29 February 2012

Can I Use the ISBN Provided by Smashwords to Publish Elsewhere?

Recently I've gotten some comments (on my post from last March comparing Amazon's KDP and Smashwords) and emails asking this question.

Short answer? No.

There, question answered, thanks for reading!

Okay, okay. I know some of you are kicking your feet and whining But why not? It'll save me money to use the ISBN provided for free (or as part of the $9.95 Premium option) from Smashwords when I upload to [insert other ebook retailer here].

My gut-reaction reason for not using the ISBN given to you by Smashwords when you epublish elsewhere is that it's simply unethical. Smashwords is not your cheap ISBN vendor. They offer their free or low-cost ISBN service to people who use their distribution services. It's a perk. Something to entice you to do business with them, you see. If you take that ISBN and attach it to your Kindle book or any other ebook format that you then distribute yourself (or through some venue other than Smashwords), you're taking advantage of the service they've provided. In the long run, this could hurt indie authors everywhere. If everyone snagged a free or cheap ISBN from Smashwords and then used it elsewhere, you can bet your laptop Smashwords would eventually stop offering the service. You might be saving yourself some money in the short term, but you'll be doing yourself (and the rest of us) a huge disservice in the long run.

*steps off soapbox*

Now let's look at some of the logistical reasons you don't want to do this.

First, you don't need an ISBN to publish and have your ebook sold through any of the major outlets except Sony and Apple. You can sell direct through Amazon and have Smashwords distribute to various other outlets without an ISBN. So why even bother putting an ISBN on your Kindle version when you upload to KDP? Amazon will assign you their own identification number. The point of an ISBN is to identify a title (or an edition of a title). Retailers then use the ISBN to track sales of that title or edition. Since Amazon and other retailers will assign their own identification numbers to your book for sales tracking purposes. I'd be curious why indie authors feel the need to bother with an ISBN for the ebook at all, outside of the retailers that require it.

You're required to have a different ISBN for each edition of a book. If you do a print edition, you'll need a different ISBN than your ebook edition. It's currently hotly debated whether each of the ebook formats constitutes a different edition, thereby requiring different ISBNs for each. Some say yes, others say no way, and it's even unclear based on what I've read from Bowker and here. Here, in the ISBN Users' Manual, is the closest thing I've found to the assertion that each format will require a different ISBN. But it also begs the question of whether an ebook is either "software" or an "online publication." Their section on non-printed books was written in 1996 and covers physical items like audio cassettes, CDs, computer tapes, and more, but (obviously) not ebook files. Behind the times much?

When you purchase an ISBN yourself, there's a dropdown menu to specify why type of book the number will be assigned to. Among the different format types, there is a "multiple formats" option - according to some people's personal experiences I've read, like this one - to select when specifying what the ISBN will be associated with. It would seem this option would be sufficient to use with all ebook formats. Of course, ISBNs are expensive, which is why many people have been asking about using the one given to them by Smashwords in other places. In the U.S., it's $125 for one ISBN, $250 for 10, $575 for 100, or $1000 for 1000 (obviously the best deal, but how many indie authors have $1000 to spend on ISBNs, and how many anticipate needing that many?) plus processing fees. If you're Canadian, you are super lucky. You can get yours for free.

When Smashwords purchases the ISBN for you, that ISBN is attached to the ePub version of your book ONLY. Why? Because that's the industry standard for everyone but Amazon, and that's the format that is distributed to Apple and Sony, the two retailers requiring and ISBN. So the ISBN record will only list ePub as the format, even if you use it when you upload to Amazon.

If you've purchased ISBNs for your ebook versions, let us know about your experience and your thoughts.


  1. Very interesting and savvy! I wouldn't have thunk about any of this...

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Jenny! I feel like there is just SO. MUCH. stuff to consider when self-publishing. You almost have to become an expert on a lot of different things to make sure you do it right. My brain is constantly blown with all the info... AND I HAVEN'T EVEN PUBLISHED YET! haha


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