ISBNs: A Quick Overview

11 Apr

One question that you will inevitably be asking yourself when preparing to self-publish your book is: Do I need an ISBN?

…and, hey,

What IS an ISBN?

An ISBN is an “International Standard Book Number.” It identifies books and book-like products (like audiobooks) and its purpose is to establish one title from one specific publisher, allowing for more efficient marketing of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors.

To make it simple? An ISBN is like a serial number that identifies the publisher, author, and title of a book (as well as other information).

Who needs an ISBN, and where can I get one?

You’ll more than likely need an ISBN if you plan on selling your book (and you’ll definitely need one if you plan on selling it in bookstores).

You can purchase an ISBN from, and it will be emailed to you directly. Keep in mind that if you’re planning on publishing several books, it may be more cost-effective to purchase blocks of ISBNs. You can purchase 1, 10, 100, or even 1,000 at a time and use them whenever you have a book ready to publish.

Bar Codes vs. ISBNs

An ISBN is not the same as a bar code, although the ISBN is used to create a bar code. You must have an ISBN if you want a bar code on your book.

(A bar code is like a price tag; it’s the graphic with vertical lines that gets scanned whenever an item is purchased).

This is why it’s important to purchase an ISBN before selling your book. A bar code is also necessary if you’re planning on selling your book in a book store, but you may want to wait until you’re sure how much you’ll be selling the book for before you get one. A bar code can be purchased at the same time as an ISBN from the same company or can be created later by a variety of sources such as a publisher, printer, or designer.

When do I need a new ISBN?

If you make minor changes to your book such as typo-fixes or price-adjustments, you can use the same ISBN when re-printing your book.


You will need a new ISBN if:

  • You make extensive changes that would confuse customers as to whether or not it is the same book (like changing the content drastically).
  • You write a new edition of your book. (Each new edition needs a new ISBN).
  • Your book is printed in different languages. (Each language version is a different product with a different ISBN.)
  • You have many books in a series. (An ISBN is assigned to each book in the series; a series of books is also eligible for an ISSN (International Standard Series Number), available from the Library of Congress.
  • Your book is presented in different formats. (For example, hard cover, paperback, and audiobook versions of the same book require 3 separate ISBNs)

Re-Using ISBNs

ISBNs cannot be transferred on an individual basis, so if you decide to purchase more than one ISBN at a time, make sure you’ll be able to use all of them; you won’t be able to sell the extras to friends.

Additionally, once a title is published with an ISBN on it, the ISBN can never be used again, even if that title goes out of print. You’ll always need to purchase new ISBNs when selling new books (or in any of the circumstances listed above).

This is just a quick overview of ISBN basics. All of this information (and more) can be found on the ISBN website. Happy writing/publishing!

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