Did you ever wonder what that string of numbers is all about on the back of books carried in bookstores, libraries, or online stores such as Amazon? Have you also wondered how to get an ISBN? That 13-digit number is used to identify a book title, in a specific format, from a certain publisher, for the purpose of identification and inventory control.
The acronym ISBN stands for “International Standard Book Number” and, before it was implemented in 1967, the method and system for cataloging, ordering, organizing, and locating a specific book was a chaotic mess.
In the early days of World War 2, when the Japanese military were sending messages back and forth, the allies needed to crack the numbering system to get an edge in the war and turn the tables. How did they crack the complex system? MI6 recruited young mathematician Gordon Foster to work as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park, where he would go through millions of numbers to look for patterns in the code.
Decades later, when the book industry needed a standardized system to track in order to coordinate the increasing number of titles being published each year, Gordon Foster was approached by WH Smith, a British retailer, to write up a report on how a standard numbering system would look for books.
This report led to the 9-digit standard book number which went live in the UK in 1967. Several years later this turned into a 10-digit numbering system when it was decided a system was needed for new editions and variations. Then, in 2007, the ISBN switched to a 13-digit format, and is now the standard for all ISBNs. Later we will look at what these numbers mean.
Reasons Self-Publishers Need an ISBN
The ISBN is a unique numeric identifier that is used globally to identify a specific version of a book title. Without an ISBN it will be almost impossible for your book to be found at the bookstore, local library, or online retailers. Although it is possible for self-publishers to get a free ISBN through Createspace, there are definite benefits to buying your own.
What Is an ISBN Used For?
The ISBN is a critical part of any book because it:
- Identifies the specific title
- Identifies the author
- Identifies the type of book they are buying
- Identifies the physical properties of that particular book
- Identifies the geographical location of the publisher
Do I need an ISBN for my book?
This is a common question writers ask before they publish their book. You need an ISBN for your book if you are planning to have your title available in bookstores, available with online retailers such as Amazon or Lightning Source, and in libraries. Note that an ISBN is, as of now, not necessary for publishing an eBook.
But if you plan to publish multiple books and you want your publishing business to gain greater access to the global community, buying a block of ISBNs through Bowker is definitely the way to go.
How do I get an ISBN?
If you live in the USA, you have to get an ISBN through myidentifiers.com, run by Bowker, the only company that is authorized to administer the ISBN program in the United States. You can purchase ISBNs as a single unit or in bulk of 10, 100 or 1000.
If you are planning to publish more books, it would make sense to buy the bulk of 10 or 100 ISBNs. A single number will cost you $125.00 but in bulk of 10, only $295.00. For larger publishers, the 100 pack is purchased at $595.00. You can purchase 1000 ISBNs for $1500.
Authors and Publishers Living Outside the USA:
You can check out the ISBN Agency in your local area. ISBNs are assigned locally but are used internationally. Once you buy your ISBN and your book is published, be sure to register your title with Bowkerlink.
The bottom line is, having your own ISBN gives you greater control over your book as well as maximizing your global reach.
Free ISBNs vs. paid: Createspace or Bowker?
Self-published authors have the option of being assigned a free ISBN through Createspace, the On-Demand Publishing company that is part of the Amazon group of companies. While this is totally fine to do, in large part because ISBNs will add an extra expense to your book publishing costs, if publishing is a long term plan for you, consider buying your own ISBNs.
The main difference between an ISBN that is assigned for free and one you pay for is, in the case when a self publishing house issues the ISBN it is identified as the publisher. When you buy your own, the author [for self publishers] or the publisher is listed as the publisher. This publisher is always identified within the 13-digit ISBN.
If you print a paperback or hardcover book through Lightning Source [Ingramspark] you will have to purchase ISBNs to publish because they are not provided.
10 Common Questions About ISBNs: How Much Do You Know?
- How many ISBNs do I need? What if I intend to publish multiple books and multiple editions?
In this case, you would want to buy a block of ISBNs in bulk. With every format of the book and all future new versions, an ISBN needs to be assigned. If your book is just getting a few typos fixed up, it isn’t necessary to assign a new ISBN but only if the product changes format. If you plan to write and publish a series of books, each book in the series will need its own individual ISBN.
- Do I need an ISBN to sell in each individual country?
No, ISBNs are international. They are just assigned locally. If you live in the US, you can purchase your ISBN through Bowker. If you live in Australia, you would go to the Australian ISBN Agency to get your ISBN. In Japan, you would go here. For a list of the international agencies, you can visit the International ISBN Agency.
- If I create a series of books, can I use the same ISBN for all the books?
Many authors, both in fiction and nonfiction, have an ISSN number assigned to their book series. ISSN stands for International Standard Series Number. But, each book in the series will also be assigned its own ISBN. The ISSN can be purchased from the Library of Congress. The ISBN can be bought through Bowker, or your local ISBN agency.
- When do you need an ISBN?
If you are selling your book in bookstores, online distributors, wholesalers, or carrying in libraries you will need an ISBN. Self-published authors have the option of being assigned a free ISBN through Createspace, the On-Demand Publishing company that is part of the Amazon group of companies.
- When you copyright your book, isn’t the ISBN included automatically?
- Is a barcode the same as an ISBN?
The ISBN and barcode are different, and they are sold as different products but both can be purchased through Bowker. The barcode is used to scan the book and includes information about that book such as the price [fixed] or the currency that it is being sold in. You need a barcode to sell your book online or in bookstores. You also need an ISBN number first in order to buy a barcode.
- Can your eBook be published without an ISBN?
Yes, it can be. However, you can assign an ISBN to your eBook, but as of now, it is not necessary to publish on Amazon. Your book will be assigned an ASIN number that identifies your book as a product being sold through Amazon.
- What is the difference between ASIN and ISBN?
ASIN numbers are used by Amazon to manage and identify the products they are selling on their site. An ASIN, Amazon Standard Identification Number] is the number that identifies the exact product that you are selling. It’s a 10-character alphanumeric unique identifier that’s assigned by Amazon.com and its partners. You can find this on your book page. In your browser, the Amazon ASIN will be after the product’s name and “dp”. The next place to find this is in your book details [or product details] area of your book page.
- How many times can I use the same ISBN?
The ISBN number is a unique number for that particular book that can only be assigned once and, once it is assigned, will never be used again with any other book in the future, including second versions of the same book.
- Do I need an ISBN if I am not selling in bookstores, say, selling on my own at speaking events? NO. An ISBN is not needed.
How To Read an ISBN: What do the Numbers Stand For?
As of 2007, the ISBN number is made up of a 13-digit number. This came about in large part because of the large volume of eBooks now being published every year. Have you ever wondered what all those digits mean? If you are like most people, probably not. But to a book publisher, knowing how to break down these digits is definitely something you want to pay attention to. You can tell a lot about a book [and its author] by reading the ISBN number.
Let’s break it down and look at what all these numbers mean.
Here is the ISBN for a particular book:
You’ll notice this sequence is divided into 5 number combinations. But the first three digits “978” indicates that this string of numbers is for an ISBN. if we remove these digits we have:
First is the initial digit, in this case: 1
The 1 is the language group identifier which here indicates English. Either 0 or 1 is used for English speaking countries. These numbers for language identification generally range from 1-5.
Here is a list of the most common Group identifiers:
0 or 1 for English
2 for French
3 for German
4 for Japan
5 for Russian
7 for Peoples Republic of China
It’s worth mentioning that the rarer the language, the longer the number identifier will be. For example, Indonesia is 602 whereas Turkey is 9944. You can reference the complete list at the International ISBN Agency.
Next is the six digit series: “545070” — This is the “publisher code,” and it identifies the publisher on any book that has this number series. This number can be as long as 9 digits.
“17” — This number represents the title of the book. The publisher assigns this to a specific book or edition of the book, such as a hardcover version or paperback. This could be a single digit or stretch to multiple digits.
“8” is the last digit and is known as the #check digit”. This number is mathematically calculated as a fixed digit. This is always 1-digit only. This number indicates that the rest of the ISBN numbers have been scanned and, is calculated based on the other digits in the code.
How to Register Your Book and ISBN
As soon as you purchase your ISBN through Bowker [or the International equivalent in your local area] and you publish your book, you should register here at Bowkerlink. This is an automated tool that will add your book to Bowker’s Books In Print and Global Books In Print. I recommend you download the free PDF “ISBN Guides: Title Set Up & Registration” with step-by-step instructions on setting up your title.
The ISBN and Barcode
You’ll notice on the back of the book that the ISBN and the barcode appear together.The barcode is a graphic made up of vertical lines that encodes numerical information about the book. The barcode is not an ISBN. To buy a barcode, you have to purchase the ISBN first. The barcode is a necessary element for most retailers and distributors as it provides a scannable version of the ISBN. The standard barcode is known as the EAN [European Article Number] barcode. If you sell your book in bookstores, you must have the standard EAN barcode.
Reading a barcode: If you look at the picture of a standard barcode, you’ll notice two barcodes side by side. The barcode that appears on the left is the EAN generated from the ISBN number. The other number appearing on the right is a 5-digit add-on, called an EAN-5, that contains the price of the book. The first digit is a 5, and is a must for scanners to read. The 4-digits after the five indicates the price of the book.
For example, if the number reads 51495, this means the price of the book is set at $14.95. If the price of the book changes, a new barcode must be used, but the ISBN doesn’t change. This would only be replaced by a new ISBN if the book is published as a new edition or new version.
You can buy your barcodes at Bowker and they even offer a barcode-ISBN combo:
- 1 barcode + 1 ISBN is $150.
- 1 barcode + 10 ISBNs is $320.
Wrapping It Up
Now that you have a very good idea how to buy and use ISBNs for your own books, all the best on setting this up. If you want to be recognized as a publisher and have your books available to a larger global audience by registering through Bowker, consider investing in your own ISBNs. Think of it as buying a piece of property: You own it and it is registered in your name.
I will leave you with a simple actionable checklist for ISBNs.
If you want to buy an ISBN for your next book, here is what you can do:
- Go to the website https://www.myidentifiers.com
- Under the ISBN drop down tab, click on ISBNs—Buy Here. You can select 1, 10 or 100. For a bulk purchase, go to “Buying ISBNs in Bulk” and you can contact Bowker directly to discuss your options.
- Once you have your ISBN assigned, you can then use it everywhere that requires your ISBN number.
- At Createspace, under the “Setup” channel, you can choose to have Createspace assign you an ISBN. When you buy your own ISBN at Bowker, just put in the 13-digit number and Createspace will use this in your paperback.
- If you publish your paperback through KDP [Kindle Direct Publishing], you can fill in your number in the “Paperback Content” section of your book when you log into your bookshelf. If you choose to have Createspace assign you an ISBN, KDP will ask for your 13-digit number if you are transferring your physical version over to KDP.
- Register your ISBN here at Bowker as soon as your book is ready for sale. Download the free ISBN Guides: Title Set Up & Registration step-by-step guide.
Helpful Links & Resources
These links appeared throughout the post but here they are for easy access.
International ISBN Agency
ISBN.org by Bowker
Bowkerlink Publisher Access System
Bowker Identifier Services
U.S. Copyright Office