ISBNs: what are they and why do I need one?

ISBNs: what are they and why do I need one?

ISBNs: what are they?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It is the 13-digit number that appears on the back of every book you own.

It is the number that uniquely identifies that book.

Do I need an ISBN?

Yes.

If you plan to sell your book, then you will need an ISBN. Book shops, libraries, wholesalers – they all use the ISBN to identify and order your book.

Does this have anything to do with the barcode that appears on my book?

Yes it does.

Please hold on to that thought as we will be coming back to barcodes later in this article.

Do I need an ISBN if I am only selling through Amazon?

Yes and no. Amazon do things a little differently.

We will come back to Amazon shortly. (Or you can skip ahead to that section by clicking here).

Do I need a different ISBN for each format I am selling?

Yes.

The ISBN is unique to your book and the format. If you are selling an ebook and a paperback version of the same novel, you will need two ISBNs: one for the ebook and one for the paperback.

If you decide to offer a hardback version, then that will also need its own ISBN. So will an audiobook version. You may also need a new ISBN if you make substantial revisions to the book and release a new version.

According to Bowker, the authorised ISBN agency in the US, a separate ISBN is required for a hard bound copy, a soft bound copy, an ePUB, a PDF, a MOBI, and an audiobook. Different language versions will also require separate ISBNs, so remember to bear that in mind if you are having your book translated.

Where do I get an ISBN from?

Before we answer that, we need to revisit Amazon and the way they do things.

Amazon sells books in two distinct ways. For ease, let’s consider paperbacks only:

  1. They stock and sell books that have been printed by other companies – this includes all traditionally published books, as well as any self-published book that has not been produced through Createspace or KDP
  2. They sell print-on-demand books that have been uploaded through Createspace and KDP (the self-publishing arms of Amazon)

Why does this distinction matter? Well, Amazon has no control over the production of the books in the first category; they just stock and sell those books. As such, any book not produced through Createspace and KDP must have its own ISBN (as we have discussed above).

For the second category – books uploaded through Createspace or KDP – Amazon offers you (the self-publishing author) a further choice:

  • A Createspace-assigned ISBN (or a KDP-assigned ISBN)
  • A “Custom Universal ISBN” (available to US-based customers only)
  • Or you can provide your own ISBN that you have purchased separately

A Createspace-assigned/KDP-assigned ISBN is free and a “Custom Universal ISBN” is (currently) $99. But what are they?

What are Amazon’s ISBN options?

If you use Createspace

You can choose a Createspace-assigned ISBN:

  • Your book will be listed under the imprint of “CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform”
  • Your ISBN can only be used within the Createspace platform (no printing your own copies and plastering the Createspace ISBN on them)
  • Your book will be registered with Bowker’s Books in Print database
  • Your book can be sold through Amazon stores and you will have access to their Expanded Distribution channels (but – watch out! – that might not be as good as it sounds)

You can choose to pay for a “Custom Universal ISBN”:

  • You can choose which imprint your book will be listed under
  • Your ISBN can be used with any publisher
  • Your book will be registered with Bowker’s Books in Print database
  • Your book can be sold through Amazon stores and you will have access to some of their Expanded Distribution channels

If you use KDP

You can choose a KDP-assigned ISBN:

  • Your book will be listed under the imprint of “Independently Published”
  • Your ISBN can only be used within the KDP platform (no printing your own copies and plastering the KDP ISBN on them)
  • Your book will be registered with Bowker’s Books in Print database
  • Your book can be sold through Amazon stores and you will have access to their Expanded Distribution channels (again – watch out! – that might not be as good as it sounds)

If you are confused about imprints and what this means, you may want to jump down to the question on Who is publishing my book? later in this article.

Why should I/shouldn’t I use Amazon’s generated ISBN?

If you are only planning on selling through Amazon and you don’t want to buy an ISBN, then a Createspace-assigned (or KDP-assigned) ISBN is a free alternative that will allow you to get your book out there as economically as possible.

However…

You will not control the imprint that your book is published under. The imprint is the trade name of the publisher (or line of books) and can help to brand your books in the way you want. Conversely, when your book appears under the “Createspace Independent Publishing Platform” imprint, this can act as a red flag to bookshops and other retailers who sometimes have a negative view of self-published books and/or Amazon itself. While your book will be listed through the Expanded Distribution channels, will a bookshop pick it up if it has a Createspace imprint?

A Createspace-assigned ISBN also means that you are forever tied to Createspace to print your books. If you want to pay for a separate bulk print run with an outside company, you would need to purchase and use a different ISBN. You would then have two versions of the same book in the same format but with different ISBNs. Again, this is starting to generate red flags for distributors and retailers, and that is probably something you want to avoid.

Your decisions around whether or not to use an Amazon ISBN will be related to where and how you plan to release your book, as well as your overall marketing strategy. Are you looking for Amazon exclusivity, or are you planning on diversifying across as many routes as possible? This is a bigger question than just which ISBN to choose, but it may help to narrow down which options are right for you.

(A quick note on KDP ebooks)

As noted earlier, all formats – including ebooks – require an ISBN.

Except, of course, for Amazon, who always like to keep us on our toes! If you are using KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) to produce your ebook, then please read this section.

It is perfectly possible to purchase your own ISBN and to input this into KDP as part of the book creation process. Make sure it is the ebook ISBN. Do not reuse your paperback’s ISBN as this is unique to the paperback format.

However, if you do not have your own ISBN then KDP will not allocate one to your ebook. Instead, they will assign a 10-digit ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number) to uniquely identify your ebook. All products within Amazon’s stores are assigned an ASIN, including books that have a separate ISBN.

Now, back to ISBNs…

If I choose to use my own ISBN, where do I get it from?

To be clear, you will need your own ISBN when:

  • Creating your book through any self-publishing route that is not Createspace or KDP; or
  • Creating your book through Createspace/KDP and choosing not to use Amazon’s self-generated ISBN

If that sounds like you, then you will need to purchase your own ISBN(s).

  • If you are in the UK, you can purchase ISBNs from Nielsen – they sell them individually or in bulk, at a discount
  • If you are in the US, you can purchase ISBNs from Bowker – they sell them individually or in bulk, at a discount
  • If you are anywhere else in the world, have a look at this list to find your local agency

It is also worth bearing in mind that some self-publishing companies allow you to purchase ISBNs from them as part of the book-creation process, and there are several third-party companies who will also obtain and sell you an ISBN. Ultimately, they will have had to purchase each ISBN from Bowker (or a local equivalent) and it is important to realise that ISBNs are non-transferable. This means that the company selling you the ISBN will already have been identified as the “publisher” of that book, and this may cause you some difficulties down the line. Bowker’s view on this is:

You may encounter offers from other sources to purchase single ISBNs at special offer prices; you should be wary of purchasing from these sources for the reasons noted above. 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.

Now I’m confused! Who is the publisher of my book?

This is a larger question than we have space for in this article. In short:

  • If you are traditionally-published by a publishing company (big, small, or one-man-band) then they are the publisher of your book
  • If you are self-publishing through Createspace, Ingram, or any similar company then you are the publisher of your book

If you are being traditionally published then your publisher will worry about the ISBN. If you are self-publishing, you will want to be in control of that process and you will want to be identified as the publisher of your book.

You can read more about the “publisher” part of self-publishing in this article: Who is the publisher of my self-published book?

I have purchased my ISBN(s) – what do I do now?

If you are using Amazon, you need to enter your ISBN as part of the metadata when using the “Setup” process. There is a separate “ISBN” page in that stage of the upload process. The three options discussed above are available for you to select. You should choose “Provide your own ISBN” to enter your purchased ISBN.

If you are using Ingram, you need to enter the ISBN as part of the metadata when creating your book. It appears in the “Print Format” and “Ebook Format” sections of the upload process.

Other self-publishing companies will have their own processes for uploading your ISBN as you create your book. Check out their documentation and guides to find out where and when you need to enter your ISBN(s).

Depending on the company you are using, you may also need to generate a barcode for your book.

What is the barcode and how is it different from an ISBN?

  • The ISBN is a 13 digit number
  • The barcode is an image comprised of vertical black and white lines

It may be over-simplifying it to lay it out in that way, but those are the fundamental definitions of the ISBN and the barcode. Your ISBN can be translated into a barcode – and this is why the two things can often get confused in people’s minds – but they are distinct things.

Almost all retailers will need to scan the barcode whenever they sell a book, so it is important that the barcode appears on the back cover. Without one, you will not get very far in trying to sell your book.

What does a barcode look like?

Like this…

sample barcode
Image from www.bookow.com

At the top, the ISBN is printed as 13 digits. Beneath the ISBN is the barcode image for that ISBN. The 13-digit sequence has been translated into a series of vertical black and white lines that – when scanned – will read as that 13-digit ISBN.

(Both the ISBN and the barcode are printed so that a retailer can manually enter the 13-digit code if their scanner stops working for any reason. You don’t want to miss a sale just because their scanner is having a bad day!)

The smaller barcode to the right is for the price. In the US, you must include this, even if you do not want to set a specific price. Scanners in American retailers cannot read the barcode if it does not include the additional 5-digit pricing barcode.

If you choose to include a specific price in your barcode and you subsequently change the price, you will need to generate a new barcode and to change your cover. (You will keep the same ISBN as it is only the price that is changing.)

If you choose not to include a specific price, the alternative is to set the 5-digit code to 90000. This means “no price is encoded”. Having this in place allows the retailer’s scanners to work (ie to read the barcode) and they will then look up the correct price based on how they have configured your ISBN in their systems.

Where do I get a barcode from?

Where you get your barcode from will – again! – depend on which route you are using to create your book.

I am using Amazon to create my book – how do I create a barcode?

You don’t need to.

When Amazon (via Createspace or KDP) creates your finished book, they will automatically insert a barcode onto the back cover. This barcode will be a translation of either:

  • Your own ISBN that you entered into their system when setting up your book; or
  • The Amazon-assigned “ISBN” that they have generated for you

So, whichever route you choose (your own ISBN or Amazon’s), that number will be automatically translated into a barcode and placed onto your back cover. I will leave a space on your back cover so that the barcode will not cover anything important.

I am using Ingram to create my book – how do I create a barcode?

You don’t need to.

Ingram provides the ability to generate and download a template for your cover file. To generate this template, certain information has to be entered into their system, including your ISBN.

Ingram will translate your ISBN into a barcode and export this as part of the cover template. I will then insert this barcode into your final cover file when I send it to you.

I am using another company to create my book – how do I create a barcode?

Some self-publishing companies do not generate a barcode for you. This applies to NOOK, for example, as well as to Lulu (if you are supplying your own “one-piece” cover file).

You may also have decided to arrange your own printing, in bulk, with a print company, rather than using a print-on-demand service.

In those scenarios, you will need to create a barcode. You can do this in several ways, including through a service provided by Bowker or via a free service at Bookow.

Once you have generated your barcode, you will need to send it to me so that I can include it in your final cover file.

What do I need to provide when I purchase a cover?

When you buy one of my covers, I will ask you for all of the information I will need in order to prepare your cover file.

In most cases, I will need:

  • To know your paperback ISBN – unless you have chosen to use the one generated by Amazon
  • A high-resolution version of your barcode – unless you are using Amazon, Ingram, or another company that automatically generates barcodes for you

I will guide you through the process and if you have any questions, just drop me an email at jon@jonstubbington.com and I will get straight back to you.

If I am changing my cover, do I need a new ISBN?

It can be a good marketing technique to update your cover designs from time-to-time. This can help generate fresh interest in your older books, as well as to re-target your books towards your chosen audience by giving them a new look that is on-trend for your selected genre.

If you are just changing the design of your cover then you do not need a new ISBN. You will need to let me know your existing ISBN when ordering your cover from me.

If you are changing the title of your book or making significant revisions to the content, then you will need a new ISBN. This will be treated as a new version of your book.

Where else should my ISBN appear?

For both ebooks and print books, the ISBN must appear on the copyright page.

If your print book does not have a barcode (probably a rare scenario) then the ISBN must also appear on the back cover.

Will an ISBN provide me with any sort of copyright protection?

No. As stated by Nielsen, an ISBN is a product identification number and provides no legal or copyright protection.

Your book is automatically granted copyright when you write it. However, in the US, there are additional steps you can take to register your copyright, which may make things easier should you ever need to challenge a copyright infringement. This article on Jane Friedman’s blog may help with any US-related copyright questions you might have.


The information in this article is based on my current understanding of the rules surrounding ISBNs and barcodes. Please make sure you carry out your own research into ISBNs before you pay for one. If you are unsure about anything to do with purchasing an ISBN, I would recommend contacting your local authorised ISBN selling agent.

If you have any other questions about ISBNs or what you need to provide when purchasing one of my covers, please leave a comment or drop me an email at jon@jonstubbington.com

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