How to Get an ISBN in 3 Super-Simple Steps
When it comes to publishing a book, we all know the most exciting topic on the table: how to get an ISBN! Okay, maybe it’s not the most exciting — but it’s essential for authors who want to print and distribute physical copies of their books. Luckily, we’re here to answer all your ISBN questions: what an ISBN is, how to get one, and whether you actually need one to publish.
Are you ready to self-publish your book?
What is an ISBN?
An International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, is a 13-digit code used as a unique identifier for a book. An ISBN is assigned to each edition of a book, enabling publishers, bookstores, libraries, and readers to find individual titles. Those who sell or lend books use ISBNs for their stock and sales records, and readers can use them to look up books online.
If you thought ISBN numbers were only 10 digits, you’re not just making things up! ISBNs used to be 10 digits long, until January 2007 when they changed to 13. However, an ISBN number never expires, and even old numbers with only 10 digits can be converted into a 13-digit code with this conversion tool from Bowker.
One more quick note on ISBNs: they suffer from “ATM machine” syndrome, by which we mean they’re known as both “ISBNs” and “ISBN numbers”, even though the second phrase technically repeats “number”. We’re not too fussy about it and we’ll be using both terms throughout this post — but if you’re someone who hates tautologies, feel free to stick to “ISBN”.
How to read an ISBN
All standard ISBNs consist of five parts, which appear in the following order:
- The numbers 978 or 979, indicating a book code;
- A single digit to indicate the country or language group of the publication (all English-language books are 0 or 1);
- A three-digit code for the publisher;
- A five-digit code for the title, edition, and format of the book; and
- The final “check” digit to indicate that the ISBN has been verified.
ISBNs are fixed and non-transferable, which means that if you publish both a paperback and ebook version of the same book, you will need separate numbers for each format. If you then decide to publish the ebook in a different language, you’ll need a new ID for that version as well — and so on and so forth.
Check out this post to learn all about the latest developments in ebook file formats. (Seriously, what could be more thrilling than that?)
If you’re in need of an ISBN (or multiple), great news: that’s what the next part is all about! Here’s the easiest way to acquire an ISBN number in the modern age.
How to get an ISBN
- Go to myidentifiers.com. This is the official Bowker site for ISBN numbers in the US.
- Pick the number of ISBNs you need, noting that costs will vary depending on your selection.
- Add to cart and check out.
Note that Bowker is the official administrator for only the United States. In the United Kingdom, authors can buy a number through Nielsen. In many places, such as Canada, the government provides these numbers for free. To find out if this is the case in your country (and for instructions on requesting a number), you can look up your local agency here.
Regardless of where you live, 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.
Getting an ISBN outside of Bowker
Even in the US and UK, there are other means — and free ones, at that! — for securing an ISBN number. Many aggregators (companies that distribute your book to multiple retailers) will assign indie authors an ID for free, or at a discount. These aggregators include:
- Draft2Digital (free)
- IngramSpark (discount)
- BookBaby (discount)
- Smashwords (free)
- eBookPartnership (free)
But here’s the catch: when you register for an ISBN number through an aggregator like one of these, you are limited to the retail channels of that company alone. This is due to regulations enforced by Bowker.
Those who stick to single-aggregator distribution will be fine. For instance, you might be selling your book on Amazon (an individual platform), and then decide to go wider through Draft2Digital (an aggregator). The former will provide you with a free Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN) and the latter with a free ISBN for the other channels. Easy as pie!
But let’s say your sales aren't too strong, and you want to add the distribution channels of BookBaby and Smashwords. You’d 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. Unfortunately, this can look unprofessional and may harm your book’s chances of getting stocked in brick-and-mortar bookstores and libraries.
Which brings us to our next point: whether or not you need an ISBN depends on what kind of book you intend to publish. And whether or not you should buy one depends on your publishing goals.
Do I need an ISBN?
If you’re self-publishing an ebook, the short answer is no. Though it’s more professional to get an all-encompassing ISBN when using multiple aggregators, you can always upload and publish your ebook to individual platforms (Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, etc.) all by yourself, with no need for an established ISBN.
Besides authors using multiple aggregators, only authors who are printing and distributing their books in physical form (or who are producing audiobooks) really need their own ISBNs. Again, ISBN numbers are used by bookstores, libraries, and everyone involved in the book supply chain to identify and organize their stock. If your print book has no ISBN, it can’t be sold — simple as that.
But if you’re not printing your book or creating an audiobook for it, there’s no pressing need for an ISBN. That said, you may still want to invest in one as a self-publishing author. We’ll explain why in the first bullet of the expanded section below, on Who should get an ISBN?
Finally, remember that obtaining an ISBN number does not mean that your copyright is automatically registered. Learn more about copyright here.
Reasons to wait on an ISBN
Authors who only plan to publish and sell an ebook don’t need an ISBN, and there's no shortage of reasons to avoid buying one. Here are the most important considerations:
- ISBNs aren’t cheap (more on that later). If you’re already on a tight budget for marketing your ebook, by all means, skip the $125 number.
- They don’t make your book any easier to find. If you’re using an online retailer, your goal is to be as visible as possible to potential readers, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a reader who searches using numbers rather than keywords.
- The largest ebook retailers don’t require you to have one. The most popular online publishing platforms are Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo — all of which assign you their own identifier when you upload your book to their store.
- Some vendors actually impose restrictions when you “bring your own number.” For example, KDP Print prohibits books that already have an ISBN from accessing some of their expanded distribution channels.
- The current system is outdated. An ISBN is a great tool for tracking book sales. But the rise of self-publishing and ebook retailers' own inventory systems have made these numbers a fairly inaccurate data collector.
Who should get an ISBN?
Still, before you make up your mind, let’s go more in-depth about the benefits of this 13-digit ID. Here is a definitive list of who should still get an ISBN, despite the drawbacks above:
🤓Authors who wish to publish under their own imprint. If you plan to publish multiple novels and brand yourself as a legitimate publisher, buying your own ISBNs is a good idea for administrative and professional purposes — when you’ve paid for your own number(s), you get to choose what name appears as the publisher.
🧱Authors interested in brick-and-mortar distribution. Not to sound like a broken record, but an ISBN is a must if you plan to print and distribute your book to physical stores. Without an ISBN, you close yourself off from this avenue and its valuable potential for sales.
📚Authors who want to sell their books to libraries. This one gets its own section because, while libraries might not be the first distribution channel you think of, they can seriously boost your book. Not to mention that US libraries spend over $3 billion annually on reading materials, so don’t discount them! Just remember that in order to get in on this action, your book requires an ISBN.
How much does an ISBN cost?
An ISBN number costs $125 through Bowker. You can also bundle your ISBN purchases and get 10 ISBNs for $295, 100 ISBNs for $575, or 1,000 ISBNs for $1,500. Needless to say, unless you’re a publisher, you’ll only need to buy 1-10 ISBNs at a time.
So while an ISBN won’t be the most expensive item on your self-publishing shopping list, it’s nothing to sneeze at either. If ISBNs are non-negotiable for you as an author, the best option is to buy a package of 10 for $295 (which works out to just under $30/ISBN). That way you can distribute your ebook and print book with separate ISBNs, as needed, and still have a few numbers left over for the next time you publish.
How to find the ISBN of a book
You can find the ISBN of a book by visiting its product page, or by looking on the back of any physical copy. Another method is to use the ISBN Search tool: just plug in the title or author’s name and you'll receive a list of all the books that match up, along with their ISBN numbers.
ASIN vs. ISBN
The ASIN is basically Amazon’s version of an ISBN. For books with an ISBN-10 code, the 10-digit ASIN will be the same — however, ISBN-13 codes will be slightly different. So while you cannot rely on a book’s ASIN to find it outside of Amazon, you can always count on an ISBN.
Each book published on Amazon receives an ASIN, and if you plan to self-publish on Amazon exclusively, you do not need an ISBN. However, if you plan to “go wide” on other sites — and again, especially if you’re using multiple aggregators or wish to print your book — you’ll need an ISBN in addition to an ASIN.
Is an ISBN the same as a barcode?
Not quite. Though they’re both numbers on the back of a book cover, a barcode is separate and provides purely sales-related information: the price of a book and the currency in which it’s sold. Unlike an ISBN, a barcode can change from store to store based on the cost of the book. It’s the pattern that appears on the label, while the ISBN appears numerically at the top.
Returning one last time to whether you definitely should or shouldn’t get an ISBN, only you can make the final call. If you simply want to publish your ebook on one or two platforms and see where it takes you, you can probably skip all the ISBN hassle. But if you want to print your book and control its identifiers, an ISBN could be a good investment.
Either way, now that you’ve done your research, you can feel confident in your decision — and if you do decide to get an ISBN, you can look forward to seeing it on your newly published book! 📘