What Is An ISBN? 11 Facts For Self-Publishing Authors

When you get ready to produce your self-published book, you’ll need something called an ISBN. This 13-digit number can be an enigma if you’re not well-versed in the technical side of self-publishing.

The good news is that the ISBN system is easy to figure out.

If you just want to know how to get an ISBN, check out our article on How To Get an ISBN. And check out our ISBN barcode generator for a free tool to get a custom barcode that you can use in the design of your book.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What an ISBN is
  2. Why identification numbers are important
  3. Which books need an ISBN
  4. What self-publishers must know about ISBNs to look legit

Links in this article may earn me a small commission if you use them to purchase a service or product. This has not affected my opinion, and it’s at no extra cost to you. However, it helps me continue to write these awesome articles that anyone can read for free!

1. The Meaning Of ISBN

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It’s a numbering system that provides each published book with a unique identifier to make it easier for booksellers, libraries, and readers to find the exact version they need.

Every single digit has meaning, but we’ll get into that below. (Jump to section 11.)

Why is ISBN important? An ISBN is important because ISBNs help distinguish multiple books with the same title, multiple versions, or various editions of the same book. For example, if you’re looking for a particular version of Jane Eyre, it’s much easier to find if you have the correct ISBN.

How many digits are in the ISBN number? There are 13 digits in current ISBN numbers. Prior to 2007, ISBNs had 10 digits, but the ISBN agency was running out of available numbers, so they added a 3-digit EAN prefix to the beginning of each 10-digit ISBN to create a 13-digit ISBN.

It’s important to note that ISBNs do not assign rights to a book. Copyright is entirely separate from ISBNs and book identification.

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2. Who Needs An ISBN?

All publishers creating books in print need an ISBN, including self-publishers. It’s essential to have that unique number if you want booksellers and readers to find your book.

Does every book have an ISBN number? Every printed book has an ISBN number, but not every digital book does.

If you’re publishing your book digitally, either as an eBook or a digital audiobook, you’ll only need an ISBN if your book distributor requires it. You don’t need an ISBN to publish an eBook on the following major digital distribution services:

Do Self-published Authors Need to Buy ISBNs?

While every book must have an ISBN, the big question is whether you should get it for free from Amazon or a distributor like Draft2Digital, or if you should buy your own.

For the vast majority of self-published authors, I don't actually recommend that you get an ISBN. It will not affect the money you make online, your ability to build a loyal audience, or to make a living as an author. All it will do is drain your wallets.

That said, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution for anyone. There are instances where you might want to consider buying ISBNs for your book. See this table for a breakdown:

Reasons Why You Should NOT Purchase an ISBNReasons Why You SHOULD Purchase an ISBN
If you want to save money.If you have an aggressive branding strategy for your name or publishing company.
If most of your business is based online.If most of your business is (or plans to be) based in physical bookstores and libraries.

The big sticking point for a lot of authors is this: not having your name or your publishing company's name listed as the publisher. But honestly, this means little. It doesn't mean Amazon has a legal right to your content. You still own the copyright. It does not mean you'll earn more or less royalties. All it means is that their name will be there instead of yours.

It's absolutely okay if you want to have your name there, but understand that it gives you no benefit. It's almost entirely a point of pride, nothing more.

With ONE exception.

There is some evidence to make us believe that libraries and bookstores are less likely to order your book if it carries Amazon's name on it. So in that case, it could be beneficial to buy your own ISBN so you can have your own name there instead. However, since most bookstores and libraries rarely stock physical versions of your books anyway, this is less of an issue than it might seem.

3. Do Different Publishing Methods Require Separate ISBNs?

You need a separate ISBN for each format you publish in.

For example, if you print your book as a paperback and hardcover, you’ll need a different ISBN for each.

If you choose to publish a second edition of a book, you will need a new ISBN for each version of that book you create as well.

Digital books (eBooks and digital audiobooks) don’t require an ISBN, but you may want to get one anyway. An ISBN for your eBook version can make it easier for readers to find your book, but it’s not necessary.

4. Can You Recycle An ISBN?

You can’t recycle or reuse an old ISBN. The bibliographic information for an ISBN can’t be updated and switched over to a new book.

If you need an ISBN for a new edition or new book, you’ll need to get a brand new ISBN.

5. How Are ISBNs Issued & Assigned?

ISBNs are assigned by each country’s ISBN agency.

R.R. Bowker is the U.S. ISBN agency — and in Australia, too. In the U.K. and Ireland, Nielsen distributes ISBNs. These local agencies collect information about their country’s books and submit it to the International ISBN Agency.

6. To Whom Are ISBNs Issued

ISBNs are issued to publishers. But if you’re self-publishing, ISBNs you purchase can be issued to you. If you’re registering a new ISBN, you can list your name as the publisher if you don’t have your own publishing company.

The free ISBN you can get from print-on-demand services like Amazon’s KDP or BookBaby will list that service or “independently published” as the publisher, not you directly. This screams, “I’m self-published!” so it’s best to purchase your own ISBN directly if you have the budget.

Is there an ISBN for magazines? There is an ISBN for magazines, called an ISSN, or International Standard Serial Number. ISBNs should not be used with magazines or any other serialized content.

7. Disadvantages Of Publishing Without An ISBN

There are a few disadvantages of publishing a digital book without an ISBN, including:

  • It can be more difficult to track eBook sales across platforms without an ISBN.
  • Your book won’t be available to readers who prefer print books.
  • Your book won’t be included in the Books in Print database.

For most self-publishers, it’s not a big deal to publish an eBook without an ISBN. However, some with very particular needs might want to purchase an ISBN.

8. How Do I Get An ISBN?

To get a unique ISBN for your book, head to your country’s ISBN agency. Some countries provide ISBNs to publishers for free, and other agencies charge a fee for ISBNs. You can purchase a single ISBN or buy a bundle of ISBNs at a discounted price.

Unfortunately, if you live in the U.S., you’ll have to pay for your ISBNs, unless you get a free ISBN through a print-on-demand service. (Reminder: You won’t be officially listed as the book’s publisher if you go this route.) Print-on-demand services sometimes offer discounted ISBNs.

Video: How to Get an ISBN

I've also got a video on this subject that will walk you through the process to get ISBNs for yourself.

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9. Does My Ebook Need An ISBN?

Depending on where you publish or distribute your eBook, it may or may not need its own ISBN.

Most of the major eBook distributors do not require ISBNs for eBooks. These distributors will usually have a place to add an ISBN if you want one, but it’s not needed to publish.

If you’re concerned that your eBook might need an ISBN, check with the service(s) you’ll be using to distribute your book. Most likely, they won’t require one, but it never hurts to check.

10. ISBNs vs. Barcodes

Book barcodes typically contain the same information as an ISBN, but they are not actually ISBNs.

Barcodes are what retailers use to scan books into their computer systems to sell them. ISBNs don’t require a barcode.

Barcodes are found on the book’s back cover, whereas ISBNs are typically located on the copyright page. If you’re formatting your own book, be sure to follow best practices for creating a copyright page and include your book’s 13-digit ISBN.

11. The Meaning Of An ISBN Number

What does the ISBN number tell you? The ISBN number tells you where a book was published, who published it, its title, format, and other basic information about the book.

A full ISBN contains 5 sections, all separated by hyphens. Those sections are:

  1. The EAN, currently either 978 or 979
  2. The registration group, which tells you where the book was published (country or region)
  3. The registrant element, which tells you who published the book
  4. The publication element, which correlates to the book titles, format, edition, author (with author biography), category, and synopsis of the book
  5. The check digit, the mathematically-calculated last digit that ensures the ISBN was typed out properly

The Final Word

ISBNs can seem confusing at first, but they’re pretty straightforward. Get one ISBN for each print version you offer, and only if you buy one for your eBook if you really want it.

It’s a good idea to buy your own, if you can, and skip the free ISBNs handed out by print-on-demand services.

If you’re ready to self-publish your book, along with an ISBN, you’re also going to need to format your book. I love and recommend Ebook Launch for formatting, but Vellum and Atticus are great options if you’d prefer DIY formatting.

You’ll also need a killer book cover to help your book sell well. Sci-fi and fantasy authors can’t beat Jeff Brown Graphics. Authors in other genres should check out Damonza. If you’re on a budget, try finding a cover designer on Fiverr, or learn how to DIY your book cover.

Once you have a formatted interior, a great cover, and your ISBN, it’s time to publish and get your book into your readers’ hands. In that case, check out these 70+ Book Marketing Tips.

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