All About ISBNs

illustration-of-books-pvBy Cecilia Lewis

I’ve noticed a lot of confusion among self-publishing authors about ISBNs. While ISBNs are taken care of the by the publisher in traditional publishing, self-publishing authors must handle it themselves—which is why it’s important to understand them. So, I’d like to provide a quick overview of what ISBNs are and what you, the author, need to know.

  1. Definition

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number; it’s a unique 13-digit number assigned to a book. Each individual ISBN can only be assigned to a single book. Even if the original book goes out of print, the ISBN can never be given to any other book.

  1. Function and importance

So, why do you need an ISBN? Because they help readers find the correct book. Since no other book has the same ISBN as yours, readers can search for it using that number. Your book might share its title with dozens of others, but its ISBN is unique. Having an ISBN also gets your book included in Books in Print, the world’s largest book catalog.

Because ISBNs are so important, your book can’t be sold to libraries or bookstores without one.  There are also several online stores, like Sony, that won’t accept your book for sale without an ISBN.

  1. New ISBNs

I see a lot of confusion over when authors need new ISBNs for different editions of their book. In short, if you’re making major changes to your book’s content, then you’ve created a new edition of your book and do need an additional ISBN to help readers distinguish between the different editions. However, making small changes—like correcting a typo—doesn’t require a new ISBN. Note that you are required to have a different ISBN for hardcover and softcover editions, if you were ever to print in hardcover.

  1. Print vs. ebook

One of the biggest debates about ISBNs is whether you need separate ISBNs for print and ebook editions. Some people will tell you that you only need one; others will suggest a different ISBN for every single format. Personally, I think it makes the most sense to have different ISBNs for print vs. ebook editions, to help buyers make sure they’re purchasing the right version. However, based on the advice I’ve heard from experienced self-published writers, you don’t need different ISBNs for every ebook format (.mobi, .epib, etc.), since there’s less reader confusion here. For example, someone with a Kindle probably gets most of their ebooks from Amazon, where the .mobi version is the only option, so there’s no chance that they’ll buy the wrong format. Smashwords is an exception, as it offers both versions, but the purchase page there makes it clear which format is which.

  1. Cost

Many distributors offer free ISBNs, which is a good option for some authors. However, the distributor offering the ISBN will then be listed as the publisher for your book. Some authors prefer to purchase their own ISBNs. If that’s you, there are several options. For Americans, you can get ISBNs from Bowker, where the price decreases the more ISBNs you buy. For example, a single ISBN will cost $125, but 10 will cost $295.

What do you think? Have any questions about ISBNs? If you’ve already self-published, can you offer any advice about ISBNs? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in professional editorial services for your manuscript? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.

This post is part of my Self-Publishing Series. For more information about self-publishing, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

-Self-Publishing Print Books: Setting a Publishing Timeline

-Publishing Plans and Release Schedules

-6 Tips for Designing Your Own Promo

-Print Interior Design Basics

-What to Avoid in Your Cover Copy


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