You DON’T need an ISBN if:
If you’re planning to sell your book on Amazon, you don’t need it. If you’re selling your book through Barnes & Noble, you don’t need it. If you’re selling your book at Lulu.com, either as an audiobook, ebook or printed book where it is directly ordered through Lulu, you don’t need it. In other words, if you are directly submitting your book to a distributor, you don’t need an ISBN.
You DO need an ISBN if:
If you’ve submitted your ebook to Lulu and want them to submit it to the Apple iBookstore for you, then you need an ISBN. Or if you submit it directly to Apple, you need an ISBN. Or if you want Lulu to sell your printed book through other bookstores (like B&N or the bookshop around the corner). Of course, things are never simple.
Lulu and Smashwords and FastPencil are aggregators, meaning once you submit a book to them, they can submit it to other distributors for you. You may find it more convenient for them to do this for you, rather than try to negotiate the submission process for each distributor yourself, but it means they’re taking a cut from your royalties. And most distributors can give or sell you an ISBN.
Lulu, for instance, has three distribution packages including one called globalReach Distribution, that charges you $75 to distribute your book (although I think at this time Apple is the only ebook distributor they work with). This price does not include converting your poorly formatted Word document into the EPUB format Lulu requires, but it does include a free ISBN, saving you $125 (more on that below). But the ISBN registration names Lulu as the publisher, not you, and is not transferrable. Of course, you can buy a low-cost ISBN through Lulu, naming you as the publisher, which is transferrable, or you can supply the ISBN you bought separately. NOTE: I am not certain I have all the details correct on the Lulu distribution services. I am frankly confused.
Smashwords can also sell you a low-cost ISBN if you publish through Smashwords. I believe you, not Lulu, are registered as the publisher. Some of the drawbacks about Smashwords includes no digital rights management. People can freely give away your book, restricted only by their conscience. On the plus side, Smashwords takes a lowest common denominator approach on submitting your book: they only support Word documents, which is both good and bad (bad if you’ve just spent a lot of time massaging your book into EPUB format).
I kind of like the grungy work ethic of Smashwords, but I haven’t submitted yet because I need to reformat my Word document according to the Smashwords guidelines.
I know too little about FastPencil at this time to offer an opinion.
Buy your own ISBN
This is the route I chose because I want to make the most profit from my book (assuming that I can make enough sales to cover the cost of the ISBN). I may have chosen poorly, but I liked the idea of creating my own little publishing company to sell my book.
The company authorized to sell ISBNs in the United States is Bowker, although you confusingly buy the ISBN at a site called MyIdentifiers, which is a stupid name.
A single ISBN costs $125, regardless of whether it’s an audiobook, print book or ebook. In fact, you can’t use the same ISBN for an audiobook and a print book, or a ebook and a print book. Even more frustratingly, Bowker suggests you’ll need a different ISBN for your Kindle book as opposed to the EPUB Apple sells. In other words, a different ISBN for each format: audiobook, print, large print, hardcover, paperback, Kindle, EPUB, PDF, etc. I was starting to panic, but then buried away in a PDF howto at MyIdentifiers I found this:
If my e-books are being supplied by a retailer that is the sole provider of e-books in a proprietary format that can only be bought it‘s own website (e.g. Amazon Kindle, Apple i- bookstore) and that retailer does not require ISBNs, should I assign ISBNs to those versions?
It is not necessary to do so, unless it is useful for your own purposes or you want that version to be listed in third-party databases of available e-booksSo you don’t really need an ISBN to sell a book through Amazon, but if you supply an ISBN to Amazon (essentially cause it looks cool), it must be different from the ISBN you provide Apple, because Amazon uses the MOBI format and Apple uses the EPUB format. Amazon and B&N keep track of your book using their internal numbering system.
Apple is different. You must submit an ISBN with your application. But you can use the same ISBN at Apple and B&N because they both distribute their books as EPUBs.
I hope to talk more about Apple once my application is approved (fingers crossed).
If you want to start your own publishing company or if you envision selling every book you’ve ever written, you can buy a block of 10 ISBNs for $250, which I would have done if I’d had another $125.