Self Publisher FAQ #1: How do ISBNs work?

Posted by: Edwin H Rydberg

So you’ve finally finished that book you always wanted to write. And it’s great. Only, it’s done the rounds–publishers, agents–and no one seems to want it. Now you have several options: give up; write another and another, until you finally get a foot in the door; or self publish. Almost seems a no-brainer these days, with vanity press, print on demand and e-books. You can take complete control of the publishing process. But, like anything worth doing, it’s worth doing right. And that means 1) learning about industry specifications, 2) watching out for scams that prey on your eagerness to be published. And the subject of this post touches on both of those.

There are many industry standards in terms of the physical printing, but those will and are changing as new technologies are invented and adapted. One standard that will probably not change in the foreseeable future is the ISBN or International Standard Book Number.

What is an ISBN? The ISBN is that bar-coded number on the back of the book. It was originally 10-digits but has now been increased to 13-digits to account for the vast number of books being published. What’s important about the ISBN is that it uniquely identifies not only your book, but the specific edition of your book (paperback, hardcover, e-book, edition 1, 2, first printing, second printing with new cover/interior design). It also identifies who the publisher is (and this may not be as straight-forward as you think).

Do you need an ISBN? Not if you just plan to publish POD on a site like But if you want your book to be available to be order in bookstores or Amazon, or any other such book retailer, then yes (it’s important to realize that, unless you’re a very good salesperson and you have connections, it’s very unlikely your book will be stocked in a major bookstore).

When does my book need a new ISBN? Whenever you change something that identifies the edition. For example, hardcover and paperback each need their own ISBN, as does an e-book. If you update the text you’ll need a new ISBN (a new cover does not require a new ISBN if nothing else is changed).

What about if I’m making a magazine? Serials such as magazine have their own standard numbers (ISSN: International Standard Serial Number).

How do you get an ISBN? Interestingly, the details vary from country to country but what does seem to be the same is that most countries only have one supplier of ISBNs. For example, in the UK Nielsen supplies the ISBNs and it is only possible to buy them in blocks of at least 10 (for approx. £110/10). In the US they are supplied by Bowker and can be bought individually, although they tend to be very expensive (1 for $125 or 10 for $250). In Canada, they seem to be assigned by Libraries and Archives Canada, a government agency.

It is important to note that whoever has been assigned the ISBNs by the above agencies are considered the publishers. ISBNs cannot be transfered in the sense that, if you buy an ISBN from someone else, that person/company remains the publisher.

 This last point is crucial to understand and accept when self-publishing. If you wish to be considered as the publisher of your book, then you must acquire your ISBNs from the official distributor in your country. For example, if you use a service to publish your book (such as,, or any other vanity press or POD) and buy an ISBN from that service, they will be considered the publisher, not you. I reiterate, it is important to understand that you will not be the publisher. Often this is made apparent when reading through FAQs and such, however, the unaware self-publisher can be caught by the likes of sites such as (parent company: Moodoo Productions) who ‘sell’ ISBNs for $35. They will assign the ISBN to your book, however, even ignoring the fact that they are charging a huge markup (over the bulk cost), their site does not make it clear that they (or their parent company) are the official publisher of your book. As far as I’m concerned, this is highly misleading and therefore suspect.

I hope this helps any self-publishers who have concerns or questions about ISBNs. For more information, please visit the official ISBN distributor of your country.