Indie authors often find success in the digital publishing arena but how many titles do they actually sell? Unlike the traditional publishing industry the average self-published title does not have an ISBN number. This number serves as your online SIN and because most e-books do not have this number, it is impossible to quantify meaningful sales data.
ISBN numbers are critically important for an author to claim ownership of their work and support the self-publishing movement. Over the course of 2014, 30% of all e-books being purchased in the U.S. do not use ISBN numbers and are basically invisible to the industry’s official market surveys and reports; all the ISBN-based estimates of market share reported by Bowker, AAP, BISG, and Nielsen are totally incorrect.
Most research and sales tracking companies have all explicitly stated that they cannot track self-published books which do not use ISBNs, and that the self-published segment of the market might be underrepresented in their numbers. All they can do is make wild assumptions on how well the industry is doing. From time to time we do get somewhat meaningful data from Author Earnings, but they mainly track Amazon sales.
I know a ton of self-published authors that do not purchase their own ISBN numbers, because the company they distribute their books through, provide it for them. Kindle Direct Publishing provides a specialized ASIN number, that is assigned to each book. Barnes & Noble assigns their own proprietary product codes to each title and finally Kobo and Smashwords both assign their own unique ISBN numbers, which credit them as the publisher, not the author.
And now, let twenty years go by… Barnes & Noble & Smashwords are out of business. Amazon changes its product code conventions and no longer uses ASIN numbers. There is no searchable database made available by Amazon for the old ASIN numbers. Kobo, which owns the ISBN it provided, controls what the Bowker Books In Print or successor database contains and updates the information about your book in ways you would not approve of, and since you have no ISBN number of your own that’s the only record of your book in Books In Print. Someone who chanced across a reference to your book based on an old copy from Barnes & Noble can’t find it because the B&N identifier is no longer alive, and may or may not connect it with a Kobo record in Books In Print which has a completely different identifier. Does this seem like a good thing to you?
ISBN numbers not only assist the industry in providing meaningful sales data on independently published books, but it also provides a seal of ownership for the author. A block of 10 ISBN numbers costs around $295 if an author buys them through Bowker. When the transaction is complete the author is automatically designated as the owner of the ISBN or the “publisher of record,” meaning that person has the ability to access, update, and maintain her metadata through Bowker’s website myidentifers.com.
I found it very interesting that 20% of Amazon’s overall Top-10 selling e-books did not have ISBN numbers. Considering traditionally published books account for the vast majority of sales, it means that indie authors are rarely, if at all ever considering purchasing their own ISBN’s. This can be attributed to pure laziness on authors part. Not only are they hurting themselves but they are willfully contributing to the perception that self-published books don’t sell and are all trashy.
Successful indie authors hire people to do their cover art, hire an editor and sometimes get their own agent. Writing and self-publishing a book is time consuming work and it can get expensive. Investing in yourself is the best thing you can do to have an end product that you can be proud of. Not investing in a proper ISBN number is basically relegating your title to the shadow realm.
Michael Kozlowski has written about audiobooks and e-readers for the past twelve years. Newspapers and websites such as the CBC, CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and the New York Times have picked up his articles. He Lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.