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A Complete Guide to Understanding, Obtaining and Using an ISBN for Your Book

by | Apr 8, 2020

When you set out to write and figure out how to self-publish a book, you probably had no idea how much would be involved in the process.

Sure, you knew it would be a lot of work. But now that you’re nearing the finish line, you realize how many extra steps you’ve had to take that you never before realized would be required. 

We’re not just talking about book editing, revising and how to format a book. We’re also talking about choosing a self-publishing platform like Amazon self-publishing, marketing, and yes…getting an ISBN. 

What is an ISBN? 

Every book that ever makes it to print and becomes available for public sale, whether through traditional or self-publishing, requires an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). 

These are unique 13-digit numbers (previously 10 digits, prior to December 2006) that help identify your book to libraries and book sellers, both online and on the street. The ISBN system is internationally used and recognized and the numbers within the ISBN represent five key elements:

  • A standard prefix
  • The country, geographical region, or language the book was published within
  • The publisher or imprint responsible for the book
  • The edition or format of the book
  • A single digit used to mathematically validate the rest of the number

What isn’t an ISBN?

An ISBN does not represent your copyright to the material. It doesn’t provide any legal protection to your creative work at all. It is purely an number meant to help identify your book to distributors, libraries, and booksellers around the world.   

Why do you need an ISBN?

If you want your book to be sold and read anywhere beyond your own garage, you need an ISBN. 

Without one, those already mentioned distributors, libraries and retailers won’t consider it a real book, and you will never have the opportunity to market your words to a larger audience. 

How many ISBNs will you need?

Different formats require different ISBNs, even for the same book title. So if you are publishing a hard cover, a soft cover, an audiobook, and an e-book version, your book would require four ISBNs. 

Additionally, if you make substantial changes to your book after publication so that the updated version would be considered a new edition, if you change the title or subtitle, or if you publish a version in larger print, you will also need a new ISBN for that. And if your book is published in multiple languages, each language version will need its own ISBN. 

As you can see, a single book title can require quite a few ISBNs if you are aiming for multiple versions of that title. But for most self-publishers, an e-book and paperback ISBN will suffice. 

Using a free ISBN

Once your book is completed, and you’ve selected a self-publishing platform, your first step should be to check to see if your self-publishing platform will provide a free ISBN as part of the publishing process. Some do, some don’t. 

And in some cases, you may be able to receive a free ISBN for some versions of your book, but will need to purchase the ISBN for others (for instance, you may be able to get a free ISBN for your ebook, but have to purchase one for your paperback). 

You might want to consider whether you will ever want to publish your book through a different platform. If that is a possibility, purchasing an ISBN may be a better option, as those provided for free through publishing platforms are generally only good through that platform. 

If you want to be able to carry your ISBN with your book wherever it is published, it might be worthwhile to purchase one. Even if you could otherwise get it for free through your publishing platform. 

How to purchase your ISBN

The good news is, obtaining an ISBN for your book is a relatively simple process. 

  • If you are located in the United States, you will want to purchase yours through Bowker.
  • If you decide to purchase your own ISBN, Canadian residents can obtain theirs for free through ISBN Canada.
  • And those living in the UK, Ireland or British Overseas Territories can purchase their ISBNs through the Nielsen ISBN Store.
  • If you are located anywhere else, the International ISBN Agency can help you locate which agency you should be purchasing through. There are over 150 ISBN agencies in 200 countries, so rest assured there is one available to you. 

How much does an ISBN cost?

The current cost of an ISBN through Bowker is $125 for a single ISBN number. However, Bowker also offers packages for those who see themselves doing more self-publishing in the future, or authors who are planning on publishing their book in various formats. You can purchase 10 ISBNS for $295. There are also options for purchasing 100 or 1,000 ISBNs at a time, but these are generally best suited for small publishers intent on publishing quite a few books over the next several years. 

If you do purchase a package with multiple ISBNs, you do not have to assign them right way. You can save your additional ISBNs until your next book is ready for publication. Your ISBN numbers will never go bad or expire. 

What to do with your ISBN once you have it

Once you have your ISBN, you should register it through Bowkerlink (or look for the registration site affiliated with your national ISBN agency). From there, you simply need to place your ISBN on your copyright page and provide it to your self-publishing platforms. You will also want to publish it on your back cover, above the barcode. 

That’s it!

Your book is ready to be distributed to libraries and retailers. Or at least, it will be once you complete the publishing process!

Photo via Dean Drobot/ Shutterstock