When on-boarding a new client, I invariably get asked about ISBNs. What are they? Do I need one (or several)? Where do I get them? Does my eBook need one? These are all valid questions, and to get definitive answers, I always go to the source – that is, R.R. Bowker (MyIdentifiers.com). I will add a side note here and say that Bowker is the official registration agency for ISBNs if you are located in the US or one of its territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, and America Samoa). If you are outside the US and need an ISBN, you can find a supplier for your jurisdiction at the International ISBN Agency.

This is part 1 of my 2-part series, and here, I will answer some of those often-asked questions. I’ll also throw in a bit of history on the ISBN along the way for good measure.

What is an ISBN and what is it used for?

For those who don’t know, ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number and is the global standard for identifying book titles. Retailers, distributors, and libraries, among others, use these numbers to track inventory. In short, most retailers require them, and they increase the chances your book will be found online and elsewhere instead of being lost in the wilderness.

The main purpose of an ISBN is to identify a specific format or edition of a book. They can even be used to identify an audiobook since it would be considered a book in a different format. The ISBN also identifies the publisher and metadata for the book. Confusion often sets in when trying to determine exactly what needs an ISBN and what doesn’t.

Where did the ISBN format originate and why?

In the 1970s, the concept of a unique identifier for each version of a published book was established in the United Kingdom. Originally created as a stock-keeping identification method, the ISBN quickly became the international standard. Keep in mind this was pre-internet and identifying a specific book was difficult. Particularly so without the full title, edition information, or author.

It’s also important to remember that book titles are not protected by copyright. Therefore, it is possible to have several books with the same title which quickly becomes confusing when doing a search. This becomes even more of a problem when looking for a specific edition such as hardback, paperback, or newest edition.

As you can see, having a unique way to identify a specific version of a book solves a huge problem. And now, with the help of the internet and search engines like Google, you need only enter the ISBN and will get all the information you could want on a specific title.

What does an ISBN cost?

In the early days of the ISBN, Bowker issued them to book publishers for a nominal fee. Not so anymore. ISBNs may be easier for individuals to obtain now, but, due to the introduction and growth of self-publishing, ISBNs will cost you as much as $125 each. This is because ISBNs are sold like any other commodity in the marketplace.

The good news is you can buy them in bulk and save on the individual cost. For instance, a 10-pack will cost you $295, bringing the cost per ISBN down to $29.50. Want to save even more? You can get 100 for $575, 1,000 for $1,500, or 5,000 for $5k. But who needs 5,000 ISBNs?

While the biggest savings are given to publishing companies, you should really look at how many you will actually need. If you plan to publish in paperback and hardback editions, you will need 2 ISBNs. Buying them individually, you will have spent the equivalent of buying the 10-pack. And since most authors rarely write a single book, you can see how it makes more sense to purchase in larger quantities.

Should I use a “free” ISBN?

Some companies who sell author services or print-on-demand publishing offer “free” ISBNs. They can do this because they buy in bulk from Bowker. As I mentioned above, a publishing company can buy 1,000 identifiers for only $1.50 each. While this is a large investment up front, it can be an added bonus to their clients. Such is the case at Softpress Publishing. The discount we receive is passed on to our clients.

For those wanting to self-publish, a “free” ISBN from a platform such as CreateSpace may be a good option if:

  • Your intention is to publish a single book;
  • You aren’t intending on publishing to any platform other than where you are getting the free ISBN;
  • You are not interested in starting your own publishing company; or
  • You have a very tight budget.

When is an ISBN not required?

Not every book printed requires an ISBN. However, since an ISBN is the universal book identifier, any book that is intended to be sold through retail channels will need one. The following would be situations where ISBNs could be omitted:

  • eBooks on certain platforms such as KDP (Kindle);
  • Genealogy or family history books;
  • Grandma’s recipes or other “personal” publishing projects;
  • Workbooks distributed at seminars;
  • Books only to be used as premiums, giveaways, or incentives;
  • Company training manuals intended for internal use.

The main takeaway from this is that if you plan to sell your books through retail outlets you will need an ISBN. For anything you produce that will be for private use, you won’t need one.

Should I buy my own ISBNs?

When an ISBN is purchased through Bowker, the publisher name is recorded and “identified” within the ISBN itself. This “publisher identifier” is part of the string of 13-digits comprising the ISBN. Thus, the publisher of any particular book or edition can be readily identified. What sometimes gets overlooked when a “free” ISBN is used is the company that provided it is the publisher of record in the international database.

While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it can limit your control over your book being discoverable online. It also prevents you from being the publisher of record should you decide to setup a self-publishing company of your own. Here at Softpress Publishing, our business model is built around assisted self-publishing services. As such, any ISBN we provide will be registered to us and show Softpress as the publisher of record. Of course, we always discuss this up front with our clients and allow them to make the best choice for their particular situation.

As a final thought, if you are an independent author, you should be treating your book, or books, as a business. This gives you the most control over every aspect of your work. In this light, it is our belief that you should set up a publishing company and register your ISBNs to it. However, please note this is not intended to be legal advice, but rather a “best practice” and may not suit every client.

Does an ISBN take away ownership of my work?

An ISBN, regardless of who it is registered to, has nothing to do with ownership or copyrights. Even using a “free” ISBN won’t affect the rights to your work. You will still have ownership and complete control over your own content. In fact, I have several books still on CreateSpace from when I first started publishing years ago that display their “free” ISBN. While Softpress is shown as the publisher on Amazon’s website, the metadata shows the ISBN registered to CreateSpace. However, because of the ever-changing marketplace, I now choose to purchase all my ISBNs rather than use the free ones.

Are there added benefits of owning your ISBN?

The main reason for now buying all my ISBNs is simple… the distribution options being offered by print and digital publishing platforms are increasingly requiring the author or publisher/imprint be the registered owner of the ISBN. And, the bonus for owning your ISBN is getting free inclusion in Books in Print. In case you aren’t aware, Books in Print is the world’s largest catalog of books which is licensed to all major search engines as well as thousands of bookstores and libraries. That should be reason enough.


This concludes my primer on ISBNs. I trust that you now know what one is, where to get one, and why they are needed. In part 2 of this series, I will be covering more specific questions that come up including:

  • Can ISBNs be re-used?;
  • Where do I put the ISBN?;
  • Does my ebook require an ISBN?; And,
  • Are separate ISBNs required for different digital file types?

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