Confused about ISBN? Find out all you need to know about it in 10 FAQs!
ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is a 13-digit numeric code that serves as an internationally applicable unique identifier for books. The code captures information regarding the book’s publisher, title, language, edition, and version. Magazines, academic journals, and other periodicals do not get ISBNs. Instead, they are issued 8-digit ISSNs (International Standard Serial Numbers).
The ISBN helps customers identify and order the exact book they want to purchase. Libraries, bookstores, online retailers, distributors, and wholesalers depend on this unique identifier to track purchases and sales, and it will be necessary to apply for an ISBN if you intend to sell to them. On the other hand, an ISBN may or may not be required to sell ebooks. Retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple do not require it for ebooks. If you plan to sell your ebook through these retailers, and are not looking to sell print copies, you can do without one.
No. Each version (ebook, hardcover, paperback, or audiobook) will require a separate ISBN. Note that in the following circumstances, it will become necessary to apply for a new ISBN:
An ISBN cannot be re-used, even if the book in question goes out of print.
It is issued to the publisher. If you want to be the publisher of record in book databases and catalogs, make sure you apply for your own ISBN. This is a preferred practice for reasons explained later in this article.
If you are going down the traditional publishing route, your publisher will be your book’s publisher of record. However, if you are self-publishing, you have the option of using an ISBN assigned by your publishing service company (e.g., CreateSpace or Kobo; in this case the company will appear as the publisher of record), getting your own ISBN, or even doing without an ISBN if you are only looking to sell ebooks through retailers who don’t require it.
Your publishing service company can assign your book an ISBN at negligible or no cost. This would appear tempting to self-publishing authors, especially first-time authors who are unsure of their market’s size and would rather spend their money on professional book editing and design services. However, there are several advantages to getting your own ISBN:
If you are printing copies of your book for a limited circle of family and friends and will be selling directly to them, or if you are only selling the ebook version through retailers who are flexible about ISBN, you don’t need an ISBN. You can draw encouragement from these data from the US:
As online bookstores gain in popularity as compared to brick-and-mortar stores, the future for ebooks looks even more promising.
However, if you plan to take up writing seriously, take note of these downsides of not having an ISBN:
If your ebook sales take off, though, you can always apply for an ISBN later and launch multiple versions to maximize distribution channels and sales.
Each country has an agency that issues ISBNs. Bowker is the official ISBN agency for the US, whereas authors in the UK can approach Nielsen. Prices vary with quantity; a block of 1000 has a lower per-ISBN cost than a block of 10 or a single ISBN. For a self-publishing author, buying a block of 10 makes more economic sense than buying just one or two for, say, the paperback and hardcover versions. In some countries, such as Canada and India, ISBNs are issued for free. Click here to know more about applying for an ISBN in your country.
While the ISBN serves as a unique book identifier, sellers of physical books use barcodes to manage their inventory by reading the barcode at the time of purchase and sale. Several free tools are available online to convert an ISBN into a bar code. You can also get a bar code from the agency that supplied you the ISBN.
ISBNs are not necessary to sell ebooks; none of the top online retailers require them. Printed books, however, cannot be sold without an ISBN. Remember that each version of your book would need a separate ISBN, and purchasing a block of 10 would be more cost-effective than purchasing one.