The ABCs of ISBNs for Self-Published Authors

What is an ISBN?

An ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is a thirteen-digit number that is used to identify books. An ISBN has four parts and contains three pieces of information: the country/region the publisher is located in, the publisher’s name, and the title/edition of the book. The fourth part of an ISBN verifies that the ISBN is valid.

ISBNs versus Barcodes

A barcode is a visual representation of a book’s ISBN and pricing information. If you are only selling ebooks, you do not need to worry about barcodes, but you will need a barcode if you intend to sell hard copies of your book. Barcodes can be purchased separately or in bundles with ISBNs.

Does My Book Need an ISBN?

Usually. All books, including ebooks, that are published for sale or distribution to libraries require an ISBN. Your book does not need an ISBN if you are only planning to print copies to share with friends and family or if you are distributing the book through your own private channels (e.g. as a marketing tool through your website or as a giveaway for fans).

Do I Need to Buy an ISBN?

ISBNs can be obtained for free when publishing through some distributors like Amazon and Smashwords. This is the most economical option if you are only planning to distribute your book through one source (e.g. you can’t use a free ISBN from Amazon to publish the book on another platform) and don’t mind that source being listed as the publisher in the ISBN information.

If you get an ISBN free through Amazon or the like, their name, not yours will appear as the publisher in the ISBN information. If you’re only planning on publishing a book or two, that’s likely irrelevant. But if you are planning on a long-term career as a self-publisher or want to start your own publishing company, you may want to open your own account with your region’s ISBN supplier so that you or your company is listed as the book’s publisher in the ISBN information.

Where Do I Buy an ISBN?

Bowker is the only authored seller of ISBNs in the United States. If you are outside of America, check for your region’s authorized supplier (and, if you do, please leave that information in the comments for others in your area). ISBNs are pricey when purchased in small quantities, but don’t bother looking for a discount source for ISBNs.

If the price of purchasing valid ISBNs exceeds your publishing budget, use the free/discounted ISBN provided by many publishing platforms, even if you are publishing your book in multiple places and end up having to assign more than one ISBN to the same book. Buying ISBNs from a non-verified source may be cheaper, but it is also a waste of money. The ISBN, even if valid, would not be registered to you, and your information would not be available to distributors, which is the whole point of an ISBN.

How Many ISBNs Do I Need?

You need a different ISBN for each version of your book. That includes if you release a new edition, translations, a large print versions, etc.

Technically ebooks should also have their own ISBN, but whether or not you need an ISBN for your ebook depends on how and where you are distributing it. If you are hoping to make your ebook available to libraries or other distributors, for example, it will need its own ISBN.

Questions About ISBNs?

I love talking with authors. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment or contact me directly with any questions about ISBNs or any other writing issues.

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