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Before I started my own self-publishing journey, I used ISBNs as a tool to search for and purchase textbooks I needed for school. Those who underwent the College/University experience might know that the college bookstore is not always the cheapest option. I would write down the ISBN of the book I needed and searched online retailers to find the cheapest copy I could find. I didn’t really understand what an ISBN was, but I knew that using it as a search term always pulled up the edition that I needed.

At the time, that was all I needed to know. But an ISBN is so much more than that. Some might consider it to be the first sign that your book is officially published. With that in mind, what is an ISBN? Do you need more than one? Where can you get them?


What is an ISBN?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It’s an internationally recognized identification number for you book that contains metadata. This metadata includes the publisher of the book, author, title, edition, and format. Consider it to be a sort of registration for you book similar to how the government uses driver’s license numbers or social security numbers to identify individuals.

It’s primarily used by publishers, book sellers (both brick-and-mortar and web based distributors), and libraries. An ISBN is required in order for these agencies to distribute your book. Each ISBN is unique to the book it is assigned to, and it is possible for a book to have more than one ISBN during its lifetime in print.


Do I Need an ISBN?

Absolutely. There are a few exceptions, but if you are planning on selling your book online, through bookstores, or want your book to be available to libraries, you must have an ISBN. Distributors use the number exactly like a SKU on a product – it’s for stock keeping purposes.

The are only two ways that you can avoid using an ISBN. Either you give your book away for free or you sell it direct to consumer. And by “direct to consumer” I mean in person. By hand. Maybe out of the trunk of your car.


Who Assigns and Distributes an ISBN

Since an ISBN is an internationally recognized registration, there is more than one agency that distributes them. The agency you use is determined by the country the book is published in. For the United States, all ISBNs are distributed by Bowker. There is a fee for obtaining an ISBN, and that fee is determined by how many numbers are purchased at once. They are either purchased one at a time, as a pack of 10, or a pack of 100.

The person who is responsible for obtaining the number from Bowker is the publisher. This is because the entity that owns the ISBN owns the distribution rights to the book. This is particularly pertinent to self-publishers who want to maintain complete autonomy in regard to where and how their books are sold. Vanity or Online Subsidy publishers will provide you with an ISBN free of charge, but this means that they own the sales and distribution rights to your book.


When To Accept A Free ISBN and When To Avoid It

Some Print on Demand (POD) services (such as CreateSpace, KDP Print, and IngramSpark) will offer you a free ISBN so that you can submit your book to their distribution channels. In certain circumstances, this can be a good deal. But this might depend entirely upon what your plans are for your book.

As I mentioned previously, the entity that owns the ISBN is the “publisher” of your book. If you are self-publishing, that should be you. However, if you use a free ISBN from one of these services, they will automatically become the “publisher” of your book. Instead of your own company name and logo, the POD service’s name and logo will appear on your book instead. For third party distributors (such as bookstores and libraries), this is one of the easiest clues that your book is self-published. Considering the stigma that still surrounds self-published books, this is not exactly desirable. As unfortunate as it may be, this can cause a snap-judgement about the quality of your book that you will want to avoid. On these grounds, the distributor may reject your book and refuse to stock it.

Alternatively, if you are publishing your book without intending to submit it to wide distribution, it may be a cost-effective option. Some may choose to publish their book for personal reasons and only intend to distribute it to friends and family. Perhaps you only want to sell your book at company events or speaking engagements where your expertise is already validated. These are perfectly legitimate reasons to accept a free number.


When Do You Need Multiple ISBNs?



Because ISBNs are unique to the specific edition and format of your book, it stands to reason that you need a new ISBN for each subsequent format and edition. The trick, of course, is determining which formats need unique ISBNs and what qualifies as a “new edition.”

Types of book formats include paperback vs hardcover, multiple sizes, audiobooks, etc. The ISBN is what the distributor uses to find multiple copies of your book that are the exact same. They do not want to type in your ISBN expecting to receive a 5×8 paperback and instead obtain an audiobook CD.

Recently, distributors are starting to accept an exception to this rule – ebooks. It is still common practice to use a new ISBN for an ebook, but large distributors such as Amazon are starting to accept one ISBN for both an ebook and printed version of your book. I would highly recommend reviewing the distributor’s policies regarding ebook ISBNs or asking a service provider such as My Word Publishing before making your decision.

If you need to correct a spelling error, typo, or adjust the formatting of your book, it is not considered a new edition and you do not need a new ISBN. You want to consider publishing a new edition of your book if you have made significant changes to the text. If you added or removed entire sections of the content, rearranged the chapters, or updated illustrations and tables to include new information, you will need a new number for a new edition.


Do you have more questions about ISBNs? Feel free to contact a My Word Publishing Consultant for more information.  Want to know more about other identification numbers you’ll need for your book? Check out Jen Kolic’s post about the difference between ISBN, LCCN, and CIP.