ISBNs – Does Your Book Need One?

I have talked about ISBNs before, in connection with three things that protect and identify your book – copyrights, LCCNs, and ISBNs. But does your book really need an ISBN?

It depends on your distribution plans, and whether you are published by a traditional house or self-published. I hear you. Just like a lawyer to hedge. But hey, facts are important to my tribe.

What is a dang ISBN, anyway?

The term stands for International Standard Book Number, which is a 13-digit number assigned to a book. ISBNs are unique to each book and can be purchased in the United States from Bowker (Thorpe-Bowker in Australia, Nielsen in the UK). Libraries, bookstores, wholesalers and distributors use ISBNs for ordering, distribution, fulfillment, and payment purposes. ISBNs are also used by the publishing industry to track sales and search metadata. If you are self-publishing, usually it is you who will buy the ISBN. Traditional publishers will purchase the ISBN for their authors.

What do you need to know about ISBNs?

  1. As a self-publishing author, you need not wait until after publication to buy an ISBN for your book. You may buy the ISBN ahead of time, then assign it to your book when you are ready to publish. Buy the ISBN directly from Bowker for your indie imprint to be listed as the publisher. Traditional publishers will be listed as the publisher on the ISBN for their authors.
  2. Some companies purchase a block of ISBNs and resell them cheaply for an author to use, but the reseller is still listed as the publisher, not your imprint. Likewise, self-publishing services and printing companies offer free ISBNs as part of their publishing packages. The publishing service or printer or the reselling company will own the ISBN, not your imprint because ISBNs cannot be transferred, sold, given away, or reused. Tracking data will be linked to the publishing service or printing company or reseller, not your imprint. Whoever owns the ISBN is listed as the publisher on the ISBN for any given book, in any given format. Whoever is listed as publisher on the ISBN gets paid when the book is ordered. If that is not the author, then the author will be paid by the tracking data from the ISBN
  3. If a self-published author wants to change printing companies, for example, the ISBN stays with the printing company if they bought it. You would need a new ISBN. Change ISBNs and you lose the sales and metadata associated with your book. Personally, I would buy the ISBN myself to keep as much control over the publication process as possible (but that is the control-freak side of me).
  4. Some publishing services like CreateSpace and IngramSpark offer special rates on single ISBNs so your imprint will be listed as the publisher ($99 for the “Custom Universal ISBN” on CreateSpace). This, however, is only for a single ISBN. The best deal is to buy a package of ISBNs in your imprint name (currently 10 for $295, 100 for $575, versus 1 for $125 from Bowker). Why? See number 5.
  5. ISBNs are unique identifiers for a book, with a different ISBN assigned to each edition, format, and variation of the same book. Meaning you will need a different ISBN for the e-book, paperback, hardcopy, audiobook, and translations. There are exceptions regarding e-books and audiobooks for the self-publishers in the crowd (see number 8). But for all print versions of your book, an ISBN is needed for all retailers (whether you buy it yourself, or you use one offered by the retailer). Just remember the info on owner/publisher in number 2 above when you make your decision. If, however, you are only going to distribute your print copies at seminars or events, an ISBN is not necessary.
  6. You do not need a new ISBN when making minor text corrections, changing the price, changing the cover, or switching printing vendors. But you do need a new ISBN if you change the title, make significant changes to the text, or publish the book in larger print or size.
  7. Traditional publishers will buy an ISBN for all formats of your book.
  8. For the self-publishing crowd, as I noted above in number 5, you will need an ISBN for all print versions of your book. But what about ISBN’s with ebooks and audiobooks?
    • You need an ISBN for ebook and audiobook formats if you are publishing through a third-party, like a distributor, aggregator, or trade-publishing house. The reason is that payments are tracked by ISBNs. If you only plan to distribute your ebook on your website via download, then and ISBN is not necessary. If you are distributing through other retailers, then read on.
    • You do not need an ISBN if you are publishing ebooks directly through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (or the other retailers like iBooks, Barnes and Nobles, and Kobo Books). Payments are not tracked through a third-party distributor or publishing house. These retailers create their own tracking number. For example, Amazon will use an ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number), which is unique to the Kindle eBook on Kobo, B&N, iBooks will have their own identifiers as well if you are publishing through those retailers, so an ISBN is not necessary. Just remember, an ISBN is used to report your book’s sales to industry reporting agencies, as well as for national and international charts. No ISBN. No reporting. But that may not be an issue for you.
    • If, however, you are not publishing through Amazon, Amazon requires an ISBN to list a book in the Amazon catalog effective June 1, 2017. Amazon may provide an exemption, which you can request via their sign-up process.
    • If the retailer distributes through a third-party, like Kobo’s distribution through partner sites (Chapters/Indigo in Canada, WHSmith in the UK), an ISBN may be needed to track payments.
    • More indie authors are forgoing ISBNs for their digital editions. Here is what Mike Shatzkin at The Shatzkin Files had to say about it in his recent blog article A changing book business: it all seems to be flowing downhill to Amazon. “The industry counts ISBNs, which are issued in each country by an agency that “sells” the numbers. But Amazon has its own numbering system and authors who stay entirely within Amazon, which Amazon offers financial incentives to do, might never have an ISBN for their book. But even beyond that, ISBNs are not keeping pace with the explosion of titles and formats. The other significant ebook retailers — Nook, iBooks, and Kobo — also don’t require ISBNs. They also aren’t required for audio. So most indie authors — even the highest-selling ones nowadays — have also dispensed with ISBNs altogether for their digital editions, whether Amazon exclusive or not.”
  9. ISBNs appear on the copyright page, and on the back cover of the book.
  10. Traditional publishers use the ISBN to create a record of the book’s progress towards publication. The publisher will update changes until the book’s release, and thereafter as changes occur in things like the book’s description, or an author’s bio, for example. Self-publishing authors can do the same. As soon as they know the book will be available in a certain format, they can register the ISBN and use it to keep a record of the book’s progress toward publication.
  11. ISBNs have nothing do with copyrights. You do not need an ISBN to register your copyright. There is no legal status with an ISBN.
  12. When you have assigned a book format to an ISBN, register the ISBN with Bowker, which is the database for the US ISBN Agency. Registration comes with a free listing in a host of book directories like Books in Print.


I hope this cleared any confusion about ISBNs and how the unique numbering system works in the publishing industry. If you need more information, see

Photo Credit: vanherdehaage | VisualHunt | CC BY-NC-SA

Legal Disclaimer: This information is provided for educational purposes only. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation.

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