Who REALLY Controls That ISBN You Bought? Probably Not You! By Angela Hoy

Last month, somebody alerted me to a thread on Lulu’s forum where Lulu authors were in a lather because, while they had purchased their own ISBNs from Lulu, apparently the authors don’t really have 100% control over those ISBNs. You can read that discussion HERE.

Apparently, the subject was brought up twice on Lulu’s forums and Lulu “locked” both discussions (meaning Lulu won’t let anybody else post comments on them). The original discussion appears HERE.

In Lulu’s responses to authors, they kept bringing up this term – “bibliographic information.” They repeatedly said they need to control the distribution of their authors’ bibliographic information to databases.

Last week, I received an email from a guy claiming to be the head of Bowker, the ISBN agency. Whoa! Why was the “head” of Bowker contacting me? The email implied we were doing something wrong. It said that, on our website, we claimed you couldn’t buy single ISBNs. When we first posted that information, you couldn’t purchase single ISBNs. You had to buy them in blocks, starting with a block of 10. (When I inquired in my response email, he admitted they just started selling single ISBNs last year and gave me a link.)

He also claimed nobody “owns” ISBNs…that they are simply “assigned” to companies/people. Okaaaaaay, I thought. I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret his “tsk tsk” email. He also mentioned the term “bibliographic databases” (sound familiar?), and said they needed to set us up as an “authorized designated agent.”

Little red flags went up in my brain. As a publisher, we’ve been buying blocks of ISBNs from Bowker for years. We’re already in their system. We log every new book in their database. What was going on and why did the email seem to be worded in a tone that implied we were breaking the rules?

I wrote him back and explained that, at BookLocker, we don’t resell ISBNs to authors. I thought perhaps he was confusing us with Lulu or somebody else who has been trying to resell ISBNs. I told him, “Since we don’t resell ISBNs, we don’t need to be set up as an ISBN agent.”

When I read his response, I immediately thought the original email had been a marketing ploy. It contained such phrases as “new and innovative” and “could really help position BookLocker and grow your business.” It also said we could “sell single ISBN’s – either as
standalone’s or ‘packaged or bundled’ with other services you offer.” Mmm hmmm. I admit I was a bit perturbed. It reminded me of the time the Better Business Bureau fooled us into thinking somebody had logged a complaint against us just to try to get us to pay their exorbitant membership fees.

Here was my response:

“We don’t upsell/resell services to authors that they can obtain themselves at-cost. We will let authors know they can buy single ISBNs directly from Bowker and will provide them with the link you gave me below.”

And, as promised, authors, here is the link if you want to buy your own single-ISBN at-cost:

The cost is $125.00.

If you do plan to buy your own ISBN, you should buy it from Bowker directly, not from a re-seller. That way, unlike the Lulu authors, perhaps you won’t get any surprises later on about who really controls your ISBN.


At BookLocker, we automatically assign one of our ISBNs (at no extra charge, of course), if an author doesn’t have one of their own. But, if they do have one of their own, they are permitted to use it, of course. The vast majority of POD publishers won’t allow authors to use their own ISBNs (because they want more control over your book and sales!).

However, even if you use your own ISBN, if you change publishers, and even if you don’t alter one word of the interior or anything on the cover, the new version of your book will still be a new edition and you will need to assign a new ISBN to that edition at that time.

Bookstore systems don’t remove an ISBN once a book goes out of print. They simply list it as out of print or unavailable. If another publisher, or even the author, tries to re-use that ISBN under a different publisher’s name, the bookstore systems won’t accept it. One author we know owned her own ISBN and, unbeknownst to us, re-used it on her BookLocker book. A couple of months later, she wrote asking why her BookLocker book wasn’t appearing in any of the online bookstores. It only took me a minute to find her previous edition listed online…under the same ISBN she’d provided to BookLocker. Since she’d used the ISBN previously, with a different publisher, the ISBN was already in the bookstore systems and they wouldn’t accept the duplicate entry. While it would be nice if the bookstore systems simply accepted the new listing as a replacement for the old, they just don’t work that way.

Even if you use your own ISBN, if your publisher is the one that has the account at Ingram (that distributed your book’s information to bookstores via their automated feed), your publisher’s name, not you, will show up as the “publisher” in the bookstore systems.

Since you can’t re-use that single ISBN if you want to move your book elsewhere in the future, what’s the point of spending that $125? Well, one advantage is this – a few bookstores (very few), like Borders, use Bowker to locate a publisher when attempting to make a purchase. If you own your own ISBN, your name and contact information will be available to Borders so they will order directly from you, thus bypassing your publisher (more money in your pocket). But, most bookstores order from Ingram directly because it’s easier for them and they may qualify for free shipping by ordering multiple books published by a variety of publishers.

I still haven’t figured out how all of this ties into Lulu’s recent announcement, per my first paragraph above…but I do have a couple of assumptions. If any of you can figure it out, please let me know.

I’m at: angela – at – writersweekly.com