What Is an ISBN and Do You Need One?


The International Standard Book Number system (ISBN) was implemented in 1967 as a means of cataloging the world’s books. More than 2,567,035 books have been published in 2017 alone. Imagine trying to locate a single title in that morass without some sort of numbering system. So ultimately, the answer to the latter half of the question “what is an ISBN and do you need one?” is yes, and here’s why.

What ISBNs Do

That 13-digit string of number contains a lot of useful information. In addition to identifying the title and the author, it informs buyers of the type of book and provides information about the physical properties of it. Additionally, the ISBN tells those who know how to decipher them where the author of the book is located. Online bookstores operate based upon them, as do libraries, book wholesalers and distributors. If you’re planning to offer your book within the mainstream infrastructure (bookstores, libraries or online retailers like Amazon) you’ll have to have one, even for an ebook.

How to Get One

There are a couple of ways to acquire an ISBN for your work. If you’re working with a large publishing house, they will assign one to your book when they take it on. If you’re self-publishing and offering your book through your own ebooks online stores you’ll need to purchase one for each book. Here, it should be noted, if you’re self-publishing and selling through your own site, you don’t really need to get one. However, it’s recommended just the same, because you’ll need it should you ever decide to offer it on a broader platform.

In the United States, you have two options. You can get a free one assigned to you at CreateSpace, or you can purchase them at MyIdentifiers.com, the authorized agent of the U.S. ISBN program.  Sold in lots, you can purchase one, 10, 100 or 1,000. Pricing varies, but as of this writing, a single ISBN cost $125, with volume discounts for lots of 10, 100 and 1,000.

When You Should Buy One

If you want to be identified as the publisher of your book, you’ll need to purchase a number. The free ones identify the issuing agent as the publisher. Further, certain aspects of this number will always be associated with you. This can be of great significance as you develop a body of work and would like to see it cataloged together, as opposed to spread all over the place at random because you got a free number each time you published. If you’re planning a series of books, or you know you’re going to be producing many titles, buying your own number is the best way to go.

By the way, if you’re planning to produce a series (like the “Harry Potter” or “Hobbit” novels for example), you’ll also need to get an ISSN (International Standard Serial Number).

If Your Book Changes

For an ebook, each subsequent edition of the book should get a separate ISBN, so the various editions of the book can be readily identified. However, if you only change the cover or correct typos, you can use the same number. Similarly, if you later publish a print version of the ebook, the two can share a single ISBN—as long as they are identical in terms of content.

Other Relevant Details

Copyright and ISBNs do not go hand in hand. Issued by the Library of Congress, you’ll still need to apply for a copyright even if you have an ISBN. Barcodes are graphic representations of your ISBN, so once you have the number you can generate the code. And finally, a book does not have to be published to hold an ISBN.