Indie Corner: ISBNs: What Are the Retailer Requirements?


Vision 70


Indie Corner:

ISBNs: What are the Retailer Requirements?


J.A. Marlow


Copyright © 2013, J.A. Marlow, All Rights Reserved


It's time to revisit the issue of ISBNs and how they impact Indie publishing. First, what is an ISBN?


""ISBN" stands for "International Standard Book Number". An ISBN is a number, not a bar code. One agency per country is designated to assign ISBNs for the publishers and self-publishers located in that country. The U.S. ISBN Agency cannot assign ISBNs to publishers and self-publishers located outside the United States and its territories... The ISBN identifies the title or other book-like product (such as an audiobook) to which it is assigned, but also the publisher to be contacted for ordering purposes." (Bowker Agency -


The issue of obtaining ISBNs differs according to the physical location of the author or publisher. Certain countries provide free ISBNs to their authors and publishers on request.


Other countries, like the US, require buying the numbers, sometimes at substantial cost. Because each country has only one representative legally able to assign ISBNs, there is no competition on pricing so don't expect to find lower prices. For countries where the ISBNs must be purchased this can add increased cost to the act of publishing. (For advice on how to use the Bowker website, please see the article "ISBN Registration at Bowker" )


For this reason, it's important to understand each retailer requirement even as debate on the value of ISBNs in the ebook publishing industry continues. For now, some retailers like them, prefer them, or require them. If given a choice, what are the pros and cons of providing them?



While Amazon provides the option upon upload to provide an ISBN, it is not required. Amazon uses their own unique catalog number for products known as an ASIN.

Required? No

Pros to Using ISBN: ISBN can be used in search.

Cons to Not Using ISBN: None known



Apple has one of the most complicated direct publishing portals of the majors, however recently they dropped the requirement of an ISBN.

Required? No (recent development not yet stated in all Help and FAQ files)

Pros to Using ISBN: ISBN can be used in search.

Cons to Not Using ISBN: None known


Barnes & Noble

 Barnes & Noble is another retailer that uses their own internal product/catalog number.

Required? No

Pros to Using ISBN: Barnes and Noble sometimes have problems with search, even when a reader knows the specific work they wish to purchase. Their site does allow a custom search with the use of a known ISBN number. LINK EXAMPLE:

Cons to Not Using ISBN: None known



Yes, Createspace can produce and distribute ebooks for you, but that is not the reason they are on this list. Createspace is a Print-On-Demand printer (POD) which a lot of publishers and authors use for their ease of use and convenience.

Required? Yes

Pros to Using ISBN: See Special Note below.

Cons to Not Using ISBN: Cannot publish without one, but they do provide a free Createspace ISBN that will list them as 'publisher.'



Createspace ties what type of expanded distribution you are allowed to use to the kind of ISBN you use:

Createspace (free) ISBN: Full expanded distribution available. Createspace is listed as 'publisher.'

Your own ISBN or a custom ISBN paid for through Createspace: "Libraries and

Academic Institutions" expanded distribution is denied. All other expanded distribution opportunities are still available. No, I don't know why other than maybe Createspace wants as many items as possible to say they are the publisher?



This is a smaller retailer, but for fantasy, horror, science fiction, and RPG related works, it can prove lucrative.

Required? No

Pros to Using ISBN: ISBN can be used in search.

Cons to Not Using ISBN: None known



Kobo recently opened their "Kobo Writing Life" publishing portal to allow direct publishing.

Required? No

Pros to Using ISBN: Those works assigned an ISBN will propagate to Kobo's retailer partners including: Angus & Robertson (Australia), Fnac (France), Indigo (Canada), WH Smith (Great Britain), and Whitcoulls (New Zealand). Goodreads reviews will import to the product page.

Cons to Not Using ISBN: At first Kobo reported that not using an ISBN would deny distribution to all their retailer partners, but have now confirmed that the only one that will be missed is Fnac (France). Goodreads reviews will import to the product page (yes, this can be a con).


Omnilit/All Romance Ebooks

 For romance, there are few places better. All Romance is the romance side of their business, while Omnilit accepts nearly all genres.

Required? Yes and No - To submit a new title some sort of number must be provided. If you do not wish to use your own ISBN number then you will need to email them with a request and they will assign you a catalog number to use instead.

Pros to Using ISBN: Become eligible to use their Apple iBookstore distribution.

Cons to Not Using ISBN: Takes time to write and receive a catalog number so you can upload the new ebook. Not eligible for Apple iBookstore distribution.



Smashwords is unique in the ebook-selling realm. Not only do they sell ebooks themselves, but they also provide numerous distribution opportunities to online ebook stores such as: Sony, Diesel, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, libraries, and others.

Required? Yes and No - No to sell directly through Smashwords. Yes for their expanded distribution. Fortunately, they provide free ISBNs although their name will typically be listed as 'publisher.'

Pros to Using ISBN: Access to their expanded distribution.

Cons to Not Using ISBN: No access to expanded distribution, allowing you to sell only on the Smashwords site.


There are other ebook retailers out there, but the above are the majors to consider. It is possible to publish without the money or time outlay for ISBNs, but be aware of how such a decision will affect your business. Good luck in your publishing efforts!


J.A. Marlow