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Publishing: Everything The Indie Author Needs To Know About ISBNs For Self-published Books

Publishing: Everything the Indie Author Needs to Know about ISBNs for Self-published Books

Headshot of Jim with a pet dog

The Watchdog and his dog

A terrific and comprehensive post on the topic of ISBNs, the unique international identifier given to every book, from ALLi Watchdog Giacomo Giammatteo. His advice will equip you to make the right decisions for your own self-published books.

Everything You Need To Know About ISBNs

Be warned—this is a long post, but it covers a lot of ground, so bear with me. The first section deals with everything you need to know about ISBNs, or close to it. And the second section is devoted to a question I get asked all the time: Do you need an ISBN for eBooks?

To begin, we’re going to dig a little deeper into the details of those crazy numbers.

Do You Need an ISBN?

#Let’s Take a Closer Look at ISBNs

It seems as if a lot of confusion is tangled up in a string of numbers. And they’re not just numbers—they’re identifiers and they’re damn expensive.

In many countries ISBNs are free, provided by the government through the library system or another administrative branch. In the US and the UK, ISBNs are controlled by Bowker and Nielsen. I’m going to refer to Bowker most of the time since I’m more familiar with them, being based in the US. With the exception of pricing, the rest of the information should be similar.

First let’s take a look at exactly what an ISBN is and what it does.

From Bowker’s Website

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. The purpose of an ISBN is to give your book a universal ID, which makes it easy for bookstores, libraries, readers, publishers, or anybody to find or refer to your book.

Every ISBN consists of thirteen digits (since 2007) and whenever it is printed it is preceded by the letters ISBN. The thirteen-digit number is divided into parts of variable length, each part separated by a hyphen.

The five parts of an ISBN (13) are as follows:

  • The current ISBN–13 is prefixed by “978” or “979”.
  • Group or country identifier which identifies a national or geographic grouping of publishers.
  • Publisher identifier which identifies a particular publisher within a group.
  • Title identifier which identifies a particular title or edition of a title.
  • Check digit is the single digit at the end of the ISBN which validates the ISBN.

That all sounds confusing, I’m sure. Let’s see if we can clarify some of this with an image.

Photo of an ISBN with named parts

The Parts of An ISBN

ISBN for Murder Takes Patience[1]

  • Look at the top. The first three digits 978 identify that the numbers that follow constitute an ISBN for a book.
  • The next single digit –1- indicates the book is part of the English language group of territories: US, UK, CA, AU, NZ. Those countries might also be represented by a 0.
  • The third group of numerals –940313- is the publisher identifier. In this case, it is my company, Inferno Publishing Company. This group also indicates how many ISBNs were purchased. Anyone who knows how to read an ISBN will realize this was bought as a part of a block of 100 ISBNs. If it had been seven digits instead of six, it would have told us the publisher purchased a block of 10, while five digits would indicate a block of 1,000.
  • The next two numerals –09- specify the title, edition, and format as designated by the publisher upon registration.
  • The final digit –2- is the check digit. It is determined by a mathematical formula and I have no damn idea how they arrive at it.

What this means is that any bookstore, agent, publisher, library—anyone who is familiar with how ISBNs work—can readily identify your publisher number and determine how many ISBNs were purchased in that block. If you purchased one or even ten, they know you’re likely a self-published author. If you purchased 100, there is a good chance you’re a small publisher, and if you opted for 1,000 or more, it seems pretty obvious you’re a larger publisher, or a distributor, or someone who deals heavily in ISBNs. If you purchase only one ISBN the numerals following the country code are always “692” which identifies that ISBN as a single purchase. This applies even if you purchased it from CS using their $99 option.

But I’ve Seen ISBNs That Don’t Look Like That

I know what you mean. If you go to Amazon or almost anywhere, you might see an ISBN that looks like this: 9781940313061, with no hyphens. How do you decipher it then?

It’s easy.

Example One:

If I go to Bowker’s ISBN converter, I can convert my 13-digit ISBN ( 9781940313061) for A Bullet From Dominic, to a readable 10-digit one, like this: 1–940313–06–6.

What does that tell them?

As discussed earlier, the first digit tells them the book is in English. The next group of six numerals identifies “Inferno Publishing Company” as the publisher. And the two numerals following that, “06” indicate that this is from a block of 100 ISNBs. (If it had been from a block of ten, it would have been a single digit.)

On the other hand, if you were to use CreateSpace to purchase your ISBN, this is what the numbers would look like: 978–1–4839–4649–5. Notice that the publisher grouping is only four numbers, which tells us it was purchased as a block of 10,000.

Joanna Penn was kind enough to let me use her great book, Crypt of Bone from the Arkane series, as an example.

Cover of Crypt of Bone by J F Penn

After converting the number using Bowker’s tool, I get this: 1–4839–4649–5, and if we plugged her old information into a Google™ search, this is what we saw.

Google search results listing details of Joanna Penn's book

As you can see from the snippet included with the Google search results, it identified CreateSpace as the publisher of the book.

So what? See below for comparison.

Example Two

If anyone wants to know more about who published this book, all they have to do is analyze the number and/or do an Internet search. Let’s plug this number (978–1–940313–09–2) into Google and see what happens.

Notice that two of the search results show Inferno Publishing Company as the publisher.


In order to do a proper comparison, I felt it necessary to go into a little detail on the various options CS offers for ISBNs. I took this from CreateSpace’s website.

What Are My ISBN Options?

You have four ISBN options:

  • A CreateSpace-Assigned ISBN.
  • A Custom ISBN.
  • A Custom Universal ISBN.
  • Your own ISBN.[2]
CreateSpace-Assigned ISBNFreeCS Publishing PlatformCreateSpace
Custom Universal ISBN$99You chooseYou choose
Provide Your Own ISBNExisting ISBN RequiredYou chooseYou choose

Details Of Each Option

Free CreateSpace-Assigned ISBN

  • CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform is your book’s imprint of record. If you select Amazon.com or Amazon’s European websites as distribution channels, this imprint will be reflected on your book’s detail page.
  • You can sell your book through Amazon.com, Amazon’s European websites, a CreateSpace eStore, and all Expanded Distribution channels.
  • This ISBN can only be used with the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
  • Your book’s ISBN information will be registered with BooksInPrint.com®
CreateSpace used to offer a custom $10 ISBN. They no longer do.

Custom Universal ISBN ($99)

  • You can use this ISBN with any publisher.
  • You choose your book’s imprint of record. If you select Amazon.com or Amazon’s European websites as distribution channels, this imprint will be reflected on your book’s detail page.
  • You can sell your book through Amazon.com, Amazon’s European websites, a CreateSpace eStore, and some† Expanded Distribution channels.
  • Your book’s ISBN information will be registered with BooksInPrint.com®

Provide Your Own ISBN

  • You can purchase your own ISBN from Bowker or through your local ISBN agency.
  • If you are reprinting your book, the title, author name, and binding type must remain the same. A new edition requires a new ISBN.
  • Your book’s imprint must match what’s on file with your ISBN.
  • You can sell your book through Amazon.com, Amazon’s European websites, an eStore, and some Expanded Distribution channels.

Quick Analysis

With option one and two, you can only use the ISBN with CreateSpace. That means if you want to use Ingram also, you’re out of luck unless you purchase a new ISBN. And if you have to purchase an ISBN anyway, why not do it to begin with.

With the Custom Universal option ($99), you can also use Ingram but only if you do not opt into CreateSpace’s expanded distribution.

If you’re thinking—I don’t want to use Ingram—you might check the post I did on that. If you sell many print books at all, you’ll make more money using both CreateSpace and Ingram.

What About CreateSpace Being Listed As Publisher?

The question is—does it matter who shows up as the publisher? Readers won’t care, but some bookstores might.

It has long been rumored that independent stores don’t like to carry books published by CreateSpace. I wondered how much of that was true so I got on the phone and called some. This was by no means a scientific study; I simply spoke to about a dozen stores and asked them if it mattered. I expected them to say no, it didn’t matter. But to several stores it did.

Out of 13 stores that I asked, 7 of them said they would not carry a book by CreateSpace as the publisher.[3]

If your strategy depends on selling through brick-and-mortar stores, you might consider buying your ISBN through Bowker or Nielsen.

Now to answer some other questions.

Where Does The ISBN Go On A Book Cover?

Here are the front and back covers of my book, Murder Takes Patience. Note the ISBN and barcode on the back. (And yes, that was a shameless plug for my book.)

Covers of book

isbn 3

Where To Buy ISBNs

As stated before, if you’re in the US, there is only one place to purchase an ISBN in your name, as a publisher—Bowker. Here is the link to My Identifiers. Even if you buy the ISBN from Ingram or CreateSpace you have to agree to Bowker’s terms, as the other companies are simply acting as agents for Bowker.

If you are in the UK, you buy them from Nielsen. To look up the agency for where you live, go to this site and use their search tool.

How Many ISBNs Should I Buy & What Do They Cost?

As to how many should you buy…that is a question only you can answer. It depends on how many works you intend to produce, what your philosophy is about using ISBNs, and what your cash flow is. Here are a few facts to help with the decision. Remember, this is for dealing with books only, not music or any other product.

ProductISBN requiredISBN recommended
ePub digital bookX
Kindle digital book (mobi)X?[4]
Audio bookN/A
Hardcover bookN/A

In addition to the products listed above, you will also need ISBNs for the following:

Situations Where You Need A New ISBN

  • Any variation of the print books, for example, if you choose a 5 x 8, and a 6 x 9, you’ll need separate ISBNs.
  • If you decide to produce a book with large print you’ll need a separate ISBN.
  • Foreign languages need separate ISBNs.
  • Any significant changes to text/content needs a new ISBN.
  • Change in title needs a new ISBN.
  • Changing the binding requires a new ISBN.

When You Don’t Need A New ISBN

  • Change of price.
  • Minor corrections to text.
  • New cover.[5]
  • Changing vendor who prints books.

So, To Answer The Question—Do You Need An ISBN For eBooks

The decision to use your own ISBN or even whether to use one at all for digital books, is a decision you’ll have to make. Below are a few suggestions that you might consider.

  • If you plan on only producing one book and budgeting is a consideration, you might consider an ISBN from a supplier like CreateSpace or IngramSpark.
  • If you just want to print a book and don’t intend to sell it online or through stores, then you don’t need an ISBN.[6]
  • If you plan on a long-term strategy of branding your publishing company, you probably want to purchase your own ISBNs.
  • If you are concerned with long-term visibility and discoverability through SEO as well as customer, bookstore, and library searches— you should buy your own ISBNs.
  • If your strategy includes aggressive penetration into the brick-and-mortar stores and/or libraries, you definitely should have your own block of ISBNs.

Remember, once an ISBN has been issued it can’t be resold, re-assigned, or transferred. An imprint can be assigned, but the original purchaser will be listed as the publisher of record.


  • Just because you have an ISBN number doesn’t mean it is listed in the Books in Print database. If you want to ensure your books are listed, you need to submit your title information with Books in Print. (US site.)

Back To The Original Question—How Many ISBNs Should I Buy?

This all depends on your cash flow and long-term strategy. I’ll give you an example from my experience.

A few years ago, I bought 10, thinking that would be good for a long while. But now I have 10 books out in both digital and print. That has taken up 20 ISBNs. I plan on doing audio books, which will take 10 more. I am working on getting them translated into at least two languages. If successful that will require 20 more. That brings me up to 50. And I plan on launching 5 books next year. If they all follow the same path, it will add 25 more ISBNs, bringing the total to 75 ISBNs.

When I started I hadn’t thought of all this. If I had I would have purchased 100 to begin with instead of 10, and then 100. It would have saved me about $200.

Cost of ISBNs

In the chart below, I’ve listed the standard sources—Bowker and Nielsen—but also listed CreateSpace and IngramSpark for those who aren’t concerned with being the publisher of record.

Please note, there are no discounts for quantity with CreateSpace or IngramSpark.

Quantity ISBNsCreateSpaceIngramSparkBowkerNielsen
1Free/9985125112 [7]
10Free/990850275225 [8]


If you have really big plans—like building your own publishing company—you can purchase 1,000 from Bowker for $1,500, bringing the price down to $1.50 each. (Gives you an idea of how much CreateSpace and IngramSpark make, doesn’t it?)

Speaking of money, it was only about one year ago that Bowker would sell 1,000 ISBNs for $1,000—now it's $1,500—a 50% increase. Not bad.

Let’s Review a Few Facts:

  • An ISBN is required for print books[9]. You don’t have an option.
  • If you use the free one or the $10 one from CS, you cannot use it elsewhere, which means if you decide you want to take advantage of Ingram’s distribution later on you’ll have to buy another one.[10]
  • If you use the $99 ISBN from CS, you can use it elsewhere, but only if you don’t opt for expanded distribution.[11]


I don’t see the benefit of using a CS $99 ISBN, especially when you can buy one from Ingram for $85 or even better, 10 from Bowker for $275.

Now back to what we mentioned at the beginning of this post…

Do You Need an ISBN for eBooks?

Proponents for using ISBNs with eBooks cite a number of reasons:

  • They make you look professional.
  • They make your books easier to find (more discoverable).
  • They get your books into more places.

Opponents of using ISBNs with eBooks cite these reasons:

  • ISBNs cost money.
  • They have not been proven to increase sales.
  • It’s an antiquated practice that isn’t needed for eBooks.

The Truth About eBooks and ISBNs

Let’s analyze the pros and cons.

  • No question that to do ISBNs the right way, they cost money. But it’s not much if you invest in at least 10 at a time.
  • I don’t think there’s any doubt that they make you look professional, but some would question whether that helps sales.
  • I would like to think they make your books easier to find, but that might be a minor point only true for a very small percentage of people.
  • The primary plus for me is that using an ISBN for eBooks will get you into more places, which means potentially more sales. And one of those places are libraries.


Libraries are becoming more of a factor in eBooks, and OverDrive is the biggest supplier to libraries in the world. OverDrive requires an ISBN. If you choose not to have them for your eBooks, you’re cutting out a major distribution channel. OverDrive services more libraries and schools than anyone in the world (more than 30,000), and they also supply books to retailers around the globe, including Books-A-Million, Ciando, etc. Sales in 2013 were more than $100 million. That’s not small change.

And if you need more convincing, take a look at this news from Library Journal in a January, 2015 article.

Public and school libraries that are part of OverDrive’s global network circulated 137 million ebooks, digital audiobooks, and other digital media in 2014—a 33 percent increase compared with 2013, according to statistics released by the company. Ebook circulation rose 32 percent, to 105 million, while digital audiobook circulation grew 38 percent, to 32 million. The OverDrive network also recorded 401 million visits to public library and school library websites powered by OverDrive, a 77 percent increase.

Another thing to note is that OverDrive has an app and a presence on every major mobile device. This is not a stodgy old company living in the past. And, of course, big publishing knows that.

But if you’re an indie without an ISBN assigned to your eBook, the doors to OverDrive distribution and sales will be locked. Indie authors can get into OverDrive through Smashwords, and eBookPartnership, among other distributors.

Other Factors

Besides OverDrive, there are other channels that require ISBNs. Take a look at this from Draft2Digital’s website:

You may choose to disable the free ISBNs, but this will block your book from distribution to some sales channels unless you provide your own ISBNs.

And this is what Smashwords has to say about it:

We require ISBNS for iBooks, OverDrive, Kobo, PageFoundry, and ’txtr.

I know what some of you are thinking…that you can get a free ISBN from Draft2Digital, and that will solve your problem. You’re right. But what happens if you decide you want access to the retail channels Smashwords distributes to that Draft2Digital doesn’t?

No problem, you simply get the free ISBN from Smashwords.

But then you see that Bookbaby has some great channels that neither Draft2Digital or Smashwords distribute to. And then you notice eBookPartnership has even different channels.

And the list goes on and on and on. Pretty soon, you end up with four different ISBNs for the same book, and a few of them you might have had to pay $15 or $19 for.

Now let’s throw another wrench in the mix.

Suppose you sign up for Bookbaby or Draft2Digital and use their ISBNs, and six months later you decide you don’t want to use them to distribute your books anymore; you want to use Smashwords. No problem, right?


Now you’ve got books with Bookbaby-assigned ISBNs or Draft2Digital-assigned ISBNs, and guess what—you can’t use them anywhere else. If multiple vendors supply retailers that require ISBNs, you could end up with a mess on your hands.

Wouldn’t it have made a lot more sense to just buy an ISBN yourself? Not only would you have access to all channels and retailers, but you’d look more professional, too.

Bottom Line

Whether to use ISBNs on ebooks is a personal decision. You have no choice if print books is part of your distribution strategy. Some authors take the least expensive route and, in many cases, it hasn’t affected sales a bit. Other authors buy blocks of ISBNs and adhere to the same practices that traditional publishers have used for years.

I don’t have a lot of personal proof that using ISBNs for ebooks will drive tons of sales, but I have no doubt that it will. The book business is continually changing, and the ways that people read books change with it. Add up the numbers with OverDrive, Scribd, Oyster, and others. A lot of books are being read and bought on these platforms.

The question you have to ask yourself is—Will you be one of them?

As for me, I’m one of those authors who tries to keep everything in sync, so I use ISBNs for all my books—print and ebook and soon to be audio.

Will it help with discoverability?

I don’t know, but I hope so.

One Final Thought

We indies are competing with traditional publishing on all fronts, and that means not just with storytelling, but with editing, book covers, layout, distribution, etc. We have to come across in all ways as professionals. To me, that means having ISBNs on all of my books, with my company listed as the publisher of record—not CreateSpace, or Smashwords, or Bookbaby, or anyone else.

As I said, I don’t know if it will help me sell books, but it definitely can’t hurt. I’m willing to invest that much to find out.

If you enjoyed this post, please share.


  1. The number on the bottom is the 10-digit ISBN and the “51799” tells the price. “5” tells the scanner it is in US currency, and the next 4 numbers tell the price. So this book costs $17.99.
  2. Both custom ISBN options are offered through an agreement with Bowker®.
  3. I have to wonder if part of this was because they presumed that a book by CreateSpace meant “indie author”, and they don’t carry indies. I didn’t have time to dig into this angle further.
  4. Bowker and Nielsen recommend separate numbers for mobi and epub, but not many people do that.
  5. As long as it doesn’t change the complete perception of the book.
  6. Ingram used to require ISBNs for any printing order, now they don’t. They even sell them for universal use.
  7. Includes a one-time set-up fee of $46.
  8. plus VAT
  9. If you plan on selling them online or through brick-and-mortar stores.
  10. This also means you’ll have different versions of your print book showing up.
  11. See this post for details on using a CS ISBN with Ingram.

#Authors - here's everything you need to know about #ISBNs by @murdertakestime Click To Tweet

Author: Giacomo Giammatteo

Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. He also writes non-fiction books including the "No Mistakes" Careers series.
He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.” His website is at www.giacomogiammatteo.com.


This Post Has 127 Comments
  1. Question: I use my own ISBN numbers for paperback editions (Createspace and Clays have somewhat different sizes, and Clays need a phrasing to demonstrate the book was produced by them), but not for e-Books at the moment. I publish through KDP (who only assign an ASIN), D2D (who assign their own ISBN), and Smashwords (who allocate their own ISBN). Can I use the same ISBN for publishing on any of these sites if I elect to utilize my own ISBNs? (Smashwords used to insist on the term Smashwords Edition, but I believe they no longer do.)

  2. I live in India and last year I have published e book and paperback through Amazon.Now I need to buy an ISBN from India for ingramspark so please let me know how I can buy from India.

  3. Um so I am starting to write my very first book and I am doing on my my computer at home how do I get copyrights and all that done for my book to go out and be sold in the world?

  4. I am about to purchase the ISBN numbers but don’t understand if I also need to purchase barcodes. I completely understand the ISBN but do I need to pay $100 more for barcodes? Thank you!

      1. Hi,

        This was not my experience. I recently bought 10 ISBN from Nielsens. They charge an additional £15 for a single bar code. Discounts are available for multiples. My printers, Inky Little Fingers Ltd produce bar codes for £10 each. I believe both to be reputable companies. I am still confused about the hyphens. When I sent my ISBN to my printer he told me the hyphens were, “In the wrong place.” The numbers and grouping are exactly as received from Nielsens. Is the spacing between hyphens and numbers critical?

  5. Hi,
    I had a book self published with an ISBN number. I only had one copy printed and that was basically for my own library – I suppose I got an ISBN number because it came with the package.I now want to get it published with a publisher but publishers aren’t keen on books that have already been “published”. Is there any way I can cancel my ISBN number so that I can start fresh with the book?

  6. I’m a British author, so I get my ISBNs from Nielsen’s, in the UK. During a phone call about something entirely different, I was told by the person dealing with my query that because Bowker and Nielsen’s cover different geographical areas, an ISBN issued by a USA-based company such as Smashwords, or Lulu would be invalid for a UK author. It’s therefore required that UK authors take their own ISBN with them. I hope this is helpful to any other UK authors who come across your post, as it doesn’t appear to be covered in your otherwise helpful article.

  7. Thank you for this article! It explains so much about the differences between CS (KDP), IS, and the others. Very helpful!

  8. Hi – thank you for your informative article. I followed the “My Identifiers” link to Bowker. There it talked about buying 10 ISBNs and getting 2 barcodes, and copyright protection. If the barcodes help stores sell the books easier, why wouldn’t the plan offer 10 bar codes with 10 ISBNs, if you need an ISBN for every book format other than ebooks? Appreciate your thoughts.

  9. Hi, My Mom and me have created a children’s picture book series to teach kids about animal welfare. We are not sure about how we will print the books. We will prob. offer it as an ebook from various places. I was going to buy 10 isbns. Should we also buy the barcodes at the same time. Then after we make the purchase what is the nest step. Thank you and be well!

  10. Wonderful article, thank you, but it may need an update. Because I think the copyright office now requires all books to have an ISBN as part of the copyright process.

      1. Hi ALLI,

        Hi Giacomo,

        I just read your article on ISBN’s and I must say it has been tremendously helpful! I am taking my first stab at a book and self-publishing, so this is all new to me. The question I have is that I just purchased an ISBN from Bowker a few minutes ago, but it does not exactly much the format your article illustrates and I am note sure why, so I am hoping you can explain it to me. My ISBN number looks like this 978-0-###-#####-9 (not 2). Why is mine different from what you showed in the article? Thanks in advance for you time and help 🙂

        Kind Regards,

  11. […] You will need your own ISBNs to publish through IngramSpark, so purchase those first. You may decide to use an imprint name as I do with Curl Up Press. This doesn’t have to be a legal company, it can just be a name you want to use, just make sure no one else is using it. ISBNs are free in some countries, like Canada, but you have to purchase them in other countries like US or UK. [More detail on ISBNs here.] […]

  12. I am about 90% done with my first book. I am a US citizen and live in the USA. I have selected publishers in India with good graphics illustration expertise to publish in India but distribute the book in the USA, Europe and Africa.
    Should I buy ISBN and register the title before a publisher is finalized. I would publish an e-book through Google and Amazon.
    Getting ISBN registration would lock the title of the book and provide copyrights protection.

  13. Very comprehensive. I’m just a little foggy on some terminology. I’ve been living away from my native country for a long time.

    1. an imprint, as in “your book’s imprint of record”

    2. a binding type

    in a publishing context, I suspect these things have a special meaning. Can you be specific about these things?

    Thank you

    1. The “imprint” of record is simply the name you publish under. For example, a publisher may buy 1,000 ISBNs, but it may publish books under different “imprints,” in other words, mysteries under one name and romance titles using another.

      The “binding type” refers to the choices you’ll have to make regarding that: perfect bound, spiral bound, hardback, etc.

  14. I bought ISBN for $20 from ISBN company, but have not completed the form to register it for my book. The book is ready (printed edition), and I would like to put it in a specific on-line self-publishing bookstore with this number, simply to look professional, and later, maybe provide the book info for this ISBN, or get my own ISBN. Eventually, I am planning to distribute the book through Ingram, but at this point, use the above-mentioned on-line store for experiments. Are there any drawback to such an approach?

  15. I wish I could figure out from Bowker what my entry will look like to bookstores, libraries et al.
    I seem to recall coming across an article discussing the fact that the “Main Description” entry can be formatted so that it will look more interesting to these readers (bold, headlines, bullets, etc. Of course, Bowker tells you nothing about how to do that. Is there a resource that is useful for this? Thanks.

  16. Bowker was a terrible place to get an ISBN number. Their website was confusing, misleading and evidently was hacked so that membership information was lost. At best they are amateurs with a website. Surely, there is a more professional place to get an ISBN number

    1. I had the same reaction. I had to fax them payment information and their website said they would email me with my ISBN numbers. They didn’t; after puzzling for quite a bit, I did figure out how to get back to the registration/sign in page (no link to it from the main Bowker page), where I found out they were available. I guess when you have a monopoly you don’t have to worry about doing anything right.

  17. Great info! Another newbie question… if I buy a block of ten ISBNs (which includes your publisher ID number and I use them all and want to get another block of ten will they use the same publisher ID number on the next block of ten or will I end up with another publisher ID number??? (and does that even matter?!?!) thanks! Marc

  18. I wish to buy my own ISBN’s for print & ebook but am confused how to list myself as the publisher… I do not have a publishing company. Do I just use my name, or is it better to use my dba company name that is an LLC that also includes classes I teach?

    1. Where are the answers to all of these comments and questions?
      Could you please help me understand. If I submit my DBA as the publisher, do I need to provide my address and phone number for the DBA Publisher’s name? Please tell me who receives andhandles inquiries and orders for my books?Do I receive the orders and then place the order with the printer Or, does a bookstore contact the distributor, printer and place the order?
      Thank you for your help.

  19. Can anyone help?
    I am trying to self-publish my first book as an ebook. I live in Indonesia (foreign worker), but my book is in English, and I expect most sales will be in America and Europe.
    To buy 10 ISBNs on the Bowker website, I have to give an address and state in the USA, which I don’t have.
    The ISBN agency in Indonesia does not recognize self-publishing. So to get an ISBN here, I must have a registered publishing company, that has dozens of legal documents
    Any suggestions about how I can get my own ISBN?

  20. Awesome article. I have a random question as I am about to self publish my first book. If I buy an isbn and barcode from bowler, do I then have to get my graphic designer to put on back cover or do you upload it to Igrimspark and they do it for you? Anyone with experience with this place answer if you can as I can find no answers for this anywhere.

  21. As I understand, ISBN is to digitally monitor or track the product, which is the book. Does it help in copyright issues? For example, I have a registered copyright with my book and title in my name. I have not decided on the book design as yet (5×8 or 6×9, cover type etc.). Ideally I would like to secure all my ISBN for my book title, and I would need say a block of 10 ISBN ( since the book design is uncertain as of now). It is worth the trouble only if it helps me secure my copyright aspect as watertight. The insecure, indie author in me feels that if I have blocked a set of ISBN for my title, for 4possible formats, 2 variants, then I have secured my property ( book content and title) and I can freely discuss my book without the fear of any loss or misuse of my content, during or even after the production. Thank you for any help on this.

  22. Great post, thank you!
    I started publishing my books when I lived in Finland. The National Library service there handles ISBNs, and they are completely free. The only obligation is that you must submit six copies in every format (ie for each ISBN you use), plus each digital format, to their copyright library system.
    This is why I still publish my books through my Finnish-registered company, despite having moved to the UK.

  23. I uploaded my own ISBN when I uploaded my book to CreateSpace, but they put their ISBNs on the book. Whaa? I am about to upload the third in the series, and I will again put on my own (purchased) ISBN number–but how can I prevent CreateSpace from changing it again??

  24. Thank you for this extensive guide to ISBN’s. I now feel much more educated on ISBN’s, but with more knowledge comes more questions, right? Haha!

    Previously (for my first three novels), I have purchased the Custom Universal ISBN through CreateSpace (CS). Moving forward, I am considering purchasing my own bulk package of ISBN’s through Bowker. My first question is: If I purchase my own ISBN’s, should I update the ISBN’s from my previously published books with my own ISBN’s? If yes, what are the pros and cons (for example, how does this change affect each novel’s listing on Amazon–will the reviews carry over to the new ISBN or will it become a completely new product? How does this affect algorithms?)?

    As an owner of my own ISBN’s (whether I use CS, Ingram Spark, Lightning Source, etc.) will I be responsible for my own barcodes or will each publisher continue to offer that feature using my ISBN?

    I have learned first-hand that many book retailers (small, medium, and large) do not care to do business with CS (as you’ve mentioned). If I own my own ISBN and am listed as the publisher, do the book retailers also look down on me because I am a small self-publisher? Secondly, if I am listed as the publisher but CS still prints the book, is the book retailer unable to know that CS is the printer–if they do know, I would assume they would still not wish to order my books, right?

    Thank you in advance for your guidance!

  25. Thank you for this great info! I’ve been so overwhelmed…and my book is almost ready to print. You made a crazy subject actually seem more understandable…thank you!

  26. I always enjoy the information shared on this website. It is straightforward, thorough, unbiased, and reliable. Having read many other perspectives and reports regarding ISBNs, your information made my decision a clear choice and I will ultimately purchase my own. As a forward thinker, your detail regarding use of ISBNs put things into a palpable context. Thank you.

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  28. Am I too late to ask another question? I just finished producing my first audiobook through ACX. I chose the non-exclusive distribution path, because this series is wide in both ebook and print, so I want the audio to be available everywhere as well. I have an ISBN for it, since I bought 100 after realizing how quickly I use them up. But ACX doesn’t seem to provide a place for it. I wrote to the Help desk and they said they would provide an ASIN and not to worry my little self about it. (Grrr.)

    So do I just go ahead and register the new format at Bowker, the way I did ebook & print, and then use the ISBN everywhere else, presumably? I’m especially keen to get this one into Smashwords, through which I can reach Overdrive. I’m a great consumer of audiobooks from Overdrive through my library, so I want my books to be there too.

    1. Sorry for being so late to reply. If you haven’t already acted, yes, what you propose should do the trick. Every version of book: audio, print, ebook, large print, etc. needs a different ISBN.

  29. Hi
    We are just about to publish our first book through Ingramspark. We have purchased our ISBNs for hardcopy and ebook. Our book designer has now asked if we want to include the ebook ISBN on the copyright page (clearly marked as such) as well as the paperback ISBN. She said she has seen it included sometimes and sometimes not. I am wondering which is more conventional at traditional publishing houses, i.e. what is the norm. We are wanting our books to look as professional as possible.
    Thank you

  30. I loved the point about ISBNs for eBooks making them more discoverable even if only by a small percentage of people, because I am part of that percentage. I actually have used ISBNs to locate other books published by the same publisher. I learned how to figure out what the next check is so that I can just put the ISBN in and find the next book.

  31. Thank you for this useful post. I started out with self publishing without knowing too much and took the free createspace ISBN. Now that I am more familiar with the process and understand the importance of an ISBN, I now have a problem with what to do with the previous books and ebooks that sell on Amazon, print books all caring createspace ISBNs and ebooks were given some version of Amazon’s ISBNs. What a headache. I have decided to buy a block of ISBNs but I am confused in what to do with the previous books and how to go about converting them if that is even possible. I currently have 5 books along with 5 ebooks. Please advise.

  32. When referencing the ISBN number in the front matter, using createspace (and we purchased the $99 ISBN), can I use the 978- European number, or do I print the 10-digit US number. I didn’t think it mattered but wanted to doublecheck. Thanks for all this info. Very helpful.

  33. Is there any problem selling a book in the US (via Amazon etc) if the ISBN is from a foreign country? thanks

  34. Many thanks for this informative and comprehensive article. It cleared up a lot of questions for me.

      1. I have a question…
        Why the push to get into libraries? Aren’t people reading your book for free? So what is the value in that profit wise?


        1. Here are four reasons that I can think of, Colleen:

          1) most countries have a scheme that pays a small fee to authors every time one of their books is borrowed
          2) it will raise awareness of your books before potential readers at no cost to you
          3) it will give you a good feeling to know that people who may not be able to afford to buy books can still read yours
          4) most library users are also book buyers, and many go on to buy books they have read in libraries or other books by the authors whose library books they have enjoyed

      2. Giacomo Giammatteo,

        Thank you for this informative and easy to understand post. When purchasing ISBNs myself do I have to have a “real” company. As in, a company that is registered, licensed, or what have you or do I just make up a name and that’s it? How does paying taxes work if I make up a company to purchase ISBNs and then earn money off my book sales?


  35. Hi,
    I am self publishing my book. My printer is in India. Do I require ISBN from an Indian agency? Or can I apply ISBN from a US agency and mention it on the Copyright page?

    1. I just learned today that as a self-publisher, writing in English, ISBNs must be registered with the ISBN agency in the country where you are officially resident. For me, who is resident in Switzerland, it means that the registration process has to be all in French, in which I am far from fluent, especially when writing in it. AND all the information and rules concerning ISBNs were also in French.
      This is doubly strange as the 2 previous editions of my book were published by a specialist
      publisher in the USA.

  36. Thanks. Very informative. I appreciated the comments following as well, for they helped clear up a couple of questions generated by the blog post.

    I have already purchased a block of numbers, but was questioning the need for seperate numbers for Smashwords and Kindle. Seperate numbers it is for me. Necessary? Probably not, but I need every possible advantage, and for the price difference of adding one different number, I don’t see the advantage of pinching that particular penny.

  37. Do I have to register my “publishing company”? (The name I choose to use with my ISBN rather than CreateSpace)

  38. WARNING BEWARE OF GETTING THE “MOST POPULAR INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS PACKAGE” $55 FROM PUBLISHERS SERVICES. http://www.isbn-us.com On that website page they do state that ““Independent Publisher” is referenced publisher- Ideal for direct to consumer sales” What they do not state is that this ISBN number is useless for Create Space. If you get your own ISBN number, you must state that you are the publisher, which is not allowed on this very deceptive package. You must go to the $125 Publishers Package which has listed down at the very bottom of the list of benefits, “Create Space”.

    After three phone calls to David, very charming man at Publishers Services, in which i was trying to figure out what the problem was…why Create Space would not accept my ISBN number…and 3 phone calls to Create Space, I finally found someone at CS who directed me to Bowker, the actual publisher of Books In Print. They told me I had purchased the wrong type of ISBN…all it could list was Independent Publisher.

    I went back to Publishers Service and the still charming young man and asked if I could upgrade my number, no. Could I get a refund, no. Once again he tried to convince me that I should just take the freebie offered by CreateSpace and go away. I asked to speak to a supervisor and was put on hold. I am positive that the time was used to explain my complaint, because when I spoke to impatient, curt Patti she had loaded the page on the $55 package and essentially implied that I hadn’t paid attention to the warnings that the ‘Most Popular Package’ could not be used for Create Space and that somewhere elusive there was a notice of the purchase being nonrefundable.(The only notice I could find was the absence of ‘Create Space’ o the list of benefits.

    I am certain that the charming David knew on the first phone call what the problem was and tried to divert me into taking the CS offer, rather than just admitting that their presentation had been deceitful.

    I went to Bowker at https://www.myidentifiers.com and purchased the $125 package. We’ll see if that one works.

  39. Giacomo, you wrote a fantastic article, very detailed. I have a question. A year ago I read a few articles that mentioned writers clubs buying a block of ISBN’s to sell to their members at steep discounts. I cannot find that info at present. Have you run across that? I would like to share that info with a few hundred writers to save them some money. Thanks for your input.

  40. Thanks for the great information on ISBNs for self-publishers.

    CANADIAN ISBNs are free (like healthcare ;).

    “To obtain one, you must be a Canadian publisher or self-publisher physically and permanently located in Canada.”

    More information can be found at Library and Archives Canada http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/services/isbn-canada/pages/isbn-canada.aspx#d1

    Some points to be aware of if you are a Canadian self-publisher:

    -An ISBN is required for the sale and distribution of a publication.
    -Each different format of an electronic publication (e.g., Kindle, Kobo, EPUB, MOBI, PDF) that is published and made separately available shall be given a separate ISBN.
    -are issued within 10 business days.
    -Since 2007, ISBNs have changed from 10 digits to 13 digits. ISBN-13 is now the exclusive ISBN to be used on books and book-related products.
    -To obtain a full 13-digit ISBN, you must first apply for an ISBN Canada online system account. (for self-publishers, this can just be your name and home address)
    -The Canadian ISBN Agency does not provide barcodes; they are issued by private companies.

    Note that lag time of 10 days. Get your ISBN in time to meet your launch deadline.

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  43. […] I participated on Sunday in a panel on publishing—traditional and self, pros and cons and how to’s. One of the issues that came up a couple times, mostly for those working the self-publishing side of things, but interesting for any author, had to do with ISBN numbers. There’s more to these essential identifiers than you’d think. So, since the resourceful Anna Castle shared this article that tells all on the subject and from a reliable source, I’ll share it with you. One of those posts that a writer might want to stow for future reference unless you’re already a pro at the self-publishing thing. And if, as a reader, you wondered what the different parts mean, here’s the answer, among many others. Click here for “ISBN’s for Self-Published Books”  […]

  44. Thank you for an excellent and information article.

    Two questions

    Might I resell ISBNs I buy?

    I am in the UK, might I use a free ISBN from another country?

      1. Giacomo — I hope you’re doing well… when you said that ‘you cannot resell ISBN’s’, were you referring to the one individual who asked the question, as being a member of a class of ‘individuals’ with no business standing, or were you saying that in general, ISBN’s cannot be resold? I’m wondering about the reseller companies like ISBN Agency, which buys in bulk from Bowker & then resells those numbers to individuals at a big discount over what you might have to pay to buy one direct from Bowker. This topic of resold ISBN’s that supposedly Amazon will take, is different from the issue of obtaining one from CreateSpace. If the publisher of record is the middle-man, & if they give you permission to use your own publisher name, instead of theirs, will this still create some kind of a problem with distributors? If the one number is tied to my one book, & I say that I’m the publisher (who is also selling the book on my own ‘publisher’ website), then who cares that the middle-man’s name was listed for that number when they bought it in bulk from Bowker? Is the fact that their name is what Bowker has down as the ‘publisher name’ going to be a problem for me with my use of the number? Believe me, I would just go the CreateSpace route if they had spiral binding, which my book MUST have. So I have to seek out the best deal for an ISBN that I can find, & so far the best deal appears to be this resold number from Bowker. They claim that it can be used just fine with Amazon. Please weigh-in on this issue.

  45. Thank you for providing the detailed information for ISBNs for countries who must buy them. I live in Canada, and they are free. I wrote a post about how to obtain them as a Canadian citizen, but I didn’t have a lot of information about how others outside of Canada got them.

    I’ve added a link from my post to this article to help non-Canadians learn more about them. For Canadians to learn about our ISBN system, they can check out my post here: https://dianetibert.com/2012/04/30/getting-the-numbers-isbn-cip/

    I wrote it in 2012, and it still applies. There is less information to complete now when you assign an ISBN, so it’s easier.

    As you mentioned, it only makes sense to get your own. If you are in it for the long haul, it will definitely be worth it in the end.

  46. Question: I use my own ISBN numbers for my paperback editions (Createspace and Clays, slightly different sizes and Clays require a wording to be inserted to show the book is printed by them), but currently don’t use them for e-Books. I publish via KDP (who allocate an ASIN only), D2D (who allocate their own ISBN) and Smashwords (who allocate their own ISBN). If I decide to use my own ISBNs, can I use the same ISBN for publishing on each of these different platforms? (Smashwords used to insist on the wording Smashwords Edition but no longer do so, as I understand it.)

    1. Hi Jane, you “can” do whatever you want — you’re indie! But best books business practice is to use a different ISBN for different formats. If you think about what an ISBN is used for, it becomes clear. Supposing I’m a librarian and I want to make the EPUB version of your book available in my library, together with the hardback. The ISBN is how I will be able to distinguish between the various formats of your books on offer, automatically, through the established process in place. I don’t want the .mobi or the softback, but without a different ISBN for each, how do I distinguish without having to contact you — which could well be enough to put off the librarian, or bookstore owner, or whomever is interested.

    2. You can use your own ISBN no matter where you publish. So, with Smashwords, Draft2Digital, and any other.


    3. Yes, I use all my own ISBNs and you only need one for each ‘type’ of book. The distributor doesn’t matter, so you could use the same ISBN with Amazon, Apple, Nook, Smashwords etc.


      1. Unfortunately nowadays April 2018) Smashwords and Draft2Digital insist that you must give their eBook a different ISBN from another aggregator, which is surely an incorrect attitude.

    1. On the contrary, many libraries throughout the US and the UK are now actively seeking good self published titles. As are many independent bookstores. If indie authors want to be part of the wider book business (outside online retail), ISBNs are necessary. (Of course many indies do not, and are happy to sell only ebooks online through one retailer; it’s the author’s choice.) Because one of our main aims at the Alliance of Independent Authors is to see indies take their rightful place within the wider industry, we recommend that authors own their own ISBNs. ISBNs are not a marketing tool, a discoverability tool, or anything like that. Owning your own ISBN is simply a piece of business housekeeping that gives your book the best chance within the industry, and establishes you — and not your retailer — as the publisher of record, if that is something you care about.

    2. Will: thanks for the note. While a lot of what you say is true, some needs further evaluation. Libraries are indeed becoming a factor. In the past year I have gotten almost 30 books into libraries. Not many, I know, but the commission alone is enough to cover quite a few ISBNs if you purchased 100 at a time. ALso, if a bookstore, or anyone else does a search for my books, they’ll see the same publisher for all my books with every retailer. If I went the route of letting the distributor do it, it would show different publishers for Smashwords, Draft2Digital, Bookbaby, etc; I’d rather look professional even if it costs a few bucks.

    3. so you didn’t read their article, but you want others to ready yours? hm. so rude. and your info on libraries and indie books is outdated.

  47. Newbie question, please bear with me. From what I read a good fit for me would be to buy and control my own ISBNs. Do I need to be a formal publishing company or can I do that as an individual? My books are in english but I am from another country, so I’m worried about the legal and financial ramifications of owning a company in the US.

    1. You need a company name but as long as you are established as a sole trader (i.e. registered for tax purposes) that works. But what country are you in? Many governments provide ISBNs free of charge.

  48. Very helpful post! With all the issues of piracy, plagiarism, etc., I wonder if one could consider an ISBN (along with filed copyright) as another form of protection should you find yourself in the situation of having to prove, protect ownership of your work?

  49. Really useful checklist here. I use Nielsen and never doubted I would use ISBNs as that is the professional way (and ‘look’!) – though that was pre-ebooks being so big in the market … I bought 10. Very useful to review and shall keep article for reference if needs be any time. …

  50. 1) On the cost calculations when buying ISBNs directly (US example)…

    The decision point isn’t block by block, as in “do I need 10 or do I need 100”? Instead, it should be “Will I ever need 11 or will I ever need 101?”

    If you’re prolific, why not buy a block of 100 for $575? Because if I get to 101 uses, then I would need to spend another $575. If I buy a block of 1000 (which I did) at a time when it was only $1000, then as soon as I hit 101 units, I’m better off. With 7 novels and several shorts, in all the formats, I’m already using more than 50 ISBN units, and at 4-8 titles/yr times 3 formats (print, epub, mobi), I’ll easily hit 100 in 2-3 years (novels & shorts).

    When your ISBNs end up costing $1.00 each, it vastly simplifies the concern about “does this new format really need another ISBN?”

    2) The other reason for ISBNs…

    It’s not just libraries that need universal identifiers — so does all commerce. We’ve barely seen the beginnings of online retail worldwide for print and ebooks. Right now we’re pampered by Amazon/Kobo/Apple and a few others and think that’s the whole book world we need to accommodate.

    ISBNs are just a special case of SKUs.

    (What follows is an excerpt on my older article on this topic. http://hollowlands.com/2014/03/why-you-should-buy-isbns-for-your-books/)

    ISBNs exist for exactly the same reasons that all businesses which trade in products require identifiable SKUs (Stock-Keeping Units). Pick up any product from any store and you will likely find such a product number, and a bar code to go with it. The SKU for the blue sweater in size 12 is different from the one for the blue sweater in size 14 or the red one in size 12. The SKU always identifies a single instantiated product, not a range of products. It’s used to eliminate any ambiguity about what the customer wants to buy [which is why there’s a recommendation to have different ISBNs for different ebook formats].

    In most cases, an SKU is private to a particular vendor. A manufacturer puts an SKU on a component part he ships to an assembler. That company puts its own SKU on the assembled product, and the wholesaler who buys assembled products from all over the world puts his own SKUs on his inventory items. The retailer who buys from the wholesaler ultimately adds his own SKU, and when you buy that flashlight from RadioShack, that’s the number you see.

    What makes the book trade different is that it was able to organize an SKU standard that travels with the product from the manufacturer all the way through the retail system, worldwide. That is a very remarkable achievement, unique to media. Because of that, all the players in the book trade, from manufacturers to wholesalers to bundlers to retail outlets are able to use the same SKU for the product along the way. That doesn’t mean that a retailer might not also assign a private SKU to an item (e.g., Amazon’s ASIN) for its own use (Amazon sells a lot of things besides books and they all have an ASIN number). But retailers who only sell books can use the item’s inherent SKU, its ISBN, as the product number, and many of them do.

    Think of a small retail store, perhaps online only, somewhere in Poland. It sells ebooks and a few book-related items (readers, perhaps). All it needs for SKUs are the ISBNs the ebooks come with and a few assigned SKU numbers for its other goods, like readers, which it will assign using the EAN-13 standards (which have the same format as ISBNs). Its accounting system can use the ISBN as the SKU for each item it sells. it can order ebooks from aggregators and wholesalers and distributors using the universal SKU system they all understand: the ISBN.

    There are hundreds of such small online ebook retailers today, and soon there will be thousands. All it takes is a website design and a little start up cost. They don’t need capital for inventory. The barriers to entry are very low. You will never be able to deal with them directly, and they will get their ebooks from aggregators and distributers, not directly from publishers. In many countries, online ebooks retailers will grow like mushrooms where print retailers won’t. Think of Africa or parts of South America where modernization skipped landlines and went straight to cellphones, where everyone has a cellphone and that’s how they read books.

  51. Really useful, many thanks. I went a similar route – bought 100, use 1 per paperback, e-book and audio version (so 3 ISBNs per book written at present). There was lots of learning and many hoops at the start, but it should be a fairly future-proof system now.

    You briefly mentioned including the price in the barcode but I’ve never done that because I imagine a whole article could be written about the pros and cons of that alone. In my case I just want one barcode, and am selling to the US and UK and elsewhere, so whatever currency I chose would be wrong for some markets. That means it is just easier to avoid all that and skip the price in the barcode, though others might differ in that view.

    “Bowker and Nielsen recommend separate numbers for mobi and epub, but not many people do that.”
    I’d noticed that too, and ignored their recommendation. In Nielsen’s case it is more to do with them not tracking Amazon sales I think, so isn’t a benefit to the author. I just use one ISBN for the e-book version. If you went down the route of different ISBNs for filetypes (even though the content is the same) you’d also need one for PDF, one for online reading, one for .docx and so on if those formats are available – plus yet more as new formats become available. Likewise with audio books, just one ISBN, even though they may be downloaded in mp3, wav, some proprietary format, online streamed etc. If the content is identical it would be a waste to have to use multiple ISBNs for every change in file suffix.

    One issue in the UK is that Nielsen say that you have to register for their title editor and add details of each book to that – I just discovered that there is no need or advantage to that, since it seems my books were added by my distributor (Ingram Spark) anyway. I wish I’d known that at the start, it would have saved weeks of back and forth creating an account with Nielsen, which I’ll probably now spend weeks trying to close!

  52. As a note, apparently Amazon no longer offers the $10 option as of sometime recently. Another author pointed out the option wasn’t available, and I checked the CreateSpace website and it is indeed gone from the options and documentation.

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