Publishing on Amazon KDP: Use a free ISBN, or pay Bowker?

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.

bowker isbn ripoff pricing

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 are part of the publishing plan, it is advisable to register ISBNs via Bowker, despite the rip-off pricing.

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16 thoughts on “Publishing on Amazon KDP: Use a free ISBN, or pay Bowker?

  1. Hi! I seem to remember that Amazon required me to use their ISBN number to make the book available in certain ways/markets. That may not be true anymore, as it’s been a while. Is that something to consider?

    • Not sure about international markets. For the U.S., using Amazon KDP to publish paperback or hardback will require an ISBN (which Amazon will supply if you don’t have your own). Kindle editions don’t require an ISBN.

  2. Curious – Why is Bowker allowed to be a Monopoly? I thought that is going against the US Anti-Trust Laws. Seems like anyone wanting to publish is at the mercy of ONE company.

    • Because the international organization that issues ISBNs set it up that way. One agency per country, and those agencies can make the rules. We in the U.S. got a monopoly.

      • I can’t speak for the world, but here in Canada we only have one ISBN agency as well.

        In the shoes of a U.S. author I imagine I would either put up with the cost of the initial $125 ISBN, or purchase 100 of them for $575, and market my book with every free, and low cost promotional site I could find.

        I am not affiliated with any of these sites. I receive ZERO in any form of compensation if you use any. Just trying to help you out.

        I came across this guy about a year ago. He has useful info, to me anyway, and this list might help you.

        https://kindlepreneur.com/list-sites-promote-free-amazon-books/

        If you don’t want to use the link, just Google free or low cost book promotional sites. You’ll see more than you can review. Remember to be careful, and check the website’s trust rating (3rd party sites will do that for you instantly) before you sign up anywhere.

        • I gritted my teeth and made the volume purchase (first for 10, then 100, then 1000) but Bowker is totally set up to rip off new authors. To top it off, despite the millions of monopoly profits Bowker makes from publishers, the Bowker website for assigning ISBNs is a mess, and a few years back was hacked so people’s credit cards were stolen.

          I wish we had a system like Canada.

  3. Very informative article. I am glad that I came here. ISBNs are free here, but we need to wait ~10 days after registering.

    I was JUST about to let KDP issue me one for my POD book, but decided to do a quick search on any restrictions that may come from that.

    And BINGO! There was your article at the top of the page.

    You most likely saved me some heart ache down the road.

    Just saying “Thank you” feels hollow for the benefit you provide.

    Keep up the great work.

    • Exactly my case. I’ve decided to let amazon assign numbers for kindle, but pay for ISBN for my paperback.
      Good luck with your book

  4. So should you use KDP’s free one and then acquire your own isbn and barcode for your paperback and use that one to distribute at IngramSpark? This way you would pay the $125 plus barcode fee for just one version.

    • As I said in the post, KDP ebooks don’t require ISBNs. Amazon will assign its own numbering system known as an ASIN to the ebook. It’s free.

      Whether you should purchase ISBNs from Bowker really depends on if you think your self-published book will be professionally distributed, are part of series, or will sell more than 200 copies. If the answer is “yes” to any of those possibilities, then I would advise to get Bowker ISBNs. If not, I would just use the free ISBNs provided by Ingram or Amazon as you will end up wasting money. Also, if you have a real publisher, they will take care of the ISBNs.

  5. Both my ebook and print book are listing a dba publisher and are ready to be printed. I have an ISBN for my print book but if I list my dba publisher for my ebook, do I have to have another ISBN for that? I heard that I did but only from one source.

    • The ISBN you use for the print book is only for print editions of the book in that format. So, if you assign the ISBN to a paperback, it can only be used for that paperback, not for a hardcover, ebook, or any other format. The hardcover should have a different ISBN. The ebook should, too, although if you are only publishing on Amazon it’s not required (Amazon will assign their own number called an ASIN).

  6. Thank you for the informative article.

    Question:
    Can I use in amazon KDP an ISBN I purchased in my own country (non-US)? Or it must be either Amazon’s or Bowker’s.

  7. But if an author uses the free KDP Paperback program with Amazon and creates the book using their system and their cover templates, they still can’t sell the books through any other company, can they? Won’t they have to create a different book — different cover, trim size, etc. — in order to sell that particular book elsewhere?

    • I don’t believe they will be able to use Amazon paperback templates on Ingram. Not sure about the ISBN.

      TBH, if a self-published author are using such templates, the chances for bookstore or library placement is almost nil. I would concentrate on making the book a success on Amazon using Amazon ISBNs. If it takes off, purchase Bowker ISBNs, hire a real designer, and re-release the book as a new edition elsewhere.

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