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The Comprehensive Book ISBN Guide for Authors

Self-publishing lingo can be unclear for both new authors and seasoned pros. One phrase that can have you scratching your head in confusion? A book “ISBN.” You may not have heard these four letters since high school English class… or maybe ever!

According to ISBN.org, a book’s ISBN – the International Standard Book Number – is defined as:

a 13-digit number that uniquely identifies books and book-like products published internationally.

ISBNs are just one factor of many that feed into the production of a book.

How to Locate ISBNs

You may have noticed an ISBN during your latest bookstore stroll. They can be found on the back of book covers, like in this example:

different parts of an ISBN
Look familiar? This is an example of an ISBN, taken from the back of a Written Word Media favorite book. Grab a book near you and flip to the back cover to locate its unique ISBN. Try to match its digits to the numbers seen above!

 

It’s worth noting that the ISBN process was adjusted in 2007. If you look at ISBNs produced since then, they will be 13 digits long. They were formerly 10 digits long. The extra three numbers were added to increase database capacity.

Why Book ISBNs Matter

Glancing at the ISBN and barcode image above, you can see that these 13 numbers serve as an instantaneous method for providing the book info needed by readers, bookstores, and distributors to track book sales. Having the ability to track sales (especially if you’re trying to make it on a bestseller list), can be crucial.

Whether you’re here to learn about generating your own number or are simply a curious bookworm (same here 🤓), getting familiar with ISBNs can benefit you. Nearly all books – except eBooks – require an ISBN. Even books that don’t need an ISBN, like Kindle eBooks, still require unique identification digits. We’ll get into that later, but this requirement shows just how important identification is for all types of books!

So, keep reading – our article will show you how ISBNs come into play in your publishing process and how you can easily acquire one. Stay til the end of the article for our list of vetted ISBN resources that will serve you as you get started:

What to Know About ISBNs

Many authors may be daunted by book ISBN numbers; how to get one, cost information, and all the other nitty-gritty logistic pieces that aren’t always fun. But there’s good news, authors… It’s never been easier to get an ISBN!

Later in the article, we’ll review ISBN resources that are at your disposal. Some of the listed services will make it quick and simple to generate anywhere from 1 to 1,000 ISBNs by pressing one button.

Remember that nearly every book format – except for eBooks – needs an ISBN. Even if you exclusively publish eBooks, it can still help to purchase an ISBN since these can aid in your book being found by readers and retailers. This article will explain the benefits of purchasing an ISBN.

Now that we have that cleared up, let’s chat about what it takes to get one of these identification numbers.

“How do I get an ISBN number for my book?”

There are a couple ways to get an ISBN for self-published and traditionally published authors alike. Working with publishers has the benefit of them nearly always handling ISBNs from their end.

If you’re an indie author who doesn’t have a publisher, don’t worry. The act of getting an ISBN (typically) takes just a few minutes if you know where to look. Websites like Bowker Myidentifiers have created an online process that enables you to buy one ISBN or in bulk.

Remember: You need one ISBN per book edition and format.

If you publish hardbacks, paperbacks, audiobooks and so forth, each format will require an ISBN of its own. Keeping this in mind can help you decide if a bulk purchasing option is right for you. As we said, we’ll walk you through the individual steps of buying ISBNs later in the article.

You don’t need an ISBN for each copy of your book. This concern can throw authors off and cause some initial anxiety, but not to worry!

“How much does a book ISBN cost?”

Bowker, the official ISBN agency in the United States, has a cost breakdown on their website for ISBN generation:

# of ISBNsCost
1$125.00
10$295.00
100$575.00
1,000$1,500.00

As you can see, the more ISBNs you buy the greater your cost savings. However, bulk purchases mainly just apply to publishers – so we recommend sticking to one ISBN at a time for a majority of indie authors’ needs.

There are a few ways to get book identification numbers for free. If you publish or distribute through platforms like Amazon KDP, Smashwords, or Draft2Digital, you’ll be provided with complimentary identification digits. There are catches to this offering, though, like getting a code that is meaningful just to one platform.

Before we move on, we want to provide a word of caution: Like most services on the internet, there are reputable ISBN sites… and shady ones, too. We suggest exclusively using well-known companies like Bowker for your ISBN needs. Sure, the price may seem high. But with a service like Bowker (or a local ISBN agency), you know what you’re paying for.

“How do I get a barcode?”

Keep in mind that you don’t automatically get a barcode when you buy an ISBN. However, Bowker does also offer barcode services:

  • Buy 1 barcode and 1 ISBN for $150
  • You can get 1 barcode and 10 ISBNs for $320
  • Another option: purchase up to 5 barcodes for $25 each

If you’re selling through KDP, you don’t need to get your own barcode. Amazon tracks sales through their ASINs. However, if you are selling a book that would need to be scanned to make a sale (like a paperback in a bookstore) then you need one.

Why You Need an ISBN (Or Don’t!)

ISBNs can be tricky – some authors need them, others don’t. It can feel like there’s pressure to have one, just to say you do. Some authors may also feel hindered by the cost of ISBNs. After all, $125 can be a lot when you’re getting started with a tight marketing budget.

If you’re sweating the cost of an ISBN, the good news is that nearly half of all Amazon eBooks don’t have them. Yep, that’s right. According to Editage’s ISBN FAQ page,

“43% of ebooks purchased on Amazon.com do not have ISBNs.”

This statistic just proves that you can publish without ISBNs. In the case of Amazon, KDP will set up an ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number) for you. Other top digital retailers like Kobo and Apple Books just don’t require identification digits. Since the overall eBook market is continuing to grow, this can be reassuring news for anyone who doesn’t want to bother with setting up an ISBN.

When an ISBN is Beneficial

If you’re still on the fence about whether or not you need an ISBN one day, we’d like to present some situations where it’s helpful:

  • If you ever want to sell your book in a bookstore, you’re required to have one.
  • It’s helpful if your book has an ISBN for library consideration. This is just one step in how to get your self-published book into libraries.
  • Having an ISBN (and barcode, too) looks professional. If you have money to spend on polishing the appearance of your book, this can be a great area to invest in.
  • Creating your own ISBN lets you enter the exact information you want in the metadata. This can differ from a publisher-assigned ISBN where they have control over the metadata.

Some authors may wonder which situations necessitate a new ISBN being created for their books. If you’ve released a new edition, changed your book title, or are updating your text to correct major typos, you’ll need a new ISBN. ISBNs do not get updated if your book price changes.

How to Get an ISBN

US authors looking to purchase an ISBN from their computer will be able to do so by going to myidentifiers.com. For authors in the UK, Australia, or India, scroll down to our resources section to find your ISBN agency.

We’re going to walk you through the steps needed to check out on the Myidentifiers site. (Note: This is a child site of Bowker.com. We will use these names interchangeably.)

  1. From myidentifiers.com, click “Register and Copyright Your Book” in the upper left hand corner.

how to get an ISBN

  1. Select “Buy ISBNs.”

  1. Set up an account on Myidentifiers. This will require your name, address information, organization type (such as being a self-publisher), and company name. KDP refers to Company Name as an author’s “imprint.”

  1. From the purchasing options (1, 10, 100, or 1,000 ISBNs) decide which is right for you. Click “Add to Cart.”

  1. Your product will be added to your cart. Myidentifiers may ask if you’re interested in buying more ISBNs, copyright registration, or other bundles they offer. When you’re ready to proceed, click “Go to cart.”

  1. Click “Checkout.”

  1. Enter coupon codes if applicable, billing information, and agree to Bowker’s terms and conditions before proceeding. Click “Continue to next step” when you’re ready.

  1. Enter your billing information to check out.

Once you receive your ISBN, you can use it as needed. You’ll need to set up your metadata after purchase, which will include adding in information like your title, book language, date of publication, and more. We suggest using well-researched keywords to optimize ISBN metadata.

In your search for how to get an ISBN, you may come across a website called CreateSpace. This is an Amazon company that assigns free ISBNs to its users. For the most part, a CreateSpace ISBN will mean your book is only eligible to sell on Amazon or CreateSpace’s online store. However, your book can be picked for Expanded Distribution, which enables paperbacks to be available at outside bookstores and libraries.

ISBN Resources for Authors

As promised, we’ve gathered helpful ISBN resources for both US-based and international authors.

ISBN Agencies

Distribution Services

  • Draft2Digital – They offer free ISBNs for any book published through their system
  • IngramSpark – They offer free ISBNs for US customers
  • Smashwords – They offer free ISBNs to their customers

General Assistance / Misc.

  • Bowker ISBN.org – FAQs about ISBNs, answered by Bowker
  • Front Edge Publishing – Their comprehensive article offers additional information on optimizing metadata within an ISBN
  • ISBN Search – Search for books by ISBN, title, or author information

Did we miss anything that you’d like to see? Let us know in the comments. We’re always looking to update our list to be as inclusive as possible!

All in all, choosing whether or not to purchase an ISBN comes down to each author’s unique book marketing strategy. If you already have a paperback catalogue built up, or are hoping to do so in the future, it’ll be well worth your time to learn the in’s and out’s of ISBN generation. 

If you’re proceeding with purchasing an ISBN, remember to do so with the most legitimate agencies out there. Optimize that metadata, buy a barcode if needed, and prepare for sales! Happy publishing, authors.

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