Updated: 1/2/2021

In this post, I want to talk about ISBNs, what they are, and why you may need one. To begin, ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number which is a 13 digit number that is assigned to a book which identifies its bibliographic data (title, edition, publisher, etc) to booksellers and lenders.

Whether indie authors even need an ISBN is a contentious argument that has many indie authors on a shoestring budget wondering if this is just another unnecessary expense?  So let’s cut through the hoopla and find out why you may, or may not need an ISBN for your book.

Myths About ISBNs

Myth #1: Indie authors who are only publishing ebooks need not worry about ISBNs.

Fact: Not true, libraries won’t consider ebooks without ISBNs.

Myth #2: You can purchase ISBNs from anywhere.

Fact: There is only one place in every country where the owner/publisher of a book can purchase an ISBN. Places that offer packages or discounts on an ISBN are usually buying in bulk and probably not reporting the book’s bibliographic data properly. It would be wise to purchase an ISBN on your own. It could mean the difference between a reader buying your book, or accidentally purchasing another copy of Harry Potter. Seriously, J.K. Rowling doesn’t need any more money!

Myth #3: You can’t buy an ISBN after a book’s been published.

Fact: You can indeed purchase an ISBN after a book’s been published.

Myth #4: You don’t have to buy separate ISBNs for a book translated into multiple languages.

Fact: Sorry, you do need different ISBNs for each translated version.

Myth #5: Barcodes and ISBNs are the same.

Fact: Barcodes identify either price, size, or even color of a product, ISBNs identify publisher, editions, etc.

More Need to Know Info:

Amazon’s KDP assigns books an Amazon Standard International Number  or ASIN number, for the sake of their database. You can capture the ASIN number of any given book in the URL Amazon assigns to each book.

If you only plan on publishing on Amazon then this is all you need. Apple, Google Play, and Kobo all have their own special numbers as well so you’re covered.      

As I said before, it’s important to consider before you spend any money, just how far you want to go with your book? Do you want to sell your books only at your website or at conferences? If so, then an ISBN is an unnecessary expense.  

Nonetheless, if you do want to sell your books far and wide, you’ll need to purchase an ISBN.

Here are the official sources for ISBNs: 

In the U.S., you purchase your ISBN through Bowker’s Identifiers Service and the price for one ISBN is $125.

In Canada: ISBNs in Canada are free and are distributed at the government website: CISS (Canadian ISBN Service System). First, you’ll have to sign up and fill out a form. 

In the UK: Things are a bit more complicated, the ISBN system is run by Nielson Books and you must buy ISBNs in blocks of ten. The price for ten blocks of ISBNs is ₤92. 

I hope I cleared up the confusion about ISBNs, there’s nothing worse than spending money when you don’t have to. Indie authors have enough to worry about and unnecessary expenses shouldn’t be one of them.