What Amazon Doesn’t Tell You Can Hurt You and Your Book

I’m the prankster in my household. On April Fool’s Day, the coffee I prepared for my husband was actually chicken broth mixed lovingly with brown food coloring. I waited with the excitement of a 5-year-old for him to wake up. Thankfully, my husband has a sense of humor.

I discovered another surprise later that day that wasn’t so funny. An author had asked for help to distribute and market his book beyond Amazon, but a little digging turned up unfortunate news. He had published his book using a free ISBN from KDP Amazon.

I like KDP Amazon because they make self-publishing easy for authors. But sometimes they make it too easy, like offering free ISBNs. As with anything that’s free, there’s always a hidden cost. And what Amazon doesn’t tell authors about their ISBNs can hurt you and your books.

What’s wrong with using the free ISBN from KDP Amazon?

Let’s first understand a few basics about ISBNs.

What is an ISBN?

ISBN is short for International Standard Book Number. It’s a 13-digit number that you can find on the back cover of a book, above a bar code. The bar code is simply a translation of your ISBN into a format compatible with bookstore scanners.

What does an ISBN do?

ISBNs uniquely identify every book that is published worldwide. They hold important information such as title, publisher, and geographic location. ISBNs help simplify the distribution of books to publishers, booksellers, libraries, internet retailers, and other supply chain participants around the world.

What does an ISBN not do?

An ISBN does not establish copyright. You as the author are the rightful owner of your intellectual property under copyright laws.

Why do you need an ISBN?

You need an ISBN if you want to sell your book in bookstores, to libraries, or through online retailers like Amazon.com. If you want to print a book privately just for your family and friends, you may not need an ISBN.

How much does an ISBN cost?

An ISBN costs $125. A block of 10 ISBNs costs $295. Each format of your book requires its own ISBN, so I typically purchase a block of 10 for each author.

How do you get an ISBN?

The only official source of ISBNs in the United States is Bowker Agency.

Here’s the important thing: The individual or company who gets the ISBN from Bowker Agency is the legal publisher of your book. The publisher can be you as the author, a publishing services company that you hire, or a traditional publisher. I encourage authors to be their own publishers to avoid a host of problems. It’s best not to let anyone or anything get between you and your book.

One of the biggest reasons authors want my company listed as their publisher is for the image. It’s a valid reason. Authors want readers to know they invested in a professional product that should be taken seriously. But I can help you present a professional image backed by my company imprint while keeping control of your book.

So back to the question.

What’s wrong with using the free ISBN from KDP Amazon?

A “free” ISBN means that KDP purchased the ISBN from Bowker Agency. That makes KDP Amazon the legal publisher of the book. And as a retailer, KDP prioritizes its interests, not that of its authors. KDP wants to lock in books for Amazon buyers.

The author who used the free IBSN can only distribute through KDP Amazon. He can’t distribute his book through other platforms. The hidden cost of a “free” ISBN is freedom.

A bit of good news: There’s a way around this issue. It’ll cause confusion for readers that may not be worth it, so the author will have to weigh his goals.

Leave the bait-and-switches to April Fool’s Day. In book publishing, beware of cheap, fast, or free services. There’s always a hidden cost. Talk with a consultant to ensure you’re making wise decisions that can sustain the life of your book.

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