ISBNs for Self-Publishers: What You Need to Know

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Everyone who self-publishes needs to know what an ISBN is. ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, which is exactly what it is; an identification number, similar to any SKU number you would find on other things you buy such as a box of cereal or a pair of shoes.

Listen Now to Ep. 04 of Go Publish Yourself, an IngramSpark Self-Publishing Podcast

How Do I Get an ISBN?

You get ISBNs by purchasing them outright. The "I" in ISBN stands for "International" and ISBNs are sold by country. The US, UK, and AU sell ISBNs to their citizens. In other countries, the government gives ISBNs for self-publishers free of charge. Does that mean you have to get separate ISBNs for your self-published paperback in every country? No; 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.

Do I Need a Separate ISBN for Each Format of My Self-Published Book?

As mentioned earlier, the ISBN identifies one specific product. If you make your self-published paperback available in ebook, hardcover, limited or any other edition, then each format must have its own separate ISBN to identify each individual edition.

What is the Best Way to Purchase an ISBN for Self-Publishers?

You can buy ISBNs one at a time; IngramSpark sells Bowker ISBNs to our US publishers for $85 each straight from your account dashboard. However, if you are a citizen of the US, you might consider purchasing a block of ISBNs from They currently offer a block of 10 ISBNs for less than $300. You're likely going to (and should) make your book available in more than one format and you can save money by buying a block through Bowker. Remember, you're likely to sell a lot more books if your title is available in a variety of formats. You can buy ISBNs before you publish your book and, in fact, you can even buy them before you're done writing your book, so don't worry if you don't have a specific book lined up right away for the additional ISBNs in the block of ten if you buy the extra.

The Importance of Owning Your ISBN

It's true that some companies give ISBNs to authors for "free" but IngramSpark does not and here's why: the ISBN designates who owns/publishes the book. If IngramSpark gives you the ISBN, the publisher is listed as IngramSpark, not your own publishing imprint. 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. Traditional publishers also recognize the importance of owning your ISBN. If they pick up your self-published book at some point, 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.

When Do I Need an ISBN?

You must have your ISBN purchased, assigned, and ready to go before your book can be designed. 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.

ISBNs aren't as complicated as you might think, but they are important. Save yourself the trouble of having to redesign your book, or spend more than you need on securing an ISBN. Learn as much as you can and take advantage of free resources like IngramSpark's self-publishing podcast, Go Publish Yourself.


IngramSpark Podcast Go Publish Yourself

IngramSpark Staff

Hi there! It's your friendly IngramSpark staff here, happily sharing a wealth of publishing knowledge with people from all walks of the self-publishing biz.