ISBN: The Business of Self-Publishing

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. Part of that process involves purchasing and assigning an ISBN for your books.

Otherwise, the siren song of literary success will cloud your business judgment. After all, the prospect of seeing their book for sale in every online bookstore is tempting.

Publishing with an ISBN

ISBN Explained

An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is the holy grail of book distribution. Lulu provides them for free if your book meets certain requirements. Using our free ISBNs applies Lulu as the ‘imprint’ for your publishing. You can also purchase an ISBN too. Doing so allows you to own the entire process. Learn more about ISBN purchasing from Bowker, the US ISBN agency.

The ISBN is a bit like your book’s fingerprint. Retailer user it to both identify your book and track its sales. An ISBN paired with Lulu’s Global Distribution service makes your print and ebook available for purchase in online bookstores. The ISBN will list your book in global bibliographic databases. From these, 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.

ISBN and pricing

ISBNs, however, directly affect pricing. Applying an ISBN to a print book results in an automatic retail markup. This increase the book’s base 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. All discounts are 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 trade off is offset by the possibility of more sales. When a book is widely available for purchase, the reduced price is a trade off. Most authors are happy to make it.

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 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 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.

Publishing with AND without an ISBN

ISBN bigstock-Barcodes-Seamless-vector-wall-25203968

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 website, 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.

Glenn H

- Archived Author -
Writer extraordinaire and generally amazing guy, Glenn makes sure that every day is the best day ever.

10 thoughts on “ISBN: The Business of Self-Publishing”

  1. HI am ordering 300 books for my second order on the same book I uploaded. The first books I ordered had no isbn even though I wanted that and the barcode, of course. How do I get my ISBN at Lulu when selfpublishing on LULU. THere is no hint on how to get it first time publishing.

    1. Hi George,
      Lulu offers our free ISBNs when you opt in to our Global Distribution service. That’s on the first step, after you select your product type.

  2. Thank you Paul. We have followed the link you provided to secure our own ISBNs. However, this raises another question. Does Lulu provide any support for copyrights? Or should we use the service provided along with the ISBNs?

    1. Hi Matthew,
      As soon as you create your work, it is copyright protected. At Lulu, we mark the date of publication, which can be important in securing your copyright, but we do not register your work with Library of Congress or any other official bodies for you. If you’re interested in adding that extra layer of copyright protection, you’ll want to follow the procedures for registering yourself.

  3. Is an ISBN required, and / or advisable, if a picture book is being published for POD via Lulu on Shopify? Is there a cost if assigned by Lulu?

    1. Hi Matthew,
      The general consensus is that an ISBN is advisable for any book you’ll be selling. That said, when using our Shopify App, we do not currently have a connection to ISBN services, so we wouldn’t be able to assign a free ISBN from Lulu to your book.
      In the US, is the best resource for assigning your own ISBN to your work. That’s the route I would take for your book.

  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 or make it available for purchase on Lulu and hide the current version for your personal use.

  5. Michael Herbert

    My book is already published with 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.

  6. 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.

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

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top