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Articles on Ebooks and Ebook conversion


ISBNs What are they and do I need one?

An ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is a unique number that identifies a particular edition of a book in a specific format published by an individual publisher. It is designed to make the process of book ordering and inventory control easier for publishers, book distributors and book sellers. First introduced in 1970, and adapted from a system of book numbering first introduced in the UK by J. Whitaker & Sons, Ltd in 1967, and in the United States in 1968 by R. R. Bowker, they are now in use in at least 160 countries worldwide.

An individual ISBN’s structure comprises several elements – (1) prefix, (2) registration group (country/geographical region), (3) registrant (the publisher), (4) publication (specific edition) and (5) check digit.

(1) (2) (3) (4) (5)

Each country has its own ISBN agency which you can find listed on the International ISBN Agency’s website. It is their job to assign ISBN numbers for their country/territory.

The agency for the country you are resident in is where you must buy your ISBNs. So, for instance, if you live in the U.S you cannot buy your ISBNs from the UK – you have to go to the official US ISBN agency. This is particularly relevant because many agencies in the world are run by that particular country’s National Library and not by a commercial organisation which can mean that they are free to that country’s authors. New Zealand is an example of this – if you are resident in New Zealand you can get your ISBNs for nothing. Most countries will let you buy an individual ISBN number, though there are countries, like the UK for instance, who will only sell them in batches.

The system is particularly designed to help publishers keep track of their books. Therefore whoever buys an ISBN to assign to a book becomes the official publisher of that book. This is where it can get complicated as the whole system was really designed for the printed book market where publishers published in their own countries and if the book was published internationally then the original publisher would either use subsidiaries in different countries (who would then assign their own ISBNs) or authors or their agents would negotiate with different publishers to publish the book in a particular country or territory (who once again would assign their own ISBNs). This worked fine in the printed market as the vast majority of printed books were purchased from bookshops who brought their books from publishers and distributors in their own country. Even Amazon with its worldwide reach has not upset this too much, because with most books if you purchase a printed book from you will get the U.S. version and if you buy it from Amazon UK you will get the British version. This is the same with Amazon sites around the world. (It makes more sense for Amazon to get the book locally if the book is available from a local publisher rather than ship one version to all their depots around the world.)

The whole ISBN system, though, has got more complicated because of the internet and the rise of the ebook and the self-publisher and in particular how ISBNs are used by them. Whilst digital books now have ISBNs and the system works the same, especially with the publishing companies, where the book is published actually does not really mean anything with ebooks. Individuals now regularly publish their own books on websites not based in their own country. And, unlike with printed books, companies now provide ISBNs to individuals publishing on their websites and do not claim publishers rights (though they are the “official” publishers as they brought the ISBNs). This means that both the registration group (country/geographical region) and the registrant (publisher) part of the ISBN number are being watered down by the ebook.

So do you need an ISBN?

It is perfectly possible to publish an ebook without an ISBN. It all comes down to choice and where you upload the book. If you want to become your own publisher you can buy your own ISBNs and then publish the book on all the different retail sites retaining full control of your own book and ensuring it registration with your own country’s National library. When considering whether to buy your own ISBNs remember that each edition in every format of your book has to have a different ISBN number. So the Hardback version of your book has to have a different ISBN to the Paperback version which has to be different from the ePub version which once again has to be different from the Kindle version etc. etc.

This all sounds terribly expensive and complicated if you are publishing the book yourself but as most self-publishers only want to publish their book as an ebook you really only need one or at the most two ISBNs. If you only want to buy one then it needs to be assigned to the epub version as Amazon do not require one.

Another option is to publish your book to retailers who do not require an ISBN. Companies like Amazon, Apple and Barnes and Noble do not ask for an ISBN if you set up your own account and upload your book direct to them.

You can also publish your book via an aggregator such as Kobo, Smashwords or Lulu. Kobo, Smashwords and Lulu will accept your book without an ISBN if you are happy for the book to be only available on their own websites. If you want to take advantage of their distribution networks (they all distribute to other retailers) then you will need an ISBN. Smashwords and Lulu will provide you with a free ISBN (though remember that they become the “official” publishers of your book.) but both will insist that if you use their free ISBN rather than your own that the ISBN cannot be used anywhere else (so if you want to upload the book to a different retailer, who requires an ISBN and they do not distribute to, you will need a different ISBN).

Lastly if you are selling the book on your own website and not going through the retailers you can decide for yourself whether to have an ISBN or not. You can also obviously combine and choose from the different options available.

So whilst ISBNs are important for publishing companies they are less so for the individual self-publisher as most do not have lots of stock to control and keep track of. Amazon and the other big retailers do not require one if you set up accounts direct with them. Kobo are the only big retailer who require one (and then only if you want your book to be distributed by them to other smaller retailers).

In the end it is a personal preference as to whether you have one or not as there are plenty of options that do not require an ISBN.



A very important consideration for all self-publishing authors is which retailers to use. Whilst there are a myriad of choices you do not need to set up accounts with all of them. Many of the retailers are also aggregators who sell the book on their own website and also distribute it to other retailers.

The biggest retailer of them all is Amazon – love them or loathe them they cannot be ignored. The vast majority of your sales will be via Amazon. They led the way with self-publishing on the internet and helped turn what was a small and limited part of the publishing industry into something major which changed the publishing world and turned it upside down. Kindle Direct Publishing or Amazon KDP, as they are known, are one of the easiest retailers to set up accounts with and also one the easiest to upload to. They also have a Print On Demand company called Createspace so you can also have your book as a paperback.

Despite Amazon being a ‘closed’ system they do offer apps for the PC/MAC, iPad, iPhone and Android phones so your book can be brought from Amazon by readers who do not own a Kindle.

Apple are another big ebook retailer. Though like Amazon they are a ‘closed’ system, unlike Amazon a compatible device is needed to be able to read the book. So the reader has to have an Apple MAC, iPad, iPhone. Despite this Apple and its iBookstore are a major ebook retailer thanks to the ubiquitous presence of all the different Apple devices. Authors need to set up an account with iTunes Connect and to sell books on the iBookstore non-US citizens need an ITIN (International Tax Identification Number). To upload a book to Apple access to an Apple Mac is required. The book is uploaded using a program called iTunes Producer.

Barnes & Noble are one of the last major bricks and mortar retailers who also sell eBooks and, like Amazon and Apple, produce their own ereading device called the Nook. Despite being the largest physical US bookstore chain they lag behind Amazon with their internet presence. It is only recently that Barnes & Noble have made their Nook Press platform available to authors outside the US and then only to authors in the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium.


Apple and Barnes and Noble can be difficult to set up an account with for Author’s outside the US but there are aggregators like Lulu and Smashwords who distribute to both.

Kobo are a large ebook retailer based in Canada who produce their own eReading devices and also sell ebooks via their own website. Kobo are a useful choice for self-publishing authors as they also distribute to other retailers like WHSmith, Best Buy, Walmart, Indigo, Fnac, Mondadori, Livraria Cultura, Libris, and Gardners. Kobo announced back in 2012 that they intend to compete against Amazon and they are well on the way to doing it by aggressively expanding their distribution network with new retail partners being added all of the time. In many countries they are the only real competition to Amazon and their ereading devices are now said to be the third bestselling devices behind Amazon’s and Apple’s. Kobo’s author program is called Kobo Writing Life.

Google are another growing ebook retailer helped by the all-pervasive presence of Google on the web. Books can be bought on Google Play. Google can be quite complicated to upload to but they are worth persevering with as they are growing bigger all of the time.

One more retailer worth mentioning is Smashwords. They also distribute to other retailers including Amazon and Kobo. Smashwords will convert your book into several formats though we recommend uploading an ePub version of the book rather than allowing their automatic software to convert a word document.

These are just a very few of the ebook retailers out there but by uploading to just a few you can cover most of the ebook market.

DRM Should I have it?


Every author who publishes an ebook has to decide whether to digitally protect their book from copying. This is done by adding something called Digital Rights Management or DRM for short. This is a form of electronic protection added to digital files like ebooks, music files and video files. DRM places a “lock” on the file which should prevent the file being altered or copied.

DRM is actually just a piece of code that is added by the retailer to the book. And because it is applied when the book is downloaded from the website, the code is unique to each download. There as many forms of DRM as there are digital platforms available. There are different ones for audio, video and ebooks which is then complicated by the fact that many of the retailers and manufacturers have their own version.

Adobe DRM is the main form of DRM in use for ebooks, virtually all of the retailers use it apart from Amazon and Apple who both have their own version. In Amazon’s case this means that unless the book is sold via Amazon there is no way to apply DRM to an Amazon Kindle file.

All of this sounds fine and as most authors want some reward for their hard work, which author wouldn’t want to protect their work from being copied and downloaded for free, especially after the time and angst spent in writing it. The problem though is that unfortunately it also locks the file to the individual device it is purchased for. Which means (unless they are updating from an older version of the same device) that if the purchaser swaps devices they cannot take the book they have brought with them or, as recently happened with Sony, if the retailer shuts down they cannot access all of their ebooks.


Another shortcoming with DRM is that it really does not protect against copying. There is a constant battle between the DRM software manufacturers and people who want to find ways around it. DRM is constantly updated and just as quickly broken. The end result is that just by searching on the internet, ways to break DRM are easily available. And you do not have to be a computer expert to use them.

As an author you need to decide to whether to have DRM or not. Most authors tend to think that internet piracy is rife and that as soon as you put the book online it will be copied. The evidence, though, contradicts this. Piracy is not as prevalent as people think and it is unlikely that your book will be copied unless it is a bestseller. There are now publishers who do not use DRM and all have reported that there is no noticeable increase in piracy.

So do you need DRM? It really boils down to personal choice. Those who are determined to copy your book will find a way whether you have DRM or not and, in this author’s humble opinion, all DRM really does is punish the honest reader by not allowing them to transfer something they have legally purchased between devices that they own. The vast majority of readers are honest and are quite prepared to pay for a book they perceive is priced at a fair price.