How to Get an ISBN Number (and Why) – What You Need to Know Step-by-Step
Every book needs an ISBN (International Standard Book Number); it’s that simple. Having an ISBN number is a unique identifier that is required for important reasons. Traditional publishers automatically register their titles and if you’re the author of a self-published book you need to do the same.
This article provides detailed ISBN information and discusses steps in the process of obtaining one. It also covers the pros and cons of free ISBNs from self-publishers, the ISBN system, and the important differences between an ISBN and bar code — a book needs both.
Ahead we’ll cover all of the important considerations and details for finding out how to get an ISBN number. To begin familiarizing yourself, check out the list of ten important facts about books and their unique ISBN numbers.
The ISBN Number for Books: Ten Main Points to Remember
- Every book must have an ISBN for many important reasons; this article includes them all.
- Free ISBNs from platforms for self-published books may have limitations – read the fine print.
- In the U.S. and UK, ISBNs are purchased; in Canada and other countries, they are often free.
- Buying ISBNs in bulk to bring down prices is wise; many authors and books need more than one.
- Each format of a book needs a separate ISBN (i.e., print, ebook, audiobook).
- ISBNs last forever – they do not expire.
- ISBNs are international; yours will be valid worldwide; each country has an ISBN agency.
- Barcodes (necessary to sell books at retail) are different from ISBNs.
- ASINs from KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) are not ISBNs, and they are different.
- Most libraries require ISBNs just as bookstores do.
Does a Self-Published Book Need an ISBN?
All books, including self-published ones, need a 13-digit ISBN number that allows booksellers, libraries, and publishers to identify it worldwide. It’s a system that began in the United Kingdom in 1967 with nine-digit numbers and over time grew to be a global system embraced by all in publishing, book sales, and libraries.
The system allows each book to be uniquely identified compared to the tens of millions of others in existence. Having a number is required to get your book into bookstores, libraries, and many other distribution channels. It’s a worldwide and industry-wide system used and embraced by everyone.
Free ISBNs from Self-Publishing Platforms
If you only plan to publish your work as an eBook on Amazon, you may be able to get by only with the ASIN number they’ll issue. For everything else, you need an ISBN number for books. Other self-publishing platforms will offer a free or low-cost ISBN but make sure you read the fine print for any limitations.
On-demand and self-publishing companies such as IngramSpark, Drafe2Digital, and Smashwords provide free of low-cost numbers, but there are limits. For example, if your self-published book has a number assigned by one platform and your want to sell books through another channel, it may not accept the free number. But if you register your own ISBN number directly, it can be used anywhere which is a significant advantage.
An ISBN Agency Exists for Virtually Every Country
The United States and the United Kingdom have appointed Bowker (U.S.) and Nielsen (UK) as the ISBN agency of record. Each charges authors and publishers a fee for numbers with volume discounts available that seriously reduce the cost for each number. In Canada and other countries, numbers are free.
In countries like the U.S. and UK, volume discounts can bring down the cost per number significantly. As you’re weighing how to get an ISBN number, keep in mind that each version of your book needs a distinct number – published copies, ebooks, audiobooks. It’s easy to see how buying in bulk can make sense. Also, if you don’t use all the numbers immediately, they never expire. Lastly, because it’s a worldwide system, your number(s) will be recognized and valid globally.
The ISBN vs. Bar Code: What’s the Difference?
Every book needs a unique ISBN, and to be sold, a book needs a separate bar code. The ISBN identifies the book by title, author, genre, its properties, and the location of the publisher. A bar code is completely different and is used for retail and inventory purposes.
Different from ISBNs, bar codes include sales information such as the retail price and the currency in which it’s being sold. The ISBN remains the same throughout the life of a book, but the bar code may change. For example, if you increase or decrease the retail price, the book needs a new bar code.
ASINs and Libraries – Some Final Details to Remember
If you’ve received an ASIN from Amazon for your self-published book or audiobook, it is different from the ISBN number for books. You still need an ISBN to do anything other than selling your work as an eBook on Amazon. Getting one also is a sign of professionalism and that you are focused on the business side of publishing your work.
For some authors, it comes as a surprise that most libraries also require ISBNs. But they have similar book identification needs and the ISBN system is well-suited to their need also. Therefore, it’s in your interest as an author to understand how to get an ISBN number and to do it for your printed books, eBooks, and audiobooks.
Useful Links for ISBN Agencies and Resources: