Do You Need an ISBN?

The ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is your book’s identification number or fingerprint. It is a 13-digit number, not a bar code. ISBN information is embedded in the bar codes on the backs of books.

All book databases use the ISBN to track books. ISBNs are how readers and buyers find your books. They are essential for sales to bookstores, for online sales, and for listing in databases and directories such as Books in Print.

An ISBN tells a lot about your book. In that set of 13 numbers is information identifying your title and your publisher (called a publisher prefix). That prefix establishes who is the publisher of record associated with that title. This is an important distinction. Once an ISBN publisher prefix and associated block of numbers has been assigned to a publisher by the ISBN agency, the publisher can assign ISBNs to publications it holds publishing rights to. A printing company or publisher services company cannot resell, give away, re-assign, or transfer one of its ISBNs to a customer.

So if a printer—either traditional or print-on-demand—offers you an ISBN for free, think long and hard before you take it. Because ISBNs are nontransferable, that means the publisher of record for your book is the printer, not you. You have nothing to fear in terms of intellectual property rights. The assignment of an ISBN has no implications for rights ownership. It does, however, have an impact on how your title is viewed in the sales and distribution system. If a self-publisher wants to be identified as the publisher, the self-publisher must get his or her own ISBN.

Here is the advice of R.R. Bowker, which is the authorized seller of ISBNs in the United States: “There are unauthorized re-sellers of ISBNs, and this activity is a violation of the ISBN standard and of industry practice. A publisher with one of these re-assigned ISBNs will not be correctly identified as the publisher of record in Books In Print or any of the industry databases such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon or those of wholesalers such as Ingram.”

What products need an ISBN: According to Bowker, every edition and every version of your title should have a separate ISBN number. Each of the following requires a distinct ISBN: hardcover, softcover, EPUB, MOBI, PDF, and audio version. Of course, Bowker sells ISBNs. So keep that in mind. An ISBN is not necessary if you do not intend to place the book in stores, libraries, or with wholesalers. Although your print book must have an ISBN, it is NOT a requirement for eBooks. Online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble do not require an ISBN for eBooks. But be aware that not assigning an ISBN to your eBook may impact how, and if, that version of your book is listed in third-party databases for electronic books.

What products need a new ISBN: You only need to assign a new ISBN when the product changes substantially (this includes a title change). You do not need a new ISBN if you change the price, are just correcting typos, or are changing your cover for marketing purposes. However, if the change in cover substantially changes the product (i.e., would lead to customer complaints), then a new ISBN should be used.

Cost: The cost of a block of ISBNs depends on the number you are ordering. Blocks range from 10 numbers to 100,000 or more. It is more cost effective to buy a block than a single ISBN. ISBNs don’t expire, so you can use your ISBNs on many future projects or you may need them for the various formats of your title. In today’s publishing world, a single ISBN is seldom sufficient. Remember, depending on your sales outlet, you may need a different ISBN on each version from print to eBook to audio book. You cannot reuse an ISBN once it has been assigned.

To order an ISBN: Contact R.R. Bowker. Allow 5 business days for nonpriority processing from the time an ISBN application is received by Bowker—not from the date sent by the publisher. Priority processing and express processing are available for an additional fee.

Format: Format for the ISBN information is the word “ISBN” and the 13-digit number: ISBN 978-0-000000-00-0. It should be printed on your copyright page as well as on the back cover of books that have no bar code. If you own a block of old ISBNs that have only 10 digits, you can still use them. Search online for a free ISBN converter and convert your 10-digit ISBNs into 13-digit ones. There is no such thing as a special ISBN for eBooks called an e-ISBN. In electronic books, the ISBN should be displayed on the copyright page and is just called an ISBN.

Registering your ISBN: Once ISBNs have been assigned to products they should be reported to R.R. Bowker as the database of record for the United States ISBN Agency. Companies are eligible for a free listing in various directories such as Books in Print, Words on Cassette, The Software Encyclopedia, Bowker’s Complete Video Directory, etc. Book titles should be registered with Books in Print.

There are more than 160 ISBN agencies worldwide. The United States ISBN Agency is the only source authorized to assign ISBNs to publishers supplying an address in the United States, US Virgin Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The United States ISBN Agency sells ISBNs through R.R. Bowker.

See the ISBN FAQ for more questions about ISBNs.