What Is An ISBN, And How Do I Get One?

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Oh, man, more technical considerations for self-publishing authors? Yes, unfortunately, but you’ll be pleased to know that getting an ISBN is both simple and easy once you know what you’re doing.

If you want to have your sister design your cover, print 25 copies of your book, and give them to your friends and neighbors as Christmas gifts, you can skip getting an ISBN and get back to writing. But if you want to sell through book stores, libraries, distributors, online platforms – you know, all those people who can scale your sales – you’re going to need an ISBN.

Fortunately, ISBNs are nothing to be afraid of. Think of these digits as your gateway to readership and publicity. Read on to learn the ‘whats’ and ‘hows’ of ISBNs so you can put your masterpiece into the hands of an audience wider than your gene pool.

What is an ISBN anyway?

The mysterious set of digits on the back of a book acts as a personal ID for that book, much like a social security number. An International Standard Book Number codifies the exact identity of a book, including title, author, and even edition and format. Thanks to ISBNs, when someone orders a book, they can be sure they’re getting exactly what they want. If you publish a hardback, paperback, and e-version, each of these books will have a different ISBN.

If you want to know how the numbers are generated, you can indulge your curiosity here.

What isn’t an ISBN?

ISBNs are for books only; if you’re writing for a journal or magazine publication, you don’t need to worry about getting a number (unless you later want to put your work in book format as well).

ISBNs are not copyrights. In the US, copyright law automatically protects authors. Copyright registration isn’t a bad idea, though, if you are worried about somebody else taking credit for your work. More on that another time. If you’re not US based, you may want to look into your country’s laws for copyrighting printed material.

Do I need an ISBN?

As mentioned, ISBNs are important tools for book distribution. If you plan to publish and sell your book, get an ISBN, period.

Technically, to ‘publish’ an ebook, you may not need an ISBN; however, it’s not a bad idea to get one anyway. You can use the ISBN for marketing and data collection. Readers also place more confidence in books that look ‘official.’ When an early page of an ebook boasts fine-print copyright and ISBN info, it’s like a stamp of approval in the reader’s subconscious. Somebody said this book is a real book. In a highly competitive market, every little detail makes a difference.

If you are going through a traditional publisher, grab a piña colada and put your feet up: they will get the ISBN for you.

If you’re going the hybrid route, practices will vary by company. ‘Who acquires the ISBN(s)?’ can be one of your early vetting questions. Check out this article if you’re going hybrid and want to cover your rear.

Self-publishing platforms like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) can also automatically assign you an ISBN upon publication. However, these free ISBNs often come with a catch: you can only use them with that distributor. If you then wish to distribute your book elsewhere, you have to get a separate ISBN. Multiple ISBNs for the same book not only defeats the purpose of a single, constant identity for a publication, it also looks unprofessional to book stores and libraries.

Some book distributors are hesitant to purchase books with indie ISBNs because self-publishing support companies will often push through materials that aren’t worth publishing. That’s how they make their money. Take your own ISBN into self-publishing companies like KDP and save yourself the trouble.

How do I get an ISBN?

Simple: in the US, go to Bowker and buy one. Outside the US, find your ISBN agency and buy one. In some countries (hello Canada), you can even get them for free.

Do not – I repeat, do not – buy an ISBN from anybody else. There are a number of companies claiming to sell ISBNs at a far cheaper price, and they’ll give you a number that looks real. The problem is, Bowker is the only authorized producer of ISBNs in the US. If your number didn’t come from them, it ain’t real. To ensure the unique nature of each number, most countries have one solitary authorized provider. Just as you wouldn’t look for a social security number from anyone but the US government, don’t look for an ISBN from anyone but Bowker, no matter how official they sound. 

Once exception to that rule is if you are distributing through IngramSpark as they resell individual genuine Bowker ISBNs at a slight discount to US users.

Amazon and Publisher Services can provide you with authentic ISBNs, but as mentioned, these may come with limitations – always ask first. Know where they get their numbers? Through a partnership with – you guessed it – Bowker.

Buy the numbers

You need an ISBN for each format and edition of your book, and you need to get those numbers from the authorized ISBN agency in your country. Anybody making it cheaper or more complicated than that is trying to sell you something else. Traditional publishers will handle this for you, but if you’re a self-publishing author, the above is all you need to know to proceed with confidence. Go get ’em! (And by ‘em,’ I mean the appropriate International Standard Book Numbers for your books.)

Any other questions? Feel free to comment below, and find out more about selling your work with How To Make A Living As A Self-Published Writer and How To Get Libraries To Buy Your Book.


4 thoughts on “What Is An ISBN, And How Do I Get One?”

  1. That information in the article helped me understand what the ISBN number is and why do you need it. Also, the dangers of going with the cheapest companies on the market.

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