Share

isbn barcode illustration

Getting an ISBN—the 13-digit number above the barcode at the back of your book—is necessary, but kind of a pain.

If you’re just planning to publish an eBook, you technically don’t need one.

But we recommend that most self-published Authors go through the trouble of getting one.

Even if you’re publishing in a digital format, there are perks to having your own ISBN.

ISBNs are unique identifiers used by every party involved with ordering, listing, selling, and stocking your book.

Most booksellers, aside from eBook platforms (like Amazon’s Kindle Store), require ISBNs. Without one, your book will be invisible to publishers, brick-and-mortar stores, libraries, online retailers, and other links in the supply chain.

ISBNs are a pain, but they’re worth it.

This post will walk you through everything you need to know about ISBNs, from understanding what they mean to finding out how to get one.

1. What Does ISBN Stand For?
2. Which Is Correct: ISBN or ISBN Number?
3. What Is an ISBN?
4. What Is the Difference Between ISBN-10 and ISBN-13?
5. Is an ISBN the Same as an ASIN?
6. Do I Need an ISBN for My Book?
7. How Can I Get an ISBN for Self-Publishers?
8. Is There a Downside to a Free ISBN?
9. When Should I Get My ISBN?
10. How Much Does an ISBN Cost?
11. How Many ISBNs Do I Need?
12. How Do I Read My ISBN?
13. How Do I Use My ISBN?
14. Does My ISBN Come with a Barcode?
15. Where Do I Get a Barcode for My ISBN?
16. How Do I Read My ISBN Barcode?
17. How Do I Use My ISBN Barcode?
18. Does an ISBN Mean My Book is Copyright Registered?
19. If I Change My Book, Do I Need a New ISBN?
20. If I Need a New ISBN, How Do I Change It?

1. What Does ISBN Stand For?

An ISBN is an International Standard Book Number. It’s a 10- or 13-digit number that identifies books, eBooks, CDs, etc. They are like SSNs for books, and everyone that sells books uses them.

2. Which Is Correct: ISBN or ISBN Number?

ISBN is correct.

The acronym stands for International Standard Book Number. You don’t need to say “number” twice.

3. What Is an ISBN?

An ISBN tells bookstores and libraries all the important info about your book. The number identifies the region, language, publisher, edition, and format of each book.

Across the world, booksellers, distributors, and wholesalers use the ISBN to identify books in their stock.

Every version of a book receives a different ISBN. If your book is printed as a paperback, published as an eBook, and distributed as an audiobook, you will have 3 ISBNs.

4. What Is the Difference Between ISBN-10 and ISBN-13?

The 10-digit ISBN was developed in 1970 by the International Organization for Standardization. They were in use until January 2007, when 13-digit ISBNs were adopted.

You might still see 10-digit ISBNs on some books, but all new ISBNs have 13 digits.

Thanks to the rise of eBooks, self-publishing, audiobooks, and other publishing innovations, the old system would eventually have run out of numbers. The format changed to make sure ISBNs could live on.

5. Is an ISBN the Same as an ASIN?

No.

ASIN is an Amazon Standard Identification Number. Each eBook published on Kindle Direct Publishing is assigned a 10-digit ASIN. Unlike ISBNs, which are all numbers, the ASIN is a combination of letters and numbers.

The ASIN will be unique to your book. It helps Amazon identify the books they are selling.

Kindle books are not required to have an ISBN number. They will automatically receive an ASIN.

ASINs only apply to Amazon. ISBNs are used internationally. Every library, book retailer, and book website worldwide will use the same ISBN to identify a book.

6. Do I Need an ISBN for My Book?

If you are publishing an eBook only, you do not need an ISBN. But having one will make you look more legit.

You may still want one, though. Having an ISBN ensures your book is in the Books in Print database. This makes it easier for your book to be found and purchased.

Most booksellers, aside from eBook platforms (like Amazon’s Kindle Store), require ISBNs. They are also used by everyone involved with ordering, listing, selling, and stocking your book.

7. How Can I Get an ISBN for Self-Publishers?

With traditional publishing, it’s the publisher’s responsibility to buy an ISBN.

The same goes for self-publishing Authors.

We recommend buying an ISBN through Bowker. It’s the official ISBN agency for the United States.

Your self-publishing platform may offer you a free ISBN. We don’t recommend this option for reasons explained below.

8. Is There a Downside to a Free ISBN?

If you use a free ISBN assigned to you by CreateSpace or IngramSpark, there are downsides.

First off, your book looks more self-published.

Second, you’ll limit your chances of a bookstore carrying your own book, as many won’t take books from CreateSpace.

Third, you run the risk of ending up with several ISBNs for the same book. Free ISBNs are often untransferable, meaning that you can’t get one from Draft2Digital or Amazon and use it with another retailer.

If you decided to sell the book somewhere else, you’d need a different ISBN. That’s confusing for retailers, and it looks unprofessional.

9. When Should I Get My ISBN?

Publishers buy ISBNs and then assign them to books. That means you can buy an ISBN at any time, even before your book is written.

Once your book is ready to be published, you have to register the ISBN with Bowker so that the book is added to the database of Books in Print.

Be sure to register before your book is printed and launched.

10. How Much Does an ISBN Cost?

ISBNs come in a variety of price ranges. Some self-publishing platforms like KDP (Kindle Publishing Direct) offer free ones, while the official U.S. ISBNs available from Bowker cost $125.

When it comes to ISBNs, you often get what you pay for. Bowker is the official ISBN Agency for publishers in the United States and its territories.

If an ISBN comes from a source other than the official ISBN Agency, it might not identify the publisher accurately. That can make it harder for retailers and wholesalers to sell your book.

It can be cheaper to buy multiple ISBNs at once. If you know you’re going to publish your book in different formats (e.g., paperback and hardcover), it makes sense to buy them at the same time.

Remember, though: the ISBN is specific to the book format. If you buy a bunch of ISBNs before you have a publishing plan, they might end up being useless.

11. How Many ISBNs Do I Need?

The ISBN identifies the publisher, book title, edition, and format (hardback, paperback, ePub, pdf, Mobi, audio, etc.) That means that you need a unique ISBN for every version.

Before you buy your ISBN consider:

  • How many books you plan to publish
  • How many formats each one will be in
  • Whether you plan to revise them in the future

Remember, even if it’s the same book, if you have a hardcover, paperback, audiobook, and e-Book version, each one will need a separate ISBN.

12. How Do I Read My ISBN?

The thirteen digits are divided into five parts separated by a hyphen:

  • Prefix: The first three digits signal that the number is an ISBN. This prefix is designated by GS1, a nonprofit organization that maintains standards for global business communication. So far, GS1 allows ISBNs to start with 978 or 979.
  • Group: This set of numbers identifies a geographic location or language. English-language groups are identified with a 1 or 0. Books published in rare languages have longer group identifiers. You can download a complete pdf list from the International ISBN Agency.
  • Registrant: This identifies the publisher. There are more than 900,000 assigned publisher codes.
  • Publication: This identifies the edition or format of your book. Is it an audiobook or an eBook? Has it been reissued with updated information or a new foreword? That’ll be reflected in this set of numbers.
  • Check digit: This is a number between 0 and 10 calculated with an algorithm. It helps detect errors and validates the ISBN. If the check digit is 10, the ISBN will have an “X” (the Roman numeral for 10) at the end.

13. How Do I Use My ISBN?

Once you’ve bought your ISBN, you have to register it. For a step-by-step guide to the registration process, here’s Bowker’s pdf tutorial.

Be sure to include the ISBN on your book’s copyright page. For more information and a copyright page template, see this post.

Finally, use the ISBN to create a barcode for the back of your book. Barcodes make it easier for distributors and retailers to use your ISBN to stock and sell your book.

You need an ISBN in order to get a barcode. But you don’t need a barcode to publish a book.

14. Does My ISBN Come with a Barcode?

Not automatically.

ISBN is a number, while the barcode is the graphic that encodes that number so it can be easily scanned.

They are two different things, so you have to get them separately.

15. Where Do I Get a Barcode for My ISBN?

You can buy barcodes from Bowker at the same time you buy your ISBN, or you can buy them separately from bowkerbarcode.com.

You can also get them free from a barcode generator site.

Before you create one, make sure you have your ISBN number, the retail or list price for your book, and the size for your symbol. (The standard is 2 inches by 1.25 inches.)

16. How Do I Read My ISBN Barcode?

The barcodes on a book’s back cover are formatted with EAN-13 (European Article Number-13).

That means that the barcode represents your 13-digit ISBN in a form scanners can read.

The barcode usually also has other information embedded in it, like the price of the book and the currency.

17. How Do I Use My ISBN Barcode?

The barcode goes on the back cover of your book or, in mass-market paperbacks, the inside of the front cover.

The barcode is machine-readable, which makes automated sales and inventory tracking faster. This is a must for large retailers like Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

If you change the price of your self-published book, you will need a new barcode. You can keep the same ISBN, though.

18. Does an ISBN Mean My Book is Copyright Registered?

No. Copyright is separate from ISBN.

ISBNs are administered by GS1, a private company that oversees the international use of ISBNs for the book trade.

Copyright is an extension of intellectual property law. In the United States, it’s administered by the Library of Congress.

For more information, see the Scribe Guide to Copyright.

19. If I Change My Book, Do I Need a New ISBN?

That depends on how big the changes are.

Here are some cases where you don’t need a new ISBN:

  • If you changed the price
  • If you changed the cover design or made other marketing changes
  • If you’re reprinting the book with no changes
  • If you corrected some small grammatical mistakes
  • If you switched to a different printer (Note: Printers and publishers are different. Printers actually print and bind your book. Publishers are involved throughout the whole writing process.)

Here are some cases where you do need a new ISBN:

20. If I Need a New ISBN, How Do I Change It?

If you made major changes, your book’s basically a new product. You’ll have to publish the new edition like a separate book.

That means you’ll leave your old ISBN alone. All the existing copies of your book with that ISBN will stay the same.

For the new version, register a separate ISBN. The new ISBN goes on the copyright page. You’ll also need a new barcode on the back of the book.