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Free ISBNs
Summary: This article talks about the pros and cons of using a free ISBN, where to get one, and where you can use that number.

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It is possible to get a free ISBN for your book. Should you do it or not? Here we weigh the pros and cons.

There are a few places in the self-publishing world that can give you an ISBN for free, saving up to $125. Should you take advantage of these free ISBNs or buy your own? There is not a universally correct answer here, it all depends on how much you plan to write and where you plan to sell your books. Let's weigh the pros and cons.

What is an ISBN?

The ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, is a unique number assigned to each edition of each book. The number is made up of five parts:

  1. Prefix element; mostly just used to future-proof the ISBN system
  2. Registration Group; tells the country of origin. USA is 1.
  3. Registrant; this identifies the publisher and is tied to the registered publisher at the country of origin
  4. Publication; Unique to each edition of the book
  5. Checksum; used for a mathematical calculation to be sure the number is correct

 If you are selling your book anywhere other than your own personal website or in a captive audience, you will need an ISBN. The question becomes, are you going to buy one or use a free one?

Pros of a Free ISBN

In the USA, ISBNs are only sold through Bowker Identifier Services. A single ISBN is $125 presently, but you can also buy a 10-pack for $295. This is a cost to publish your book you may or may not be in position to spend, and so the first major pro is that a free ISBN is, well, FREE! If your only task is to write one or two books, you care less about the 'publisher' listed on file with that number and using a free service will save the cost involved in getting your number. In this case, KDP or Blurb may offer a good service to get your book out without the extra expense.

The second pro of using a free ISBN is the time savings for creating an account and setting up a publisher. When you buy an ISBN, it is not just a quick service to buy a number and have it sent to you. Remember that part about ISBNs being tied to a publisher? That means you will need to set up an account with Bowker that will give you your very own publishing number ID that is on global file and compliant with international standards. The process of setting up the account is not very difficult, but it is unnecessary if you are only planing on writing a limited number of books.

So in summary, if you are looking to pinch every penny or only writing a few books, a free ISBN may be just what you need.

Cons of a Free ISBN

Every rose has its thorn, and the free ISBN has some problems to consider.

First, if your task is to be an author with sophistication, a generic KDP ISBN may not be the best image. Technically, when someone looks up the ISBN, it comes back as being published by Amazon or Blurb, or whichever other service gave you the number. In order words, you are not the publisher of the book (which may not be a con, depending on your distribution strategy).

Amazon as a publisher, however, does come with some nasty consequences if you are planning to sell your book in bookstores. Two complications arise: The KDP free ISBN will not have the EIN-5 barcode, which is the price tag. Most stores require this book to be sold. The second is, most stores will not sell a book that originates from Amazon because stocking your book automatically enriches their competitor. Thus, having an ISBN provided free will limit your ability to sell books locally.

Finally, outside of the technical issues of the EIN-5 or the commercial issues of supporting a competitor, a free ISBN may not be able to be used to list your book in other places. For example, you may not use a KDP issued ISBN to list your book on the IngramSpark multi listing service. You need to figure out your distribution strategy before determining where to source your ISBN.