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

by | Mar 17, 2010

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, 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, 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.

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.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Giuseppe Guarino

    Hi. I have a publishing house in Europe. Can we buy a bundle of American isbn’s anyway? We use Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and so we are already on the American market but would like to publish with an American isbn.
    Thank you.

  2. Sharon

    Bonni, yes there are some rules regarding this issue. I recommend you consult and follow the information detailing these issues in the Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition, sections 1.20-1.28.

  3. Bonni Goldberg

    If I have had rights returned and a new ISBN, do I need to also include on the copyright page the ISBN of the original book or mention it? If so, what language appropriate?

  4. Luis A. Ramos-Garcia

    I misplaced an ISBN log (with several unused ISBN numbers) that I obtained from your company years ago under Studia Hispanica Edtors (University of Texas, Austin). I continue to publish under Studia Hispanica Editors (now in the University of Minnesota) but I do not have the ISBN log, and I need to publish one book, Could you please issue me a ISBN number?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Luis, we don’t sell ISBNs so you must have acquired them elsewhere. I suggest you go to to get your ISBNs.

  5. katherine Munday

    Hi, this is what I am planning to do please let me know if this is correct. I have three different books one is a number of different covers with ten styles of the same interior concept game. Here I think I need one ISBN for the series of books. For the other two the interior is totally different so I would need a separate ISBN number for the both of them. Right??

  6. Sharon

    Cenon, either the author or the author’s family or heirs own the copyright. The only people that can sue you for copyright infringement is if someone else owns the copyright. If you’re not sure of the status, you might want to check with an intellectual property attorney.

  7. Sharon

    Katherine, I would recommend different ISBN numbers for the different formats. I also recommend having an ISBN on your copyright page and on the back cover (in a bar code) so you’ll be able to sell via retail or your website.

  8. Katherine Munday

    Hi I have three different interiors that will have different covers I personally created. I have one ISBN number for a soft cover book. Can I use this Isbn for my other books where the interior has a slight change but same concept or will I be needing more ISBN? What if I am personally selling these online from my website? Do I need to place ISBN in each of my books. A sample is one book is in uppercase and another book is in lowercase lettering. My books are a game book. One idea for all my different books interior styles. Like a series of books.

  9. Sharon

    Elaine, you’ve asked a lot of good questions. The publisher has to obtain the ISBN in the country it is publishing in. If your publishing company is located in the United States, then you can use Bowker’s ISBNs. For answers to your US ISBN questions, I recommend checking out Bowker’s FAQs I don’t have info about Pretoria’s agency or rules.

  10. Kim Fe

    I’ve written my first two children’s books. My goal is to have a series. When purchasing multiple ISBNs will each one be applied to each volume or are the multiple ISBNs applied to the quantity of one volume printed ? Do I need to purchase them if I’m selling on my own site?

  11. Elaine Dodge

    Hi, I am in South Africa and have a couple of questions:
    1. I’ve been told I can get ISBNs from the National Library in Pretoria. If they give me the ISBNs (free of charge) does this mean they own the rights to the books?
    2. You mentioned that Bowker is the only purveyor of ISBN numbers for the USA. Does this mean the South African National Library would be a registered seller of ISBNs for South Africa?
    3. If I purchase an ISBN from a retailer (Bowker or the South African National Library) does this mean the number is relevant worldwide? In otherwords, am I correct in thinking that I don’t HAVE to buy it from Bowker and if I buy it from somewhere else I can still sell my books on Amazon or other international retail platforms?
    Many thanks

  12. Indie Author

    HI there, I am a Canadian citizen, and an OCI (overseas citizen of India) cardholder. My question is, is there any advantage or disadvantage of getting the ISBN from non-US location, such as India?

    A popular romance book in India is priced at 350 rupees (roughly about 5 USD) as oppose to my interest to sell it for 20 USD.

    Getting an ISBN, will it restrict the pricing structure in any way?

  13. Sharon

    Sleepybay, you’ve asked a lot of good questions. The publisher has to obtain the ISBN in the country it is publishing in. If your publishing company is located in the United States, then you can use Bowker’s ISBNs that were issued to you. You cannot buy an ISBN from another publisher. For answers to your US ISBN questions, I recommend checking out Bowker’s FAQs I don’t have info about India’s agency or rules.

  14. Sleepybay

    Hi there, I am a Canadian citizen, currently in India. I want to self-publish a book, meaning I will be a self-publisher. While I was in the USA, I opened an account with Bowker and released a self-published a book. For buying 10 ISBNs, it would cost about $295.00. The question here is: can I buy it from another publisher from elsewhere? Although the publisher would ‘assign’ 10 numbers to me, who would officially own the ISBN? Will that be the publisher or I? It cost 10% of what I might be paying to Bowker. Finally, is it allowed or is it legal to purchase from the bulk purchaser? Is there any disadvantage, if any (I know the advantage is the cost). I would appreciate your input. Thanks

  15. Sharon

    Richard, it shouldn’t be a problem to publish on all the platforms as long as you don’t sign up for anything with exclusive distribution–so read all your paperwork and instructions and contracts well. And, yes, all with the same ISBN.

  16. Sharon

    David, regarding Bowker–each country can have only 1 ISBN agent, that’s the way the convention was set up.

  17. Sharon

    Oreste, you do not need the title of your book when you buy your ISBNs. When you have the title and book info ready, add that information then.

  18. David Swanson

    I have been looking all over and can’t find the answer to this question. Why is Bowker the official U.S. ISBN agency? Is this a contract with the U.S. government? It seems to me Bowker has a monopoly. And, why isn’t there an opensource version of the ISBN. Kind of like with website SSL’s (LetsEncrypt)?

  19. Sharon

    Kevin, yes, you can put the barcode on the back cover and give that file to your printer.

  20. Oreste Calleja

    Am I going to be asked to give the book title and related details when I purchase an ISBN? Also, I must have read somewhere that Bowker does not in fact give you the isbn when you purchase it online unless you have the title (manuscript details, in fact) ready. Is that correct?

  21. Kevin

    Hi Thanks a lot for these info.
    I bought an ISBN and a barcode from bowker.
    And I already assign the title and genrate the barcode,what’s the next step?
    Can I just use that barcode and let my print factory go ahead?
    Book is print in China and will sell in US.
    No Publisher.
    Thanks a lot,looking forward to your reply.

  22. Sharon

    Cory, you don’t need two different ISBNs. You can use the same one.

  23. cory carlson

    if i publish the same paperback on KDP and Ingramspark, do i need 2 different isbn’s? two different bar codes?

  24. Deb Matthews

    On your isbn page, the first link, to ISBN website redirects elsewhere, and the one to Bowker’s website says not found.

  25. Liza Lorenz

    I know a new publisher requires a new ISBN, but what if it’s the same publisher but they want to change their business name?

  26. Laura S.

    I’m wondering if you need to have an ISBN for your book for each country you intend to sell in? I see there is an organization called Bowker for US ISBN numbers. There is also an ISBN-dispensing organization in Canada.

    I’m self-publishing a book on Amazon – I’m trying to make sure it will appear on both the .com and the .ca sites. There will be a paperback version and a kindle version.

    I think I need only 2 ISBNs (1 for paperback and 1 for Kindle) – but should I go to Bowker or Canada Archives?

    Thanks in advance for any and all help!!

  27. Sharon

    Kevin, author means writer. List yourself as the author.



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