To ISBN or not to ISBN, that is the question!

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The confusing aspects of self-publishing are often those little, technical things that overlap with traditional book publishing that as readers we take for granted: What is frontmatter and do I need all those extra pages? What is CIP (cataloging in publication) data and where does it come from? And what about ISBNs? Trying to figure these things out can be the biggest pain in the self-publishing author’s side.

When I worked at a publishing company, we had a database for all projects ever that had a magical button that, when clicked by a publishing manager, would generate an ISBN for whoever needed one. Starting a new project? Writing a contract? You would need an ISBN, and as far as we knew they just grew on trees. Obviously, a publisher has loads of ISBNs waiting in the wings to be attached to a book (or CD, or booklet, or fluffy puppet) one day.

But what if you’re a self-publishing author? What should you do? What is an ISBN? Do you need one? What if you sort of want one just because? Is that so wrong? Where does one get an ISBN?

What is an ISBN?

An ISBN is a 13-digit code, much like your car's VIN, that identifies key information about a book or other work.

Each ISBN has five parts, separated by hyphens or spaces. ISBNs for books published in January 2007 and after are always 13 digits long. Prior to this, you may have seen a 10-digit ISBN, either by itself or with the newer 13-digit number. Take a look at the barcode or the copyright page of any book you have laying around and you will see what I mean.

  1. The first grouping is always three digits long and always one of two numbers: 978 or 979. This is simply the ISBN prefix.

  2. The next group, between one and five digits long, identifies the ISBN system (country or region) where the book was published. This is different from printing or authoring. Wherever the publishing company is located within the ISBN system, this is what that number will identify, even if it was authored or printed elsewhere in the world.

  3. The next grouping, which can be up to seven digits long, identifies the specific publisher of the item. If you look at two books by the same publisher, this and the first two numbers should all be identical.

  4. The next group identifies the individual work. It is useful to think of the work as a product, because new editions, translations, and publications in different media all would have their own ISBNs. How many different ways can your book be packaged and sold? This would give you an idea of how many ISBNs publishers could use for what seems like a single work (for example, a single book could have a soft cover and a hard cover version; numerous translations; both critical and book club editions; an audio version; and e-book versions sold through Amazon, iBooks, and so forth).

  5. The last digit is called a check digit, simply used to mathematically verify the validity of the ISBN.

It’s important to note a few things about ISBNs.

First, you don’t need to sell your book to have an ISBN. If you give it away for free, you may still need one. However, if you intend to sell your book in some formats, it may be required, especially if you would like to see your book in bookstores (obviously, of course, if you are going through a publisher, they will assign to one your book).

Second, if you have taken a look at the Chicago Manual of Style, you probably know that ISBNs appear in the interior of the book on the copyright page. However, an ISBN isn’t a copyright. It just identifies your book as a “product” different from all other products. So, you will need to include a separate copyright statement on your copyright page, along with the ISBN. Copyright language is often pretty boilerplate, and doesn’t need to be complex, and there are lots of templates online you can use.

Third, ISBNs are not used for things like magazines and journals (things published serially). Those use ISSNs.

How do I get an ISBN?

If you are in the United States, all ISBN requests are handled through Bowker ( You can purchase a single ISBN, or blocks of them, and they are ultimately linked to both you and the works you assign to them in Bowker’s database, which is beneficial because this database is used by booksellers to identify your books. Once you've purchased your ISBN, you have control over the metadata that is associated with that number in Bowker's database.

Do I need an ISBN?

You don’t always need an ISBN; it really depends on what your publishing goals are, both for the work you have in hand and the work you plan in the future.

For example, if you intend to self-publish and are only interested in selling via Amazon and CreateSpace, you wouldn’t need one. Both of these platforms will assign your book a number specific to Amazon that identifies the book within Amazon’s system.

But if you intend to publish in certain formats (such as iBooks) or are looking to one day see your book in a bookstore, you will likely need one. Additionally, if you intend to self-publish but under a name other than your own (for example, you want to start an indie company for your books), you might consider getting ISBNs so that they will be associated with your company, especially if you intend to one day publish authors other than yourself.

Why you might not need an ISBN . . .

  1. You only intend to publish via Amazon/CreateSpace/Barnes & Noble and/or sell your EPUB on your personal website.

  2. You don’t intend to publish a print book outside of CreateSpace.

  3. You don’t intend to use multiple distributors, and no distributors for print.

  4. You don’t intend to offer more than one edition of the same book on the above platforms (no different languages, audio versions, etc., although you may update the version of your current edition).

  5. You don’t intend to sell print books in brick-and-mortar stores.

  6. Your writing/publishing is a personal brand, not a separate brand apart from you as author.

  7. You don’t need/want the hassle of controlling book metadata (via Bowker).

And Why you might . . .

  1. You intend to publish digitally and in print on multiple formats, besides Amazon and a “generic” EPUB.

  2. You intend to publish a print book through a traditional book printer.

  3. You intend to use online distributors for both print and digital, including those that require ISBNs like Ingram and Apple.

  4. You intend to offer different editions of a product (multiple languages, enhanced EPUB, etc.).

  5. You would like to sell in traditional bookstores.

  6. You intend to market numerous titles under a corporate brand, possibly for authors other than yourself.

  7. For marketing and distribution purposes, you need control over the data in Bowker, which feeds into other distribution portals.

Earlier I used the phrase "other work" in addition to books because traditional publishers often create products other than traditional books (like fluffy puppets), and even those items may be identified by ISBNs, even if they’re only used internally.

Cost is also another factor; a single ISBN on Bowker is $125. (Although purchasing them in blocks is effectively cheaper per ISBN, you may not need 10!)

Finally, some authors (not everyone of course) feel that an ISBN adds legitimacy to their efforts. While that is debatable (remember, it's just a unique identifier, nothing more), your book will appear in Bowker’s Books in Print database along with those of all major publishers who use them every day, so if that’s the type of legitimacy you seek, there’s nothing wrong with that!


Originally posted July 20, 2017