Authors can self-publish a book in many ways, from print publishing to digital publishing. No matter the format you choose, providing an ISBN is an important component to publishing your book.
What is an ISBN?
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, meaning it’s an internationally recognized identification number, similar to any product number you would find on other products you buy, like a box of cereal or a pair of shoes.
The ISBN is the familiar number in the barcode on the back cover of every book, assigned to books on an individual basis. This number registers and identifies a book worldwide and associates the publisher, and other essential information, to one book alone, because every single ISBN is unique.
Do I Need More Than One ISBN?
Each format of a book needs its own ISBN, meaning if you have an ebook version and a paperback version of the same title, each will need its own unique ISBN. ISBNs cannot be reused once they are assigned, which protects each version of a book from copyright violations. ISBNs are how libraries, bookstores, and distributors, like IngramSpark, identify, keep track of, and properly catalog important information about your book. This ensures that every version of a work is registered properly to facilitate sales. You cannot sell your book through traditional retailers without an ISBN. So no ISBN equals fewer opportunities for your book to be discovered and purchased.
Every author wants readers to know different things about his or her work, but the information may overlap. For example, let’s say you've written a children’s book about a pigeon who wants to go to school. You might use keywords in your book description such as “pigeon,” “school,” “learn,” and “bus.” The problem is, the author of a similar well-known book such as Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, may have similar information on file in retailers’ catalogs. Your ISBN number separates your particular information from that of other authors and makes it easier to quickly locate in what are often vast catalogs.
Keep in mind that the ISBN does NOT mean your book is copyrighted. Copyrights are issued through the Library of Congress. Bowker and Nielsen are private companies that only issue ISBNs, not copyrights.
Do I Need a Barcode with My ISBN?
ISBNs can come either with or without the barcode. The ISBN acts like a product number, while the barcode is how the actual number is translated and readable by a scanner. If you do not plan to sell your book in brick-and-mortar bookstores, you do not need a barcode. If you want stores to be able to scan your ISBN, you will need one. The barcode holds additional information besides the ISBN, like the price of the book.
Some ISBN services sell barcodes, as well as ISBNs, but here’s a trick to get a free barcode: use IngramSpark’s book cover template generator. You’ll get a cover template via email with a barcode on it that you can use anywhere.
Free ISBNs vs Buying an ISBN
An ISBN is an expense many self-publishing authors are confused about. Some self-publishing services offer free ISBNs when you use their services. This may seem like a “no-brainer.” Why would you pay for an ISBN when you can get one free? But what many authors don’t realize is that if you do not purchase the ISBN yourself, your publisher imprint will not be associated with your book. If you use a free ISBN through a service, it will hold the service’s imprint, not your own. For example, if IngramSpark were to provide you with a free ISBN, the publisher associated with that ISBN would be IngramSpark, not your own publishing imprint. Not purchasing your ISBN yourself may also limit where you can print and distribute your own title. Buying your own ISBNs will eliminate any questions on what you can and cannot do with your book.
At IngramSpark, we believe it's in your best interest to be recognized as the owner of your work and a publisher in your own right, which is why we encourage publishers to purchase their own ISBNs. Traditional publishers also recognize the importance of owning the ISBN associated with a work. If they pick up your self-published book after you've published it, they will assign it a new ISBN and sell it under their imprint. Conversely, if the rights of your traditionally published book revert to you, you'll want to assign that book a new ISBN identifying yourself as the owner/publisher.
Controlling Your ISBN Title Record
Owning your ISBN means controlling the book metadata that goes with it. Whoever buys the ISBN controls the information associated with the ISBN record—so it should be you. No one knows what your book is about better than you, and your book metadata is how your book is described to the world. Don’t you want to be the one to describe it? If someone else assigns the ISBN to a title, the author gives up that control and must rely on what someone else says about his or her book.
Once you’ve bought your ISBNs and your book is ready to publish, simply log in to your account with whichever service provider from which you purchased your ISBN, click the ISBN number, and fill out the data in the full title detail form. Filling out this information can help improve your book’s discoverability.
The full title detail form associated with your ISBN includes information such as title, author, description, number of pages, size, language, copyright year, date of publication, contributors, category, title status (out-of-print, active, etc.), price, currency, book cover, and interior (to index keywords). This metadata is one of the keys to book discoverability. Once you enter the information into one, you can clone it and modify it for the other formats. (So make sure you get it right on that first one, to prevent having to edit each individual ISBN record for different formats of the same title.)
Whether a book is in electronic or print format really makes no difference. If you want to self-publish and maximize your opportunities, assign your own ISBNs and provide good metadata to make your book more discoverable to its potential readers.
How Many ISBNs Should I Buy?
You will need an ISBN for each rendition of your book. If you plan to publish a hardcover, paperback, and ebook of the same title, you will need a separate ISBN for each format. It is less expensive to buy a 10-pack of ISBNs from Bowker (for US publishers) for the bulk rate. One ISBN from Bowker costs $125, and a 10-pack costs $295 (or $29.50 per ISBN).
Many authors create books in three formats: print (PDF), MOBI, and EPUB, which is why it makes financial sense to buy the 10-pack of ISBN numbers. Ten numbers only cost twice as much as one, and you’ll need at least two: one for your print book (possibly two if you decide to publish a hardcover and a paperback version) and one for the ebook as well, maybe two depending on if you decide to have an EPUB and a MOBI version of your ebook. You may also use one for an audiobook.
Where Can I Get an ISBN?
You get ISBNs by purchasing them outright from official ISBN agencies. The "I" in ISBN stands for "International" and ISBNs are sold by country. You can purchase from Bowker in the United States, Thorpe-Bowker in Australia, Nielsen Book ISBN Agency in the United Kingdom, and Raja Rammohan Roy in India. In some countries, the government gives ISBNs to self-publishers free of charge.
Just because ISBNs are sold by country, doesn’t mean you have to get separate ISBNs for your self-published paperback in every country. You purchase an ISBN for your book in the country in which you live, but you can sell your self-published paperback anywhere in the world using that same ISBN. Keep in mind, if purchased through a company other than an official ISBN agency, such as the ones listed above, your publisher identification may be inaccurate (for example, if you accept an ISBN from someone else for free).
IngramSpark distributes both print and ebooks internationally, and have teamed up with Bowker to offer a special rate on single ISBNs to IngramSpark United States publishers. Once you have an IngramSpark account, you can purchase single ISBNs directly from Bowker through your IngramSpark dashboard for just $85. Purchasing an ISBN through your IngramSpark dashboard offers you a discounted rate on that individual ISBN and the benefit of having your publishing imprint attached.
However, if you’re likely to publish more than one book or more than one format of the same book, we encourage you to consider purchasing a 10-pack of ISBNs directly from Bowker.com (US publishers only). It’s recommended that you make your book available in more than one format, and you can save money by buying a block of 10 through Bowker. Remember, you're likely to sell more books if your title is available in a variety of formats.
When Do I Need an ISBN?
You must have your ISBN purchased, assigned, and ready to go before you design your book cover. The design of your book cover includes the placement of the barcode, which contains your ISBN. IngramSpark will insert your ISBN into your barcode for you with our cover template generator, but you must have it ready by the time your book hits the design phase.
Your book does not have to already be published to purchase an ISBN. In fact, you can even buy them before you’re done writing, so don’t worry if you don’t have a specific book lined up right away for any additional ISBNs in the block of 10 if you buy the extra. You can assign them to future books once they’re finished.