What is ISBN and do I need to have one for my book?

Updated: Mar 21

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Now What?

Now what?

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? You've planned your mission in great detail, you executed perfectly, and were rewarded by a pleasant dip into the sea - only to realise you were stuck in the plastic bag and at a loss as to your next move. Anyone still losing sleep over the fate of the Tank Gang? Just us then. If you’re more worried about your ISBN number, great news: we can help with that. Here are the basics to get you started planning your perfect strategy.

What’s an ISBN, anyway?

Imagine the whole world as a big library. (Nice, right?) The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is the inventory number for your book, wherever it may end up in the world library. It’s a 10- or 13-digit unique identification number that libraries and publishers use to identify and locate books. To get your book into bookstores, libraries, and distribution channels, you will need an ISBN.

close up image of isbn
ISBN close up

How many ISBN numbers will I need?

An ISBN number identifies a particular book’s publisher, edition, and properties (trim size, page count, binding type, etc.). So each edition of a book must have a separate ISBN. ISBN is different for your print book and for your e-book and for your audio book. Different one will be needed for hardcover and the paperback. Each book in a series gets its own ISBN. To re-release an updated version of a book, you need a new ISBN.

You can use the same ISBN across different publishing platforms.

You can use the same ISBN for the same book but with a different cover art.

Can’t I just use the number Amazon gives me?

Maybe. If you are planning to only publish an e-book, and only ever through a self-publishing platform like Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, they will assign you their own version of an identification number (ASIN). They also automatically register an ISBN for you - but the catch is, because it’s them doing it, you’ll have Amazon as your imprint (publisher’s trade name). It’s not terrible and they won’t control your copyright, but you won’t be able to distribute your book with that same ISBN through a different publisher. In general, if an on-demand or self-publishing platform is providing you with an ISBN, they will limit you to their own distribution channels. If you then decide to distribute through another platform, you will need to get another ISBN. You will then have a single book with two different ISBNs. It’s a bit of an optics problem, because normally, any decent publisher will have a proper ISBN set up right from the start. If you are looking to future-proof and if you can afford it, it may be best to purchase a self-owned ISBN.

Okay, I want my own ISBN. Now what?

You can get it from a regional ISBN registration agency or service. Don’t get it from a 3rd party seller, them purchasing it for you means they have the imprint.

At the time of writing, it costs about $125 to get one ISBN number in the US; about $40 in Australia, and about 89 pounds in the UK. In Canada, you can get a free ISBN through your government. Buying your ISBNs in bulk can save you in costs per ISBN, if you intend to publish more than one book.

To use your ISBN with Createspace or Kindle Direct Publishing, you simply fill in your 13-digit number into the form provided.

Although ISBN is assigned locally, it can be used anywhere internationally.

An ISBN never expires.

Keep track of your ISBNs and which books you’ve used them for. As time goes by and you get busy with other books or other projects, you may lose track of what number you’ve used for which book. Having an archive to refer to can be very helpful.