Someone asked: “I’m about to publish on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing … should I just use the free ISBN, or pay for one?” It’s a good question, and one that has real financial considerations, as ISBNs registered with the “official” U.S. ISBN registry are very expensive (see “Bowker ripoff: A 12,500% ISBN markup for new authors“). On the other hand, using Amazon’s free ISBNs come with a cost, too. Here’s my take on how to navigate this question.
First, KDP ebooks (Kindle editions) don’t require ISBNs. Amazon will assign its own numbering system known as an ASIN to the ebook.
But if you are using KDP to print paperback books, you will need an ISBN. As a publisher with long experience dealing with Amazon and Bowker (the U.S. ISBN registration agency) I would say use the free one Amazon provides only if you anticipate this being a one-off book with low sales. This is what happens to almost all self-published titles, no matter how good the book is. Amazon is swamped with self-published books, and most of them will languish in obscurity without superior marketing or promotional efforts.
If, on the other hand, you are a U.S. resident and have serious plans for bookstore distribution, a series, or an imprint, bite the bullet and pay Bowker’s outrageous registration fees for ISBNs. The current price for a single ISBN is $125, rising to $295 for 10 and $575 for 100. As a publisher with multiple titles, it makes sense to purchase 10 or 100 to start.
For people or companies with serious publishing aspirations, the Amazon KDP-provided ISBNs will be a liability. Why? Amazon is a dirty word in this business (see “Why Amazon’s Buy Box policy attracts counterfeit books and cheaters“). Bookstores have been decimated by Amazon for 25 years. Many will never order titles from Amazon on principle, even if it is from a famous author on an Amazon imprint. I once listened to Tim Ferriss lament this issue on his podcast – he discovered when he published one of his books on an Amazon imprint that bookstores wouldn’t touch it, for the most part.
As for series and imprints, any serious publishing venture should have free and clear control over their own ISBNs. Amazon-assigned ISBNs will forever be associated with Amazon in databases and may interfere with future legal agreements, including distribution via wholesalers (see “Pros and cons of traditional book distributors“). If series/imprints/ part of the publishing plan, it is advisable to register ISBNs via Bowker, despite the rip-off pricing.