What are ISBN numbers and When are They Needed? Everyone is used to seeing a series of numbers following ‘ISBN’ on the flyleaf of a book. Most readers pay little attention to them, but if you are thinking of publishing, you need to understand what an ISBN number is, when you need to have one - and when you don’t.

There are so many issues to consider before you publish, but LiteraryGlobe intends to help you through these in stages and offer basic advice and explanations to help you along the way.  So…

What is an ISBN number?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It is a 13-digit number (formerly 10 until 1.1.17) that serves as an internationally applicable unique identifier for books. It captures information regarding the book’s publisher, title, language, edition - and even version. An ISBN must not be confused with, the 8-digit ISSN (International Standard Serial Number), which is attributed to journals and magazines. An ISBN looks like the image below:

ISBN code

Each number above the barcode signifies a facet of the book e.g. ‘978’ shows it is an ISBN, number 3 identifies its country, the third set of numbers the publisher, the fourth the title, edition, and format. Number groupings can vary. The last number is a complex ‘check’ digit from complex mathematics: best ignored. But however, it is constructed, you may well need one.

How important is an ISBN number?

If you want to publish your book in print, then you will need to buy an ISBN, which essentially becomes your book’s ID. As soon as you plan to market your work you should apply for an ISBN. It is necessary for the listing, discovery, and distribution of your book. Booksellers will enter these 13-digit codes into their system to order (and hopefully re-order!) your book. Libraries, online retailers, distributors, and wholesalers use them too

How can I apply for an ISBN number?

If you aim to be a self-published author, you will need to apply for one yourself. But if you have a publisher, they will apply for an ISBN number on your behalf. When you are ready to request one, you should Google ‘ISBN’ for your respective country to find out who is responsible for issuing them in your area. It may be a library, Government Ministry, National Library, or commercial company. In the Netherlands, for example, applications should be made to Centraal Boekenhuis (central book house). In the UK, applications are made through Nielsen, and in the United States, through Bowker or go to The International ISBN Agency. Please note some countries may not have their own agency but authors can apply to neighboring, regional, or language associated agencies for an ISBN e.g. Senegal authors can obtain them from France. 

Will my book title have a constant ISBN?

No. Each version needs its own e.g. hardcover, paperback, or audiobook. And if you substantially change the book, your publisher, your book title or make a translation into another language, you need to apply for a new ISBN. However, the ISBN you have been assigned cannot be taken over by another title should yours (heaven forbid) go out of print.

Do I need an ISBN number for my e-book?

Strictly speaking, for an e-book, an ISBN number is not essential. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Apple do not insist on an ISBN.  Other online retailers may. You can check on their Terms and Conditions.

What if I decide to go electronic and not buy an ISBN- am I disadvantaged?

You cannot print physical books and some online retailers will not stock your eBook. However, there is nothing to stop you applying for one later if you find your electronic book doing well and you wish to produce other versions.

What does it cost?

Prices vary with quantity i.e. 1000 will, individually, cost less than a single purchase. Some countries such as Canada and India issue ISBNs free. You will need to check in your area.  As your book will need a code for each version you may produce, buying a block of 10 is usually advised.

How do I get the barcode associated with my ISBN?

Barcodes are used for managing inventories at point of sale for physical books. There are some free tools online to form barcodes, but the agency who supplies your ISBN should give you one.  

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