Adventures in Canadian ISBNs

January 23, 2015

When prepping my first novel, Satin & Sutherland – The Golden Curse, for publication on different e-tailers I had to learn about and deal with a bunch of “businessy” things I hadn’t even thought about before. One of these was obtaining an ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, for my book. And that’s where the journey got interesting.

ISBNs versus eISBNS

I had known about ISBNs for some time. They’re typically printed in numerical format inside published books and may also appear on the back cover of books as a barcode. It’s an international number so each distinct book should have its own unique ISBN.

That I got. That made sense to me. What threw me for a loop was when I encountered the term eISBN. If you publish an eBook with one of the big e-tailers you may see eISBN used instead of just ISBN when you fill in the submission details for your book.

So what’s the difference? There isn’t one. An eISBN is a normal ISBN. The “e” is sometimes used to remind you that an eBook counts as a different edition from a physical book and so should have its own number. Let me explain.

Among its many purposes, an ISBN is intended to help ensure that a buyer is buying the correct product. Consider a traditional bound and printed book. Many such books come out as a hardcover version and then later a softcover paperback. Supposing you were ordering the paperback version because of the reduced price. You’d want to make sure you got that correct version. The hardcover and the paperback would have different ISBNs from each other that would allow you to tell them apart.

The same theory applies to eBook editions. Even though the content may be the same as a physical copy, an eBook is a quite different format from a hardcover and a paperback. So, just as the hardcover and paperback would have different ISBNs, the eBook would also have a different ISBN.

That brings us back to the concept of an eISBN. As I said, the “e” is there to remind you that the eBook should have a different ISBN from the hardcover and paperback.

It doesn’t end there, though. An ISBN should be assigned to each different format of the book. And this is where eBooks start to get tricky.

When I published my eBook I did so with four different e-tailers: Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, and Google Play. Amazon makes its eBooks available in the MOBI file format for its Kindle devices, iTunes makes its eBooks available in its proprietary format for its iBooks app, and Kobo and Google both make the open standard ePUB format available.

There is some debate in the authoring community as to whether each of these different formats requires a different ISBN. For myself, I think back to the idea that the ISBN is used to differentiate formats so that the buyer can be sure of getting the one they want. From that point of view, having different numbers for the different electronic formats is a must. You’re not going to get far trying to read a MOBI file on a Kobo or an ePUB on a Kindle. Things may change in the future, but for now I’d recommend using a different ISBN for each different electronic format.

ISBN 10 versus ISBN 13

An ISBN is an ISBN is an ISBN. But not really.

Another issue I came across while researching ISBNs was the difference between ISBN 10 and ISBN 13. This actually proved to be a non-issue for me.

The initial ISBN format was developed by the ISO in 1970. It was created as a 10-digit number. In 2007, ISBNs were changed to be a 13 digit number. I didn’t delve too much into ISBN 10s as the different e-tailers all wanted ISBN 13s and that’s all you can get issued new now.

My understanding is that ISBN 10 is a subset of ISBN 13. If so and you do have an ISBN 10 then it should be possible to convert it to an ISBN 13 when going to publish your book electronically. However, even this should not be strictly necessary as reusing an ISBN is frowned upon except for purposes for running additional printings of the same physical book. I can’t really think of a situation where an eBook would be “reprinted” since it’s already sitting on a shelf with infinite space.

Amazon ASIN and Goodreads

As I previously reported in my review of the eBook publishing process on Amazon, Amazon does not require an ISBN to be filled in when self-publishing. It does provide a space to fill this number in, which can be used by buyers to search for the book if they already know the ISBN. However, Amazon does not use the ISBN as the primary identifier and doesn’t even list it on its product pages.

Instead Amazon uses an ASIN, an Amazon Standard Identification Number. Amazon sells all sorts of products, not just eBooks, and each of those products receives its own ASIN. This is generated automatically by Amazon when you list a new product so you don’t have to worry about where to get an ASIN from.

One important thing to note regarding Amazon is its relationship to the reading social media site Goodreads. Goodreads allows its user community to go in and add any book to its database manually. The database is also periodically updated from the books that are available on Amazon. This update seems to be on a roughly monthly schedule, so if you publish a book on Amazon it may take a while before it automatically pops up on Goodreads.

The interesting thing about Goodreads is that for an individual edition of a book you can assign it an ISBN or an ASIN but not both. After I published my novel, I set up my three different editions in the Goodreads database. And since I had an internationally recognized number for each edition (the ISBN) I chose to fill that in.

All was good until the automatic update that Goodreads does. When that happened, it found my novel on Amazon, which it tried to match against an ASIN in the Goodreads database. However, since I had set up my novel using the ISBN the Goodreads update didn’t find a match. So it created a second copy of the same edition. Fortunately, the Goodreads librarians were able to help me out and collect the editions together with the result being that the Amazon edition now has its ASIN in Goodreads (thanks so much, Sandra!).

So lesson learned for the future: when setting up an Amazon edition on Goodreads use the ASIN not the ISBN. This is particularly important to authors who, like me, have multiple people matching their author name. When the book came over from Amazon, it got assigned to a different author and so I also needed the help of the Goodreads librarians to get that changed too. In the future, I’d like to be able to properly set up my own Amazon editions so that I don’t have to add another request to the pile the tireless librarians already have.

Canadian ISBNs

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is how exactly you get an ISBN, or multiple ISBNs, for your eBook. That’s a difficult question to field since the answer is different for different countries, which I hadn’t realized when I first started looking into ISBNs. My initial research was showing that an ISBN could cost anywhere from $40 to $100 or more. That proved to be for ISBNs obtained in the United States. Quite by chance, I tumbled to the fact that ISBNs in my country, Canada, were obtained in a different manner.

In Canada there is a branch of the Canadian government responsible for issuing ISBNs. This branch makes the Canadian ISBN Service System (CISS, pronounced “kiss”) available.

CISS is an online system that Canadian authors and publishers can use to obtain ISBNs for free. To do so, you only need to go to their site and create a free account.

When you first create your CISS account, you will be asked how many ISBNs you expect to use in the next year. Since I knew I needed at least three numbers for my three different editions (Amazon MOBI, iTunes iBook, and generic ePUB) I asked for 10. Once I’ve used all those numbers up, I’ll then be able to request another block of numbers.

When you set up your account with CISS it goes back for manual review which can take up to ten business days. My account was set up in two. It’s then an easy matter to go into your account online, set up each edition of your book, and assign a different ISBN to each. At the time of writing, CISS is revamping their website so I’ll leave the discussion there rather than go into detail about the online system.

Canada makes it nice and easy to obtain ISBNs. Being a Canadian author, I’m understandably unfamiliar with obtaining ISBNs in other territories other than at least some of them have a cost associated with them. Long after I got my ISBNs, I discovered that Wikipedia has details on where to go for ISBNs for different regions. If you’re looking to get an ISBN, I’d suggest checking there first as a good starting point. After my blog, of course.