ISBNs, Imprints, Pseudonyms

ISBNs and Company Numbers

Brick & mortar retailers worldwide, and some international online retailers of ebooks, rely on the ISBN to track books within their systems. The five major online US retailers — Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble — either do not require an ISBN, or will use their ISBN for your book or audiobook if you don’t provide your own. The major aggregators and POD printer/distributors — except for Lulu and BookBaby — now also do not require you to bring your own ISBN. 

Amazon doesn’t even use ISBNs, with one exception. If an indie publisher wishes to take advantage of Amazon’s “Look Inside The Book” feature on the Amazon or Kindle web page for their book or ebook , they must prove they own the rights to the book. Amazon requires an ISBN as evidence of rights ownership. For all other purposes, Amazon assigns their own Amazon Standard Identification Number, or ASIN. PublishDrive issues their own PUIs, or PublishDrive Unique Identifiers. Google Play issues its own GGKEY numbers. B&N, IngramSpark, Draft2Digital, and Smashwords all provide their own free ISBNs, but the numbers are non-transferable.

Every one of these companies has a couple of motivations for this. One is internal ease-of-use. Another is, it’s a selling point. They’re offering what appears to be a freebie, especially compared to the high prices Bowker charges for simply issuing a number. The real reason these companies use their own numbers or issue “free” ISBNS is to try and lock the independent publisher onto their distribution platform. Each of these companies also gets some bragging rights over the independent publisher’s work. They will in almost all cases list their own company as the “publisher” of your book, even though all they’re really doing is distribution. Your book falls under THEIR imprint.

This should stick in any self-respecting independent publisher’s craw.

The Independent Publisher’s Imprint

An imprint is the name of the independent publisher’s publishing company. Just as major legacy publishers use the names of their various houses to communicate to readers which genre of literature to expect — Harlequin, for example, has become synonymous with romance fiction — so independent publishers may come up with a name for their imprint, use that same imprint for all of their work, or all of their work within a particular genre, and use this imprint name as part of their author branding.

This does involve an additional expense. In the US, the independent publisher must research the imprint name to make sure some other entity isn’t already using it  — anyone who tries to name their imprint “Amazon Press” is rather likely to run afoul of Jeff Bezos’ considerable army of lawyers — and register it as a fictitious business name, or a “Doing Business As” (DBA). The research isn’t that difficult today. Doing a thorough multi-engine search, and double-checking with a search on Amazon’s Kindle Store, is enough. The idea is to avoid obvious conflicts and confusion. Registering a fictitious business name costs about $100 at present through LegalZoom.

Authors also need to search their author names, and if there’s a duplicate, change their name. I checked my name on Amazon. There is one writer whose last name is Heiser, but there are no other living published or self-published Heisters on Amazon at the moment. Even if there were, so long the first names are different, there shouldn’t be a problem. A couple of quick stories from different industries. The actor Michael Keaton took the professional surname of his favorite silent movie comedian because his given name and surname was already taken by another union actor. The late musician David Bowie was born David Jones, but changed his last name because when he was breaking into music, there was already a David (Davy) Jones, singer for The Monkees.

Pen Names

This leads us consider pen names, or pseudonyms. Many independent publishers choose to write under pseudonyms, most often to protect their privacy, because their favorite authors did it, or they don’t wish to for their work to be judged by their gender. Harry Potter series author JK Rowling chose to use her initials for the third reason. The Brontë sisters all originally published under men’s names.

In my own case, I feel the need to draw a bright line between my Baha’i children’s book work and my novels. I will, to cover all three topics in this section, be purchasing my own ISBNs, registering two different DBAs for two different imprints, and publishing the Baha’i children’s books under my own name and my novels under a pseudonym. All of these things I am doing as part of building and strengthening my writer platform(s).


Indie writer/actor/narrator working on a children’s book, acting in movies/TV in China, and narrating books.

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