How vital is an ISBN? A lazyweb question

[I won’t use “bleg” but “lazyweb” has a nice ring to it.]

There’s the question: How vital is an ISBN?

The specifics: I’m getting closer to actually doing a self-published/Print-on-demand book, one of several I’ve been thinking about, where potential sales don’t warrant traditional library publishing and I expect that nearly all sales would come from my own websites and people linking to them.

I plan to use Lulu. The first book–many of you have read two draft chapters, possibly not knowing that was what they were–looks to be about a 200-page 6×9 paperback when I’m done revising and reformatting it. I was planning to sell it for $20 to $25 or so, not hoping to make Big Bucks but maybe earn out, say, five or ten cents a word or, say, $10 an hour for the time I’ve put in on it. (My fondest dream would be to earn as much as I did for the Library Technology Reports issue I wrote, but that’s not going to happen…)

I can do that at Lulu with no real risk, have my own storefront for Cites & Insights Books, no problem.

But if I want an ISBN, they’ve bundled that in with “global distribution” services–adding the book to BIP, adding it to Ingram’s catalog (or some “wholesaler” that I assume is Ingram), making it available for Amazon & B& if they want it, etc. The fee’s not too bad ($99–none of this is at all secret: It’s right on Lulu’s website. More if I want “my own ISBN” instead of one from Lulu’s pool).

But, and here’s the big but. (No jokes, Annoyed Librarian!) For anybody but Lulu to sell it, the retail price is double the wholesale price–where on Lulu, there’s no distinction. For a 200-page paperback, I’d have to charge $40 to get the same net proceeds as I’d get for a $20 Lulu price. It’s not clear to me whether I can charge $20 at Lulu and $40 everywhere else…See update below.
I don’t see these books getting any bookstore sales. I don’t see them getting many wholesaler orders. I might send review copies to American Libraries and Library Journal, but since LJ didn’t review First Have Something to Say (as far as I can tell, no publication reviewed it), I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble to try… Basically, I figure sales will be based on interest from my readers and whatever word-of-web/word-of-mouth goes beyond that.

So here’s the question–feel free to respond via comments or through email (waltcrawford at

Is an ISBN vital for this book (or any book) to sell to librarians (and in some cases libraries)?

Is it the case that people will buy books from Amazon that they’d never buy directly from Lulu?

I have no idea. Help?

Update: It is now clear that there can only be one “suggested retail price,” and that orders direct through my Lulu storefront will be charged at the full retail price. Turns out this was a very recent change in Lulu policy, apparently at the insistence of Ingram, and is causing a fair amount of grief… for reasons that the following example may make clear:Let’s say I produce Book A. It’s 200 pages long, 6×9 trade paperback, b&w printing. I anticipate 100 to 300 sales, at least 95% of which would come via links from C&I, Walt at Random, and others who choose to say “hey, this is a great book, here’s how to get it.” Let’s say I would like to clear $1,000 to $3,000 (which comes out to five to fifteen cents per word–less than I ever write articles for–and nowhere near minimum wage on an hourly basis). So I want $10 net proceeds per book.

  • Without an ISBN: I set the price at $21. Lulu (and its PoD printer) charges $8.53 for production and 20% of the remainder ($2.50, more or less), leaving me with $9.97. $21 is a bargain price for a 200-page trade paperback in the library field, so I’m happy. U.S. residents, at least, pay around $2.50 for postage, so the total’s still under $25.
  • With an ISBN: If the suggested retail is $21, I still get $9.97 for Lulu orders–but the wholesale prices is then $10.50. If Amazon, B&N, or anybody else picks it up from Ingram, the charge per book is slightly lower ($5.50 instead of $8.53), but I wind up with $4 (80% of $5) instead of $10.
  • Worse yet: If Amazon or B&N does sell it, they probably offer a slight discount–say $1.50–and have cheaper shipping when people buy more than one item So there’s an incentive for buyers to go to Amazon; they can get it for, say, $19.50 instead of $23.50. The buyer saves $4; I lose $6.
  • The alternative is that I get $10 on Amazon/B&N orders–but only by setting the price to $18.00 wholesale, thus $36 retail. That means I get $21.97 for Lulu orders–but it also means that a lot of people who might pay $21 won’t pay $36, and I feel like I’m ripping off those who do.

Suggestions? Of course, this could be entirely hypothetical–there’s no reason to believe that online booksellers would choose to offer a specialized library-related book.

I do note that “similar” paperbacks at Amazon are going for $28 to $30, so maybe I should split the difference…

Further feedback?

[Oh, there’s also the odd choice: instead of $99 and getting a Lulu Press ISBN, I can pay $150 and get listed as my very own publisher with a single-ISBN range. Of course, a second book gets an entirely separate single-ISBN publisher, and so on… I really don’t see the point in this–having something listed under “Cites & Insights Books” rather than “Lulu” in Ingram just isn’t going to make any difference.]

Second update, February 15: Thanks to comments and further examination of the Lulu situation, I’ve made a near-final decision. No ISBN, availability strictly through Lulu’s online store. See my 2/15 comment for more. Thanks to those who commented!

8 Responses to “How vital is an ISBN? A lazyweb question”

  1. John Dupuis says:

    Hi Walt, I recently bought a book from Lulu. It doesn’t have an isbn and frankly I didn’t realize it didn’t have one until I looked just now. I do plan on ordering a copy for my library and that’s where I’m somewhat concerned that the lack of isbn and mainstream ordering venues will confuse the mono ordering department. On the other hand, they’ve gotten stuff from weird places before so they should be able to figure it out.

    BTW, the book looks great and is generally indistinguishable from a normal book. Shipping to Canada was expensive, almost $10 for the cheapest option and it took 18 days to get here from the day I ordered it.

    The book is The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2006.

  2. walt says:

    John, Thanks. As to book quality, the first thing I did was to buy a Lulu book (one I’d thought about buying anyway) to check on quality. At least for the book I got, it really was high trade-paper quality, with “book paper” that’s nicer than many professional publishers (that is, it’s a slightly textured cream rather than flat white); I assumed print quality wouldn’t be an issue, and it wasn’t.

    Whew. Cheapest U.S. shipping was $2.45 for a 290-page paperback via USPS (media mail). I’m surprised it’s that much more for Canada. The 18 days sounds about right, though (I think my purchase took about the same)–one negative consequence of publish-on-demand: There’s no stock to ship from.

  3. Mary Scriver says:


    My experience with so far is new and inexperienced, but then — that’s what they are, too! For instance, they’ve just changed their pricing policies, responding in part to customer confusion and in part to actual law in the EU countries. This is a bit of a worry to me — that their present good policies will evolve towards big business and lose little guy advantages.

    I’ve only paid for an ISBN for one of my books, “Twelve Blackfeet Stories,” even though it was already on Google thanks to my blog. I think it was the right thing to do, partly because Amazon is still the king of the jungle and partly because posted Google entries that were in Japanese and German where I know there are people interested in Blackfeet content. This means listing in Ingrams, which works, and Barnes & Noble, which is another massive seller. I cannot sell my “homemade” wirebound books at B&N unless I’ve gotten ISBNs for the books, partly because their stock is handled via barcode guns — no barcode means hand entry, which is a drag for them. They might refuse to do it.

    Two other books I have at Lulu (see prairiem or Mary Scriver to find my “marketplace”) are probably not of general interest. One is a family history (“Strachans on the Prairie”) and one is a novel written by the 7th Grade class in Heart Butte, Montana, on the Blackfeet reservation. People are not likely to buy them except through me or possibly by Googling.

    Shipping is a killer. I’ve remarked several times that if I had money to invest, I’d put it in UPS, not publishing.

    The “initiated” are not afraid of POD or Lulu or any other of the amazing techno print advances, but I’m finding that the general public is wary and unreassured. They smell scams unless everything goes along as usual. Therefore, they like ISBN. But then, they like glossy and pretty pictures on the front, too.

    Prairie Mary
    (Mary Scriver)

  4. walt says:

    Well, I’ll have the glossy cover with the pretty picture–I’m definitely doing a standard trade paperback. The “general public” isn’t going to be buying this book, and it won’t show up in bookstores. I’m more concerned with libraries unable to buy it if there’s no ISBN.

  5. Laura Gibbs says:

    I have published two books with Lulu, both with a very specialized audience: Latin teachers and students. One book is 4000 Latin proverbs organized grammatically, and the other is just for fun – a set of Roman numeral Sudoku puzzles. 🙂

    My experience with Lulu has been excellent. I really appreciate the quality of the books and the very nice Lulu website.

    My main way of marketing the books is through my own blogs and websites, and I’ve sold a couple hundred copies so far over a six month period. That is very exciting for me!

    The books are affordable this way, and I cringe, positively CRINGE, at the steep price that I would have to charge for the books if they were distributed through Amazon et al. I originally planned to offer them through Amazon, too – but that was before I learned about the whole Amazon/Ingram pricing structure.

    Perhaps some day I will do a version of the books with an ISBN, but for right now this is a great solution for me. I am learning more about my audience and their needs, and if/when I do another edition of the books with ISBN I hope to make changes to the books to make them more useful.

    If I didn’t have blogs and a website to market the books, I might feel frustrated, but for right now, my hope and challenge is to keep developing useful online materials, as companion materials to the books … and the Lulu book sales are a nice little barometer to let me know how I’m doing!

  6. walt says:

    Laura and Mary, Thanks.

    I’ve pretty well decided: No ISBN, at least for now.

    My situation’s odd (isn’t everybody’s?): I have a solid traditional publishing record (13 books in the library field). My primary audience–librarians–by and large know who I am, so “scam” probably isn’t much of an issue. The books I plan to do on Lulu are books that don’t fit my library publisher’s model (where 1,200 copies in the first two years are needed, unless the price is set higher than I’d like)–the publisher knows this, and knows I’ll go to them when I have a project where the regular editing/publishing delay and anticipated sales make sense.

    Actually, as I’ve been looking at comparable books in librarianship over the last few weeks, I could readily justify a $29 price (that seems to be most common for 200p. trade paperbacks), but I’d rather come in lower, if only to make up for Lulu’s shipping charges.

    The only real purpose of an ISBN is to ease acquisitions for libraries, rather than librarians. At this point, I don’t think it’s worth it.

  7. Sarah Miller says:

    Hi. I am trying to decide whether to get an ISBN and put my book in Google’s book program. I have no idea if I will sell even one copy, and I don’t have $125.00 to throw away on an ISBN. I have never tried Lulu, but will look into it. What is the cost there? Your information has been helpful. Thanks very much. Sarah Miller

  8. walt says:


    I haven’t actually signed up to publish yet (but will soon). If you want an ISBN, Lulu charges $99 for a Lulu ISBN (and inclusion in Ingram’s wholesale system, thus potentially Amazon, B&N, etc.) or $125 for your own ISBN (and inclusion in Ingram etc.)–BUT the retail price, including the Lulu direct-order price, MUST be twice the wholesale price, and the wholesale price is what you’ll earn royalties on (80% of what’s left over after production costs).

    Last time I checked, there are no upfront costs if you don’t use an ISBN–just production costs (for paperback b&w, typically $4.50 plus two cents per page) and 20% of the difference between that cost and the price you set.

    I don’t believe Lulu offers inclusion in Google Book Search, but haven’t looked into that.

    If/when I complete this process, I’ll write up some of it, either here or in Cites & Insights.