How To Get An ISBN: Quick Guide for Self-Published Authors

Self-published authors need to get through many surprising hurdles before their books are ready to be published. One checkbox that most first-time authors don’t anticipate is getting an ISBN. 

What is an ISBN number? An ISBN number is a unique 13-digit number (formerly 10 digits) used to identify your book. An International Standard Book Number allows publishers and booksellers to track and recognize books.

Your unique ISBN is like a fingerprint for your book. It helps people identify your book and eliminates confusion between similar works. An ISBN could be critical if someone decided to publish a book with the same title as yours, for example.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. Why ISBNs are important
  2. What the numbers in an ISBN mean
  3. 3 fast steps to follow to get your own ISBN
  4. The pros and cons of free ISBNs
  5. The types of books that need ISBNs and the books that don’t
  6. Questions to ask yourself to find out if you should buy your own ISBN

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Why Does Your Book Need An ISBN?

ISBNs are assigned by the International ISBN Agency. The ISBN Agency then stores the information for your book, which helps wholesalers, retailers, and libraries find your book.

You also need an ISBN to get a barcode for the back cover of your book when you self-publish it. A book’s barcode includes the same digits as the identification number.

A 13-digit ISBN may look like a random series of numbers, but those numbers contain metadata and can tell you a lot about the book. Here’s an example ISBN and what its numbers mean:

978-0-679-80527-3

  • EAN Prefix (978): The first 3 digits of all ISBNs are always 978 or 979.
  • Registration Group (0): This number can be 1-5 digits long and tells you the country or region where the ISBN is registered.
  • Registrant Element (679): The registrant element tells you which publisher created this book.
  • Publication Element (80527): This number tells you the title of the book, format, and edition of the book.
  • Check Digit (3): This number is mathematically calculated and helps ensure that the ISBN has been typed out properly.

Can I use the ISBN number for my book on my other books? No, you can’t use the ISBN number from your book on other books. Each printed book must have its own unique ISBN — each number is created to identify just one title or edition.

Getting Your Own ISBN For Self-Publishers

Getting your own ISBN is a relatively simple process. Depending on the country you live in, you can either get an ISBN directly from your government or through an agency that handles ISBN registration. The U.S. ISBN agency is Bowker MyIdentifiers.

Who can I contact to get an ISBN? You can contact Bowker MyIdentifiers to get an ISBN if you’re in the U.S. If you’re outside the U.S., you’ll need to look up your country’s ISBN agency and contact them.

Get A New ISBN In 3 Fast Steps

How do I get an ISBN number for my book? To get an ISBN number for your book, follow these three simple steps:

  1. Create an account with Bowker MyIdentifiers at myidentifiers.com.
  2. Choose a package with the number of ISBNs you’ll need. If you plan to get multiple books into print, you might choose a package with 10 or more ISBNs. You’ll need a different ISBN for each format you produce (hardcover, paperback, abridged, etc.).
  3. Check out and pay for your ISBNs.

Once you’ve paid, your ISBNs will be under your account. Simply go to My Account > My Identifiers and fill in the information for your book, such as its title, author, publication date, and pricing. 

When you’re done, simply submit the form. For peace of mind, Bowker keeps all of your book’s data.

Free or Discounted Options 

Amazon’s KDP Print (formerly CreateSpace) is the most popular printing service that gives authors who use its service a free ISBN. But beware: You cannot use the free ISBNs to print your book elsewhere.

To take advantage of the free ISBN from KDP, simply choose “Get a free KDP ISBN” in the “Edit print book content” area when you’re adding your book to KDP. 

Other printing services offer free ISBNs as well, including Blurb, BookBaby, Smashwords, and D2D (Draft2Digital) Print.

Why would you choose to pay for an ISBN if you can get one for free? The printing service or distributor is listed as the publishing company if you get a free ISBN, not you. For example, if you use KDP Print, your publisher will be listed as “independently published” instead of your name.

KDP Print, IngramSpark, and BookBaby offer discounted ISBNs to customers who use their printing services. If you buy ISBNs with a discount from one of these services, then you will be listed as the publisher, rather than the service being listed as the publisher.

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How To Determine If You Need An ISBN

Here are some questions to ask yourself to determine if you need an ISBN:

  • Are you publishing your book physically? (If your answer is yes, you need an ISBN, either free or paid.)
  • Where do you plan to publish your ebook? (Some ebook publishers and distributors require an ISBN for ebooks.)
  • Is it important to you that your name or publishing company is listed as the publisher for your book? (If yes, you should consider buying your own ISBN.)

If you’re going through a distributor that doesn’t need an ISBN, you won’t print physical copies, and you don’t care about being listed as the publisher, then you may not need an ISBN.

Which Books Need An ISBN?

An ISBN can be necessary for your book for many different reasons. Some of the most common reasons for getting an ISBN can include: 

  • Publishing books in print rather than just online
  • If you publish a new edition, you’ll need new ISBNs for each print version.
  • Printing a book in different formats (e.g., paperback and hardcover). In this situation, you’ll need a separate ISBN for each format.

Some ebook distributors require you to have an ISBN, though most major ebook retailers won’t need one. Check with the service you’re using to distribute your ebook to online retailers to determine if you’ll need an ISBN. 

Which Books Don’t Require An ISBN?

The ebook version of your book (PDF, epub, Mobi, etc.) may or may not need its own ISBN, depending on where you submit it for distribution. If you sell your ebook directly from your website or publish it on Amazon Kindle (KDP), you don’t have to use an ISBN.

Audiobooks also do not require an ISBN if they’re distributed digitally through a service like Audible or Apple Books. 

On the other hand, if you create an audiobook that’s produced physically, like a book on CD, you are required to have an ISBN.

ISBN Costs: A Breakdown

How much does it cost to get an ISBN number for a book? It costs anywhere from $0 to $125 to get an ISBN number for a book in the U.S. The costs in other countries vary.

Depending on the country you live in, you might be able to get an ISBN for free. For example, Canadians can get free ISBNs from Library and Archives Canada. Unfortunately, the United States and the United Kingdom don’t have similar systems for free ISBNs.

In the UK, publishers get their ISBNs from Nielsen. Nielsen charges £89 for a single ISBN, or you can buy blocks of 10, 100, or 1000 ISBNs at a discounted price.

How do I get an ISBN number for free? You can get an ISBN number for free through a book printer that offers them (like KDP Print, BookBaby, or Blurb). You can also use your country’s ISBN services if you live in a country like Canada that offers free ISBNs to its citizens.

A single ISBN for U.S. publishers from Bowker is $125. If that’s out of your budget, some printing and distribution services offer ISBN discounts to their customers. 

Here are the biggest printer-distributors that offer discounted ISBNs and the discounted price per ISBN:

  • BookBaby: $39
  • IngramSpark: $85 
  • KDP: $99

You can also purchase packages of ISBNs from Bowker at a discounted price. They have a 10-ISBN package for $295, for example, bringing the price of one ISBN down to $29.50. If you’re going to publish multiple books, buying a package of ISBNs is a great idea.

Locating A Book’s ISBN

You’ll generally find a book’s ISBN on its copyright page. A tip: Make sure your book has its ISBN on the copyright page if you want your book to look professional.

If possible, include the proper dashes in your ISBN so that it’s easier to locate the country, publisher, and title, as well as to check digit numbers.

The barcodes on the back cover of a book also contain the ISBN. Depending on where you get your barcode, there may be a second smaller barcode that includes the price of your book. 

Common Questions About ISBNs

Your average new author has rarely heard about ISBNs, or never at all. Here are some of the most common questions asked about these numbers.

  • What’s the difference between an ISBN and ASIN? An ASIN number is Amazon’s version of an ISBN. Everything that Amazon sells gets an ASIN when it’s added to their website, including books. You’ll get a free ASIN automatically when you put your book on Amazon.
  • What’s the difference between a barcode and an ISBN? A book’s barcode includes the ISBN in a format that can be scanned and put into a computer system so stores can sell the book.
  • How long does it take to get an ISBN? It varies by ISBN agency, but you can usually get the number itself almost instantaneously. However, it can take the agency several days to process the information you submit (book title, author, etc.).
  • Do ISBNs expire? No, ISBNs don’t expire. Make sure to keep any login information for your ISBN agency in a safe place so that you don’t lose access to any unused ISBNs you’ve purchased.
  • Do I use the same ISBN if I’m printing my book in another language? No, each translation of your book is considered a separate entity and will need its own ISBN.

Will You Get An ISBN for Your Book?

At first glance, ISBNs can seem complex, but good news: they’re actually pretty straightforward. You probably don’t need an ISBN for your ebook. However, if you’re planning to go to print, then you’ll need an ISBN for each format that you publish.

Buying your own ISBN is a good idea for self-published authors who are printing their work. It helps your book look more professional, so it doesn’t scream, “I’m self-published!” Avoid having your printing service or “independently published” listed as your publisher if you can.

Once you’ve written your book (I recommend using Scrivener and editing with ProWritingAid) and you have your ISBN, it’s time to format and publish your work.

I love Vellum for DIY book design and formatting. If you don’t have the patience for perfect DIY formatting, check out Ebook Launch. I use their services for my books, and I’ve been thrilled with the results. Once you add in your ISBN, you’re good to go. Happy publishing!



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