What Is An ISBN? A Guide For Indie Authors

What-is-an-ISBNThere’s a lot of confusion out there around what is an ISBN? And how should authors use these numbers? Especially among those gearing up to self-publish a book for the first time. Do you really need one? How can you get it? What do those numbers actually stand for? Read on as we cover the basics of ISBNs to give you a head start in your publishing adventure.

What is an ISBN? To put it simply, ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. Intended to be unique, this number is meant to act as a universal ID, making it easier for publishers, bookstores, and readers to find your book.

Since January 2007, ISBNs consist of 13 digits divided into sections separated by hyphens. The first section tells us that the number is indeed an ISBN, while the following four are meant to help identify the country/language group, publisher, and title or edition of a title. There’s also a check digit at the end which validates the ISBN. The ISBN usually appears next to a bar code, which is a representation of the ISBN in a form that can be identified by scanners.

While this can be a lot to take in, the essential thing to understand is that these numbers are essential to the supply chain for books. As a result, if you want to sell your book though different retailers, you will need an ISBN for every version – that means hardback, paperback, ebook (EPUB, MOBI, PDF), and audiobook. You may look down on the universal identifier as a relic of a time when books where only sold in bookstores, but it remains a useful thing to have if you plan to sell your book to bookshops, libraries, or through Amazon.

In Australia, Thorpe-Bowker is the only official ISBN agency. You can order an ISBN directly through them or go with a self-publishing agency that will take care of the ISBN for you. At Old Mate Media, we offer an ISBN number to all authors who take up one of our services for their book.

How do I get an ISBN number for a self-published book?

If you publish traditionally, your publisher will usually handle the logistics, including acquiring an ISBN number. Things get trickier if you go the self-publish route, since you’re responsible for handling all steps of the process yourself. As mentioned above, you can decide to purchase the ISBN yourself or reach out to an agency to do all the heavy lifting for you. Getting an ISBN will take only a few days from the time an application is received and involves paying a fee. More on that below.

What is an ISBN number used for?

ISBN numbers are assigned to one-off text-based monographic publications. That means you won’t see them on newspapers, magazines, journals, or any other type of serials. This product identifier is mainly used by publishers and sellers to order books, monitor stock, and measure sale records. It basically helps identify and track your book in the international book trade.

It’s important to understand that ISBNs have nothing to do with copyright, so having an ISBN number doesn’t translate to your book being protected by copyright.

What does the process of getting an ISBN look like?

If you decide to purchase the ISBN yourself, you’ll want to start by accessing the Bowker official website, which contains plenty of useful information that will help you better understand how ISBNs work. Next if you are in Australia, head over to myidentifiers.com.au, which provides a smooth and user-friendly process.

Once here, you can opt to purchase a single ISBN number or buy ISBNs in bulk. You can select one, 10 or 100. You’ll pay $44 for one ISBN, $88 for 10, and $480.00 for 100. If you plan to sell your book in multiple formats, opting to purchase ten ISBN numbers from the get-go might end up saving you cash in the long run, as they should have you covered for at least two books. You can also purchase 1,000 ISBNs at once, but we’re assuming that’s a bit excessive for self-publishing authors. If you’ve got an ISBN, you can generate barcodes online or purchase them through Bowker.

Once you have an ISBN and your book is published, you should register it with Bowker to make it more easily discovered by bookstores and libraries.

You can find the ISBN number on the copyright page of most books

You can find the ISBN number on the copyright page of most books

ISBN FAQs

Is buying an ISBN really worth it?

Getting an ISBN is not mandatory if you sell your book only in ebook format or sell via online retailers like Amazon. When you self-publish, there are a lot of expenses you need to worry about – like the format, cover design, and so on. These choices can have a big impact on your sale numbers, so it’s normal to prioritize them.

However, having an ISBN makes you look more professional and is crucial if you plan to sell your manuscript through different avenues, so it’s worth the initial cost. It allows you to keep your sales options open and brand yourself as a legitimate publisher. At the end of the day, it all comes down to your goals and plans for the future.

But don’t I get an ISBN for free if I publish via Kindle?

True, you do get assigned a free ISBN by Kindle Direct Publishing and other self-publishing services. However, most of the time, you can only use that free ISBN within the channels the companies distribute through. So if you want to sell your book through different avenues, that ISBN won’t do you a lot of good. You’ll have to get a new one, meaning that you’ll have one book with multiple ISBNs. That will also impact sales record, since sales will not be cumulative, but counted separately for each ISBN. Always read the terms and conditions of each service carefully to make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into.

How are ISBNs and ASINs different?

An ASIN is an Amazon Standard Identification Number consisting of a combination of 10 letters and/or digits, which is used to identify a product strictly within the Amazon market. This is not unique, so you can stumble upon different products with the same ASIN around the global marketplace. When a new product is uploaded to Amazon catalogue, it will be assigned an ASIN to keep track of sales. If a book has a 10-digit ISBN (which was standard prior to 2007), the ISBN and ASIN numbers will be the same. Otherwise, the book will likely be assigned a different ASIN.

Do I need separate ISBNs for separate editions?

Yes, you will need separate ISBNs for both separate editions of a book and different formats. Generally we recommend one for each print edition and one for the digital edition. If you’re simply reprinting the book with minor changes, you won’t need a new ISBN. But, if you’re writing books in a series, each book will have its own ISBN.

Do I have to get an ISBN for each country I want to sell in?

No, ISBNs are international, so you only need one for each edition/format of your book. ISBN providers vary depending on country as well – you can check the ISBN international website to figure out which agency operates in your country. Some countries, like Canada, offer ISBNs for free.

Should I purchase a barcode?

If you only sell your book online, no. If you plan to sell it in bookstores, yes. But, do not purchase one. A barcode is a graphical device, and can be created using IngramSpark’s free cover template generator.

Do ISBNs expire?

No, they last forever, so that’s one less thing to worry about.

Where to Next?

This is just one of our many Indie Author Guides. We regularly expand the collection, so do let us know if there’s a topic you’d like covered. The best way to keep in touch with these is through signing up to our newsletter. You can also see our range of children’s books in our shop. Plus of course, you can find us on FacebookInstagramTwitter and LinkedIn.

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