Should I Use A Free ISBN?

How to write side characters

Why free or discounted ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) are a bad idea


Free and Discounted ISBNs

An ISBN is a code that tells several things; among those things is who bought the code. The owner of the code is the person or business who will be contacted when a purchase is desired or, in the case of Sasha Black, a resource to go to when there is a dispute about book ownership. More about Sasha’s situation in a bit.

On the chance that you don’t know what an ISBN is for or what it looks like, it’s the numeric code that goes above the barcode on the back of your book and it’s used by publishers, booksellers, libraries, and internet retailers (such as Amazon) to identify the registrant and other details about your book, such as the edition and format.


Most authors upload their books to Amazon. Amazon doesn’t care where you got the ISBN, because your book is directly loaded on Amazon, regardless of whether or not you have your own ISBN, one of theirs, or one you’ve acquired elsewhere.

But let’s say Costco or Walmart wants to buy your book in bulk at a discounted price. They simply use the book code (the ISBN) to identify the seller and their contact information. If the code leads to someone else (because you used a free or discounted ISBN from elsewhere), you can lose that business.

The original “publisher” shows up as the purchaser of the block of ISBNs used on your book, your book’s ISBN being one of the thousands of ISBNs purchased by that “publisher.” Your ISBN is perpetually owned by that purchaser.

But let’s be realistic. Most of us won’t have Costco clamoring to purchase. Should you still have your own ISBN?

Let me share with you the story of one author’s experience and you decide.

Disputed Ownership on ISBN Registration

Sasha Black recently self-published 8 Steps to Side CharactersHow to write side characters

As a self-publisher, she went to IngramSpark to fill out the details about her book. IngramSpark has recently undergone changes on the site, so finding the usual places for things proved to be a bit confusing and she didn’t see the pull-down menu where she could provide the name of the publishing house.

I’ll digress a bit to say that you can pick an imprint name for yourself even if you only publish your own work. It’s smart to have this be a name that bears no resemblance to your writing name, thus avoiding any stigma about being self-published. (Yes, there are still some who think this isn’t a “legitimate” way to publish, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Back to the dilemma.

Legal Ownership of an ISBN – Proof & Protection

Thinking she’d done everything correctly, Sasha pressed publish. Amazon picked up the title for its sale’s page, just as she’d intended. The name of the publisher, however, defaulted to “Sasha Black.”

Seeing this, she realized she’d set something up incorrectly, so she did what any publisher would do. She went back to IngramSpark, found the pull-down menu, entered her publishing imprint name, and republished.

Shortly thereafter, she received a legal letter from Amazon saying she had five days to prove she owned the copyright or the book would be taken down and all preorders removed.

Although never stated, we can infer that Amazon assumed someone had taken over the existing ISBN—and we want that kind of vigilance or we’d be yammering on about Amazon’s negligence.

Keep in mind this was a new release and Sasha already had a solid number of people ready to buy the book, plus she’d announced on her podcast the date of the release, had bonuses lined up, etc.

What did Amazon require as proof? A contract.

Problem here—there’s no contract when one self-publishes. Sasha tried sending the editing contract. No go. How about the bank statement with her imprint name on it? Not acceptable. She racked her, by now, extremely stressed brain to think of what she had that would have both her imprint name and her banking information on it.

Because she owned her ISBN, by taking screenshots and going to the trouble of getting time stamps from IngramSpark, she, at last, got the change accepted and could sigh in relief.

Here’s the thing. If she had used an ISBN and barcode from one of the several free places where you can now get them, her book would have been removed from Amazon.

To recap, free ISBN and barcodes can;

  • Expose you to removal by third party vendors.
  • Create confusion about ownership.
  • Lessen your proof of IP ownership.

When “Free” Has Conditions

Here’s another issue: when you get that free ISBN and barcode at Amazon (and this is a condition on many of the other sites, too), guess what? You can’t use that ISBN anywhere else. That includes selling your book on your own website. Oh, and with the free Amazon ISBN? You have to list Amazon as the publisher. Anyone giving you a free ISBN has an ulterior motive: keeping your work exclusively with them.

ISBNs Outside of the United States

There are exceptions to the “don’t use anything but your own ISBN” rule. In Canada or South Africa, for example, you can get the ISBN through the government. It’s your job to find out how those work in your country.

When You Need A New ISBN

In some situations, you need to purchase and put a new ISBN on your book. That applies when:

  • You change the size of your book
  • You print in a different language
  • There are significant changes to the interior
  • There is a change of title
  • You change the binding type

When You Don’t Need A New ISBN

  • For minor changes to the interior
  • For a change in price
  • When you use a different cover (as long as the title is the same)

 What To Do When Starting Out

Purchase ISBNs in blocks of no less than ten. Never purchase from any source other than Bowker’s Books In Print (also found under If you have an eBook, a print book, a large print version, a hardcover, and an audiobook, that’s five ISBNs right there. (You need an ISBN for every version of your book.) Even if you only use one ISBN, it’s still wise to purchase your own. Oh, and if you sell your books as a set, that set requires its own ISBN.

What To Do If You Already Have A “Free” ISBN

If you have already used an ISBN that was free or discounted, you still remain the copyright holder. You will need to go through the process of obtaining a new ISBN under your publishing imprint, change your book cover to incorporate the new code, and reload your book to all the sites where your book is distributed.

You will probably have to prove you are the copyright holder in many, if not all, of these locations. A first step would be to notify the previous ISBN holder that you have removed the book from circulation (which you will have to do temporarily) and that you require them to notify Bowker’s Books in Print of the change in the ISBN. It’s a good idea to put that in writing, along with their response.

When it’s time to reload your book, unfortunately, you may have to deal with the legal arm of some of the distribution companies if you don’t own the ISBN that’s originally printed on your book (or used for an eBook). Often, they will want to hear directly from the previous ISBN holder. Here’s where a letter or email from the originator of the first ISBN will be helpful.

ISBNs For eBooks

And speaking of eBooks and ISBNs, Amazon says you need only use their AISN as an identifier. That’s true. But you can’t use their AISN on any other platform. “Okay,” you might think, “I’ll just get a free eBook ISBN equivalent from each distributor.” But how will that look to libraries when you have half a dozen eBook numeric codes for a single eBook? I can tell you how it will look: they won’t order. They order through OverDrive, and OverDrive won’t accept those “secondary” ISBNs.

That’s something to think about in advance and it’s why all my books and those of the authors I publish have ISBNs for eBooks in addition to all the other formats.

Let me sum up by saying, “Penny wise, pound foolish” is an apt expression when it comes to free ISBNs. I hope I’ve saved you some headaches.