How to Become Your Own Publisher: Why to Buy Your Own ISBN

So, I’m going to go ahead and come out with it: while I enjoy helping authors pursue and acquire book deals, I’m also super excited about self-publishing.

The whole thing gives me energy. I like the idea of creative control. I like knowing that artists are out there, doing every single thing their own way. I like that it’s so accessible; so immediate. I like the pure rebellion of it, because I’m the kind of gal that roots for the underdog. I’m a big fan of bucking the system.

So, though I still enjoy working on book proposals, building platforms and seeking out traditional publishers, today I’m writing to the self-publishing warriors. The ones who looked at the whole publishing game and said, “You know what? Forget that. I’d rather just write this thing and get it out there.”

This blog post is going to go into some detail about what it means to self-publish in the most system-bucking way I can imagine: by buying ISBNs and starting your very own publishing company. It’s exciting, it’s subversive, and it’s lot easier than you might think!

The First Fork in the Road

There are several ways to self-publish, and you’ll have many decision points along the way. First off, you get to choose how to print your book.

Some companies act as self-publishing/traditional publishing hybrids, meaning they do everything from production editing to cover design in-house, and publish it under their imprint. Our friends at Balboa Press do this, and there are numerous companies connected to different publishing houses that do the same.

Then there are what I call straightforward printing companies. Though some of these guys offer those types of services as add-ons, what defines a straightforward printing company is the ability to print and distribute your book as a standalone service. These include CreateSpace, IngramSpark and BookBaby.

I’m not advocating either option as the right one. Each option will appeal to different authors for different reasons.

But for a moment, let’s explore one of the significant advantages of using a printing company, as opposed to a hybrid company: the option to buy your own ISBNs and register to your own imprint—in short, to become your own publisher.

ISB-what?!

An International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, is the identification code for your book. Each edition of your book—should you release more than one—will have its own ISBN, and if you choose to go with hardcover and paperback versions, they will also have separate ISBNs. Additionally, each format of your ebook will have its own ISBN.

ISBNs are then registered to a certain imprint. An imprint is a trade name, a division of a publishing house that focuses on a certain area, genre or theme. Some smaller publishing houses have only one imprint, while larger houses generally have numerous imprints.

Most straightforward printing companies will provide you the option of buying ISBNs through them and registering it to their imprint. In terms of convenience, this is certainly an attractive option—you just click the little box, and they add it to your total bill. But if you’re already working with a straightforward printing company, buying your own ISBNs online is not particularly difficult, and it has many advantages.

So…What Advantages?

For one thing, if you buy your own ISBNs (available to the public at www.bowker.com), your book will not be attached to your printer in any way—meaning that if a bookseller were to look up your ISBN, they would not see who printed it. This may not be a big deal, but it provides some buffer from any stigma booksellers may still have regarding self-publishing. For another, you tack on additional safeguards to anyone having rights to your work in the future—another remote possibility, to be sure, but potentially a concern for the paranoid among us. Remember that we’re talking about a relatively new industry, and laws to protect self-published authors are still evolving.

But for me, the most compelling reason to buy your ISBNs is the opportunity to develop your own imprint. You get that? I mean that you can actually open your own publishing house—even if it only publishes one book. And then you’re not only the author, you’re also the Editor in Chief. (Hey there, underdog! Look at you now!)

If you already have a business, you can design your imprint as something similar and use a DBA; if you don’t, you can choose your child’s name, your pet’s name, the street you grew up on, your favorite tree, your favorite mountain, or what an internet quiz may call your “porn star name”—anything that isn’t already taken. Maybe you have a logo designed and stamp that on, too. Once your book is published, you just register your ISBN to your imprint, and BAM! Your book is published by a small publishing house. Your small publishing house.

I know, right?!

What’s Next?

Should you start seeing significant book sales, you may want to consider copyrighting the name of your imprint. This is a safe move, but not strictly necessary. If you keep writing, you can shift your imprint into an umbrella publishing company and publish books under several different imprints within that company, each addressing different topics, genres or themes. As you and your career grow, buying your own ISBNs allows your self-publishing future to grow with you.

Or it could just keep it to one book, one imprint, one publishing house—but it’s all yours. Yours, the artist’s, the author’s. 100%.

I don’t know about you, but I like that a whole lot.


When she’s not on a yoga mat or exploring mystical states, Chandika Devi is a matchmaker and editor for kn literary. And, she definitely wants to talk to you. Just fill out our questionnaire to sign up for a free chat about books.