Monday Mailbag: ISBNs and Barcodes

by | Apr 27, 2015

I thought I had written the definitive post on the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) in 2009. Or was it the one I followed up with early in 2010? If neither of those, it must have been the one later in 2010. Hey, I even published an ebook about ISBNs.

And the questions keep coming.

Here are the latest crop, 14 questions with answer culled from the overflowing mailbags that line the walls of The Book Designer offices. Perhaps finding an answer here will save you some time, some money, or some worry of your own.


Q: My husband wrote a book when he was nineteen and had it published through xlibris (BIG mistake). Anyway, we have canceled the services with them and have the manuscript and want to edit and revise the book. We would be changing grammar, dialogue, and maybe adding some subplot. It already has an ISBN number, is copyrighted, and is registered with the Library of Congress. If we make these changes, will we need to get new ISBN numbers?

A: You will need a new ISBN in any event since the book will have a new publisher, and the previous ISBN belongs to xLibris. This means that your publication will be a “new edition,” whiche requires a new ISBN. You’ll also want to register a new copyright since you are adding content to the book. Good luck!

Q: I first opened an account with CreateSpace about two years ago. I think I opted for their ISBN though now reading your blog and other comments it seems this isn’t a good idea. But I understand I cannot change it.

A: I’m pretty sure you can change it if the book hasn’t been published yet. Just go into the “Title Information” section of the book setup and change the ISBN option to supplying your own. If that doesn’t work, try to delete the title completely, then start a new entry. If that doesn’t work, contact their customer support and see if they can help out, I’ve found them quite responsive.

Q: I have just been approached by a POD publisher who has offered to “re-publish” my self-published book, at a substantial cost, so that they can “better help me market it.” I have no intention of accepting their offer; however, I do have a question about their offer. According to the lady who called me, among other things (including changing the size of my book), they would issue a new ISBN number for it. I was under the impression that once an ISBN number is assigned to a book, it remains with that book. Can a book have two ISBN numbers?

A: Wow, that’s quite a pitch, and I’m glad you saw through it. ISBNs don’t “belong” to the books they’re assigned to, they belong to the publisher who they are issued to, and who assigned them in the first place. If the book changes publishers, the new publisher will assign one of her own ISBNs to her edition of the book.

Q: Hello, I have a rookie question regarding buying barcodes along with ISBNs. Apparently the barcodes cost $45 each at Thorpe-Bowker (Australia) and can be purchased along with the ISBN. BUT… there are websites where they generate barcodes for your ISBN FOR FREE!? So am I missing something here? What’s the catch? Why should I buy a $45 barcode if I can just get one generated for free?? Please explain the difference between these ‘free barcode generators’ and purchasing a barcode officially. Thanks.

A: If the barcodes are imaged properly, there’s no difference. A barcode is a barcode. If you’re using a barcode generator, make sure the output you’re getting is in vector format. But as long as it scans properly, you’re good. And there are also printers and print on demand vendors that routinely supply barcodes at no charge for the books they are producing, and one of them is Lightning Source.

Q: Can I purchase an ISBN after I publish my book? For example, I publish my book on Aamazon KDP and two months later I decide I want to get an ISBN for that book. Is that possible? (Your website is awesome!)

A: Yes, you can purchase ISBNs at any time and assign one to the book you originally published without one. But since Amazon KDP doesn’t require an ISBN, I’m not sure why you would want or need to do this. On the other hand, if you want to retail an ePub version, you will need an ISBN for that one. (Thanks!)

Q: Hi Joel, I hope this finds you well and happy. I read your blog post about Advance Review Copies (ARCs) yesterday. Very helpful. While I was there I bought your ISBN book.(See ad at end of this article.) It answered a nagging question I had. Well done. A question, if I may: I am going to print an ARC to get reviews and other marketing support. (It will not show a bar code, thanks to you). It will be a hardcover. Is there any reason why the ARC should not be a paperback?

A: ARCs are traditionally paperback, no matter whether the book is published as a hardcover or softcover, although there’s no “rule” that says you can’t do a hardcover ARC.

Q: 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?

A: 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 the language in which they are written.

Q: 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?

A: There’s no reason you can’t assign ISBN to the four published books, it’s never too late. The language of 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. we get our ISBNs 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: International ISBN Agencies.

Q: Hi Joel. Quick question: I am self-publishing but I hired a gentleman to format the book and set it up on Kindle. He said he has a handful of ISBNs and he can assign one of them to my book. Is there any benefit to him giving me one of his ISBNs? Should I just spend the $125 and get my own? Is there anything I should be concerned about getting a secondhand ISBN? Thanks so much!

A: I strongly advise authors against this practice. If the money is a problem, get a free ISBN directly from CreateSpace, otherwise go buy and own your own from

Q: I can’t find the answer to this on your website. I am a small publisher in the UK. An author has approached me from Switzerland to publish her book. Is it correct that an author needs to ensure that the ISBN is from their country of residence? I was told something about this but can’t find my notes! I think as a publisher I can publish books for authors living abroad, I’m sure it was around the ISBN. Help!

A: ISBN has nothing to do with authors whatsoever. They are issued to publishers, who then assign them to the books they publish. Whether the publisher decides to publish books by Swiss, Somalis, or authors from Saturn makes no difference. The ISBNs are issued based on the country in which the publisher is located.

Q: Why does CreateSpace have a note saying, to get Expanded Distribution the ISBN must be purchased from them? Here I was with seven ISBNs left over. I bought their $99 ISBN anyway to see what would happen and was told today from a Coeditor with CreateSpace that they could have given me a free ISBN and barcode as well! Is it my understanding whoever buys the ISBN controls the marketing as well and that it even trumps copyrights. So why this free ISBN and barcode if not a hook on the other end? You are the only one I will trust with an answer at this point. Thanks again, Joel.

A: The “free” ISBNs provided by vendors like CreateSpace (they aren’t the only one) are purchased directly from Bowker in huge lots. If you buy 5,000 ISBNs, they only cost $1.00 each. However, the owner of the ISBNs is officially the “publisher” of all books that carry them, not you. The CreateSpace books that go into expanded distribution use Ingram to get that distribution, and the books are all listed as CreateSpace books, since the individual authors don’t have accounts at Ingram. This allows them to consolidate all the royalties etc. into one account instead of having to generate and service thousands of individual accounts.

However, please understand that ISBN is simply an inventory mechanism designed to provide a unique and uniform identifier for each separate edition of a book. It has absolutely nothing to do with copyright or marketing.

Q: I’ve seen some companies with more affordable options for ISBN than Bowker. Anyone know if Publisher Servces ( is reliable? Or should I use Bowker?

A: They are an authorized agent for Bowker, so there’s no problem using them. Keep in mind that their lower-priced options, although perfectly fine for “hobbyist” publishers, will not show you as the publisher of your book, and many of the “extras” they offer may be unnecessary for the majority of indie authors.

Q: 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.

A: 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.

Q: I am just wondering if you can help, I have written a booklet which lists questions for people to record specific information in regards to themselves and was wondering if I create a website to sell a downloadable PDF of the booklet and also link it to a printing website where they will print only ordered copies, since it’s not really a “book,” do I need an ISBN, barcodes, etc.? who do I list as the publisher on the copyright page if none used or is it me? Thanks.

A: You only need an ISBN if you plan to sell the product through retailers. The barcode is the same as the ISBN, it’s just a scannable version. If you publish the book, you should list yourself as the publisher, don’t forget to include your contact info. Whether you have an ISBN or not has nothing to do with who published the book.

Self-Publisher’s Quick & Easy Guide to ISBNs and Barcodes—$7.00 Download Instantly


Almost every book sold has an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), yet confusion still surrounds this code.

Learn how to use ISBN, how to get it, and what it means. Includes questions and answers about ISBN, and how to decode both the ISBN and the Bookland EAN barcode that appears on the back of your book cover.

Click the cover to find out more and get your copy.


tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Margarett

    Hi Joel,

    We are the publisher on record with Bowker for a particular title (all our titles actually), and recently uploaded an ISBN and title to CS. Then we went to upload on Lightning. ISBN was rejected as “already in use.” However, we went directly through Bowker for the ISBN and we fully filled out the form for BIP with Bowker for the title. I called lightning and they are uncooperative. It makes no sense to me whatsover. Your thoughts?

  2. Marina Finlayson

    Hi Joel, if you change the cover of a book, but nothing else about it changes, do you need a new ISBN? I’m guessing you probably do, but hoping I’m wrong!

  3. lin

    Hi, do you need a separate bar code for each book? I bought a block of ISBNs.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi lin. The barcode is simply a scannable version of the ISBN. So all the barcodes on all the copies of one title are the same, but different books or different editions of the same book have different ISBNs and therefore will need barcodes that represent those individual ISBNs.

      • lin

        Thank you so much Joel for your reply, sure wish you would consider a webinar for beginners on copyright and ISBNs. These are subjects that is so complicated sometimes for beginners just starting out. I thank you again for sharing your valuable information.

        • Joel Friedlander

          lin, I think that’s a great idea, and I will look at doing it later this year.

          • lin

            I will watch for your announcement.


  1. Monday Mailbag: ISBNs and Barcodes — The ... - […] I thought I had written the definitive post on the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) in 2009. Or was…
  2. Monday Mailbag: ISBNs and Barcodes — The ... - […] I thought I had written the definitive post on the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) in 2009. Or was…

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