books.

Because I’ll only be selling through online marketplaces such as OneBookShelf and, I decided this was an adequate trade-off. I do have my books available in three retail stores, but I distributed those books to the stores via my OneBookShelf POD orders and so far haven’t heard of any issues.


The topic of ISBNs is a tricky one, and I haven’t heard it discussed on any RPG-related message bord or advice column before now. To go through the traditional purchasing route, at least in some countries, can be very expensive and it’s a lot to ask from an indie publisher. I’m looking into ways to perhaps offer ISBNs to other indie RPG publishers myself, so I can treat people in our industry with the care, respect, and caution they deserve while not forcing every indie author to shell out tons of money to a registrar. I’ll let you know if that becomes a possibility.

In the meantime, carefully consider your options when publishing your books. If you’re going with electronic distribution only, you probably don’t need to worry about an ISBN. If you’re printing traditionally or planning on putting your books onto retail shelves though, it’s a beast you’ll need to contend with sooner or later. At least now oull be armed with the info you need to make that decision.

Update August 2nd

Literally one day after this post went live, I received this e-mail from ePubBud. Were they listening in on my conversation about cheap ISBNs or something? Note that I received this e-mail at 10:49 p.m. on August 1st, barely an hour before the August 2nd price increase they were e-mailing to warn me about.

As you’ve purchased an ISBN from us in the past, we thought we should let you know that effective tomorrow, Friday, August 2nd, our prices for new ISBNs will be increasing to:

1 ISBN : $19
5 ISBNs: $79 ($15.80 each)
10 ISBNs: $139 ($13.90 each)
15 ISBNs: $179 ($11.93 each)
20 ISBNs: $199 ( $9.95 each)
50 ISBNs: $399 ( $7.98 each)
100 ISBNs: $499 ( $4.99 each)
200 ISBNs: $599 ( $3.00 each)
500 ISBNs: $899 ( $1.80 each)

Their previous prices were:

1 for $9
5 for $40 ($8/each)
10 for $70 ($7/each)
15 for $90 ($6/each)
20 for $100 ($5/each)
50 for $200 ($4/each)
100 for $300 ($3/each)
200 for $500 ($2.50/each)
500 for $900 ($1.80/each)

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