ISBN 101 For Self-Publishers

by | Nov 19, 2010

One of the parts of book publishing that seems to confound newcomers to the field is the purpose and use of the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Usually the ISBN appears to be the same thing as the ubiquitous Bookland EAN scannable barcode that graces the back covers of almost all books printed today.

Not only that, but since the rise of companies that perform publishing services for authors, there has been even more confusion about whether you need to own your own ISBN, whether free ISBNs from these companies are “just as good” as getting your own ISBN, and if it’s a good idea to buy ISBNs from re-sellers who offer lower prices for a single number.

Let’s review the basics of this unique identifier and explain what is so important about it, how it benefits self-publishers, and when you can safely forget about it.

Created to Solve Real-World Problems

ISBN was created as a stock-keeping identifier. Originating in the United Kingdom, the concept of a unique identifier for each version of a published book became an international standard in the 1970s.

It was created to solve a real-world problem, and it worked well. The problem was that in the pre-internet age, it was often very difficult to identify a particular book, and more so when a searcher did not have the full title, author and edition information at hand. That’s usually the case when I go searching for a book.

How would you know whether the book you are looking for is the right one? Book titles are not exclusive or protected by copyright, and it’s not unusual for several different books to have the same title. And similar titles will quickly expand the number of possibilities. Add to this the necessity of knowing which edition you are looking for—hardcover, paperback, second edition—and it’s easy to see how identification mistakes are easy to make.

With the use of the unique identifier, one that is attached to each physical format of a book, this problem is basically solved. Every title, and every different edition or format has its own unique number for tracking and search purposes.

Coincidentally the ISBN came into use at the same time that computers were becoming common, and the two were meant for each other. It’s now possible to simply enter an ISBN into a Google search bar to get all the information you need on a particular title.

Who Doesn’t Need an ISBN?

Because the ISBN is used as a basic identifier throughout the book distribution system, any book that is intended to be sold through retail channels will need to have this identifier.

There’s no absolute need for books printed for private use, or for a closed distribution to have ISBN assigned. These might include:

  • Workbooks distributed at seminars
  • Company training manuals for internal use
  • Family histories, recipe collections or other “personal” publishing projects
  • Books that will be used only as premiums, incentives or giveaways

However even publishers of these types of books might make use of this identifier if they plan to someday convert their publication to a commercial use.

Self-Publishing Hits the Scene

You may not realize this, but for many years Bowker issued ISBNs to book publishers for a nominal administrative fee.

But once the self-publishing field began to expand in response to new digital printing technology, Bowker made the process of acquiring ISBNs easier, and a lot more expensive. Now ISBNs are sold like any other commodity by Bowker and a few authorized re-sellers. And to accommodate the needs of these self-publishers, they made individual numbers available for the first time.

However, the price Bowker set for individual identifiers (currently $125) has shocked many new publishers. (You can read an explanation of why the cost is so high in the interview I did with Andy Weissberg).

But keep in mind that it’s rarely a good idea to buy just one ISBN. If you intend to issue your book as both a printed book and an ebook, you will need two ISBNs right from the start, and the cost of buying two individual numbers is the same as purchasing ten numbers (currently $250).

In addition, Bowker is actually registering your publishing company when they issue you your numbers, not your individual books. This is a key step for many self-publishers and that’s a pretty good reason to get an ISBN as well.

The Problem of the “Free” ISBN

In order to mitigate the cost and the bother of registering your company yourself, author services companies started offering “free” identifiers to clients. How were they able to do this?

Bowker’s pricing for these numbers has huge volume discounts, that’s how. For $5,000 you can acquire 5,000 ISBNs. That’s only $1 each, a price at which it’s easy to give them away, saving individual authors quite a heap of money.

And many authors have made use of this savings. You are a good candidate for a free number if:

  • You intend to publish only one book
  • You have no interest in starting a “publishing company”
  • You’re on a very tight budget

But it’s not the right solution for everyone, because ISBN performs many functions for self-publishers.

Know Your Retailers

People who help authors get started in publishing often remind them that this is a business, and should be approached as such. You are manufacturing a product intended for retail sales. In this scenario it’s important for you to know the policies of the retailers who will be selling your book.

For instance, here’s what Smashwords, the big distributor of ebooks, says about ISBN usage:

Smashwords retailers such as Apple and Sony will not accept your Smashwords book unless you have a unique e-ISBN. It is the primary digital identification number that many major online retailers use to track and catalog your books, and to report your sales back to Smashwords.

(Editor’s note: Everything at Smashwords is an e-book, but there really isn’t such a thing as an “e-ISBN”. They are all just plain old ISBNs.)

The Many Roles of a 13-Digit Number

Smashwords also points out one of the other uses of this handy number. In fact there are three main ways these numbers can be of use:

  1. Stock keeping, for inventory purposes
  2. item identification to differentiate similar editions
  3. Metadata

It’s this last benefit of ISBN you should think about when deciding whether to use them, and whether you want to go to the expense of buying your own numbers, or to accept the “free” version.

SEO Title Card - Metadata for self publishers

2 Reasons to Own Your Own ISBNs

Most of the self-publishers I’ve worked with are setting up their own publishing companies and funding their project in the expectation of becoming profitable. In every case I’ve advised them to buy their own ISBNs. Here’s why:

  1. The ISBN contains within it a “publisher identifier.” This enables anyone to locate the pubisher of any particular book or edition. If you use a “free” ISBN from an author services company or a subsidy publisher, that company will be identified in bibliographic databases as the publisher.
  2. Owning your own ISBNs gives you the ability to control the bibligraphic record for your book. This is an important part of your book’s metadata, and is a key component in your book being discoverable by online searchers. This has a powerful influence on your efforts to attract search engine traffic to your title.

Now there’s no reason you can’t publish your books with a “free” ISBN from a reputable company, like CreateSpace. Having their identifier on your book doesn’t have anything to do with the ownership or copyright on your work, you still have complete control over your own content.

And you can be very successful this way, too. April Hamilton originally published Indie Author and several other books that way, and enjoyed great success. But like others who have committed to making publishing their business, she has said she would now buy her own ISBNs.

Part of the reason, as Hamilton explains, is the changing marketplace:

Distribution options offered by print and digital publishing service providers increasingly require that the author/imprint be the registered owner of the ISBN.

Echoing this is this explanation from the Smashwords ISBN guide:

An ISBN helps make your book more discoverable to readers and other book buyers. The ISBN gains you free inclusion in Books in Print, the world’s largest catalog of books, which is licensed to all major search engines and thousands of bookstores and libraries. Your ISBN record will also receive a free online listing at the online Books in Print bibliographic database that’s available on the open Web at https://seo.bowker.com.

Takeaway: If you plan to sell retail you’ll need to use ISBN. For strictly private publications, you may not need it at all. And if you plan to continue in publishing, buy your own ISBN block from the start.

If you have questions about ISBNs or how to use them, please leave a note in the comments.

Resources

To buy your own ISBNs, go to https://www.myidentifiers.com
Bowker U.S. ISBN Agency site
Wikipedia entry on the International Standard Book Number
ISBNs Don’t Matter as Much as You Thought by Indie Author April Hamilton
About ISBNs from Smashwords
Twitter #ISBNhour discussion group link (moderated by @LJNDawson)
UK ISBN Information

TheBookDesigner Articles on ISBN
ISBNs for Self-Publishers: Answers to 20 of Your Questions
How to Create, Register and List Your New Publishing Company
Self-Publishing Basics: How to Read an ISBN

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319 Comments

  1. Claire U Hertzler

    I had an ebook for sale on amazon but it was taken down and replaced by one without an ISBN when I went from an author to self-publisher under Ingram. An outside consultant put my ebook up as a print replica which I cannot sell so I need to unpublish it, I think, and convert the print book to ebook. So, do I need a new ISBN?

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Hi, Claire,

      Any time you want to sell your book (print or ebook) in a retail environment, you need an ISBN for that product (one for the print version and one for the ebook). Since your previous ISBN was through someone other than yourself, you need to obtain your own ISBNs and put them on your products.

      Reply
  2. Sharon

    Mandy, you’ve asked a good question. Yes, you can use the ISBNs for your current and future book projects.

    Reply
  3. Mandy

    This might be a silly question. If I buy a block of 10 ISBNs but only need two or three for my first publication, can I use the others for my second and third publications?

    Reply
  4. A.L.

    Hi – In a comment you said we SHOULD get an ISBN in the country we live in, but MUST we? I’m in the U.S. and have heard that an Asian library issues FREE ISBNs world wide. Can you confirm this would not affect sales in U.S. or other countries?

    Reply
  5. Allisya

    Hi I’m an aspiring author looking to publish my first poem book but I live outside the USA(Asia)so can I get an ISBN normally or do special rules apply to me?I also found a local POD company that can help me get an ISBN so should I go with them instead?Any and all advice and information is appreciated,thanks in advance.

    Reply
  6. Sharon

    Thomas, you ask a lot of good questions. Having your own publishing company is recommended, not mandatory. I strongly recommend you do so. Copyright filings are done via the Library of Congress. You can file those on your own for yourself as the author. The industry requires that each product (whether print book, large print book, foreign language version, ebook, etc.) has its own ISBN and barcode.

    Reply
  7. Thomas Edward

    I’m living in the U.S. and looking to publish through Amazon. Do I need to start my own publishing company or is it just recommended? Are there advantages to having your own publishing company? For copyright purposes, do I need to purchase it or just submit through the Library of Congress? Would I need separate barcodes for each version and ISBN of my book, like mature version, teen version, paperback, hardcover, ebook, various languages, etc.?

    Reply
  8. Chip Hill

    Bowker offers a package of 10 ISBNs and one bar code. From your material it appears every bar code goes with only one ISBN, correct? So despite this offer, if we need 10 ISBNs we will need to also purchase 10 bar codes (for printed material), correct? The Bowker offer seems misleading.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Chip, in fact, you likely won’t need to buy any bar codes at all. Every cover designer can supply a bar code when the create your cover, there are bar code generators (software) widely available online, and Ingram’s Cover Template Generator will create a bar code when generating your cover template.

      Reply
      • Chip

        Thanks Joel

        Reply
  9. Gary Gile

    I self-published my book and at the time did not get an ISBN or UPC, nor do I have a copyright page. I want to sell my book on Amazon. What is the best way to accomplish this?

    Reply
  10. Lisa Johnson

    I purchased an ISBN number and assigned it to a book but the book was never published nor printed. Am I able to transfer that number to another book or will I need to purchase another number.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Lisa, if you bought the ISBN directly from Bowker (at myidentifiers.com) or one of their authorized resellers like selfpublishing.com, you can probably re-assign the number to a new title. If, on the other hand, you bought it from an unauthorized reseller or were issued the number by a print on demand vendor, I would suggest getting one of your own instead.

      Reply
      • Lisa Johnson

        Thanks for responding. I brought ithe number from Bowkers. Because the book was not published, I do not know it’s number, is there a way that I can recover it by contacting the vendor?

        Reply
        • Joel Friedlander

          Lisa, if you’ve lost the number (they are typically delivered via email, so you might check around the time you ordered it, maybe tracking the date from a purchase receipt) just contact them and see if they can track it down for you.

          Reply
  11. Miranda Kate

    Hi, I am not sure if you can help me. I have a book published through Lulu, who issued a free IBSN code. I now wish to take down my book on Lulu and republish with Amazon.

    Can I reuse the free ISBN issued to me by Lulu when I republish with Amazon?

    If can not, and need to use one issued by Amazon, will that create a problem with the registering of the book – ie. that it will have had more than one bar code attached to it?

    There will be no alterations to the book. I just will be removing it from one site and republishing it on another.

    Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks
    Miranda Kate

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Miranda, the best answer is to buy your own ISBNs (www.myidentifiers.com). That way your book will have an ISBN registered to your company (not Lulu or CreateSpace or anyone else) and you can move it anywhere in the future at any time.

      Reply
  12. Dawn Archer

    Since most books have both an ISBN number and a barcode, why does Bowker sell a package of 5 ISBN numbers and 1 barcode? Don’t I need 10 of each? Is it wiser to buy the 10 pack of ISBN numbers, and buy the same quantity of barcodes individually? Do I register the ISBNs and Barcodes in my name or my press name (which I’m creating so I don’t have amazon or createspace listed as publisher on my books)? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Dawn, you only need a bar code if you going to be selling your book in retail markets. It’s best if you can buy the 10 ISBNs. You can get a bar code from a variety of places (including free ones) as you need one for each book. It’s a good idea to set up your own publishing company and then yes, register the ISBNs in your press name.

      Reply
  13. James

    Hello, I had a question about isbn numbers . i had trouble finding a publisher for my book so i decided to go to fed ex and by a batch of 100 books to start with . How can i attach the isbn to a book being printed through fed ex office ? thank you jim

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      James, the ISBN goes on the copyright page and on the back cover with the bar code. In both cases, the ISBN needs to be on the original file (on the copyright page) and on the back cover file that you give FedEx (or whatever printer you use) to print the book. If the book is printed, the only other option you have is to print stickers with the bar code and affix the sticker to the back cover.

      Reply
  14. James

    Hello, I had a question about isbn numbers . i had trouble finding a publisher for my book so i decided to go to fed ex and by a batch of 100 books ti start. how can i attach the isbn to a book being printed through fed ex office ?

    Reply
  15. Earl Watson

    How much do you charge for four ISBN numbers?

    Reply
  16. Amanda

    I am writing a book that is receiving a lot of interest but I have been waylaid by other projects, so the book will not be ready before mid-late 2018. I am wondering how I can still get an ISBN and list the book somewhere even though I will have to wait to publish the book. Will getting an ISBN list the book automatically in databases. I have the book designs ready. Thank you for your assistance in advance.

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Amanda, there is no rush. Publishing companies buy ISBNs everyday and sometimes don’t use them for years. Buy your ISBNs whenever you want. Just buying ISBNs will not automatically list your book in databases. You have to cause that to happen–for example, listing the book somewhere, such as with a distributor.

      Reply
  17. John Hatton

    I have read through the questions and answers and learned a lot but did not find the answer I am looking for. My situation is the opposite from what a few writers mentioned. I live in the US and will publish from here, but was told by a writer who has self-published that I need two ISBN numbers per book: one for the US market and another for the international market (especially Europe). He said I need a 10 digit (for US) and a 13 digit (international) ISBN number. Is this correct? If so, where do I purchase the international numbers and how do I bring those together for use on my book? Thank you.

    Reply
  18. K

    Hi, I am based in the United Kingdom, and I want to self-publish ebook/kindle on Amazon. Can I purchase ISBN from you if you are outside of the UK

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      K, the ISBNs should be issued by the country in which the publisher is located, regardless of where the books will be sold or the language in which they are written.

      Reply
      • K

        Ok. Thanks for that. I was informed that ISBN can be used internationally?

        Reply
  19. Steve Bell

    When you purchase a block of ISBNs from Bowker, do you register them under your own name or an imprint name? If imprint, must the imprint name be trademarked? I understand this is pretty expensive. If you register under your own name, may you still use an imprint?

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Steve, the best option is to register it under your publishing company (imprint) name. You do not have to trademark your company or imprint name.

      Reply
      • Steve Bell

        Thank you, Sharon!

        Reply
  20. Teresa Barger

    I have published 2 books with createspace using their free isbn. I would like to publish them with my own isbn. Is there a way I can do this? Can I put on the book cover something like “New addition” and publish it with my own isbn? Thanks for any info.

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Teresa, a new edition is commonly assumed to have at least 10% of the content of the book changed in some way, or major additions made to it. And, yes, you can publish the second edition with your own ISBN.

      Reply
  21. Dan

    I already self published a book can I still add an isbn number?

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Dan, you can still add an ISBN. It needs to be on the copyright page and on the barcode on the back cover–so you’ll need to reprint the copyright page and the back cover or sticker the back cover. You should also add it to your Bowker logbook along with your other metadata.

      Reply
  22. Monique Macca

    Thank you for all the information! I have another question. I am currently living in the US but am an Australian citizen (and us citizen). I noticed that the price to buy 10 isbns from the australian site is substantially cheaper (88 vs 295) than the US site. Is there any downside to buying them from the australian website? I am not sure why the prices are so vastly different.
    Thank you!!!

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Monique, I’m not familiar with what is offered in Australia and whether those are ISBNs are viable in the United States or not. I would read everything on the site very carefully before proceeding.

      Reply
      • Annette Brennan

        Hi Monica and Sharon

        I saw your posts this morning and that reminded me I needed to speak to Thorpe-Bowker (a division of R R Bowker LLC) in Australia about my ISBN numbers & QP Code. So while I was on the phone to them, I took the opportunity to ask them your question. While they could not explain the price difference, they said that if you are living in the USA, you need to use the USA ISBNs, not the Australian ones.

        Because I asked about your question, I learned that the ISBNs I purchased must be combined with a United States UPC barcode as well as my normal ISBN barcode in order to sell my book in the USA. In all the reading I have done about ISBNs and Barcodes, I had not come across that requirement. Throws a bit of the spanner in the works for me and I’m not what direction to take now. I guess more phone calls etc and delaying the printing of my book.

        So Monica and Sharon, thank you for your posts…. If I hadn’t seen it, I would have proceeded with printing my self-published book with the ISBN & barcode I had and would have only discovered too late that I wouldn’t be able to sell it in the USA.

        Thank you and kindest regards
        Annette

        Reply
        • Sharon Goldinger

          Thanks so much for sharing the information, Annette. We all appreciate your asking the questions and letting us know.

          Reply
        • monique macca

          WOW! Thank you Annette. I really appreciate you investigating. Looks like I will purchase the expensive ones!

          Reply
  23. Jon LaPoma

    Thanks for the great information! I’m in the process of setting up a publishing company to self-publish a series of my own books; however, I’d also be open to publishing the work of other authors. When creating an account on Bowker’s, should I choose “Publisher” or “Self-Publisher” in the “Organization Type” section? Is there a difference? Also, should I register using my pen name or my real name?

    Thanks again!

    -Jon

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Jon, a self-publisher is a publisher and covers whether you are publishing only your own books or your books and others’. My recommendation: always choose publisher. Regarding whether or not you use a pen name or a real name, I recommend reading this article: https://www.thebookdesigner.com/2014/09/should-you-be-using-a-pen-name/.

      Reply
  24. Hazel

    Will I be able to use ISBNs purchased from ‘ Nielson ISBN store UK’ for two books that are now ready to be published with ‘Create Space’ I used their free ISBN with my first book but would prefer to have my own ISBNs since reading up more about it, I need to buy a batch of 10.

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Hazel, I’m not in the UK but my concerns are the same as those asked above by Monique and Annette. Be sure to ask the right questions, especially if you are trying to publish in the US outlets.

      Reply
  25. Dr. Gary Rose

    Where can I purchase 5 ISBN and barcodes. One place wants over $500.
    Thanks

    Reply
  26. Tracie

    I am in the process of E-Publishing my book. If I get a free ISBN for this, can I go back later & purchase another ISBN for self publishing this same book in paperback form? I am on a restricted budget & this is the only reason for wanting to do it this way at the moment. Thank you for your time.

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Tracie, you could, but I don’t recommend it. Following this plan you would end up with 2 identical books from the same publisher but with different ISBNs, and that’s not a good idea. Invest in your future, buy your own ISBNs. They never wear out or expire, you know.

      Reply
      • Tracie

        Thank you very much!

        Reply
  27. Annette Brennan

    Can you please tell me what the difference is between an ISBN 10 and an ISBN 13?
    Also, as I’m in Australia, how do I get a USA Library of Congress number?

    Reply
    • Annette Brennan

      Thanks so much for your reply and the links.
      I now know the difference about the ISBN Digits.
      I also now know that as a self-publisher and non-USA person, that I can’t register with the Library of congress.

      I found the links you included very helpful.
      Stemming from the below comment in your article on ISBN 101 for Self-Publishers…

      “2 Reasons to Own Your Own ISBNs
      Most of the self-publishers I’ve worked with are setting up their own publishing companies and funding their project in the expectation of becoming profitable.”

      As I am self-publishing and self-funding my book, are you able to give me any direction in how I “set up my own publishing company”?

      Thanks ever so much
      Kind regards
      Annette

      Reply
      • Sharon Goldinger

        Annette, I’m glad the info and links were helpful. Since you’re in Australia, I’m unable to make any suggestions as to how to set up your own publishing company. In the United States, there are local (city and state) laws and requirements. Legal and accounting issues also need to be taken into consideration. You might want to start with a local business attorney and accountant.

        Reply
  28. Manfred

    I have been working to publish my book through Create Space and bought a block of 10 ISBNs, to accommodate paper and various digital forms and a second book that’s in my mind. A small private publisher wants to publish my book and wants to supply his ISBN (at cost) rather than use one of mine.

    How can I convince him using my ISBN is OK for him?

    Reply
  29. Robin Donovan

    I published my first book through a publisher. Subsequently, the publisher was acquired and exited my genre. So, I self-published my second book. I purchased a bunch of ISBNs and a barcode for the second book.

    I am now ready to release my third book. Naturally I have the ISBNs for the paperback and ebook. My question is regarding the barcode. I see from Bowker, that it will cost $25. Fine, but I will need to get a second/third/fourth etc if I ever want to reduce or increase the price of the book??? I’d need to also redo the back cover???

    So, I’m wondering if I really need a barcode. So far my books have not been accepted by any of the big box retailers and are only sold at a few local independent bookstores, where I drop them off myself. I have them printed in-demand by Createspace.

    Any thoughts will be welcome.

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Robin, having an ISBN (and barcode) is needed to sell the product through retailers (not just the big box stores). If you’re trying to increase your distribution range, I would recommend a barcode. There are places online you can get a barcode for free; you don’t need to pay for one.

      Reply
  30. Cindy Shirley

    Hi, This blog is very helpful to those of us that are beginners. I have 3 stories that I plan to turn into books. My question is, can you recommend a legitimate affordable publisher to handle everything including copyright, registration, isbn, and a barcode? I have a local illustrator that will be providing her work in a PDF format which I will retain rights to. I understand that I will need 3 ISBN numbers for each story in order to sell in different avenues. Would it be best for me to buy the block of 10 isbn numbers? Also, by owning the copy rights to my story, are my characters also included. For example, if I choose to have a have a toy to go with each book, are those individual characters protected? I appreciate any input from someone more experienced in this area. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Cindy,

      You’ve asked a lot of really good questions. I can’t make any recommendations to specific publishers. What I can recommend is that you do your homework every step of the way. In addition to reading Joel’s blogs and articles on many of the questions you’ve asked, be sure to check references, review the contract (possibly with an intellectual property attorney), and get samples of the publisher’s books. Regarding your question about the copyright to your stories and characters–I strongly recommend you ask an intellectual property attorney. These can be complicated legal questions and you need an expert attorney for the best answers. Good luck with your books.

      Reply

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