24 December 2012

ISBN Scams and the Writers Who Fall for Them

by Carrie Bailey

A simple question like this deserves a simple answer and I'm going to give it to you in one simple step.
Step 1. You don't
An ISBN is not something you have to pay $125 to use. It's a randomly generated number. Only earlier this month, I had a coworker at a bookstore where I am working make an offhand comment about being able to afford ISBNs. I dropped a whole stack of Shakespeare.

As a self-published author, I knew that I could get an ISBN from Lulu or Smashwords just by uploading my files and publishing online with them. It was unthinkable to imagine that anyone would pay for something readily available for free.

When I got home I did a search for ISBN numbers and sure enough you can spend $125 for a single ISBN from www.isbn.org. That's a website name, which to me at least, sounds about as legitimate as www.loc.gov (US Library of Congress). Unfortunately, that is not the case for these crafty sellers of 13 book identifying digits. Their website even reads, "Please use the US ISBN Agency’s website www.myidentifiers.com to get an ISBN instantly."

Q: Why does a website with a .org domain name need to send you to a .com domain? 
A: To take $125 from you in a very unpleasant and nasty little scam. 
Please don't fall for this. For most self-published authors, the sales you will make initially will be minuscule and there is nothing wrong with that, but if you have a spare $125 that you want to invest in your book I have a few recommendations, which aren't scams.

1. Find someone willing to produce original cover art for your $125 buckaroos. 
2. Send $125 to a freelancer for a semi-professional book trailer.
I paid $0.00 for the ISBN
on this self-help book.
3. Spend about half of that money on self-hosted website for your book and save the rest for coffee. 
4. Buy yourself $125 worth of copies from a print-on-demand service and donate them to libraries. 
5. Merchandise! Put your book cover on a bag, on a magnet, on a t-shirt and give them away. 
6. Buy honest book reviews. It's not unethical. Book reviewers can tell readers exactly what is in a book from different perspectives. 

I admit it's hard to know where your money will be best spent when it comes to promoting a self-published book, but I can guarantee that tossing it at a scammer in exchange for an ISBN is not the place.

Don't do it. Just spend a little more time punching words into your browser until you find the service you want to use. I hope it's the free one. Then, get that ISBN, slap it on your book. Literally.


First, put the ISBN in the text of your title page and then use a FREE barcode generator to create an image which you can use on the back of your printed book. Simple.

Self-publishing is a perilous journey. Don't give a dime to the scammers. Give it to other freelancers and other career-oriented writers. That's right. Pass the money around to the deserving. Apparently, money circulating is an important part of commerce and a healthy economy.

The fact of the matter is that we're a resourceful lot. Most of us aren't likely to fall for scams like the $125 ISBN either. So, that leaves me with a thought about who would have fallen for it?

People who give up on their dreams. That's who. Publishing is just too expensive if you believe even a short label should cost nearly $10 per digit. Man, the prices of paper have just gone through the roof. No one is buying print books anymore. Formatting an eBook is too complicated for someone without a Ph.D. in Digital Publication Formatting...

If you haven't already self-published, consider demystifying the process. No secret society of writers will come in your sleep and brand you with the mark of "Independent Author." You can still pursue traditional publication, meaning someone else with a lot of money can do it for you if they feel like it.

But, get informed. Don't get scammed.


  1. Wow. The ISBN website, which I visited a few times for a couple different classes during my grad program, really looks questionable now. I honestly had to double-check and be certain that it (myidentifiers.com) was the proper site because right now? It looks like it's gonna only let me buy an ISBN after I fill out a survey to get a free iPad.

    Like you said, if you're self-pubbing, an ISBN isn't necessary, or there are ways to get it for a whole lot less (if not free). For even a small publisher, the cost of an ISBN isn't terrible (a small press, putting out two books a year, could buy 10 ISBNs and have those numbers last five years), but even the smallest publishers should have budgets in place to allow for it, which is something that's harder for self-pubs to do because while you might have money set aside to purchase an ISBN, you might also have to call the plumber because your toilet leaked all over the bathroom floor.

  2. I don't know... we bought ISBNs I think from Bowker in 2004 so we could set up our books with Lightning Source, Inc. for print on demand. We got ten of them for $250. We've used 4 so far, but they don't expire. They are permanently assigned to our publishing company that we set up (NineLives Press) and can't be transferred or sold. At least that's what LSI told us.
    Jeanne Kasten for

    1. Most print on demand places don't charge for ISBNs now and none can be transferred or sold either.

  3. Awesome info. There's so many little aspects of being a "real" writer that creative types (like me) might THINK we have a handle on, but really are only semi-informed. This is a great piece that will help a LOT of writers.

    Much appreciated Carrie!

    1. Thank you Rob. I've noticed that I stumble on things that I think are the easy or best way to do something, but then later discover I was so wrong. That's the problem with self-education. You have to research all your own sources and it takes time. I guess that's why connecting with other writers is so important.

  4. Carrie - first: excellent resource. second: GAH! there is too much for me to know! what happened to the days of crayons, staples, pieces of yarn and stitching it all together...? I'm with Rob... this is a ton of info that will be amazingly helpful. When I need it, I hope to be face down in a gutter, like Navin Johnson at the end of "The Jerk" -- then my story can be told. In the meantime, honing the creativity is where I feel the most useful, and that lamp. I'll take that lamp... and that table...

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