For a step-by-step guide to publishing print and ebooks and distributing them to online bookstores, get my Self-Publishing for Canadians book. Learn more
You’ve created your company or have decided to publish under your own name, but you’re not a publisher yet. Unless you’re planning to offer your book to family and friends only, you’ll need to assign it an ISBN—an International Standard Book Number. If your book doesn’t have an ISBN, you won’t be able to sell it through online or brick and mortar bookstores.
You should assign each format of your book a unique ISBN. For example, if you publish both print and eBook versions, you’ll need to assign one ISBN to the print version and another to the eBook version.
Okay, so you need to get your hands on ISBNs. ISBNs are given to publishers; in fact, you can determine a book’s publisher from its ISBN. In the US, ISBNs are distributed by a company called Bowker and cost money. Not so in Canada. Here, the ISBN agency is the good ‘ol federal government and we get them for free. Canada’s ISBN agency is friendly to self-publishers, including those using their own name as the publisher.
To get ISBNs, you’ll first have to register yourself as a publisher using the Canadian ISBN Service System (CISS). As a new publisher, you’ll have to provide details about one item you plan to publish: the title, format, and projected publication date. You’ll also be asked for an estimate of how many ISBNs you’ll need in the coming year. This is an estimate; don’t sweat over it. Remember that one book will require more than one ISBN if you plan to offer it in more than one format.
At this point, you’ll also have to decide what information you’re willing to make public. Some of the information you provide to the agency will become public record, so you might, for example, decide that you’d rather provide a post office box as your company’s address, not your home address. You can see the questions you’ll be asked, along with explanations that include what information will become public record, here: CISS Registration Form questions. It’s a good idea to read the questions over and prepare your answers before beginning the online registration process.
Once you’ve filled in the online form and submitted it, you can sit back and wait for the agency to email your publisher prefix and login information. I submitted my form on a Sunday afternoon and received my information the next day.
Now that you can login to CISS, you can obtain ISBNs. The process is straightforward so I won’t describe it here. As usual, I’ll point out a couple of points related to what you’ll usually read in self-publishing books and articles. Some people suggest that you buy a block of 100 ISBNs so that you don’t look like a small publisher. Well, we don’t buy ISBNs here, and it’s not possible to obtain blocks of ISBNs. So ignore that.
They’ll also suggest that you not use the first number from your ISBN block, which will end in 0, because then people will tag you as a small-fry publisher. I frankly doubt that anyone out there cares about the ISBN assigned to a book unless they want to order it. And in Canada, you don’t explicitly assign the ISBN. When you want an ISBN for an item, you must login to CISS and describe the item that needs the ISBN. The CISS system will assign the ISBN based on your publisher prefix. Again, don’t sweat over it.
Earlier, I mentioned Bowker. You won’t buy your ISBNs from Bowker, but Bowker is still important because it publishes Books in Print and Forthcoming Books in Print. When you’re ready, you’ll definitely want to tell Bowker about your book. To do that, you’ll have to register with BowkerLINK. Because you didn’t buy your ISBNs from Bowker, you’ll run into a snag. When you try to register, you’ll be asked for your publishing company name. Bowker will lookup the name in its database but won’t find it, because you didn’t buy your ISBNs from Bowker. You’ll have to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and request that your publishing company be added to Bowker’s database. In the email, provide your publishing company name and your publisher ISBN prefix. Once your company has been added, you’ll be able to register.
That’s it for ISBNs!