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 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.

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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795 Comments

  1. Kevin Paterson

    I am the writer of a book for the author, the CEO of a company. I interviewed numerous founders of the company and wrote the entire book for the author. So, I am the writer, not the editor. However, after purchasing my ISBN numbers, in the Bowker question dropdowns for contributors, it doesn’t provide an identifier for writer. They just provide author and editor option, among dozens of other strange options. What do I do? How do I identify myself?

    Reply
  2. Rich Graham

    This was all very helpful! Thank you so much!

    Reply
  3. Sharon

    Valerie, you are correct. If you purchase an ISBN from Amazon KDP, you cannot use that ISBN anywhere other than Amazon, You will need to purchase your own ISBN if you want to sell your book on other platforms.

    Reply
  4. Valerie Eubanks

    Thanks for this awesome information! I’m currently publishing on Amazon & they assigned an ISBN for my book. In a few months I’m going to put my books up for sale on other platforms (BN, Kobo, etc.). My understanding is that I can’t use the ISBN Amazon gave me for the other platforms—is that correct? If so, do I need to purchase a new ISBN & remove the one Amazon gave me? Can I even do that? Super confusing! Thank you for your help!

    Reply
  5. Sharon

    Michelle, if you’re not selling into any retail outlets, you don’t have to have an ISBN. If you sell your book to anyone (retail or otherwise), I strongly recommend talking to your accountant/bookkeeper about income and sales tax monies you might owe.

    Reply
  6. Sharon

    Jose, the ISBN is associated with the publisher. If you are the publisher of your friends’/colleagues’ books then that’s fine. Bowker’s guidelines do not allow the selling of individual ISBNs and you wouldn’t want to do that because it would introduce a lot of confusion in the market about who exactly is the publisher.

    Reply
  7. Jose Nodar

    If I buy a pack of 10 ISBN – can I share with my colleagues the different numbers so we do not each have to buy a pack of 10? Is this possible

    Reply
  8. Micky J.

    Hello, I am Micky and I am self publishing my book with my own publishing company LLC. but I am using a printer…I am only privately selling my book not to retailers, online, etc. so do I need an ISBN number…

    Secondly, if I was to obtain a ISBN number and put the book price on it….and for example I printed 20 books with an ISBN number on it for $10.00 privately sold do I have to fill out something about this income to the IRS…or is it sent to the IRS?

    Thanks – Michelle

    Reply
  9. Sharon

    Yneka, you will need to make changes to the interior and cover files, replacing the new ISBN on the cover and the copyright page in place of the other one.

    Reply
  10. Sharon

    Eleonore, having an ISBN on your book is not harmful. I would strongly recommend keeping it there but if you really don’t want it, you’ll need to revise the cover file (and have it removed). You also will need to change the interior file if the ISBN is the copyright page too.

    Reply
  11. Yneka Hathorn

    Thank You. This was so awesome. I have published my books on kindle with the free ISBN. Once I order the ISBN’s from Bowker, how do add this ISBN to my works once received.

    Reply
  12. Eleonore Crespo

    Hi, I have an ISBN number on my book; it is not for sale, ever. I would like to have that number removed, is that possible? and how do I go about it? The number was provided to me from the publishing company. my e-mail is [email protected] thanks, E.C.

    Reply
  13. Sharon

    Mona, you can buy a bar code and print it on stickers and put a sticker on each book.

    Reply
  14. Ian Long

    If I buy one thousand ISBN numbers, or, however many, can I sell them.

    Reply
    • Sharon

      Ian, no you can’t. The ISBNs belong to you/your publishing company.

      Reply
  15. Mona

    My son surprised me by self publishing 50 copies of a picture I wrote but there is no bar code on it. Can I buy a bar code and then print it out to paste onto the back of my books?

    Reply
  16. Sharon

    Christine, 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. If you are in the United States and have purchased your ISBNs here, you will need a different one for each version of your book.

    Reply
  17. Sharon

    Tyrone, if the books are already printed, then yes, use a sticker.

    Reply
  18. Tyrone

    I have a question, I know there are specific guidelines for printing the ISBN number and barcode on the back cover. However my question is this, does the ISBN have to be printed on the cover or can you print it to a sticker and then affix the sticker to the cover?

    Reply
  19. Christine Dakwar

    I’m about to publish my first book in Arabic, then it will be translated inot Englis.
    First, can I purches an ISBN for the book in Arabic? Second, do I need a different ISBN for the English version? Third, if I want to have it as an ebook, in both languages, do I need another two ISBNs?

    Reply
  20. Christine Dakwar

    I’m about to publish my first book in Arabic, then it will be translated inot Englis.
    First, can I purches an ISBN for the book in Arabic? Second, do I need a different ISBN for the English version?

    Reply
  21. Sharon

    Uday, Bowker only sells 13-digit ISBNs (they used to use 10-digit ones until they ran out about 10 years ago). Each product (print book, ebook, audiobook) only needs one ISBN.

    Reply
    • Christine Dakwar

      Do you mean that the same version of a book in different forms can have the same ISBN?
      What if it alson in different language?

      Reply
  22. Sharon

    Uday, having an ISBN is needed to sell the product through retailers. If you’re trying to increase your distribution range, I would recommend having one (and of course, a barcode, which is the scannable version).

    Reply
  23. Uday

    Which ISBN should I buy?13 digit or 10 digit.Or 2 isbns needed for single book?

    Reply
  24. Uday

    Do I need ISBN for audiobook?If yes,should It be with barcode? Plz guide.

    Reply
  25. Magicbunni

    ISBNs are free in Canada. Why are they hundreds of dollars in the USA? Also, why is there only one company selling them? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of market competition? :0 But… never mind, as it’s likely I’m missing something. My question is: if you’re from Canada and you have ISBNs from there, can you use them after you moved to the USA, or is that… somehow wrong? Sorry I’m so confused!

    Reply
  26. Sharon

    Edward, yes you should be fine. 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
  27. Edward

    If I publish a book as a UK publisher with a UK ISBN, can I use the same ISBN if I sell the book in India?

    Reply
  28. Joyce Schwartz

    I am about to purchase and ISBN number from Bowker. The cost is $125. I am a little nervous because their website has not asked me anything about my book (e.g. The title )
    Should I be nervous? Wouldn’t they ask for the title?
    Thanks
    Joyce

    Reply
    • Sharon

      Joyce, don’t worry–it doesn’t matter. Bowker doesn’t care if anyone uses the ISBNs bought. Whenever you’re ready, you can log in and register the book title, etc.

      Reply
  29. Sharon

    Rico, the custom package is not from Bowker (www.myidentifiers.com). There is no reason to buy your ISBNs from anyone other than Bowker.

    Reply
  30. David Shanks

    My book name, author name, and ISBN is showing up on links to sellers websites. The author name is incorrect. How do I get it changed?

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      David, most likely the information is coming from the metadata (author name, book title, ISBN, etc.) you submitted to Bowker. Check your Bowker account information and make any needed corrections.

      Reply
  31. India

    I am publishing my first book, and some members of my family want to publish their own books, too. If I buy the 10 ISBN codes, may I give some of the numbers to members of my family who will eventually publish their own books?

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      India, those ISBNs are yours and in your name. They are to be used for books published by your publishing company. It’s fine to use those numbers if you’re going to be the publisher of record for those other books,

      Reply
  32. Sharon Goldinger

    Edward, ISBNs do not expire. I would recommend calling Bowker and asking for assistance.

    Reply
  33. Edward Gray

    I purchased and received an ISBN four years ago and am now ready to publish my book. However, when I search for that ISBN, I get error messages stating that there is no record of that ISBN. Do ISBN’s expire if there has been no activity for a certain period of time?

    Reply
  34. BASHIR HERL

    I have published 4 books and now printing my fifth. I intend to but a pack of ten. But is it applicable in Pakistan ?

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Bashir, 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
  35. Heather

    I purchased 100 isbn numbers in the fall of 2013. I will not be finished with my projects till next year, will the numbers expire? I was told they expire in 5 years. I dont want to lose my investment.

    Reply
  36. Sharon Goldinger

    Chris, you’re correct, you don’t need to bar ISBNs or barcodes if you’re passing them out or not selling them in a retail environment.

    Reply
  37. Sharon Goldinger

    Paul, 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
  38. alex castillo

    Hi there..

    do books such as planners need an isbn number??

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Alex, the planner I have has a UPC not an ISBN. I think a UPC should do it.

      Reply
  39. Paul

    What a patient, helpful website. An oasis of politeness and help! Thank you. As I am based in the UK, should I buy my ISBN numbers from Nielsen then? Bw Paul

    Reply
  40. Sharon Goldinger

    Lissa, no Createspace does not own the rights to anyone’s book even if you use their ISBN.

    Reply
  41. Sharon Goldinger

    Lissa, no that is not true. You own the rights to your book and you file the copyright in your name for your book.

    Reply
  42. Sharon Goldingers

    Peter, that company is an authorized reseller. I don’t know whether the publisher identifier part of their individual ISBNs points to them or the buyer of the ISBN. My recommendation is to buy your own set of 10 and don’t use a reseller (so the identifier points to you/your publishing company).

    Reply
    • Peter

      Thank you very much for your reply.

      Reply
  43. Peter

    Hi,
    Thank you for a great article. Is Bowker the ONLY place to get an ISBN number is US? I stumbled upon isbn-us.com site that claims that you can buy ISBN through them for $55(including digital barcode) instead of $125 (as per Bowker).
    Please let me know if anyone has any information on this.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  44. Sharon Goldinger

    Anandi, the ISBN should be on the copyright page.

    Reply
  45. Naomi Morgan

    125? I’ve seen companies that charge $25. Whats the difference?

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Naomi, I don’t know of any difference. But if you can, I recommend buying your own ISBNs from Bowker, http://www.myidentifiers.com, versus buying one from another company.

      Reply
  46. Amy Hilliges

    I am an American living in Switzerland and am publishing in English for primarily UK/US distribution. I would still need to get my ISBN in Switzerland, correct? Now if I purchase 100, and before I use them all, I move to another country, are those numbers still valid if I am no longer based in Switzerland?

    Reply
    • Sharon Goldinger

      Amy, 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
  47. Sharon Goldinger

    Joni, ISBNs are only required for retail sales.

    Reply
  48. Joni M. Becker

    I am selling white label rights to my book to others in my field. They will not be allowed to distribute the book other than through their own efforts (they cannot sell it online or through bookstores as part of the agreement). The author name on the book will change and the bio/contact information in the book. Do I need an ISBN for these books since they are not for public distribution?

    Reply

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