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What is an ISBN, and how do I get one?

The barcode on the back of a book is an ISBN, right?

Yes. Yes, it is.


End of blog? Not quite. There is much more to an ISBN than meets the eye; I'll explain what you need to know in this blog.


What is an ISBN?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. Each version of a book has its own ISBN assigned, allowing publishers, booksellers, and librarians to identify and order books.

Person browsing bookstore. Long swirly rows of bookshelves with lots of books visible.
A person browsing a bookstore/library

Every published edition of a book has its own ISBN: a first-edition hardback copy has a different ISBN from a first-edition paperback copy, and a second-edition paperback copy has a different ISBN than the first edition that was published.


If text has been added to or retracted from the manuscript, the book cover has been updated, the manuscript has been translated for a new audience, or the book has been taken over by a new publisher, a new ISBN will be assigned, which will show interested parties that the book is different from other editions.


For example, I have Anne Frank's diary on my bookshelf. My edition is quite old and does not contain everything from her diary because her dad didn't allow some scenes/dates to be printed initially to protect his daughter's privacy.

Anne's diary was eventually published in full (I haven't read this version yet), which is classed as a new edition because of added material and, as such, has a different ISBN than the book I have on my shelf.


ISBNs are also helpful for readers because when you know the ISBN of the book you want to buy, it's easy to find it online or at your local bookseller. And if you want to recommend a specific edition to your friends, for example, one with a foreword by another great author or an unabridged edition, you want to ensure they get the correct copy.

A book typically has a barcode on the back cover that matches the ISBN as printed on the copyright page inside the book. Please note that some ISBN sellers advertise bundles where you buy an ISBN and a matching barcode. You do not always have to buy a barcode.* If you are self-publishing, your publishing platform (Amazon, IngramSpark, etc.) often provides you with a barcode to match your ISBN free of charge.

Stack of books with an ISBN barcode next to them
ISBN barcode

Do all books need an ISBN?

No, some books do not need an ISBN.


For example, in the US and UK, e-books do not require an ISBN to be published on e-book platforms.* If an e-book has an ISBN assigned to it, it is because the publisher or author prefers it this way.


Also, if you are writing a book that is not meant to go on sale, you do not need an ISBN. For example, you only want to print a few copies of your memoir for friends and family.


How do I get an ISBN?

ISBNs are readily available from your country's assigned ISBN seller. These sellers usually offer a single ISBN or a bundle of ten or more. Some countries offer free ISBNs, like Canada, though this is rare. You can only buy ISBNs from your country's assigned seller because each ISBN has an embedded location/language code. For example. '0-936385-40-2 The “0” is the “language group identifier” which here indicates English.' (Source)


One of my children's books from The Netherlands has this ISBN: 978-90-258-8631-8. The first digit after 978 (part of the new 13-digit ISBN) is 90, one of the two Dutch ISBN area/language codes – the other is 94. (Source)


Free ISBNs

If you choose to publish through a single platform, such as Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or IngramSpark (free for the US only at the time of writing), you can often get a free ISBN for your paperback or hardback book. It is worth checking whether self-publishing platforms in your country offer free ISBNs before deciding who to go with, as it can save you a lot of money.


The only downside of getting an ISBN assigned for free through a self-publishing platform is that you cannot sell your book anywhere else.


For example, if you publish with Amazon (KDP), they state: 'The free ISBN from KDP can only be used on KDP for distribution to Amazon and its distributors. It cannot be used with another publisher or self-publishing service.'


Libraries and bookstores you find on the high street will most likely not order your book if you use a free Amazon ISBN because they cannot buy the book at wholesale prices. If you want your book in libraries and shops on the high street, it's worth publishing with someone other than KDP using your own ISBN.


IngramSpark states: 'Your free ISBN from IngramSpark will only be able to be associated with your title on IngramSpark. Listing the same book with different ISBNs or EANs on multiple websites or with multiple distributors may confuse retailers and consumers wanting to purchase your book. This is also why you can’t use free ISBNs associated with your book from other platforms on IngramSpark.'


IngramSpark has a 'Free vs. Paid ISBNs' worksheet available to help you determine whether a free ISBN is right for you. You can access it here.


Conclusion

We love ISBNs. They make buying and selling books possible. I recommend reading your local ISBN provider's FAQ section to see if you need an ISBN and barcode for your manuscript and whether they are free of charge. Your publishing platform will also have information regarding ISBNs and barcodes, so do your homework and write a pros and cons list before deciding which ISBN path to take.


Useful links:

Find your local ISBN seller here: https://www.isbn-international.org/agencies


UK ISBN – Nielsen:


US ISBN – Bowker:

*Every country has its own set of ISBN regulations, so always check with your local ISBN seller.


I hope this blog post was helpful. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the comment section or contact me via the contact form.

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