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Posted on Nov 09, 2021

How to Get an ISBN Number as a Self-Published Author

Getting an ISBN for your self-published book is, thankfully, pretty simple: just choose between the free or paid options, pick the appropriate provider for your region, and decide how many numbers to buy at once to secure the best possible deal. Read on for more details!

If you're a self-published author, here's how to get an ISBN:

1. Choose between free and paid ISBNs

There are a handful of big ISBN vendors, like Bowker and Nielsen, who are a lot of authors’ go-to sources for ISBNs. However, depending on your publishing aims, it’s also possible to also use cheap or free ISBNs. 

Where to get free ISBN numbers

In the US and UK, many aggregators (companies that distribute your book to multiple retailers) will assign indie authors an ISBN for free, or at a discount. These aggregators include:

ISBN Number - discounted providers

Some government territories, such as Canada, provide free ISBN numbers (lucky you)! You can get more information on who your regional providers are in the second step of this how-to.

A note on ASINs

While we’re talking about free ISBNs, it’s worth mentioning an alternative: the ASIN. The ASIN functions similarly to the ISBN, but is only used within Amazon — and you’re given one for free whenever you publish a book on Amazon

So why would you need both? Basically, while you cannot rely on a book’s ASIN to find it outside of Amazon, you can always count on an ISBN.  For that reason, if you plan to “go wide” on other sites — or have distribution in brick-and-mortar stores — you’ll need an ISBN in addition to an ASIN. If you plan to self-publish on Amazon exclusively, you can, by all means, forego the ISBN costs and stick to the free ASIN. 

Why you might want to buy an ISBN anyway

So you can get an ISBN for free or at a discounted price, or if you’re only publishing digitally on Amazon, you don’t need an ISBN at all. So why would anyone ever pay for an ISBN? 

Aha! Here’s the catch: when you register for an ISBN number through an aggregator like the ones we listed above, industry regulations mean that you are limited to the retail channels of that company alone, whereas simply buying an ISBN from the start means you can expand wherever you see fit. 

To show you what we mean: maybe you’re selling your book on Amazon (an individual platform), and then decide to go wider through Draft2Digital (an aggregator). The former provides you with a free ASIN and the latter with a free ISBN. 

But let’s say your sales aren't too strong, and you want to make your book available on other distribution channels, like BookBaby and Smashwords. If you don’t have an independently-bought ISBN, you’ll need to register for separate numbers from each of those publishing companies as well. This can snowball into you having several ISBNs and different publishers all listed for the same book, which looks seriously unprofessional and may harm your book’s chances of getting stocked in brick-and-mortar bookstores and libraries.

Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you want to keep your ISBN consistent between aggregators, or if you’re happy with a mix. And if you aren’t sure which decision is in your best interests, perhaps consider working with a professional book marketer to ensure you maximize your own chances of success.

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2. Identify providers in your region 

Each country or territory has its own regional provider of ISBNs. Perhaps the best-known ISBN provider is Bowker, the official administrator for the United States. In the United Kingdom, authors can buy a number through Nielsen. 

To find out whether ISBNs are free in your country (and for instructions on requesting a number), you can look up your local agency here.

ISBN Number - screenshot of a search for a local provider
You can easily use isbn-international.com to search for your local provider.

Once you’ve identified your local provider, you’re ready to buy!

3. Buy ISBNs in bulk for the best value

One book, one ISBN needed, right? Not so fast.

Not only do ISBNs have a heavy discount on bulk purchases, but a single ISBN is rarely enough. Say you’re publishing a paperback. If you ever want to revise or release that paperback in a new edition, you’ll need a new ISBN. You’ll also need another ISBN for a future hardcover edition, and the same applies to releasing an audiobook. If you make all those single purchases via Bowker, you’re looking at $500 for 4 ISBNs, while a bulk purchase of 10 ISBNs will only set you back $295. 

Even if you’re only working on one book at the moment, 10 ISBNs are a sensible investment when you’re starting out. 

Regardless of where you live or who provided your ISBN, once you have received your number, you should register it at Bowkerlink. This will automatically add your title to Bowker’s Books In Print: a bibliographic database consulted by libraries around the world. Books In Print currently hosts about 7.5 million US book, audiobook, and movie titles, as well as 12 million international titles — and yours is about to be one of them!

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Now you’ve sorted out all the practicalities and your book is ready for sale, why not check out more of our resources on what to do next. If you haven’t yet got a plan in place for promoting your book, our guide on that is a good place to start!