The Business of Self-Publishing: ISBNs

ISBN Gold

With publishing open to everyone, authors are now the CEOs of their own publishing companies. Self-publishing requires authors to make all product decisions including paper color, font, book layout, cover design, distribution and marketing strategy. As such, you must be not only a creative genius, but also a savvy business person.

Otherwise, the siren song of literary success will cloud your business judgment. After all, who isn’t tempted by the prospect of seeing their book listed for sale in every online bookstore?

Publishing with an ISBN*

ISBN Explained

An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is the holy grail of book distribution and Lulu provides them for free if your book meets certain requirements. The ISBN is a bit like your book’s fingerprint; it is used to both identify your book and track its sales. An ISBN paired with Lulu’s free GlobalREACH distribution makes your print and eBook available for purchase in online bookstores such as Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, iBookstore, Kindle, and Kobo stores among others. Your book will also be listed in global bibliographic databases from which any number of institutions, bookstores, and online retailers can discover it and offer it for sale.  For authors seeking a broad audience, publishing with an ISBN is indeed a requirement.

ISBNs, however, directly affect pricing. Applying an ISBN to a print book results in an automatic retail markup being added to your book’s price. This markup is the amount a retailer can potentially earn from selling your book on their site. Retailers may choose to sell your book at its full price or offer it at a discount with “free” shipping – all of which is paid from the retail markup or retailer’s portion of the book’s price.

Regardless of the price your book sells for, you will always be paid the revenue you set when publishing the book. Unfortunately, retail markups often force authors to greatly reduce earnings per book in order to remain competitively priced. This revenue tradeoff is offset by the possibility of more sales being generated when a book is widely available for purchase and is a sacrifice most authors are happy to make.

*At this time, only Premium format books may be assigned an ISBN.

Publishing without an ISBN**

Depending on your ultimate goal and target audience, publishing without an ISBN may make more sense. Forgoing an ISBN allows more formatting choices and greater pricing freedom in the Lulu bookstore. These are advantages if you are publishing a book for sentimental reasons, for a limited audience, or to promote your business. For example, if you are a teacher publishing educational books, an ISBN is not required to reach your students who are your target audience. The same applies when publishing your family history or grandmother’s favorite recipes – your intended audience will be aware of your work and be happy to purchase it directly from you or from the Lulu bookstore thereby cutting out the middleman.

**Authors may choose Premium, Standard, or Photo Quality formats when publishing without an ISBN.

Publishing with AND without an ISBN

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If your dream is to one day strike it rich as an author, you may wish to publish a Premium Paperback version of your book with an ISBN for wide distribution and publish another version without an ISBN using Lulu’s Standard Paperback format. This strategy allows you to maximize book exposure through online retailers while maximizing revenue through direct sales of a Standard Paperback. Sales from your web site, the Lulu bookstore, local bookstores, and events such as book signings do not require an ISBN. The Standard Paperback formats are printed using state of the air ink jet technology that significantly reduces manufacturing costs. Additionally, with no middlemen to pay, you have greater pricing flexibility that translates into higher earnings. The Standard Paperback format is also perfect for proofing, review copies, and giveaways.

As you consider the future of your writing think about your goals, your audience, and the options described above. The manuscript and cover files you created for the book you sent into distribution are the same files you will upload to create your Standard Paperback, or “personal stock” copies. With a few minutes of effort, you can be on your way to increased sales and higher revenues.

4 thoughts on “The Business of Self-Publishing: ISBNs”

  1. If I choose to get an ISBN with Lulu, will this affect my ability to post my ebook at other sites?

  2. Hello Gil – you can use a Lulu ISBN to publish and distribute on Lulu and our distribution partners. You can also publish your book on other online sites, but not with the Lulu ISBN, since the ISBN not only identifies the author, title, and format of a book, but also the distributor.

  3. My book is already published with lulu.com without a ISBN# can I sell it with an ISBN# and then pick and choose which way I want to sell it ? For instance ordering for myself to give away some copies.

  4. @Michael Herbert – You can create a new, duplicate project, using the previously uploaded files, but adding an ISBN. You can then send that book through GlobalREACH distribution making it available through our online retail partners. You can hide this version on Lulu.com or make it available for purchase on Lulu and hide the current version for your personal use.

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