10 FAQs on ISBN Every Self-Publishing Author Must Know

Confused about ISBN? Find out all you need to know about it in 10 FAQs!

1. What is ISBN?

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).

2. Is ISBN necessary?

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.

3. Does a book title have a constant ISBN?

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:

  • If you are making substantial textual changes that would qualify as a new edition
  • If you are changing your publisher
  • If you are changing your book title
  • If the book is translated into a different language

4. Can an ISBN be re-used?

An ISBN cannot be re-used, even if the book in question goes out of print.

5. In whose name is the ISBN issued?

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.

6. Should I get an ISBN?

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.

7. For a self-publishing author, what are the advantages of getting their own ISBN over a publisher-assigned one?

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:

  • You have complete control over what is entered in your book’s metadata—that is, the descriptions and categories that help libraries, bookstores, and readers worldwide discover your book and decide whether they want to purchase it. In today's digital world, your book’s metadata can hugely impact its chances of being found and purchased by your target audience. This would mean a lot to a self-published authors, who do not have the marketing and distribution capabilities of a traditional publisher to fall back on.
  • As you will be the publisher of record, your ISBN will remain unchanged even if you change your publishing service company or publish with multiple companies.
  • Any individual or organization with specific orders or inquiries regarding your book will approach the publisher of record; you would rather this be you instead of your publishing service company.
  • If you plan on writing several books, it makes sense to take on the mantle of a publisher and have your own constant publishing imprint on your books.

8. I am unsure about getting an ISBN. Are there any disadvantages of not getting one?

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:

  • 43% of ebooks purchased on Amazon.com do not have ISBNs.
  • 24% of all ebook dollars on Amazon.com go to books without ISBNs (15%-20% for sales on iBooks, Kobo, and Nook).
  • US consumers are spending $550 million per year on ebooks without ISBNs.

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:

  • Your book won’t be accessible to the section of your audience that prefers physical books.
  • A few online retailers may not stock your ebook, which would curtail sales.
  • Your book won’t be listed in Books in Print, a vast bibliographic database of book titles that aids in the search and discovery of books.

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.

9. Where can I get an ISBN?

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.

10. Do I need a barcode if I have an ISBN? How can I get a barcode?

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.

Summary

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.


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