ISBN for Self-Publishers: Answers to 20 of your Questions

by Joel Friedlander on March 17, 2010 · 338 comments

barcodesampleOne of the areas that I get the most questions about is the use of the ISBN, the unique numeric identifier that’s used around the world to identify books. New self-publishers are especially concerned with making sure their books are registered properly, that everything is done so that their book can be sold without any problems or confusion.

Because this area is specific to the book business, there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation about ISBN and how it works. I strongly recommend you use the resources provided by Bowker, the company responsible for ISBNs in the United States, on the ISBN website and at Bowker’s website.

But even faster, without any further delay, here are 20 answers to the most commonly-asked questions about ISBN.

Questions and Answers about ISBN

  1. What is an ISBN?
    ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It is a 13-digit number that’s used as a unique identifier for books. ISBN is used internationally.
  2. What do all the numbers mean?
    See my earlier article on decoding the ISBN.
  3. Why do we need ISBNs?
    We need them to identify each book that is published, and each edition of the same book. ISBN also identifies the publisher of the book. It is the standard ID number used to identify books by booksellers, libraries, book wholesalers and distributors.
  4. Should I get an ISBN?
    If you plan to sell your book in bookstores, to libraries, or through online retailers like Amazon.com, you will need an ISBN.
  5. Does a book have to be published to have an ISBN?
    ISBNs are issued to publishers, who then assign them to individual books. This can be done at any time, even before the book is written.
  6. Is the ISBN the bar code I see on the back of books?
    The bar code is a representation of the ISBN in a form that can be identified by scanners. The bar code might also have other information embedded in it, like the price of the book and the currency in which it is priced.
  7. Okay, do I need to have a bar code too?
    Only if you plan to sell your book in bookstores. If you only plan to sell online, or privately like at speaking engagements, you don’t need a bar code. Many publishers put them on their books anyway.
  8. If I get an ISBN, does that mean my book is copyrighted?
    No, ISBN is administered by a private company for the use of the international book trade. Copyright is administered by the Library of Congress and is an extension of intellectual property law.
  9. If I have an ISBN, does that mean my book will be in Books in Print?
    Once you have an ISBN you can go to BowkerLink to fill out the forms necessary for your book to be listed in Books in Print.
  10. Can self-publishers get an ISBN?
    A self-publisher is still a publisher, so yes, you just apply for an ISBN like anyone else.
  11. How do I get an ISBN?
    Go to myidentifiers.com, the ISBN website run by Bowker, which is the only company authorized to administer the ISBN program in the United States. Click on “ISBN Identifiers” and you’ll be taken to a page where you can buy 1, 10, 100 or 1000 ISBNs.
  12. How many ISBNs should I buy?
    The least economical choice is to buy 1 ISBN. If you ever publish another edition of your book, or another book entirely, you will need more than one ISBN. I suggest you buy the 10 pack.
  13. What do ISBNs cost?
    A single ISBN today costs $125, while 10 ISBNs cost $250, 100 cost $575 and 1000 cost $1000. Note that the price per ISBN drops from $125 to $25 to $5.75 to $1.
  14. Isn’t it just a number? Why does a number cost $125?
    Many people are pondering this question, so far without an answer. Obviously, it’s not because of the cost of the product. Could there be another reason?
  15. Well, can I re-use my ISBN?
    No, sorry, once assigned to a book, an ISBN can never be reused.
  16. Where do I put the ISBN?
    You’ll print it on the copyright page, and it’s included in the Cataloging-in-Publication data block, if you use one. Otherwise, just print it on the copyright page and, of course, on the back cover as part of the bar code.
  17. I’m doing a print book and an ebook. Do I need two ISBNs, or can I use the same one?
    This is a matter of some discussion at the moment, since there are more and more electronic formats. The policy of assigning a separate ISBN to each and every edition is under review. Check back for more info.
  18. How about a hardcover and a softcover of the same book?
    You need a separate ISBN for each edition, to identify them for everyone who might want to find them in directories, catalogs and databases.
  19. If I revise my book, do I need to give it a new ISBN?
    If you only correct typographical errors, and don’t make any substantial changes to the text, you don’t need a new ISBN because it’s considered a reprint. A new edition would contain substantially new material, a major revision, or the addition of completely new elements. Anything that makes it a new book is likely to create a new edition and, therefore, need a new ISBN.
  20. How about if I just change the cover?
    You can continue to use the same ISBN, since the text has not changed.

Well, there you have it. In 20 questions and about 5 minutes, you’ve overcome the confusion about ISBN. Have a question you didn’t see answered here? Ask in the comments and we’ll run down the answer.

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p class=”note”>Takeaway: Getting the ISBN for your new publishing company is a necessary step to becoming a publisher and getting your book into print correctly. It’s not difficult once you understand how to do it.

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    { 316 comments… read them below or add one }

    Lori February 27, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    Hi Joel,

    Looking on the website to by ISBN’s, it also sells barcodes. Do I need to place these on the books, if I want to sell through a retailer, or can I give the publishing company (not a publisher) my ISBN and they can print it on the book?

    Thank you,

    Lori

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 2, 2015 at 10:07 am

    It’s likely that whoever produces the cover for your book will be able to place the barcode on it, and yes, it’s needed for retail sales.

    Reply

    Terry February 18, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    When a company provide an ISBN# as part of self-publishing package; does the Author own such ISBN? Your presentation is a valuable eye opener.. thanks

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander February 18, 2015 at 5:52 pm

    Terry, the ISBN supplied by a “self-publishing” company belongs to them, and if anyone looks into who the publisher is, it will show their name, not yours. This is fine if you’re trying to save money or publishing as a hobby or for personal circulation, but it’s a less than optimal choice if you plan to publish as a business.

    Reply

    Terry February 18, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    Thanks Joel…This is amazing: I was completely fooled. Can you breakdown my ISBN 978-1-4990-7659-2. I would really love to learn what info it provides. There is also a smaller set of codes with the following numbers 52399.

    Thanks

    Reply

    Constanza February 18, 2015 at 10:29 am

    Dear Joel,

    Say I want to self-publish my book on three different websites with different perks. It’s the same book and the same cover art and all three websites offer a free ISBN. Should I just use those ISBNs, three different ones for the same book? I haven’t found a single article on this. These three different websites have their pros and cons and all offer to sell my book on their exclusive website aside from Amazon, for example. I just thought it could open up a whole world for my book to be featured not only on Amazon, but also on their websites.

    I’d appreciate any insight and advice.

    Thanks for your time!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander February 18, 2015 at 11:48 am

    Costanza, here’s a very short article that addresses your question directly:

    It’s a good idea to have your book available on multiple retailer sites
    It’s a very bad idea to publish the same book with 3 different ISBNs. If the book is the same, the ISBN should be the same.

    Hope that helps.

    Reply

    Roslyn February 11, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    Hi Joel – Thanks for your article. I’ve written a book and am working on getting a foreword and endorsements from some high profile people who will help drive sales and media attention. I need to get the book printed asap so that I can sell it at speaking engagements and from my own website. However, if I ever want to submit it to literary agents/publishers, I’ve read that they frown on self-published books with ISBN’s where there are only a few copies sold. For the sake of time I’m thinking to self-publish without an ISBN and if I decide to stay self-published I can always get an ISBN should I want to make the book widely available through bookstores and online retailers. And if I get my desired foreword and endorsements and then want to submit to publishers and agents for wider distribution instead of continuing with self-publishing, then there won’t have been an ISBN yet attached to the book to make it less desirable. Any advice or comments would be hugely appreciated as to this approach. I’m also concerned that a publisher will want to make a lot of changes to my book.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander February 11, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    Roslyn, you need to be aware that your approach will work only if you publish on Kindle and nowhere else. You can’t do this with a print book or an ebook that will be sold by other retailers, so please take that into account.

    Reply

    Roslyn February 11, 2015 at 7:09 pm

    Thanks, Joel. Just to clarify my understanding, if I plan to only sell my print book at speaking engagements and my own proprietary website to start and nowhere else, then can I do so without an ISBN? If I sell my e-book version also only off my own website, do I need an ISBN to do that? If I understand correctly, I only need the ISBN if I plan to sell through other retailers whether online or offline, right?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander February 13, 2015 at 11:44 am

    I only need the ISBN if I plan to sell through other retailers whether online or offline, right?

    Correct.

    Reply

    Jim Kadel February 7, 2015 at 8:50 am

    I’d like to see this general question answered as part of your 20 Answers.

    When in the process of writing a book, can one purchase the ISBN? In other words, can one purchase this number at any time or must the book be finished as far as writing it goes.

    Thanx for your consideration of this request,

    Jim Kadel
    Feb 7, 2015

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander February 7, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    Jim,

    The assignment of ISBNs is a publishing function and has nothing to do with whether the book is finished or not.

    Reply

    Modi February 5, 2015 at 7:25 pm

    Hi Joel,

    I have two questions for you. (1) I have self-published four books without ISBNs. But, now I am thinking about giving them ISBNs. Is it still possible to do so or is it too late?

    (2) My books are in a language other then English. Does that matter when getting ISBN number?

    Many thanks in advance.

    -Modi

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander February 6, 2015 at 11:39 am

    Modi, there’s no reason you can’t assign ISBN to the four published books, it’s never too late. The language that the book is not relevant, but the country in which the publisher is located determines where you get your ISBNs. For instance, in the U.S. it’s from Bowker, who is the ISBN agent for this country. Every country is different, so you’ll need to answer that part of your question locally. You can find a list of all international ISBN agencies here: https://www.isbn-international.org/agencies

    Reply

    AeyBey January 28, 2015 at 2:00 pm

    Dear Joel,

    I am writing a book in English, intend to be publish in India, because of cheap publishing cost.
    Initially 5000 copies shall be printed, but if the response is good then the next print would be of 100,000 copies.
    How do I sfeguard myself from printer, and how do I ensure of copy right.
    Please tell me how to go about it, what is requiredof me, should I buy one ISBN or ten.
    At present money is scare, so I have to be careful.
    If I buy a British ISBN, can I sell my book in American and European Book sellers, or if I buy an American ISBN can I sell my book in Europe and other parts of the world.
    Please tell me how to sell my book to American libraries. The retail cost of my book will be around 30 dollars.
    I need guidence.
    What is your fee for full guidence.
    Kind Regards
    Aeybey

    Reply

    authorMadness January 21, 2015 at 9:11 am

    Thanks, Joel, this information has be extremely beneficial to me as we start up our new endeavor.

    Reply

    Ian Whiteman January 13, 2015 at 5:10 am

    I’m based in Spain and am about to publish a book in English selling to the English speaking market. Nielsens (the UK ISBN agency) seem to indicate that I have to get the ISBN in Spain though I would rather it was in the UK.
    Any advice?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 14, 2015 at 11:18 am

    Ian, Nielsens’ is correct. The ISBNs should be issued by the country in which the publisher is located, regardless of where the books will be sold or what language they are written in.

    Reply

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